The myth of ‘Akbar the Liberal’ remains one of the most persistent in Indian history. Over the years believers have come in two main varieties, British imperialists and Nehruvian secularists. These two naturally opposed groups accept the myth for separate reasons, and they differ from Hindu nationalists, who completely reject the whole notion.
Generally accepted as the greatest of the Mughal Emperors, Akbar (r. 1556-1605) imposed his rule over all of north India after decades of fighting that covered an area ranging from Sind to Bengal and from Kashmir to the Deccan. He perfected both the mansab system of government appointments and the zabt land revenue structure later inherited by the British. The main basis for his liberal credentials is the phase in his life, around 1575-81, during which he allowed free discussion on the subject of religion inside his Court. This period of thought experiment (or self-indulgence, or mental illness) has given him, in certain quarters, a progressive halo, as a man who wished to end religious conflict prompted purely by a concern for truth. He has also been hailed as a visionary who sought to unite the ‘nation’ at large around a non-communal conception of India. These are both wildly anachronistic pictures, drawn by modern observers with a great deal of self-interest at stake.
Congress historians support the characterisation of Akbar’s rule as enlightened, because it serves as a kind of pre-release trailer for the tolerant India that Nehru aspired to create, and which his political heirs have tried to maintain. This ideal India may well be an admirable goal, but Akbar is not actually a particularly good example of either secularism or tolerance in the way these things might be understood in modern India. Nehru was recasting history with his fancy that Akbar ‘created a sense of oneness’ across north and central India, based not on himself personally but on ‘an attachment to the structure he had built’ (Discovery of India, p. 247). Nehru needed to create this impression as part of a wider project, in which the story of India’s national destiny led inevitably from the mild Ashoka to the sage Akbar, and finally, through an unbroken legacy, to the mild, sage Gandhi.
British imperialists also admired Akbar’s liberality, though they arrived at this view via a rather different route. Raj enthusiasts saw Akbar as they saw themselves, as tolerant, benign rulers who just happened to require military force to maintain their position. Thus they were happy to award Akbar all the virtues they felt they themselves possessed. Colonel G. B. Malleson’s Akbar (1890) can stand as the definitive British view. Malleson attributed Akbar’s success to his policy of ‘toleration and conciliation’ (p. 9), and declared that ‘Akbar’s great idea was the union of all India under one head’ in a ‘union of interests’ not of faiths (p. 196). To accomplish this he had ‘first, to conquer; secondly, to respect all consciences and all methods of worshipping the Almighty’, with a commitment ‘to protect and not persecute’ (p. 198). Malleson had no qualms about ascribing British success to exactly the same methods and policies. ‘We who have watched [Akbar’s] work, and have penetrated his motives, recognise the purity of his intentions’ (p. 199). British intentions were pure, therefore those of Akbar must have been too. Butter would definitely not have melted in Akbar’s mouth, or in those of his British imitators. This was truly a conspiracy of innocents.
Malleson was even prepared to travel one last, astonishing mile in his forced comparison. While expanding on the fate of the Mughal dynasty, he claimed that it was by acceptance of Akbar’s principles – of tolerance and benevolence – that ‘his Western successors maintain it at the present day’ (p. 199). And by ‘it’ he actually meant the Mughal dynasty! This comment is almost impossibly full of inaccuracy and hubris, but in one sentence it does show how sincerely the British believed that they were the new Mughals.
Raj-era historians were happy to view Akbar as the greatest previous ruler of India and they liked to think that the British had inherited Mughal authority by double dint, of conquest and just rule. There was also the neat circumstance that the British wanted to re-emphasise how historically problematic it had been for Indians to create unified central government for themselves, and to support their view that India, after Akbar, had slumped into anarchy. Admiration for the strong Akbar thus functioned as an entire liberal prospectus for an illiberal regime; it neatly explained why India needed British rule. Praising Akbar was an easy ride for British writers, who could safely accept him as the last great ‘Indian’; he was three centuries dead, was not a Hindu and had imposed a centralised power structure – not unlike the Raj itself. Hence Lord Mountbatten, in his speech at the Independence ceremonies in Pakistan on 14 August 1947 was happy to declare that Akbar’s reign ‘was marked by perhaps as great a degree of political and religious tolerance as has been known before or since’, moving on to hope that ‘we will hold fast in the years to come to the principles that this great ruler taught us’. Of course some of this was intended to flatter Jinnah who was sitting next to him, but as history it was self-serving and inaccurate.
