My rating: 4 of 5 stars
WORLD LITERATURE CLASSICS FROM MUGHAL DYNASTY INDIA—GHALIB–MASTER OF THE LOVE GHAZAL, SAUDA–MASTER SATIRIST, KABIR–POET SAINT OF RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE, MIR TAQI MIR, BANARASIDAS, BABUR, JAHANGIR AND AKBAR THE GREAT—FROM THE WORLD LITERATURE FORUM RECOMMENDED CLASSICS AND MASTERPIECES SERIES VIA GOODREADS—-ROBERT SHEPPARD, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
THE MUGHAL EMPIRE IN INDIA (1526-1857)
In the 1500’s the Mughals under their leader Babur made their way into India, expanding under Akbar the Great, and built one of the most remarkable empires in history before being suceeded by the rule of the British Empire. They extended their sway over the greater part of South Asia bringing an era of peace and stability that allowed the economy and society to flourish. The Mughal Empire ruled over 150 million people at a time when Britain had fewer than 10 million, France less than 20 and even the comparable Ottoman Empire less than 30 million. They stimulated a wide range of cultural interactions and transformations that were to enrich the Indian world in remarkable ways,, from miniature painting, to calligraphy and the growth of the Urdu language and script to the splendor of the Taj Mahal, one of the wonders of world architecture. Equally important if less well appreciated in the West is the magnificent literature the Mughals produced and patronized, first in the imperial language of the court, Persian, and from the early eighteenth century, in Urdu, a north Indian language closely related to Hindi but using the Mughal Persian script and adding a large vocabulary of loan-words and cultural allusions, genres and aesthetics from Persian and Muslim Arabic. Writers of global significance from this period include such renown figues as Ghalib, master of the ghazal love poem, Sauda the great prose satirist, the Jain writer Banarasidas, Mir Taqi Mir, the great poet of religious tolerance Kabir, and even the journals and lagacies of the Mughal Emperors themselves, such as Babur, Jahangir and Akbar the Great.
Though geographically the sub-continent of India is somewhat isolated from its Eurasian surroundings by the barrier of the Himalayas, it has nonetheless remained a significant “crossroads of the world” in which movements of peoples and cultures have brought great cross-fertilization from the time of the arrival of the Vedic Aryans onward to include the movements of Greeks and Persians, Kushans and Scythians, Buddhist monks from China and Japan, Mongols and Timurids, Muslims, the Portugese, French and the global British Empire. As such it has also been renown as a cradle of spirituality, the origin of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and other religions, as well as bearing the influence of other religious traditions such as Christianity and Islam.
The Moghal Empire was one of the three Muslim empires which arose following the Mongol destruction of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 13th century, which were often referred to as the “Gunpowder Empires” as part of their power and consolidation arose from the use of firearms and cannon, as exemplified in the Ottoman Janissary Corps. Thus the Ottoman Empire (1300-1922), the Safavid Persian Empire (1501-1736)which institutionalized the Shi’a religion in Iran, and the Mughal Empire (1526-1857) bridged the era from the fall of the Caliphate to the Mongols to the rise of global Western Imperialism. At the early stages they dwarfed the European states and their relative demise was anything but a foregone conclusion, the Ottomans almost taking Vienna; if America had not been discovered global history might have turned out quite otherwise.
As the West ascended to supremacy reinforced by the Renaissance, Reformation, Scientific Revolution and Industrial Revolution their empires gradually dismembered and absorbed their relatively stagnant Islamic rivals, particularly the modernizing Russian Empire (1547-1917) to the north and the economically, scientifically and culturally dynamic British Empire (1497-1970), which was destined to supplant all three as the largest and most powerful empire in all of world history, ruling over more than one-fourth of all global land area and human population. Nonetheless, for centuries the three Islamic empires constructively competed and also learned from each other cultually, sharing the Arabic language, Islamic religion and sharia law in the religious domain, as well as the Persian language for administration, diplomacy and culture in the royal courts, forming an impressive era of Islamic civilization.
