A Ghazi turned Kafir: the Case of Akbar’s U-Turn – 3

by Sarvesh K Tiwari

continues from Part-2 and Part-1

To better understand Akbar’s case of renouncing Islam it is necessary that we first draw a sketch of his personality profile, and highlight his attitude, tendencies and other aspects of his psychology, which is what we hope to do presently.

We know from many independent testimonies that he was a rather courageous individual, to the point of being reckless. He often comes across as someone who enjoyed taking risky bets in life, and deriving fun out of living on the edge. Many examples demonstrate this, like his knack for riding insane or intoxicated elephants; or going to invasions particularly during the rainy months prohibited in war manuals; or in defiance to the advice of the hakIm-s daring to smoke unknown variety of tobacco gifted by someone, and so on.

It also seems that Akbar had preference to rationale and logic, which became amplified with passage of time. On this account, the irritation of the Jesuit Fathers is very telling, whom he continued to persistently grill on the rationality of the Christian theology: “We see in this prince the common fault of the Atheist, who refuses to make reason subservient to faith, and, accepting nothing as true which his feeble mind is unable to fathom, is content to submit to his own imperfect judgment matters transcending the highest limits of human understanding.”[85] We can also notice that as soon as Akbar was introduced to the patterns of reasoning and logic especially of Greek variety, he immediately took strong liking to it. [86] His tendency of reasoning is likewise reflected in one of his letters to his younger son, in which Akbar expressed his admiration for the philosophy of karma and reincarnation of soul, saying these concepts had completely convinced his mind of their truth due to their irrefutable rationality [87] (on this last subject sheikh ahmed sarhindI, the contemporary naqshbandiyA sUfI was to later have much heartburn. [88])

Akbar had an experimenting attitude. For example, his famous ‘nursery test’ of bringing up a set of infants for a few years in absolute silence to validate the claim of Arabic being the ‘natural’ language for Allah to have sent Qoran only in that tongue. At another point he demanded mawlAnA-s and Padres to give a proof of their faith in front of him by entering a fire invoking their respective God and trusting God’s protection if their religions were truthful. [88.2] (Behind this hilarious idea we suspect some role of Birbal, who might have informed Akbar about fire-tests, the agni-parIkShA, which had been an old Hindu method among disputers.)

Akbar also comes across as someone who cared little for the norm, and having ability to generate fresh ideas and adopt new methods. This is demonstrated by his various impossible-looking initiatives of policy including his establishing one-way matrimonial ties with rAjapUta houses. Although no doubt implemented by means of cunning guile and brute force, this new policy nevertheless tied down rAjapUta-s in such strong fetters that became impossible for them to break.

There are a couple of more aspects of Akbar’s psychological profile that need our attention. From anecdotal data provided by different chronicles, we suspect that Akbar also suffered from a couple of neurological conditions.

First, although none of the historians suggest it, we dare to propose that he could have been a case of Dyslexia, i.e. learning handicap hampering ability in reading and writing. We suspect this because almost all chroniclers including his official historian abul fazl inform us, although apologetically and in a veiled way, that Akbar could never learn the letters and remained illiterate despite all the education he received. Our belief is further strengthened by another apparently disconnected fact recorded by Jesuits that Akbar used to have a tendency to quickly lose his concentration in conversations, a known symptom of the condition, and that he used to jump abruptly from one topic to the other, like a child, confusing the Jesuits who thought it was due to his impatience with them. Besides, there is another fact recorded by some of his biographers which suggest that Akbar had a rather visual mind with liking for arts of various kinds, another strong Dyslexic trait. Akbar was not only fond of drawings and paintings but also reasonably good at it himself. He patronized many Hindu and Persian artists in his royal studio, which he used to visit once a week, and used to particularly love doing calligraphy himself, having learnt the art from khwAjA abdus-samad, his Persian court artist (and in footsteps of Akbar, one of the earliest denouncers of Islam at the court).

Akbar although illiterate was not un-intelligent. The Jesuit observes: “Echebar… was interested in, and curious to learn about many things, and possessed an intimate knowledge not only of military and political matters, but also of many of the mechanical arts…, could discourse on the laws of many sects, a subject of which he made a special study. Although he could neither read nor write, he enjoyed entering into debates with learned doctors. He always entertained at his court, dozen or so (learned men)… To their discussions, now on one subject now on another…he was a willing listener, believing that by this means he could overcome the disadvantage of his illiteracy.” [89]

Being neither a neurologist nor a historiographer, whereas the subject demands one to be both, we can be wrong in diagnosing him as Dyslexic, but certainly when Oak calls Akbar an illiterate stupid, he is being uncharitable, and when A L Srivastava says that being “a truant child he did not sit down to read and write”, [90] he too is ignoring the fact that even in his adulthood Akbar unsuccessfully attempted to learn the letters and failed, while at the same time he was able to learn many other things and must have been intelligent enough to have created a vast and stable empire for himself and rule over it for over half a century.