Opposed to liberal portrayals of Akbar we find the Hindutva Right, who reject it as inaccurate and too forgiving of Akbar’s cruelties and periodic acts of outrage against Hindu temples. These are indeed good grounds on which to reject sentimental readings of a man who was at war for nearly all of his forty-nine year reign, during which he more than doubled the size of his grandfather Babur’s domain. He did not do this by listening kindly to his opponents, smiling benignly all the while. The parallel between Akbar and Ashoka (r. 273-232 BCE), who foreswore conquest on religious grounds when he realised its terrible aftermath, is not an apposite one. Ashoka seems to have stopped fighting, whereas Akbar, even after undergoing some sort of spiritual experience in 1579, then went on, undeterred, to fight campaigns of conquest in Kashmir (1586), Orissa (1592) and Sind (1595). He also did not hesitate to crush a religious rebellion in 1581, in which his brother was prominent, and he even fought his own son, Salim, during the last few years of his reign.
Harsh judgements have been passed on Akbar by partisan Hindus, but none harsher than P N Oak, whose 1968 classic Who Says Akbar Was Great? (Peno) stands as a masterpiece of extended vituperation.
Leaving aside Oak’s unwillingness to see any good in Akbar whatsoever, we can only assess Akbar accurately if we fully accept that he was a highly successful late medieval monarch, and that such men – ruthless and self-seeking – do not always look good to modern eyes. At that time, ‘national’ political projects were assembled among small groups of elite courtiers, and were prosecuted by savage warfare. In this sense, Akbar was no worse than most of his contemporaries, while managing to be rather more successful. Given this context, Akbar’s spiritual life needs to be approached with some caution. His intellectual quest for truth only became pressing after a great deal of blood had been spilled over the entirely non-speculative issue of who was going to rule whom. Akbar’s campaigns brought death not only to thousands of soldiers on the battlefield, but also to a great many others, including women and children, in the aftermath of the battle of Panipat in 1556, the rebellion in Bengal in 1572, and at the sieges of Chitor (1567-68) and Ahmedabad (1573). After all this, the luxury of spiritual reflection came not to a man shocked by corpses on a battlefield, but to an absolute ruler indulged and sated to the limits of his physical senses, feeling utterly secure in his hold on power.
His curiosity at that propitious time makes him unusual for his era, and especially perhaps as a man reared as an orthodox Muslim; but it does not mark him out as great. He was a great ruler and general; he was never a great thinker.
Nor is the Akbar debate yet dead. Recently one more name can be added to the roll of believers in the liberal Akbar – Salman Rushdie, whose book The Enchantress of Florence (2008), depicts Akbar in exactly this mould, as ‘a new kind of king’ (p. 38), an early ‘humanist’ much like his contemporaries in Italy. Rushdie writes of a man tormented by the incompatibility between his own humanity and the grand figure he had become, of a lost soul stranded between the mysteries of religion and the attractions of reason to a reasonable mind. This is not how it was, and if Rushdie had read the sources he lists in his book then he should have known this.