The mission of the World Literature Forum is to introduce to readers coming from their own national literary traditions such as the West, to the great writers of all the world’s literary traditions whose contribution and influence beyond their own borders have had an influence on the formation of our emerging World Literature in our age of globalization, unprecedented travel and interaction of cultures including the instantaneous global communications of the Age of the Internet and the cross-border e-Book. The contributions of India and the Muslim world including those of the Mughal Dynasty in India form a rich part of this common heritage of mankind.
KABIR, RENOWN POET OF RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE AND SPIRITUALITY
An early figure in the mixing of the Vedic and Muslim traditions was that of the poet Kabir (1440-1518) born as an illegitimate child of a Brahmin mother in Varanasi who was raised by a Muslim family, then became a desciple of the Vaisnava Saint Ramananda. As such he turned away from the intolerance of sectarian religion on all sides and strove for the unification of all spiritual traditions in an ecumenical mysticism, Muslim, Sufi, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist, seeking after a simple “oneness” with God in all manifestations. He was also a staunch champion of the poor and oppressed and a devoted opponent of social injustice in all forms. Persecuted at times by all sides in the collision of faiths, Kabir’s legend describes his victory in trials by a Sultan, a Brahmin, a Qazi, a merchant and god, and he became the subject of folk legends that still inspire tolerance in sectarian strife between Muslims and Hindus down to the present.
His greatest work is the “Bijak” (the “Seedling”), an idea of the fundamental oneness of man, and the oneness of man and God. He often advocated leaving aside the Qur’an and Vedas and simply following the Sahaja path, or the Simple/Natural Way to Oneness in God. He believed in the Vedantic concept of atman, but unlike earlier orthodox Vedantins, he spurned the Hindu societal caste system and murti-pujan (idol worship), showing clear belief in both bhakti and Sufi ideas. The major part of Kabir’s work was collected as a bhagat by the fifth Sikh guru, Guru Arjan Dev, and incorporated into the Sikh scripture, “Guru Granth Sahib.” An example of his poetry showing openess and tolerance is “Saints, I See the World is Mad:”
Saints, I See the World Is Mad
Saints, I see the world is mad.
If I tell the truth they rush to beat me,
If I lie they trust me.
I’ve seen the pious Hindus, rule-followers,
early morning bath-takers—
killing souls, they worship rocks.
They know nothing.
I’ve seen plenty of Muslim teachers, holy men
reading their holy books
and teaching their pupils techniques.
They know just as much.
And posturing yogis, hypocrites,
hearts crammed with pride,
praying to brass, to stones, reeling
with pride in their pilgrimage,
fixing their caps and their prayer-beads,
painting their brow-marks and arm-marks,
braying their hymns and their couplets,
reeling. The never heard of soul.
The Hindu says Ram is the Beloved,
The Turk says Rahim.
Then they kill each other.
No one knows the secret.
They buzz their mantras from house to house,
puffed with pride.
The pupils drown along with their gurus.
In the end they’re sorry.
Kabir says, listen saints:
They’re all deluded!
Whatever I say, nobody gets it.
It’s too simple.
THE MUGHAL EMPERORS AS AUTHORS—BABUR, AKBAR THE GREAT AND JAHANGIR
The first Moghul Emperor, Babur (1483-1530) laid the foundations of the later empire by leading his army from the steppes and highlands of Samarkand and Afghanistan down into the plains of India. In addition to being a conqueror he was also a keen writer, and his autobiography, the “Baburnama” or “Memoirs of Babur” has been compared to the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius and the “Confessions” of Augustine and Rousseau, for its uncommon candor in the presentation of self. It is sometimes regarded as the first autobiography in the entire Muslim world, establishing the genre. His personality emerges from such small details as his correcting the spelling errors in the letters of his son and successor as Emperor, Humayun, and his catalogue of his likes and dislikes. He liked gardens with flowing water; he disliked India. Having conquered it, he writes of India: “It is a strange country. Compared to ours, it is another world, this unpleasant and inharmonious India.” He did not stay long after the conquest but returned to the highlands; but his sons and successors did, making the Mughal Dynasty.