Akbar might have also suffered from still another neurological condition which used to cause in him sudden and recurrent fits of seizures. While flattering biographers have described these fits as mystic spiritual experience like those of the Prophet, to modern eyes it appears that he suffered from some kind of Epilepsy. What is more, we think it could have been a result of a thorough mental depression due to his deep religious anxiety, unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Consider this report of the Jesuits from 1578 when Akbar was still a practicing Moslem although now in doubts about his faith and deeply disappointed with it: “His Seldan of Mecquae (Mecca), the chief of all his Mullas and Caziques (kAzI-s)… said, ‘Your Majesty follows a Good Law, and has no reason to doubt it, or to seek another.’ On hearing this, the King rose to his feet and exclaimed, ‘May God Help Us! May God Help Us!’, repeating these words, as if to imply that he was far from satisfied with the law that he followed…”

Our belief that his Epilepsy was a result of his deep anxiety with faith he practiced is strengthened by a couple of other data points. First, he is said to have reported having some spiritual visions during these fits, suggesting his inner demand for spiritual satisfaction might be at the root of the phenomenon. Second, as per the chroniclers the last of these fits is reported from the year 1579-80, which mysteriously coincides with his official departure from Islam, making it very safe for us to believe that it was no coincidence at all and abandoning Islam might have liberated him of the anxiety he suffered from, and rid him of these fits.

Few more attributes are important to remember. Akbar was fiercely independent since his childhood, having grown up without the oversight of either parents as well as having lost his father before entering the teens. He shows his independence quite early on when he defied the mutallIkI, the legal guardianship, of his uncle byram khAn, as well as culled the petticoat government of harem quite early on when he was very young. Akbar is also recorded as short tempered, impatient, and highly ambitious. Unlike other Moghuls after him, he was also known to be extremely hardworking, and very hands-on in all affairs of government, diplomacy, military and public administration.

Since we are looking at the psychological profile of Akbar, I wish we could have had some insights about his libido and sexual life, but none have left anything substantial on the subject except for Jesuits who say that he was very indulgent in his harem, which of course was very large with hundreds of wives and concubines from different countries, and we know a bit about his feats of mInAbAzAr. While the account of gulbadan, the aunt of Akbar and sister of humAyun, gives us some insights into the harem, and we have gone through the translation of her annals, but it does not add to our information about making up our mind on Akbar’s sexual life. At one place we can read a comment attributed to Akbar comparing his own attitude towards women in earlier and later phases of his life: “Had I formerly possessed the knowledge that I now have, I would have never chosen a wife for myself; for upon older women I now look as mothers, on women of my age as sisters, and on girls as daughters.” [90.1]

Ironically, a crucial factor behind Akbar’s exit from Islam might actually be his deep inclination towards religion, which is beyond doubt and confirmed by all testimonies of his life. We have seen that up until mid 1570s, that is till about Akbar reached mid-thirties of his life (b 1542), he remained not only a genuinely pious believer but in fact a zealous jehAdI, competing with mahmUd and shihAb-ud-dIn, bakhtiyAr and alA-ud-dIn, and other such earlier ghAzI-s, simply as an outward expression of following his religion. When he was a Moslem, he was following his faith as completely and religiously as is possible, but unlike others he demanded more out it than reciting Qoran in an alien tongue could afford, or visiting dargAh-s and hearing sermons of mawlAnA-s would supply. He had some higher expectations from his faith, probably some yearning for inner spiritual satisfaction which was not forthcoming resulting in anxiety as we have noted earlier. He might have genuinely believed that he could overcome this by going deeper in his faith and probably that by learning about its doctrine more closely and following it, he might reach closer to this gratification. It is more with this intention than any other that he decided to devote time and attention to thoroughly learning about his faith, and being relatively relieved of continuous battles and having etched for himself a sizeable empire, he could now afford time and attention for a sustained effort in this enterprise.

For a Moslem to renounce Islam voluntarily and be willingly declared an apostate, it must take an enormous amount of courage as well as a strong motivation. If courage is a prerequisite for the process, rational thought its germinator and deep quest for truth its nourishment, then we believe Akbar was a fit candidate for it.

Having now a general idea of the mind of the protagonist of our story, we can now turn to more happening part of the tale, the U-Turn.

continues to Part 4


7 Responses to “A Ghazi turned Kafir: the Case of Akbar’s U-Turn – 3”

  1. This is getting really interesting, can smell a great historian at work :). Thanks a lot.

  2. Wonderful – well researched, informative and entertaining! Sarveshji, keep writing. More people like you are needed if the real story of India is to come out.
    Question – who are the ‘we’, you keep referring to? Do you have a team of people you work with?

  3. Thanks Vijayji. Team yes, but ‘we’ comes literally from translation of how someone would write the same in Hindi, language I am trained to think in; when writing an article in Hindi, one generally says ‘we’, not ‘I’ referring to oneself.

  4. You have a great capacity to mine facts from history and interpret them . Keep it up!

  5. Nice post. I was checking constantly this blog and I’m impressed! Very useful information specifically the last part 🙂 I care for such info much. I was looking for this particular info for a very long time. Thank you and good luck.


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