It is tempting to imagine how Mughal history might have been shaped had Shahjahan's elder son Dara Shukoh reigned and not Aurangzeb
By this time in August 1659, everyone in the imperial court knew that Dara Shukoh would soon find himself minus his head. Emperor Shahjahan’s eldest and favourite son, beloved of mystics and poets, had lost the war of succession, outsmarted by the shrewder Aurangzeb. Plundered by his own soldiers, abandoned by old retainers, his wife dead (possibly by suicide), and betrayed by a man he thought loyal, Dara seemed conscious of his impending doom. He wrote to his royal captor from his place of confinement, promising to spend the rest of his days praying for the new emperor’s welfare. But his pleas were rejected—to the victorious Aurangzeb, hatred for Dara had accumulated over decades, and in the sham “trial" that followed, the elder brother was accused of everything, from perverting imperial judgement to scandalous heresy, till the younger confirmed, self-righteously, the sentence of death.
The life Dara had led before was full of splendour and privilege. He sat on a golden chair in his father’s court, and was styled, in happier days, Prince of Lofty Fortune. Before both chair and fortune were abruptly toppled, he had enjoyed 2 crore silver rupees a year in income. He was his father’s closest adviser, provoking envy from more than one of his several siblings. Dara’s personality was fascinating, and while he wrote sentimental verses on renunciation, he was no stranger to the notion of self-interest. When Aurangzeb, for instance, cornered the Shia sultanates of the Deccan, it was to Dara that their rulers sent their appeals. The senior prince, the sultans knew, had the ear of the emperor—and since Dara had no desire to see ambitious Aurangzeb swell in power, he prevailed on their father and had his brother’s designs thwarted.
He did have natural defects in character. “He entertained," wrote François Bernier, who was Dara’s personal physician for a brief period, “too exalted an opinion of himself (and) believed he could accomplish everything by the powers of his own mind…He spoke disdainfully of those who ventured to advise him, and thus deterred his sincerest friends from disclosing the secret machinations of his brothers". Added to this fatal over-confidence, born of soaring intellectual talents, was disdain for proud men with narrow minds. “Paradise," he proclaimed, “is where no mullah exists"—naturally even sympathetic mullahs turned away from Dara. And so, for all the love and regard his father fed him, the man assembled enemies, with resentments as sharp as Aurangzeb’s. His chief military campaign, moreover, was a flop, and he lacked with ordinary troops that bond which brought success to his brothers—where they picked the sword, Dara collected Sufi saints.
But the Mughal prince’s weaknesses were only of the kind that one might find in any human being. His mind, on the other hand, surpassed his contemporaries. At 25, he authored his first book, and two years before his execution, he was still composing lines of pure delight. “He was constantly in the society of brahmins, yogis and sanyasis," complained a poet employed by Aurangzeb, till he regarded “these worthless teachers of delusions as learned and true masters of wisdom." He composed the Majma-al-Bahrain (The Mingling of Two Oceans), seeking, like his ancestor Akbar, to unite faiths to fashion a new vision for society. So, too, it was Dara who translated the Upanishads from Sanskrit to Persian, which a century later allowed Voltaire in France to immerse himself in Indian wisdom. These were, Shahjahan’s ill-destined son wrote, “without doubt of suspicion, the first of all heavenly books"—lines that would one day be used against him as a direct challenge to the Quran.
But the times were violent and while Dara scaled the heights of intellectual attainment, he failed in claiming the power of arms that sustained kingship in that complex age. When Shahjahan fell ill, his son made tactical mistakes. He yet had chances of success, with the royal forces and treasure vaults at his disposal, but on the battlefield Aurangzeb was the real warrior, Dara only a poet in armour. He was defeated and fled Agra while his father wept, wandering from province to province, till Aurangzeb’s men defeated him once again. He should have fled to Persia when he had a chance—perhaps he might have returned like Akbar’s father to fight another day—but bad judgement and betrayal by that treacherous friend delivered Dara his warrant of death.
When Dara came shackled to Delhi, the people shed tears in sincere regret. “From every quarter," noted Bernier, “I have heard piercing and distressing shrieks…men, women, and children wailing as if some mighty calamity had happened to themselves." Aurangzeb had, then, to eliminate this popular rival, and men were sent to do the deed on 30 August. His younger son died with him, while the older was captured and poisoned slowly to death. For these brutal political events, of course, a religious vindication was expertly prepared. As Aurangzeb’s chronicler wrote, with his obsession with the Vedas and his attention devoted to “the contents of these wretched books", Dara was an apostate. “It became manifest that if Dara Shukoh obtained the throne…the foundations of faith would be in danger and the precepts of Islam would be changed for the rant of infidelity and Judaism." The murder of brother by brother, then, was both imperial justice and god’s fury in direct play.
It is tempting to imagine how Mughal history might have been shaped had Dara reigned and not Aurangzeb. Would he have saved the empire by becoming the Akbar of his age? Might he have embraced the Marathas as Akbar embraced the Rajputs? It is impossible to say, though as a historian once wrote, Dara Shukoh was perhaps destined to fail either way. He had many flaws and he had his strengths, but what really marked him out as a man of tragedy and dismay was one peculiar detail: he was far too civilized for his age.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).