AKBAR THE GREAT—EMPEROR OF RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE AND REASON
Akbar the Great (1542-16050 was great in more ways than one, being not only a conquering general who extended the Mughal Empire southwards to take in nearly all of India, but also like Kabir a seeker after tolerance, peaceful coexistence and unity within the Empire across the divide of Hindu-Muslim sectarianism. He abolished the Muslim tax on other religious communities and encouraged intermarriage between Muslim and Hindu princes and princesses and royal courts. He was fond of literature, and created a library of over 24,000 volumes written in Sanskrit, Hindustani, Persian, Greek, Latin, Arabic and Kashmiri, staffed by many scholars, translators, artists, calligraphers, scribes, bookbinders and readers. Holy men of many faiths, poets, architects and artisans adorned his court from all over the world for study and discussion. He encouraged open and free debate and intercourse at the royal court between all the religions, even including atheists, first shifting his personal belief from orthodox Islam to the mystic Muslim interpretations of the Sufis, then reacting against the too prominent bigotry within his own Muslim faith to found a short-lived unsuccessful rationalist-syncretistic religion to unite all religions within India, termed Din-i-Ilahi, or Universal Peace. Needless to say, such efforts at religious tolerance and rationalism outraged fundamentalists within his own Muslim and other faiths, and ultimately his efforts, like those of Akhnaton in Egypt to found a more rationalist monotheism, were defeated by the reactionary clerics who after his death termed his policies heresy and returned to the traditions of orthodoxy and intolerance.
Jahangir, son of Akbar the Great and a Rajasthani Princess, was fluent in Hindi, though he composed his “Autobiography” in the court Persian of the royal family. While not so penetrating as that of Babur, it is strikingly modern in revealing his personality in modern dilemmas such as his struggle with substance abuse—addiction to wine and opium, his search for spirituality from both Hindu and Muslim sources, and his almost childlike fascination with the natural world, including a passion for exotic things such as American Turkeys, pineapples, and African zebras.
SAUDA—-THE GREAT MUGHAL SATIRIST
Sauda is the penname of Mirza Muhammad Rafi (1713-1781) one of the greates prose writers, poets and satirists of the Urdu language. Urdu and Hindi, those peculiar twin languages of the Indian subcontinent are essentially the same language, yet divided into two by the usage of two different scripts for writing, Persian and Devangari, and the differing religions and cultures of their respective communities, being largely though not exclusively, Muslim and Hindu respectively. Urdu is also distinguished by the heavy influence of court Persian and of Arabic from the mosque. While Urdu literary culture was generally conservative, Sauda was anything but tradition-bound. With fierce independence of mind and an acid tongue, little around him escaped his wit and caustic laceration, including the Mughal Emperor himself. The Emperor fancied himself a good poet and often summoned literary men to hear him recite his works. Being thus called into the presence of the emperor, he remarked that his Royal Highness had composed a great many poems, asking him:
“How many poems do you compose a day?”
“Three or four couplets a day, if I am inspired……” answered the Emperor, then adding a boast, “……..I can even compose four whole poems sitting in the bathroom!”
“They smell like it,” replied Sauda.
Escerpt from Sauda’s Satires—“How to Earn a Living in Hindustan”
“Better to keep silent than try to answer such a question, for even the tongues of angels cannot do justice to the answer. There are many professions which you could adopt, but let us see what difficulties will beset you in each of them these days. You could buy a horse and offer yourself in service in some noble’s army. But never in this world will you see your pay, and you will rarely have both a sword and a shield by you, for you must pawn one or the other each day to buy fodder for your horse; and unless the moneylender is kind to you, you or your wife must go hungry, for you will not get enough to feed you both. You could minister to the needs of the faithful in a mosque, but you would find asses tethered there and men young and old sitting there idle and unwilling to be disturbed. Let the muezzin give the call to prayer and they will stop his mouth, for no one cares for Islam these days…..You could become a courtier of some great man, but your life would not be worth living. If he does not feel like sleeping at night, you too must wake with him, though you are ready to drop, and until he feels inclined to dine, you may not, though you are faint with hunger and your belly is rumbling. Or you could become his physician; but if you did, your life would be passed in constant apprehension, for should the Nabob sneeze, he will glare at you as though you ought to have given him a sword and buckler to keep off the cold wind. You will live through torture as you watch him feed. He will stuff himself with sweet melon and cream and then fish, and then cow’s tongue, and with it all fancy breads of all kinds; and if at any stage he feels the slightest pain in his stomach, then you, ignorant fool are to blame, though you were Bu Ali Sina himself……Here there is nothing but the struggle to live; there, nothing but the tumult of the Judgment Day.”
