Dara Shikoh was a Mughal prince, and the heir apparent to Emperor Shah Jahan. While he excelled at his scholarly pursuits, he completely neglected his Raja-Dharma, epitomising indecisiveness and inept leadership, and giving rise to a disastrous political failure.
By Sreejit Datta, Sreejit Datta, Director of Rashtram’s Centre for Civilisational Studies, Assistant Professor & Resident Mentor
Dara Shikoh, the heir apparent to the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, epitomised indecisiveness and inept leadership, giving rise to a political failure of enormous proportions which paved the way for his bigoted sibling Aurangzeb’s usurpation of the empire’s throne. Dara has been described by his contemporaries as one who “seemed doomed never to succeed in any enterprise” (Bernier), and from several contemporaneous accounts he appears to have displayed surprising naivete for an heir apparent in judging people at key moments in his life. Historians of a later, more modern era have upheld this view of the Crown Prince of the Mughal Empire. Jadunath Sarkar, for example, remarks: “[A]s a ruler of men in troubled times, he [Dara Shikoh] must have been a failure.”
Such was Dara’s inexperience in the ways of the world that he went on to commit one blunder after another in quick succession during a period that saw the unfolding of a bloody war of succession between the children of Shah Jahan. Dara Shikoh was well-read, knew several languages, and had a philosophical bent of mind, which are added advantages for any aspiring public leader. But he lacked in some of the crucial skills which were absolutely essential for an administrator of his era and circumstances. He was out of his depth in the art of warfare and strategies. He was a little too idealistic, so much so that his idealism would often cloud his otherwise clear-headed and analytical thinking that comes only naturally to a scholar, which he definitely was. But the philosopher prince was not a practical creature, and he utterly lacked the shrewdness of the politician. He took his decisions based on his idealism-driven faculty of judgment, disregarding the warnings and well-meaning counsels of those close to him. The inevitable result of this combination of peculiar dispositions was a series of personal and political debacles. Frenchman Bernier provides us with a particularly vivid account of one such debacle committed by Dara at the height of the conflict for succession; an almost comical scene wherein the Crown Prince, the legitimate heir of the Mughal throne, displays a scandalously silly penchant for misjudging human nature and an equally disastrous disregard for good counsel by his friends and well-wishers. At a critical hour, Dara decided to seek cooperation from a notorious Pathan robber named Jawan Khan, who had a history of rebelling against the Crown on various occasions, even despite several instances of royal pardon being bestowed upon his convicted head by none other than Dara himself. Bernier describes the episode in the following words:
But Dara’s family, agitated by dismal forebodings, employed every entreaty to prevent him from venturing in Javan [Jawan] Khan’s presence. His wife, daughter, and his young son Sipah Shikoh fell at his feet, endeavouring, with tears in their eyes, to turn him aside from his design. The Pathan, they observed, was notoriously a robber and a rebel, and to place confidence in such a character was at once to rush headlong into destruction. There was no sufficient reason, they added, why he should be so pertinaciously bent upon raising the siege of Tata-Bakar; the road to Kaboul might be safely pursued without that operation, for Mir-Baba would scarcely abandon the siege for the sake of interrupting his march.
Dara, as if hurried away by his evil genius, could not perceive the force of these arguments; remarking…that he did not believe it possible he should be betrayed by a man bound to him by such strong ties of gratitude. He departed, notwithstanding every solicitation; and soon afforded an additional and melancholy proof that the wicked feel not the weight of obligations when their interests demand the sacrifice of their benefactors.
One can almost sense Bernier coldly mocking Dara’s headstrong impulsiveness and the prince’s unsophisticated blind faith in the bona fides of his past beneficiaries – qualities quite unbecoming of an aspiring administrator – with a scornfully sarcastic tone disguised in apparently sympathetic words.
