Dara Shikoh’s ‘Two Oceans’: Book Review

Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, provides rich resources for developing theologies of inter-faith dialogue and solidarity, an urgent necessity in today’s world where talk of a global ‘clash of civilisations’ threatens to become a frightening reality. In this regard, the works of numerous Indian Sufis is particularly significant because they lived and wrote in a multi-religious context, addressing and attracting people of different faiths—Muslims, Hindus and others. Some of them developed understandings of Islam and other faiths that went beyond narrowly constructed communal boundaries, defying the empty and soulless ritualism that served to divide communities from each other.

Of the various Indian Sufi treatises of this sort, perhaps the best-known work is the ‘Majma al-Bahrain’, or ‘The Commingling of the Two Oceans’, by Muhammad Dara Shikoh, eldest son of the great Mughal Emperor of India, Shah Jahan, and heir apparent to his throne. The ‘two oceans’ referred to in the title of the book denote Islamic Sufism, on the one hand, and the Vedantic thought as contained in the Upanishadic tests of the Hindu tradition.  As the title suggests, Dara sought to argue that, essentially, the two were the same thing, although bearing different names. In this way, he sought to craft an innovative approach to inter-faith relations, and one that can provide interesting ideas for similar efforts in our own time.  The English translation of this work has long been out of print, and Hope India Publications, an upcoming publisher based in Gurgaon, deserve our special thanks for bringing it out, and that, too, at a fairly affordable price.

The Majma al-Bahrain is best understood in the context of Dara’s own life. Like any other Mughal prince, Dara’s early education was entrusted to ulema of high calibre, who taught him the Holy Qur’an, Persian poetry and Sufi treatises. In his youth, Dara came into contact with numerous Muslim and Hindu mystics, some of whom exercised a profound influence on him. The most noted among these was Miyan Mir, a Qadri Sufi of Lahore whose disciple he later became, and who is best remembered for having laid the foundation-stone of the Golden Temple of the Sikhs at Amritsar.

Dara’s close and friendly refations with Muslim and Hindu mystics led him to seek to explore what both systems of mysticism had in common. Accordingly, he set about learning Sanskrit and, with the help of the Pandits of Benaras, made a Persian translation of the Upanishads, which was later followed by his Persian renderings of the Gita and the Yoga Vasishta. Throughout this endeavour, his fundamental concern was the quest for the discovery of the Unity of God, or tauhid as it is known in Islam.

Dara expresses this concern in his Persian translation of the Upanishads, the Sirr-i-Akbar (‘The Great Secret’) thus:

And whereas I was impressed with a longing to behold the Gnostic doctrines of every sect and to hear their lofty expressions of monotheism and had cast my eyes upon many theological books and had been a follower thereof for many years, my passion for beholding the Unity [of God], which is a boundless ocean, increased every moment Thereafter, I began to ponder as to why the discussion of monotheism is so conspicuous in India and why the Indian mystics and theologians of ancient India do not disavow the Unity of God, nor do they find any fault with the Unitarians.

Dara’s works are numerous, all in the Persian language, only some of which are readily available today. His writings fall into two broad categories. The first consists of books on Islamic Sufism and Muslim saints, and the other on the religious beliefs of the Hindus. Dara’s writings on Sufism show him to have been a devout, practising Muslim, albeit opposed to the soulless ritualism of many of his contemporary ‘ulama.

Dara wrote extensively on the religious systems of the Hindus, following in the tradition of several Muslim mystics and scholars before him. In accordance with the teachings of the Holy Qur’an, Dara saw the possibility of some religious figures of the Hindus having actually been prophets of God, and of certain Hindu scriptures as having been originally been divine revelations. Thus, for instance, in the Sirr-i-Akbar he claimed that a strong strain of monotheism may be discerned in the Vedas and opines that the monotheistic philosophy of the Upanishads may be ‘in conformity with the Holy Qur’an and a commentary thereon’.

The Majma-ul Bahrain is the most well-known of Dara’s several works on the religious sciences of the Hindus. Completed when he was forty- two years old, this book is a pioneering attempt to build on the similarities between Islam and certain strands of Hindu monotheistic thought, and it is these two that the ‘two oceans’ in the book’s name refers to. He describes this treatise as ‘a collection of the truth and wisdom of two Truth-knowing groups’. It is, in terms of content, rather technical, focussing on Hindu terminology and their equivalents in Islamic Sufism, showing the close similarities between the two. The basic message that this book conveys is summed up in Dara’s own words thus: ‘Mysticism is equality’.