Throughout the book Rushdie flirts with anachronism. This is, of course, part of the texture of any historical novel; the characters were not speaking English, and any dialogue not taken from original sources is of necessity an invention. Swearwords, metaphors, technical language and different social registers of speech are all reconstructed in any historical romance, and these ‘writerly’ devices must be judged not by their complete authentic veracity but by their ability to convince and satisfy the modern reader. But Rushdie stacks up an impressive list of untimely and exotic introductions. For instance: he brings tomatoes to Italy in around 1480, decades prior to their possible arrival from the New World; his hero talks of Papal infallibility three hundred years before it became Catholic doctrine; he has Akbar take pride in ‘the progressiveness of the Mughal court’ (p. 97); he correctly uses the name ‘Gloriana’, given to Queen Elizabeth of England by courtly flatterers, but then adds an unnecessary ‘First’ to her name, when there had only yet been one Elizabeth. Even now King John is still plain John, not John the First. For all this Rushdie really should get points for speeding on his poetic licence.
And perhaps worst of all, Rushdie has Akbar yearn, quite inappropriately, for a ‘country’ (p. 42), when any such concept would have been the antithesis of any feudal ruler’s view of territory and his relationship to it. Here at least, he is in good company with the Kashmiri Pandit. But there could be no ‘countries’ in feudal terms; a ruler possessed land-holdings and held the loyalty of his underlings in place by a judicious mixture of intimidation and reward. A country that was already a country would have no need of any feudal ruler. The idea of ‘nationality’ – which depends upon people taking their identity from the territory they inhabit – can only follow on the abolition of feudal practices and definitions.
Mediaeval people took their ‘political’ identity (in as far as we can use those words at all) primarily from the person to whom they owed loyalty. A feudal ruler was a dominant figure around whom territory was aggregated. He was not bound by theoretical territorial distinctions. The territory under his rule gained its meaning, its governmental structure, and sometimes even its name, from him, not the other way around. A country, in the modern understanding, is a territorial unit that awaits leadership, that has a ‘vacancy’ at its heart. A feudal domain was a set of landholdings defined not by where these lands were or who lived within them, but by who held them and to whom that person was connected by allegiance. In this sense a feudal realm was more like a modern investment portfolio than a ‘country’. The defining quality of a group of financial investments is who owns them, not what or where they are. And similarly elements of that portfolio can be lost, sold or alienated without destroying the central purpose or identity of the entire fund. All this reveals the anachronism, even the oxymoron, of a Mughal ‘country’.
Feudal political entities were not necessarily logical, nor did they have to be ‘natural’ in terms of their geography. The patchwork quality of British India perfectly illustrates this, built up as it was from 1757 to 1857, by the acquisition of small pieces of feudal domain, leaving others aside as necessary. The British made their ‘India’ out of little bits, in exactly the same way that Akbar made his.
Akbar’s admirers, especially within the Congress tradition, fall into the trap of political anachronism when they start to explain how Akbar replaced loyalty to region, clan or religion with loyalty to Mughal ‘India’. Akbar’s state was very young, and it could hardly have had time to develop any call on the loyalties of its people, especially when it was still fighting them. Mughal India was not an entity like Nehru’s imaginary, united India. The entire Mughal project was a personal and dynastic affair, with individuals owing their office to direct appointment by the Emperor, and where status was not necessarily hereditary. This was the essence of the mansab system. In most cases the personal wealth of senior courtiers and officials did not survive their owners’ deaths as separate ‘estates’, and was sucked back into the central treasury.
Nehru loved the idea of an Indianness that was tolerant and inclusive, but that was his idea, not Akbar’s. The India that Akbar ruled was only inclusive as long as you did not oppose him, which hardly defines it as a liberal state. Nor was there any modern kind of ‘politics’ to tolerate. An imperial Court filled with intrigues was no place for any kind of meaningful tolerance, especially when open ‘opposition’ probably meant premature death. Akbar was liberal in matters of religion only up to the point where it did not impinge on matters of political authority.
So, by introducing talk of a feudal ‘country’ and a ‘progressive’ court, Rushdie is moving a little further on than constructing dialogue or creating minor characters; he is fundamentally reinventing the society about which he is writing. This, rather more than premature tomatoes, must count as taking historical liberties, because the reader is not being given quite what the cover of the book suggests. Bad history is the result, even though the prose in which it appears is of prize-winning quality.