Bernier is equally unforgiving in his deployment of sardonic language while recording the tragic consequences of the prince’s foolish decision; and with a dramatic touch he records the scenes of Dara’s fall and humiliation at the hand of his detractors:
This robber, who imagined that Dara was attended by a large body of soldiers, received the Prince with apparent respect and cordiality, quartering his men upon the inhabitants, with particular injunctions to supply all their wants and treat them as friends and brethren. But when Javan Khan ascertained that Dara’s followers did not exceed two or three hundred men, he threw off all disguise. It is still doubtful whether he had been tampered with by Aureng-Zebe [Aurangzeb], or whether he were suddenly tempted to the commission of this monstrous crime. The sight of a few mules laden with the gold, which Dara had saved from the hands of the robbers, by whom he had been constantly harassed, very probably excited his cupidity. Be this as it may, the Patan [Pathan] having assembled, during the night, a considerable number of armed men, seized this gold, together with the women’s jewels, and fell upon Dara and Sipah Shikoh, killed the persons who attempted to defend them, and tied the Prince on the back of an elephant. The public executioner was ordered to sit behind, for the purpose of cutting off his head, upon the first appearance of resistance, either on his own part, or on that of any of his adherents; and in this degrading posture, Dara was carried to the army before Tata-Bakar and delivered into the hands of General Mir-Baba. This officer then commanded the Traitor, Javan Khan, to proceed with his prisoner, first to Lahor and afterwards to Dehli.
Dara Shikoh’s tragic fate is also instructive of the truth that popularity alone cannot help a public leader fare through all challenges, especially in politics. Bernier, after witnessing the procession which paraded the captive prince, has remarked: “I could not divest myself of the idea that some dreadful execution was about to take place, and felt surprise that government should have the hardihood to commit all these indignities upon a Prince confessedly popular among the lower orders, especially as I saw scarcely any armed force.”
Dara was designated by his father the emperor to be the latter’s successor. And yet he was pampered with all manners of extravagance and comforts of the royal court. Growing up, Dara did not have to meet the harsh realities of the world, as did his great-grandfather Akbar so early in his life after the death of Humayun. As a result of the misfortune of his father’s premature death at a time of great uncertainty for the political atmosphere of Northern India as also for his own family, Akbar was trained hard by his circumstances as well as by his able mentors to cope with the practical challenges of the world and survive in the brutal political race of medieval invaders competing with each other for the throne of the Indian Empire. Often a parallel is drawn between Dara and his more illustrious great-grandfather on account of the duo’s affinity towards the comparative study of religions and philosophies. But the stark difference between the two is also often glossed over in this parallelism: that Dara Shikoh’s philosophical explorations hardly got reflected in the way he conducted his affairs, nor did he seem to have learned any lessons of Raja-dharma from his scholarly perusal of the Hindu texts like the Upanishads and the Mahabharata. For if he did, he would not have so casually brushed aside the implorations of his well-wishers, nor would he depend upon his idealism more than the inputs from his spies working on the ground, nor would he try his hand at the politically sensitive game of religious syncretism between Hindu and Islamic ideas and ideals so openly and thus draw the ire of the fanatic and influential ulema in the royal court, even before securing his own position as the monarch. On the other hand, Akbar, the champion of the eclectic religion of Din-i-Ilahi, was driven to his own philosophical pursuits due to, more than anything else, the compulsions of his public life as the supreme leader of the empire and of the political and administrative exigencies of his time. Nobody could dare persecute the emperor as he continued to publicly exchange philosophical ideas and preach syncretic religious views with scholars and saints of Hinduism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity, because, after all, it’s the emperor! Unlike Akbar, the significance of power, and the means to achieve and secure the same, were somehow lost on Dara Shikoh.
In no time the vacuum of leadership, created by the sheer ineptitude of the unskilled and unmentored Dara Shikoh, eldest son and legitimate successor of Emperor Shah Jahan, attracted the other zealous aspirants to the throne into a ruthless scramble for power to fill the power void at the empire’s centre, ultimately enabling the most intolerant, sectarian, and tyrannical of these aspirants to ascend the throne, giving rise to the most totalitarian despot of a monarch that the Mughal Empire of India had ever seen, and thus putting India and her society’s fate in further jeopardy. The end of the ‘Mighty Mogul’ was nigh. Dara’s complete lack of leadership aptitude and the total neglect on his part to pick up some of that essential skill while he was still alive had set the ball rolling, while Aurangzeb merely hastened the end of the dynasty.
- Bernier, Francois. “The Death of Dara Shukoh”. Travels in the Mogul Empire, AD 1656-1668, trans. by Archibald Constable on the basis of Irving Brock’s version, ed. by Vincent A. Smith. Delhi: Low Price Publications, 1994 . (Slightly edited, and some spellings modernized for classroom use, by FWP.) http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00generallinks/bernier/txt_bernier_dara.html
- Sarkar, Jadunath. History of Aurangzib mainly based on Persian sources. Calcutta: M.C. Sarkar & Sons, 1912.