And that claim remains as meaningful today as when Dara enunciated it.

[The book can be bought here]

About Yoginder Sikand

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He has authored various books on Indian Muslims and allied issues and has done his research work on Tablighi Jamaat. Sikand holds a Master's Degree in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and a PhD in history from the University of London.
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10 Responses to Dara Shikoh’s ‘Two Oceans’: Book Review

  1. Manoj George says:

    Indeed a good article. I have been trying to study Islam and why people have all these wrong notions about a religion followed by so many people. I was impressed by the writings of the sufi saints.

    I like them because they just did not believe in mugging up Quran but actually questioning its verses. Also, they were influenced by other religions and their writings not from a perspective of fault finding but to actually find the truth.

    I am always surprised to find that sufism is considered a shirk in Islam. Going to majars is definitely a shirk in Islam but strangely most Muslims only consider this part of sufism.

    I think sufism is the protestant part of Islam. While Shias and sunnis only take prophet Mohammed as the last prophet sufis consider that this is an ongoing exercise and that there is always possibility of more prophets.

    I certainly feel that every one has to find his own truth. Otherwise the scriptures are just books or guidelines to start a journey. They are not an end in themselves.

    At the start of each Exam we are given certain guidelines. But we don’t just mug them up and sit down hoping that we have now become the toppers. We actually go ahead and give the exam. Similarly the religious books are mere indicators. We need to go ahead
    and start our journey in search of truth.

    The only sad part is that every society in every time has been dogmatic about past learnings. The murder of Daroh Shikoh, Sarmad and others was clearly sad.

    I have found the Bhagwad Gita a really fascinating scripture and definitely sufism real attractive. Hope i realise the truth some day. The truth which is not a name, custom or belief neither the knowledge gained by learning the scriptures but the truth which is God.

    Regards,
    Manoj George

  2. Manoj
    I don’t think most muslims on the Sufi path would consider themselves different from sunni or shia and not consider the Prophet (SAW) the last Prophet.
    Most prominent Sufis like Nizamuddin Alia or Abdal Qadir Jilani were educated in orthodox islamic texts .
    Even the ‘Deobandis’ like Ashraf Ali Thanvi and others are travellers on the Sufi path.
    Altough this may surprise some, the prominent Qadiri Sufi saint Sultan Bahu’s writings show support for Aurangzeb.

  3. Mirza Faisal says:

    Manoj,

    It is a misunderstanding that traditionally Sufis have been considered deviant and as history_lover pointed out neither were they against the basic fundamentals of the religion. The major sufis who are well known followed one of the Sunni or Shia schools in their personal life. They prayed five times, fasted, believed in the finality of the Prophet, etc.

    They never questioned the Quran instead they said that the Quranic verses have two level of meanings. One is evident and the other is hidden. Many of them relied on their interpretation of the hidden meanings.

    Even in today’s world their was a sufi Martin Lings who recently died. He was an Englishman but very well known particularly for his biography of the Prophet. He followed a concept known as Perennialism which believed that all the major religions are valid. But yet he lived strictly as per the Islamic code following all the aspects of the Islamic faith and believed in the finality of the Prophet. He wrote a book ‘What is Sufism’ which is considered an excellent work on Sufism in which he quite well has shown the confluence of sufi thought and the basic principles of Islam.

  4. Mohib says:

    Sufi saints in India are the only people whose appeal not only permeates religions, but more importantly, across various sects of Indian Muslims. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti is revered not only by Sunnis but by Shia as well. It is difficult to find such examples in later Islamic history.

    Faisal:

    Thanks for the book recommendation, I have added it to my list. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian Professor at George Washington University, is another prominent voice of perennialism.

  5. Manoj George says:

    Thanks Faisal! I have added the book in my readings.

    Yes, I also did not mean questioning the Quran.:-) I meant questioning the verses to find the hidden meaning.

    However I did read somewhere that a sufi Al-’Hallaj’s beliefs and ideas were considered as clear Kufr. Consequently, he was executed in 309 , and was’ crucified on Baghdad’s bridge.

    There was one other Sufi who used to read the first verse of the Kalma which believed in the Unity of God but did not read the last verse. Consequently he was also exceuted. I will find the exact resource on this.