And all this could have been avoided, because the real Prince Jalaluddin Muhammad, who grew up to be the conqueror and despot Akbar, is not so difficult to extract from the sources; his true nature and character are written all over the period and its records. He was a military leader and a personal monarch, and a man like that did not have a great deal of room in his life for abstract speculation. Rushdie rightly points out that Akbar would have known very well that his likely killer would be one of his three sons, and that his eventual successor would have to despatch his siblings along the way to secure the throne. This was not a world that generated idle philosophical musings; it was a world of personal loyalty, intensified by extreme violence and permanent, highly proximate danger.
Successful rulers would have to kill many people for all sorts of different reasons during their time on the throne. There were enemies in the field to confront, and there would always be criminals, rebels and bandits to execute, often in unspeakably cruel ways. Worst of all, there were potential traitors to deal with in their own armies, palaces and families; subordinates, servants and relatives, both favoured and obscure, could all harbour deadly intentions. All Akbar’s food was tasted three times before it was served to him. Living in mortal peril was simply part of the job.
In this world the sort of man who came to power, and then managed to hold onto it, did not go to bed at night unconscious of the violence of the world he lived in. He would have confronted it every day of his life. Akbar inhabited a society not so different from that of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in England, both rulers who were locked in deadly struggles with their own close families throughout their lives, who used spies, deception, torture and judicial murder to fulfil and secure their political aims. Akbar was one of an elite few, and one who ran a country many times bigger and richer than the domain of the Tudors.
This picture is bleached out and repainted in intellectual pastels by Akbar’s admirers at the point when the Emperor decided in the mid 1570s to begin a form of theological exploration, with the inauguration of the Ibadat Khana, or House of Worship, which eventually resulted in the creation of a new syncretic religion, called the Din-i-Ilahi (Divine Faith). This is where the liberal train jumps the rails and sets off across its own historical landscape. Rushdie is unquestionably on that train.
What was the Din-i-Ilahi? It was a loosely formulated, ethical code-cum-religious faith, based on the idea of One God, dedicated to non-violence, and emphasising an inner search for knowledge of the Divine over an outward conformity to ritual. It was deeply influenced by Muslim ideas of tawhid (divine unity) and sulh-i kul (absolute peace), with elements of Sufi pantheism and spiritual inwardness, Jain non-violence, and perhaps some Zoroastrian trimmings, including a divine mission for royalty. No one is quite sure about its precise tenets or precepts, and the total membership of the sect would hardly have been able to get up a decent game of cricket between them. The total of 18 or 19 ‘believers’ reflects the general point that this was an elite club, with membership intended for major courtiers, not common men and women in temple, mosque or suq.
The next relevant question is, therefore: what was the Din-i-Ilahi for? There are three main headings that may provide a satisfying answer. Either Akbar really was an intellectual in search of abstract truth for its own sake; or he was following a political strategy to bind in as many of his powerful governors, administrators and generals as he could; or, in the words of the British historian Vincent Smith, it was about ‘the assertion of his personal supremacy over things spiritual as well as things temporal’ and represented ‘ridiculous vanity, a monstrous growth of unrestrained autocracy’. Smith was generally very clear-eyed about Akbar, and this interpretation is a straightforward reading of Akbar as a despot gone beyond fear of clerical censure.
Akbar ruled a multilingual, multi-faith empire. How convenient to have a neutral public faith to hand which allowed all men to combine loyalty to God with loyalty to Akbar, as king, preceptor and Khalif. It is rather more credible that Akbar could conceive of a ‘personal-religious’ loyalty in combination, rather than Nehru’s putative ‘national territory-personal monarch’ hybrid type of loyalty. Kingship can happily combine with religion in a number of ways, unlike abstract nationalism, which can tolerate religious diversity but aligns with it only by coincidence, and which relates to personal rule not at all.
