Sunday, August 21, 2005

Why Akbar Did Not Become A Christian

In the book "Akbar and the Jesuits: An Account of the Jesuit Missions to the Court of Akbar," which is a narrative of the Jesuit missions to the court of Akbar in India, from 1578 through 1605 (the year Akbar died), the Jesuit Fathers describe the interest and reverence Akbar had for the Christian faith. He displayed so much reverence for it that the Jesuit Fathers were full with expectations of his conversion.
On one occasion, the King [Akbar], having come to see what his son was learning, bade him read aloud to him the exercise which the Fathers had given him to write. The exercise commenced with the words 'In the name of God,' on hearing which his Majesty at once told him to add the words 'and of Jesus Christ the true prophet and son of God'; and this was done then and there in his presence. 4 He then entered the chapel, where the Fathers daily said mass for the benefit of the Portuguese connected with the court; for there were several who had made their homes in this country, and others who had journeyed there for the purpose of trade. The King entered the oratory unaccompanied by any of his guards or courtiers, and having removed his turban from his head, fell upon his knees and prayed, first of all in our fashion, then in his own, that is to say, after the manner of the Saracens of Persia, whose law he still outwardly observed, and lastly in the fashion of the Gentiles. "God," he said, as he rose from his devotions, "ought to be adored with every kind of adoration." After that, he seated himself on a cushion on the floor; and when the Fathers had also seated themselves, he told them that he did not doubt that our law was the best of all, and that he beheld something more than human in the life and miracles of Jesus-Christ; but that it was beyond his comprehension how God could have a son. On a subsequent visit, after talking on sundry topics, he said: "Fathers, you have, by your discourses, taught me many things about your law, which please me more than all that I have been able to learn of other laws, whether of the Saracens, or the Gentiles; and, for my part, I regard the law of the Saracens as worse than any other."

Eight days later, he again came to the oratory, accompanied this time by his three sons, and some of the chief nobles of his court. For a while he stood apart, looking attentively at the various objects in the chapel, and expressing his admiration of them in the presence of his courtiers. He then removed his shoes from his feet, and ordered his sons and all who were with him to do likewise, this being the custom observed by Moslims when entering their mosques. He showed great reverence for the pictures of our Saviour and the blessed Virgin, and even for those of other saints; and he ordered his painter to make copies of those which the Fathers had placed in their chapel. He also ordered his goldsmith to make for him a casket of gold with a richly carved lid, similar in shape to the copper casket in which the Fathers carried the images of our Saviour and the Virgin. Before leaving, he told the Fathers that their law appealed to him very strongly; but that there were two points in it which he could not comprehend, namely, the Trinity and the Incarnation. If they could explain these two things to his satisfaction, he would, he said, declare himself a Christian, even though it cost him his kingdom. (Du Jarric 25 - 27)
From this description, even if partially true, we could forgive the Jesuit Fathers for thinking that Akbar would become a Christian. But Akbar never converted. Why?

According to the Jesuits, Akbar had several stumbling blocks, the most prominent of which were his preference to subordinate faith to reason, political ambition, and his attachment to his many wives. With regard to his preference for understanding everything according to reason, the Jesuits wrote:
But although such acts as these seemed to show that the King held the Christian faith in high esteem, there were, nevertheless, many things which stood in the way of his embracing it. The first was his unwillingness to accept the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation without being able to comprehend them; so that he was kept in a state of perpetual irresolution, not knowing where to fix his faith. "For the Gentiles," he said, "regard their law as good; and so likewise do the Saracens and the Christians. To which then shall we give our adherence?" Thus we see in this Prince the common fault of the atheist, who refuses to make reason subservient to faith, and, accepting nothing as true which his feeble mind is unable to fathom, is content to submit to his own imperfect judgement matters transcending the highest limits of human understanding. (Du Jarric 29)
The Jesuits have a valid epistemological point: If everything about God were understandable by reason alone (Deism), then would it be God that was actually being understood? If God could fit neatly into whatever conceptual boundaries that can be formed by the human mind, then God wouldn't be God, for being perfectly conceivable by virtue of the efforts of limited beings would have to mean God Himself would be so limited. Akbar much appreciated Christian teachings, and he even more appreciated the habits, demeanor, and devotion of the Jesuit Fathers, yet Akbar insisted that all assertions ultimately had to be understood through the agency of reason. We can see from this that Akbar was by temperament quite secular even by today's standards.

His political compulsions also got the better of him. On account of his tryst with Christianity, a Mohammedan uprising took place in Bengal and which, if unchecked, threatened his personal and political well being. Becoming a Christian would have been at odds with his political ambitions, and on account of this he distanced himself for some time from the Jesuits, although inwardly he maintained his appreciation of Christian teachings over that of Islam.

The last significant stumbling block was allowances the Koran made for a man to have many wives, or in the afterlife promises made by the Koran for heavenly but nevertheless carnal rewards. If Akbar were to convert, he could only keep one wife--something neither he nor his many wives wanted.
But, in the eyes of many, that which constituted the greatest hindrance to his conversion to our faith was the multitude of wives which the Mahometan law permitted him to keep. There were in his seraglio as many as a hundred women; and it was doubtful if he would ever be willing to renounce all of these but one, and to live with that one in lawful wedlock, as the Christian law demands. (Du Jarric 30)
Furthermore, though convinced in his [Akbar's] own mind that the law of the Evangelists was superior to all others, he was still held in bondage by the vicious customs and licentious indulgences to which the law of Mahomet gives its sanction. (Du Jarric 37)
Akbar hesitated to embrace Christianity because of his intellectual disposition and his attachment to sensual pleasure, whether in this world or the next. Akbar's intellectual disposition was clearly secular, and the epitome of his proclivity for worldy enjoyment was sexual license (with politics as a close second). Akbar, it appears, was a moderate--a liberal of his time--who came to the precipice of embracing a superior way, yet couldn't on account of his worldly attachments.

If there is any modern parallel to Akbar's stumbling blocks in his spiritual journey, it is that secularism and sexual license also seem to go hand-in-hand. It should be noted that all the other great religions of the world that have a fundamental doctrine of peace and nonviolence also have built into them an asceticism that clearly designates worldly pleasure as detrimental to spiritual progress. This is true of Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but not so of Islam. Furthermore, if we analyze other radically materialistic ideologies that have seen extensive political expression, Facism and Communism of the last century are unparalleled in their brutality and contempt for life. Islam therefore appears to be a radically worldly ideology, like Facism or Communism, but decorated in the trappings of religious ritual and tradition.

Works Cited

Pierre Du Jarric, Akbar and the Jesuits: An Account of the Jesuit Missions to the Court of Akbar, trans. Payne, C. H., eds. Ross, E. Denison andEileen Power (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1926)

1 Comments:

Blogger Musafir said...

While you say that all religions have a tradition of peace and single out Islam, why not do the same for Christianity?

Consider all the Christian institutions in India coupled with all the forced, uneducated, and silly conversions that missionaries are promoting across the country.

It is not worth anything to India to be Christian with a "proud Hindu past" like the Greeks or the Italians.

The vast majority of people do not convert because of well trained arguments. No Christians will engage in meaningful dharmic debate like Shankaracharya and Ramanuja primarily because the Hindu religion makes more sense to the Indian mind. Its only because of bribes that Hindus are converting.

Hindus should create libraries, more community lecture/debate in temples, classes on Sanskrit, hospitals, and schools to counteract.

6:55 PM, February 16, 2008  

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