A Pilgrimage to Akbar’s Tomb
Victor Edwin SJ
Whenever Jesuits discussed their trip to Taj Mahal (Agra), I invariably asked whether they had visited the tomb of Akbar (Sikandra). Often the reply was that they did not. Some also asked ‘What is the significance of Akbar’s tomb in the context of a trip to Taj Mahal? The glory and splendour of Taj Mahal and its ‘la jawab’ beauty overshadows the significance of Akbar’s tomb for Jesuits. If the Taj Mahal attracts a Jesuit for its aesthetic beauty, the tomb of Akbar should attract him for a theological reason. I would like to explain why I think that Jesuits should visit Jalaluddin Akbar’s (that was his full name) tomb.
Akbar rose to the Mughal throne in 1556 CE. While in 1573 he was in Gujarat on a military campaign he met a deputation from Goa led by one Antony Cabral, a Portuguese. This could be most probably Akbar’s first meeting with Christians. Akbar was struck by their valour and courtesy. A few years later, in 1576, Akbar heard about two Catholic priests in Bengal who refused to give absolution to some Christian merchants who defrauded the Mughal treasurer. Their honesty attracted Akbar’s favourable attention. Those Catholic priests were Jesuits. Then in the year 1577, one Pedro Tavares, the commandant of Satgaon in Bengal arrived at Akbar’s court with his wife. Akbar esteemed Tavares for his sound sense and upright conduct. These meetings open Akbar’s mind towards Christianity, the religion these Portuguese and Jesuits practised. He was interested in finding out the Law that governs the life of Christians. This is a clue to his attraction towards Christianity.
The first Catholic priest who arrived at the court of Akbar was Julian Pereira. Right away, Pereira entered into bitter polemics with the Muslim courtiers at the court of Akbar. However, Pereira was unable to explain the Christian faith ‘reasonably’ and he himself suggested that Jesuits from St Paul’s College, Goa, would be able to help the Emperor as they are more learned than him. Soon a farman from the Emperor reached Goa. Akbar asked for Jesuit priests to come to his court and explain to him the Law of Christ. Paul Jackson explains: “Although the Church authorities were very suspicious about the whole affair, they ultimately decided to accede to the Mughal Emperor’s request, arguing that the mission could lead to great advances for the Christian Church or, at worst, provide it with three new martyrs”.
On their arrival Jesuits were received cordially in the Court of the Emperor. They were given large sums of money and accorded quarters in the palace. The Jesuits politely refused the large sums and accepted only what is needed for their sustenance. They also preferred to live in a modest quarters than in the palace. These gestures expressed the interior life of the Jesuits. Akbar was impressed by the simplicity of the Jesuit priests. The Jesuits received their meals from the royal table, which was no ordinary gesture of the Emperor.
On several occasions Akbar demonstrated his love and friendliness towards Jesuits openly. When Antony Monserrate was ill, Akbar visited him and wished him in Portuguese. Many times the Emperor asked the Jesuits to sit next to him even as a gesture of familiarity and love. He walked with his hands around the neck of Rudolf Aquaviva. He used to take them to his inner chamber for private discussion. He shook hands with Jesuits in a most familiar way. Such gestures were simply Akbar’s expression of his love for Jesuits. No other person in his court would even dream of such familiarity with the Emperor.
Akbar showed great respect while entering the Jesuit chapel. He appointed his minister to teach the Jesuits Persian and asked the Jesuits to teach him Portuguese and good morals. He charged Abu’-l-fazl to translate the gospels into Persian. He gave full freedom to the Jesuits to preach and make converts. He appreciated the love Jesuits had for one another. When Monserrate rushed to meet Aquaviva on learning he was sick, Akbar openly praised their concern saying: “See, how they love each other”. Akbar’s relation with Jesuits was really warm and friendly.
Jesuits on their part respected the Emperor. As suggested, they aimed at converting him and though him the whole Hindustan. To achieve this end, Jesuits demonstrated the articles of Christian faith through reason. They expounded the reasons for the authenticity of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Then they fired from their motivational cylinders full-scale attacks on the Qur’an, on Muhammad and on Islam. They first attacked the fallacies and errors of the Qur’an. Second, they contrasted: the holiness of the life of Jesus with the irregularities in the life of Muhammad and the holiness of the Law of Christ, and the pure life of those who spread it with the impurity of the Law of Muhammad and its spread by sword. Such attacks raised the anger of Muslim courtiers in the Court. However, Akbar allowed the Jesuits to complete their arguments. Later his only suggestion to the Jesuits was to be moderate in their arguments. Akbar was practicing a high level of religious tolerance around the time when Giordano Bruno was burnt at stake for heresy at Campo dei Fiori in Rome.
It is worth mentioning that Akbar’s court reflected the court of Caliph al-Ma’mûn (probably around 829) in this aspect. While the Greek orthodox bishop of Abû Qurra debated with the Muslim interlocutor ‘Abd Allāh al-Hāshimi on a number of elements of Christian Faith, at a certain assertion of Abû Qurra, al-Hāshimi protested to the Caliph against the Christian bishop. The Caliph encouraged Abû Qurra and said: “This is a court of justice and equity: none shall be wronged therein. So advance your arguments and answer without fear, for there is none here who will not speak well of you . . . Let everyone speak who has the wisdom to demonstrate the truth of his religion.” The role of reason in the public space was thus affirmed.
Something very important that the Jesuits did not seem to have picked up while at the Akbar’s court: Emperor Akbar was impressed by the personal life, honesty and valour of Christians. What he wanted was to hear from them the ‘reason’ behind their life and faith commitment. When he asked for the Law of Christ to be explained to him, did he not ask for an account of their hope (1 Peter 3:14)? The Jesuits entered into polemics instead of giving account for their hope. It looks that the Jesuits completely misread Akbar and his intentions. The Jesuits can be likened to a student who wrote his answer without bothering to know what question has been asked!
On a larger scale Akbar enquired into the traditions of different religions not as a pastime philosophical pleasure but to learn to deal with people who follow different traditions in his kingdom. He was in search of a new paradigm. He wanted to unite his kingdom not by using his power alone but his wisdom. His political wisdom whispered in his ears that the unity of his kingdom will be achieved by the good will of all people living their faith traditions without fear. For, he had inherited a kingdom greatly diverse in the religious affiliation of its peoples.
In other words how to deal with plurality? Akbar, first of all accepted plurality. One cannot read a religious reason into his acceptance of plurality by saying that he accepted plurality as God’s design. As suggested above it was for good politics and governance, Akbar realised that the ruler should accept the plural situation of the kingdom. Second, he affirmed a dialogical commitment and respect towards different religions and towards the believers of those religions. He called for exchange of views and conversation. Both, the dialogical commitment to diversity and exchange of views are interlinked with an integrated understanding of the diverse society. Third, he recognised that the pursuit of reason is crucial to build up social harmony. He emphasised the greater importance of open discussion rooted in reason than on reliance on tradition. He organized dialogue between religions in his court. By supporting open dialogue he sort of emphasised the public reasoning is crucial for governance. It was the conviction of Akbar that ‘reason in the public space’ is crucial for harmony among all people. The Jesuits at Akbar’s court did not pick up this deeper dimension of the Emperor’s wisdom.
For a Jesuit today, Akbar’s kindness and personal love towards their brother Jesuits and his patience with them in the face of their polemic spirit demonstrate a great lesson of tolerance and interfaith understanding. Through his remarkable openness Akbar laid a foundation for interfaith understanding based on love and knowledge, interlinked by reason. Is this not enough reason for a Jesuit to visit the tomb of Akbar in a spirit of introspection and seeking inspiration?