Salman Rushdie seems very unclear about the Din-i-Ilahi. He pictures the Ibadat Khana as a ‘revolutionary temple’ (p. 98). He also makes it a hive of activity with debates ‘each day’ (p. 97), despite the fact that the sources are explicit that it met just once a week, on Thursday evenings. He also takes the freethinking of Akbar as licence to have him express a series of conflicting ideas, with the overall effect that his liberality seems to become little more than a passport to confusion. Was faith, muses the Emperor, ‘no more than an error of our ancestors?’ (p. 102). Was the new faith in development the worship of all gods, or none at all? Or was it to be the elevation of Man to divine status? ‘This was his most unspeakable ambition: to found the religion of man’, says Rushdie, on Akbar’s behalf (p. 103). All the while Rushdie notes that Akbar has a ‘growing disillusion with God’ (p. 106) – an idea that is flatly contradicted by what we know of Akbar’s ideas. He was disillusioned with religion and dogma, with divines who disagreed about so many things. But – he was still ultimately interested in the ‘all-oneness’ of Divinity, wahdat-ul-wujud. That much at least is clear among all the beliefs of his Din.
Rushdie seems to have got Akbar’s motivation awry. The point about all the staged theological debating at court was not that it was an abstract enquiry, the point was that it amused and diverted him. As a youth he had passionately enjoyed elephant fights; as a mature adult he probably enjoyed watching mullahs and Brahmins gore each other verbally just as much. More importantly, the debates were an attempt to find Truth as he himself might come to see it. It did not matter at all whether the Parsis converted the Jesuits, or vice versa. The point was to persuade him, for without his approval the new faith was nothing. A mighty ruler like Akbar was not going to let the priests get together behind his back and tell him what to believe. That, after all, was the situation he was trying to escape. He was the mighty conqueror, the one on the godlike plane, not these dusty pen-pushers and bookworms. The Din-i-Ilahi was Akbar’s faith, and he wished others to share it, in an attempt to resolve all existing religious disputes. This was the ultimate conquest – not of God, for Akbar was not consciously trying to blaspheme, but of Man and his unruly, endlessly turbulent reasoning.
Rushdie also has Akbar advance the deeply confusing observation that reason is an impermanent thing. ‘But reason was a mortal divinity, a god that died,’ reflects Rushdie-as-Akbar (p. 98). This is very intellectually lax. Akbar certainly had quite sufficient physical force at his disposal to settle any argument he chose to start, and he therefore would hardly have needed to let clerics discuss matters freely if he had no faith in Reason. On the contrary, in the Ibadat Khana he was consciously recruiting Reason to work for him. And if Akbar did not believe in the eternal qualities of Reason then he would have had to accept that he was founding a purely temporary religion, knowing that its content was based on no firmer foundation than his own fearsome will, and that it would be likely to fall immediately upon his death. This was surely not his intention, though as an absolute ruler he might not have had this likely outcome brought too starkly to his attention.
Rushdie’s Akbar seems to be rather more confused than a successful medieval ruler could afford to be. So, how should we see the real, historic Akbar? Certainly, he was the greatest ruler of his age, but his achievement was not so much in conquering India as in managing to find ways in which to hold on to so much of her. He was a practical man and he made a long string of good decisions. Then, as now, winners were admired and followed. Then in feudal, as now in corporate terms, if perceptions of success are not forthcoming then any holder of supreme office will potentially land up in trouble. Akbar passed these tests, winning his battles, elevating his friends, destroying or pacifying his enemies as he thought fit. As a good ruler should, he managed to balance his realm politically. This is the source of the myth of the liberal Akbar – that he accomplished this task so well, via the exercise of a judicious tolerance that was a political device, not an ideological commitment. The misunderstanding of this is the source of the liberal misconception, the one that snared both Nehru and Rushdie.
