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 faithsÃ¢â‚¬â€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.Ã‚Â 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.Ã‚Â 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]