I am grateful to reader Ganpat Ram for suggesting a new line of thought with the following comment on Emperor Akbar:
Every Muslim ruler with rare exceptions showed great concern to contain and push back Hinduism. Even the relatively broad-minded Akbar destroyed Hindu temples.
My response to Ganpat Ram was that this was one opinion in the spectrum of opinions and I recalled an article (East and West: The Reach of Reason) by Professor Amartya Sen published in the year 2000 in which a contrary opinion had been expressed.
The following are two excerpts from Professor Sen’s article:
Taking note of the denominational diversity of Indians (including Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Parsees, Jews, and others), he laid the foundations of the secularism and religious neutrality of the state, which he insisted must ensure that “no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him.” Akbar’s thesis that “the pursuit of reason” rather than “reliance on tradition” is the way to address difficult social problems is a view that has become all the more important for the world today.
Indian secularism, which was strongly championed in the twentieth century by Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, and others, is often taken to be something of a reflection of Western ideas (despite the fact that Britain is a somewhat unlikely choice as a spearhead of secularism). In contrast, there are good reasons to link this aspect of modern India, including its constitutional secularism and judicially guaranteed multiculturalism (in contrast with, say, the privileged status of Islam in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan), to earlier Indian writings and particularly to the ideas of this Muslim emperor of four hundred years ago.
This is another opinion in the spectrum of opinions. Professor Amartya Sen is a Nobel Laureate and perhaps the most respected Indian intellectual today, admired not only for his deep knowledge and erudite thinking but also for his empathy for the forgotten and the marginalized. Like Akbar, he is committed to the supremacy of reason over religious compulsions.
While reading Professor Sen’s article my mind switched to another track. Important enough as Akbar was, it would not have been surprising if he had remained an obscure figure for the majority in the subcontinent given the extent of illiteracy and lack of exposure to history of the literate. Perhaps the only reason Akbar avoided that fate was the movie Mughal-e-Azam in which Prithviraj Kapoor made him immortal.
So here is another opinion in the spectrum of opinions. One can only presume that Prithviraj Kapoor, a Hindu, must not have felt any disgust in immortalizing a person who had insulted his ancestors by destroying their temples. Not only was Prithviraj Kapoor a Hindu, he was also a Pathan; and anyone who knows Indian history would be aware that there was no love lost between the Mughals and the Pathans – both groups being mostly Muslims. Should this make us realize that we trivialize our history by portraying it as a war of religions?
But all this was by way of preamble to the thought that was triggered in my mind by Ganpat Ram. It was as follows:
Was Akbar a Muslim king who ruled over India or was he an Indian king who was a Muslim? If the latter and if, for the moment, we go along with Professor Amartya Sen that Akbar was good king, we would conclude that Akbar was a good Indian king who was a Muslim. But did his goodness have anything to do with his faith or was it due to fact that he gave precedence to reason over religion? And did his goodness have any connection with the nature of all Muslims?
Following this line of thought we could conclude that Aurangzeb was a bad Indian king who was a Muslim. We could attribute his badness not to his faith but to the fact that he gave precedence to religion over reason. Even so, could his badness be held to reflect the badness of all other Muslims?
Two conclusions could follow from this argument. First, that subordinating the logic of reason to the politics of religion (or caste, sect, ethnicity, nationality, color, language, sex) is fraught with dangers. Second, that transposing the behavior of an individual, good or bad, to a collectivity is fallacious and fails the test of reason.
In Professor Sen’s judgment the strongest point made by Emperor Akbar was the following:
Reason had to be supreme, since even in disputing the validity of reason we have to give reasons.