Standard academic interpretations of Akbar’s ‘liberal’ policies understand him as a man determined to unify the variegated and potentially fractious nobility around him, whose diversity could have presented problems if his rule charted too firm a course in religious terms. The Rajputs were conquered between 1561-70 and needed a little room to move in a Muslim regime, while the Shi’a among his high-ranking servants would suffer similarly under too orthodox a Sunni outlook. But it is misleading to picture Akbar as consistently tolerant either in detail or in degree. During his early years he was openly hostile to Hindus, and won extensive praise from Muslim chroniclers for his sanguinary enthusiasm for the Faith of the Prophet. This was tempered after the absorption of the Rajputs into the Empire and their daughters into his harem. A period of intolerance towards Muslim minorities followed in the 1570s, and even after the Din-i-Ilahi was fully established Akbar did not usher in any general freedom on religious matters. On the contrary, he was very cautious. He expressed concern about displays of devout religion in his armies through the 1590s and there seems to have been pressure against the building of Hindu temples. He even appears to have resumed public orthodox Islamic observance at the end of his reign. The idea that somehow the gates were thrown open to all manner of personal belief is simply too simplistic. As with most absolutist regimes his more immediate concern was with behaviour rather than inward conviction. This is not the way of a true liberal.
The result was governance that granted a practical, pragmatic tolerance, on strict condition of unquestioning personal loyalty to the ruler himself. Such a ‘state’ was perfectly workable, as long as the personal loyalty remained solid and entirely above suspicion. The men that Akbar ‘made’ returned his favour, in general, with devoted service. The best of them, his Nine Gems, had a balanced mix of religious backgrounds – five Muslims, four Hindus. A squadron of courtiers and generals gave him liege service all their lives. This was the requirement, and to eminent men in those times it would have seemed wise to comply. Where things were more confused was in the family sphere, and it was Prince Salim, later the Emperor Jahangir, who eventually gave the most serious trouble in ‘national’ political terms. For no amount of tolerance could dissolve the nearness of kinship, or dent the ambition of an impatient younger man in political conditions that were so inescapably personal, and where every man literally played politics with his life. In such a world, to be related to the occupant of the masnad was to live under a double curse; that one would have to kill or be killed by one’s nearest relatives. There was no way out, and it was more a matter of exercising mercy than tolerance within these family troubles. Akbar, to his credit, was generally merciful.
Next, it should be pointed out that Akbar was not particularly exceptional in his general inclination towards tolerance rather than bigotry in power. In this he is routinely contrasted with his great-grandson, Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707). But it was actually Aurangzeb who was out of line, not Akbar. Surprising though it may be to some, Akbar’s ancestors Genghis Khan and Timur were both relatively tolerant in religious terms. They were, of course, savage and implacable when confronting military resistance to their authority, but in the matter of sectarian latitude, both were much more easy-going than most of their contemporaries in Western Europe. This is simply because both men ruled empires of multiple local faiths, and they understood that the observance of local religion did not necessarily threaten their positions. There had also been unorthodox Muslim rulers in India before Akbar. Alauddin Khalji (r. 1296-1316) and Muhammad Tughluq (r. 1325-51) had both harboured ambitions to unseat the Islamic scholars from their authority. For all these rulers, the unforgivable sin was resistance or rebellion, not variation in spiritual matters. Such men were well aware that religious diversity posed very little threat to a personal monarch, while enforcing conformity would be beyond their capacity. Believing was not a threat; it was carrying swords that was a worry.
Akbar’s own spiritual development is obscure and controversial, even to the extent that some are prepared to state that he was never a Muslim at all, or had recanted from orthodoxy early in his reign. This does not seem to be a well-founded belief, and rests primarily on ambiguous or mistranslated passages in contemporary, hostile accounts. However it seems fairly clear that he came under the influence of Sufi ideas in the 1570s, a period that also saw Akbar suffer a series of depressive illnesses, or possibly epileptic seizures, which he himself interpreted as spiritual experiences. Coincidence or not, it was around this time, c. 1575, that he officially embarked upon the Ibadat Khana period of discussion. And lest anyone should imagine that the discussions were about ‘liberty’, it should be pointed out that the first definite product of those discussions was the Mahzar of September 1579. This promoted him above the level of a mere scholar and declared him Padshah-i-Islam, head of the Islamic community, undisputed lord of both temporal and spiritual realms, empowered to make adjudications concerning Islamic practice and law. This public act is sometimes misleadingly termed the “Infallibility Decree’, using a concept borrowed, anachronistically, from the Catholic Church. No mortal man, it need hardly be said, can be considered infallible by an orthodox Muslim.