BANARASIDAS—-JAIN MASTER OF AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Banarasidas was a merchant member of the Jain religious community in the mid-1600’s who left behind in his “Half a Tale” one of the remarkable autobiographies of World Literature. It tells of his sorrow as a young man at the death of Emperor Akbar the Great in 1605, and the main occupations of his life, the quest for merchant success and the greater quest for spiritual fulfillment. It is not a mere succession of years, as the autobiography of Babur tends to be, but an inner dialogue of spiritual questioning and search. In Banarasidas, the writer conveys a more vivid sense of himself as self in his world than in the case of Jahangir. As a merchant, the archetypal “self made man,” he explores the unique consciousness of such a process of “self-making.” If the transition to Modernity turns on new forms of self-awareness, then Banarasidas begins this process in South Asia even as writers such as Montaigne began it in Europe.
MIR TAQI MIR & GHALIB, MASTERS OF THE URDU GHAZAL AND LOVE POETRY
The Ghazal love poem, or “Conversation with the Beloved” is one of the great traditions in Urdu and Indian tradition, being sung at weddings and celebrations as a living tradition. Mir Muhammad Taqi Mir (1723-1810) along with Ghalib (1797-1869) were two of the grandmasters of the genre, living in the days of the final decline and dismemberment of the Mughal Empire and the rise of the British Raj. Mir’s love poems became classics of the genre, enjoyed by both Hindus and Muslims for their supple grace and lyrical expressiveness. He also left behind an autobiography, written in Persian, which relates his obsessions, his private life with his father, an eccentric Sufi mystic, and the misery of public life in Dehli where the Emperor was reduced to an impotent figurehead hardly even in command of one city, his own capital. Ghalib was one of the greatest poets in two languages, Urdu and Persian, and was, like Byron, an aristocratic rebel, religious sceptic and outsider who was difficult for either his friends or enemies to understand or deal with. Also like Byron, Ghalib made himself a leading figure in his poems, assuming the stature of a kind of “Byronic Hero.” Ghazals usually ended with some personal reference to the poet, but Ghalib built this tradition up to Byronic proportions, fashioning his persona into a witty, sophisticated and melancholy commentator on his own life and the crumbling and corrupt world of society and the Mughal court around him. Though he wrote for the Emperor and the court, Ghalib was never a sychophant, and like Sauda, did not hesitate to express his dislike for the Emperor’s own poetry and the claims of Muslim orthodoxy. Interrogated by the British during the 1857 Mutiny, he was asked by the British commander: “Are you a Muslim?” He curtly replied: “Half a Muslim: I drink wine but I don’t eat pork.” Ghalib is now considered as the greatest poet of the Urdu ghazal of any period.
SPIRITUS MUNDI AND ISLAMIC LITERATURE
My own work, Spiritus Mundi the contemporary and futurist epic, is also influenced by Islamic and Sufi literary traditions. It features one major character, Mohammad ala Rushdie who is a Sufi novice in the Mevlevi order who is also a modern social activists in the Campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly for global democracy. He in the course of the novel is taken hostage by terrorists and meets the Supreme Leader of Iran, urging him to “Open the Gates of Ijtihad,” or reinvigorate Islamic tradition with creative reasoning and openness rather than binding it to blind precedent and unthinking tradition–much in the tradition of Kabir and Akbar the Great. Another historical chapter, “Neptune’s Fury” features the sojourn of Admiral Sir George Rose Sartorius in the Maldive Islands where he encounters the “Sultan of the Sea of Stories” and during which he must, like the Schehereqade of the One Thousand and One Nights, tell a story each day to avoid execution by the Sultan.
World Literature Forum invites you to check out the great writers of World Literature from the Mughal Age in India, and also the contemporary epic novel Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard. For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:
For Discussions on World Literature and n Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…
World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads:
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CIGJFGO
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CGM8BZG
Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved