A unique feature of Indian society since ages is the prevalence of multiple religious faiths and rituals and the absence of a single religion dominating the behavioural pattern of the people of India as a whole.
As a result of the multiplicity, we notice the emergence of a composite cultural ethos.
By the time the Mughal power structure emerged in the 16th century, the religious scenario of India was reflected in the religious faiths, beliefs and practices, followed by the Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Jains.
All these religious denominations have been living side by side being mutually influenced in varying degrees by one another. The most accepted principle was ‘God is one’. No doubt, there were those who were intensely devoted to their particular faith and practices, there were those who disbelieved the existence of God, and there were those who were skeptical about the existence of God. Most of the people were those who peacefully lived and offered their personal prayers to their personal God of their choice and who viewed religion as purely belonging to personal domain rather than public domain of concern.
Only the religious preachers who belonged to a minuscule minority exercise some influence in their denominations. By the time the Mughal rule started, the Indian society was in the state of fusion of different cultural strands of Hinduism and Islam through the concept of Bhakti ideology and Sufism advocated by Sufis.
Suspicion and hatred towards the other faith was not very deep as reflected in the emergence of Hindustani cultural ethos. In this backdrop of attempts of peaceful fusion, an attempt should be made to understand and appreciate the religious attitude or policy of the Mughals in general and in particular of Akbar, the so-called tolerant and liberal, and Aurangzeb, the so-called staunch believer of the Sunni faith of Islam, who was credited to have tried to convert India into a land of Islam from that of infidels.
Before we take up the actual religious policy of Akbar and Aurangzeb, we have to remember that there was a perception that as the rulers were of Islamic faith, the state religion was Islam. On the basis of this perception, we know that medieval India is perceived as Islamic India and the time as Muslim period.
A critical examination of the contemporary scenario disapproves this perception as an erroneous one and no ruler at any time equated personal faith with state religion and decided the state policy and administration under religious consideration. What each ruler did was only to extend his patronage to the extent that was not harmful to his tenure as a ruler and never to discriminate on religious consideration.
It should not be forgotten that during this period most of the people had a firm faith in their religion, and the rulers sometimes used religions for their personal and political ends and the religious preachers like Ulemas and Pithadhipats were held in high esteem.
Yet, what is to be remembered is that religious consideration was not the only criteria that decided the policy of a ruler towards non-believers either Hindus or Muslims but the other factors like economic or political, made the rulers to adopt a different attitude towards the recalcitrant ones irrespective of the same religious denomination.
What we have to ultimately remember is that religion of the ruler and the ruled was not the sole criteria in deciding the religious policy, but other factors influenced the religious policy or attitude of the ruler concerned, to a great extent. Babur, the founder of the Mughal lineage in India and his son, Humayun were by faith Sunnis of Islam and most of their time was spent in wars in their attempts to consolidate their rule. Nothing is known about their religious attitude except that Babur married a Shia princess and Humayun also married a Shia princess and in distress Humayun sought asylum in the Raj put court.
This clearly indicates them to be tolerant of other sects, if not of liberal disposition. Akbar ascended the Mughal throne in very precarious conditions in 1556 and ruled till 1605. The early bringing up and tutor Abdul Latif and his friends Faizi and Abul Fazl appear to have exercised great influence on the development of the personality of Akbar.
Akbar is said to be a firm advocate of sulh-t-kul or peace for all. Akbar was a devout Muslim of Sunni sect. As he had a great desire of establishing an empire of long duration in India, he did not give much importance to the observation of the Islamic way of rule but throughout his life, he remained to be a seeker of truth in all religions which ultimately reflected in his spiritual quest and political segacity which made him to be considered as the first national monarch of India in its long history.
The measures taken by Akbar between 1560-65 – his matrimonial relations with Rajput’s, abolition of the Pilgrims tax, abolition of Jiziya and non-imposition of force to convert Hindus into Islam, providing space for Hindus in bureaucratic set-up, establishment of translation department to reduce the distance between the Hindus and the Muslims and provision of liberty of worship made Akbar to be considered as one of a different mould. But the works like Gulzar-i-Abrar and Nafais-ul-Massir testify to his respect towards the Ulemas and their patronage by him.
Now, the current opinion is that these measures motivated political concessions given to non-Muslims to win their support and it is also suggested that Akbar was influenced to take this decision by the lack of dependable Muslim support. After 1565, we notice a change in the attitude of Akbar towards his liberal outlook.
We have a documentary proof of the reimposition of Jiziya tax in the year 1566, in the vicinity of Agra. There is another Fatahnama of Chittor, which states that he declared a war against the Rajput’s as Jihad and took pride in destroying temples and in killing of the Kaffirs. Badauni states that in 1575, Akbar ordered the reimposition of Jiziya which did not work. What we notice during this period 1566-1579 was that most of the Rajput chieftains became collaborators of Akbar, in spite of the change in his religious outlook.
Another development that deserves our attention was the establishment of Ibadat Khana in 1575 at Fatehpur Sikri and this indicates an advanced step in the evolution of his religious policy. The original aim of the establishment of Ibadat Khana was to have free discussion on different aspects of Islamic theology. In the beginning, it was opened to Sunnis only but from 1578, the gates of Ibadat Khana were opened to Sufis, Shias, Brahmins, Jains, Christians, Jews and Parsis. This decision was taken by Akbar after the disillusionment with the quarrels of the Muslim theologians. The discussions made Akbar realize that the essence of faith was internal conviction based on reason.
In 1579, Akbar proclaimed the ‘Infallibility Decree’ by which he became the Mujtahid and declared himself as Imam Adil. This declaration had given him the right to interpret legal aspects of Shariat and there is a view that Akbar became the king and the Pope by this declaration. This declaration of Mahzar was opposed by the orthodox Muslim community with a belief that he rejected Islam and its tenets. By this measure, Akbar successfully curbed the predominance of the orthodox elements of Islam.
The next significant development in the religious views of Akbar was the promulgation of the Din-i-Itahi or Tauhid-i-Ilahi. A lot of debate took place about the reasons why Akbar founded Din-i-Ilahi and what were the motives behind his decision. V. A. Smith, Iswari Prasad, S.R. Sharma and R.P. Tripathi and some of the learned scholars expressed different opinions about Akbar’s decision to establish the Din-i-Ilahi. V.A. Smith is of the view that “it was the outcome of his ridiculous vanity, a monstrous growth of unrestrained autocracy”.
Iswari Prasad holds the view that “it was an eclectic pantheism containing the good points of all religions”. S.R. Sharma is of the view that “it was the crowning expression of the idealism of Akbar”. R.P. Tripathi observes “Shrewd as Akbar was, he must have felt that it was neither possible to melt all religions down into one, nor to launch a new religion which would have added one more to others. But he felt himself called upon to propagate his ideas among those who cared to listen to them.
The sect had no scared book or scripture, no priestly hierarchy, no sacred place of worship and no rituals or ceremonies except that of initiation … a member had to give a written promise of having … accepted the four grades of entire devotion, viz., sacrifice of property, life, honour and religion … [it] was not a religion and Akbar never intended to establish a church … neither force nor money was employed to enlist disciples…. It was entirely a personal matter not between the emperor and the subjects, but between Akbar and those who chose to regard him as their peer guru”.
We may conclude that the Din-i-Ilahi or Tauhid-i-Uahi had nothing to do with his religious or political policy except that he wanted to have a band of people around him who were willing to sacrifice their religion, honour, life and property for his sake and who were willing to be guided by him as their philosopher, friend and guide. Finally, it may be said that Akbar never showed discrimination on religious ground to any group but did not hesitate to suppress individuals who opposed his way.
Akbar’s son and successor Jahangir on the whole made no deviation from the liberal policy of Akbar, Jahangir suspected the hand of jains and Sikhs in the revolt of Prince Khussru and took action against Guru Aijun by ordering his execution and also drove the Jains from his kingdom.
These actions were not the result of his religious persuasion but the result of intolerance of his son’s revolt and suspicion. But by the time Shahjahan became the ruler, a change in the climate of tolerance and liberalism seemed to have set in. Shahjahan abolished Sifda or prostration before the emperor as it was a practice to be shown in the presence of almighty only. We come to know from Amal Sahib that 76 temples in the region of Benaras were demolished by the order of the emperor. But for this Shahjahan did not reverse the tolerant policy introduced by Akbar.
The reign of Aurangzeb, the last of the great Mughals was considered to be the most intolerant and fanatical period of the Mughal age. In personal life, Aurangzeb was very simple, pious, and puritanical and led a very austere life. But his desire to convert India into Dar-ul-Islam and to treat non-Muslims according to the injunctions of Quran and Shariat made scholars hold conflicting opinions.
Jadunath Sarkar, S.R. Sharma and A.L. Srivastava condemn Aurangzeb for his religious bigotry and persecution. Shibhi Nomani, Zahiruddin Faruki and Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi considered most of his actions political expedients. Satish Chandra and N. Aktar Ali tried to analyse his actions from the perspective of neutrality without subscribing to the perception of for and against policy” followed by other historians.
All the actions or ordinances of Aurangzeb can be divided into minor inconsequential orders and major policy initiatives of the state. The forbidding of the Kalima being stamped on coins, abolition of the celebration of Nauroz, repairing of old mosques and appointment of Imans and Muezzins on regular basis, appointment of censors of morals or Muhtasib, stopping of Tuladana ceremony, banning of Holi and Diwali celebrations, and discontinuing the practice of zaroka darshan after the 11th year of his reign and forbidding musicians from his court are the measures that made him to be regarded as intolerant and anti-Hindu.
All these measures cannot be considered as anti-Hindu except forbidding the celebration of Holi and Diwali. The orders for the demolition of the newly constructed temples of Hindus in the Benaras region and not allowing the old temples to be repaired are definitely indicators of the anti-Hindu policy of Aurangzeb. As a consequence of this order, the temples of Viswanath at Benaras and the Keshav Rai temple of Mathura were put into disuse. Mathura was renamed as Islamabad. Another anti-Hindu measure was the imposition of Jiziya in 1679.
While J.N. Sarkar considers this as anti-Hindu measure of bigotry, Satish Chandra points out that through this Aurangzeb desired to win the confidence of Muslims to save himself from the crisis of the Deccan problem.
He also imposed economic restrictions on the Hindus in the case of purchases. Aurangzeb’s personality appears to be enigmatic and the same Aurangzeb who ordered for the demolition of temples issued grants for the maintenance of temples and priests. Interestingly, Aurangzeb did not reduce the number of Hindu Mansabdars and retained many Hindus in high posts and two were appointed as governors.In the end, we can conclude that there was no constant and definite religious policy pursued by of the Mughlai state and it varied depending on the personal perceptions of the rulers.