The Enchantress of Florence is of course a work of fiction, and it is for fiction that Salman Rushdie has won prizes and gained a worldwide reputation as a teller of stories and as a writer of great gifts. However, in its pretensions to historical accuracy the book falls well short of the thoroughness shown by other writers in the genre. Rushdie has marvelled at the convenience of finding translations of the original Persian documents online, and has hazarded that this saved him six months of work. Perhaps. And perhaps it was because he was spared those six months of hard reading that his ample powers of invention remained undamped and he eventually wrote the book as it stands. The original texts would not have been easy going. They can be contradictory, either excessively flattering or unremittingly hostile to Akbar. This is because the emperor commissioned writing from his own servants, who praised him lavishly, while an alternate version of events was recorded by the orthodox believers and sectarians, the very people that his search for more satisfying answers in the religious sphere had offended. Most of the evidence for Akbar’s various apostasies and rejections of Islam come from two orthodox divines, Abd al Qadir Badauni and Shaik Ahmad Sirhindi. Rushdie may have resolved these problems for himself by using his imagination, but the picture he has drawn is not actually based on the historical sources as they stand.
How, then, can we sum up such a man as Akbar? It was the skilful combination of clemency and ruthlessness that allowed Akbar to die in his bed, but it was a fortunate circumstance that Akbar’s two younger sons, Murad and Daniyal, both drank themselves to death before their father’s demise, thus handing the Empire to Salim without a war of succession. In the short term this maintained the stability of the empire, but in the longer term, and somewhat indirectly, it also enormously enhanced Akbar’s reputation. In this, as in many other ways, Akbar was not just the best of rulers, he was also among the luckiest.
Had Akbar not been such a shrewd and successful king he could easily have been disposed of by powerful vested interests at Court, in the army or among the scholars. However, he was both an impressive presence and an instinctive politician, enabling him to lay the foundations of his personal authority very thoroughly. He only came to his speculative phase in the full flowering of his power. Whether his investigations were truly personal or simply a part of his statecraft is impossible to tell definitively. Personal monarchy tends to throw up policy decisions that are inextricably both private and public: that is the nature of absolute personal power. But it is surely not a coincidence, and cannot have deterred Akbar from his speculations, that the end results benefited him as a soul, as an intellect, and as a prince, while also tending to promote peace within the realm, most particularly at the elevated Court level.
Akbar was not a liberal, or a philosopher. He was a very successful autocrat, whose personal inquisitiveness was always driven by, or at least mindful of, the health of the state as well as that of its living incarnation, placed by divine will at its head. Nehru chose to shift all this to one side and to see, instead, a proto-nationalist and secular innovator who was reaching towards the expression of a new Indianness, if only he had had the words. In another attempt to understand Akbar, Salman Rushdie has written of the pleasures and dilemmas of liberal thinking. He could just as easily have written of the tragedy of human power, particularly the debilitating and isolating effects it has on those that wield it in extraordinary amounts. For Akbar suffered, like so many conquerors, entrepreneurs, despots and celebrities, from a surfeit of fame combined with an excess of control over his immediate personal surroundings.
Trapped inside a cocoon of fantasy and wish-fulfilment, while having a well-understood capability to destroy anyone that comes near, individuals such as Akbar cease to hear the truth, even if they want to. When only God can speak truth to such power, then it is only to God that despots can turn to hear an honest voice.