    Okie some more questions:-

    1. Who is Agha Khan ? How are the agha khanis different from other Muslims?

    2. How did the mosques derive their architecture from? I have been to many countries and somehow all the mosques I find have the same architecture?

    3. Who are the qadianis?

    Regards,
    Manoj George

  6. kafir #01 says:

    Nice article. I love mystics, perhaps the only people who are “religious” in the true sense of the word. It’s a long list of gems such as Buddha, Socrates, Rumi, Kabir, Ramkrishna Paramhansa, J Krisnamurti, Osho, Ramanna Maharishi to name a few.

    An excerpt from J Krishnamurti:

    “There is no path to truth, it must come to you. Truth can come to you only when your mind and heart are simple, clear, and there is love in your heart; not if your heart is filled with the things of the mind. When there is love in your heart, you do not talk about organizing for brotherhood; you do not talk about belief, you do not talk about division or the powers that create division, you need not seek reconciliation. Then you are a simply a human being without a label, without a country. This means that you must strip yourself of all those things and allow truth to come into being; and it can come only when the mind is empty, when the mind ceases to create. Then it will come without your invitation. Then it will come as swiftly as the wind and unbeknown. It comes obscurely, not when you are watching, wanting. It is there as sudden as sunlight, as pure as the night; but to receive it, the heart must be full and the mind empty. Now you have the mind full and your heart empty.”

    Ciao!

  7. Imam Ghazali’s books (many of them available in translation ) are good reads for anyone interested in Sufism within an orthodox Islamic perspective.
    Fonsvitae has a good a collection of them .

  8. Mirza Faisal says:

    Manoj,

    Among Sufis there is a whole spectrum particularly in India. I said major sufis with huge followings followed the fiqh in their personal lives just to make the point that the two are not completely detached or opposite :) There are definitely many sufis who have a vareity of stories.

    Even for Guru Nanak it is said that his story had a strong sufi leaning and had some sufi teachers. Sikhism as we know today crystallized more during other Gurus when Guru Granth sahib was compiled (which contains lot of sufi songs) and other codes were later established.

    Similar is the story of Sai baba of Shirdi where Yoginder Sikand in his book ‘Sacred Spaces’ has argued that he was a sufi in his lifetime where he did not follow orthodox Islam and later many started to worship him and his grave has been turned into a temple and has become a major pilgrimage place in the south.

  9. Mirza Faisal says:

    1. Who is Agha Khan ? How are the agha khanis different from other Muslims?

    Dont know much but this that he is the head of one of the branches of the Ismaili Shias. He runs a lot of philanthropic organizations and has helped a lot in reviving a number of monuments. The most famous one for us is the Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi which as got a facelift with his contributions. Maybe Mr. Google can help :)

    2. How did the mosques derive their architecture from? I have been to many countries and somehow all the mosques I find have the same architecture?

    The architecture of mosques I believe originated in the Middle East and Persia. It just got as a tradition and nothing else. But even there are differences for the discerning eye. Like I can anytime see a mosque of the Mughal Period or even in wider India and say it is at least in South Asia. There were some elements that were borrowed from local styles.

    But if you go back centuries it is not all same. Just see some old Chinese Mosques (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_mosques) you cannot make a difference from Buddhist Pagoda or see the famous African Mud Mosque in this superb BBC Channel 4 film Paradise Found
    (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8018912082115778034&q=paradise+found&total=586&start=0&num=10&so=0&type=search&plindex=0)

    Similarly the old mosques in Kerala (where Islam first came to India through the Arab traders) the mosques had a striking resemblance to the temples.

    3. Who are the qadianis?

    There was a person Mirza Ghulam Ahmad during the later part of nineteenth century and was an Islamic scholar. He later claimed that he was a Prophet and was also perhaps the second coming of Christ and the Kalki Avtaar of Hindus. Some of his other followers (most notably Muhammad Ali (an Indian Islamic scholar) ) said that he never claimed so. But anyway those followers who take him as a prophet are the Qadianis or Ahmadiyas. He claimed that there will be no new divine book or divine law but there will be prophets. I believe you can find more material over the net on this.

  10. I am asking from the comparative religion (or mystic)point of view about Shirdi Sai Baba and Mirza Ghulam Ahmed.Have they met or did anyone of them talked about the other one?
    What the difference between the 2 entities ?

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