Akbar the Great – the ultimate Renaissance ruler

One of the few leaders on whom history has bestowed the title ‘the Great’, Akbar was a noted connoisseur of cultures and architect of political pluralism.

Akbar the Great hunting. Mughal Scool, 1590. British Museum. Artist Unknown.
Akbar the Great hunting. Mughal Scool, 1590. British Museum. Artist Unknown. Credit: CM Dixon/Heritage Images/Getty Images

In 1582 a delegation set out with a letter from Akbar the Great, Emperor of India to Phillip II of Spain. In it Akbar complained that too many people blindly defend the religion into which they are born. He wrote that good emperors must pursue:

… the possibility of ascertaining the truth, which is the noblest aim of the human intellect… Therefore we associate at convenient seasons with learned men of all religions, thus deriving profit from their exquisite discourses and exalted aspirations.

Akbar then politely asked if Philip – who was then busy trying to stamp out Protestantism in Europe – would like to send him Persian and Arabic translations of his own scriptures.

Empire-builders of the Renaissance period – such as Elizabeth of England, Phillip of Spain, Suleiman the Magnificent, Shogun Tokugawa in Japan, Sejong the Great of Korea, or Sonni Ali of the Songhai – largely opposed other religions and tried to shore up their own faith. But Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar of India (1542-1605) was known for inviting outsiders into his court and promoting philosophies other than his own. He came to power in the same year as Philip II (1556) and lived through almost exactly the same span of history as Elizabeth I of England (1553-1603). But while Phillip and Elizabeth oversaw a Europe riven by sectarian persecution, Akbar wove competing religions together with creative abandon.

He was India’s ultimate Renaissance man: two paintings in the Akbarnama, a biography he himself commissioned, promote this image. In one he is an elephant-riding huntsman surrounded by an arabesque pattern of cheetahs he himself has trained. In another he is framed within the serene columns of a Mughal diwan, appearing as a divinely-appointed scholar surrounded by wise men of many faiths. This curated self-depiction has lasted through the centuries; Ashutosh Gowariker’s 2008 epic film Jodha-Akbar  portrays him as a resplendent Alpha Male who eschews ‘toxic masculinity’ by pursuing diplomacy with Hindu allies, enjoying Sufi mystical ecstasies, and sharing his political decisions (and his heart) with his Hindu wife. But is this a true reflection of the man, one of the few leaders on whom history has bestowed the title ‘the Great’?

India in Akbar’s time was a puzzle for any aspiring emperor. The vast subcontinent reached from the edge of Iran to the Bay of Bengal, up to the Himalayas; with innumerable languages, climates, ethnic groups and gods, military might alone had little chance of controlling the whole area. The Mughal empire had been founded sixteen years before Akbar’s birth by Babur, his grandfather, and it had taken a union of Ottoman, Safavid and Uzbek forces to establish a foothold on the Gangetic Plain. Jalaluddin was thus born in India as both a native and an immigrant. The term ‘Mughal’ referred to Mongol lineage that went back to Genghis Khan, yet he was born in a Rajput fortress and wed in the Punjab. His father, Humayun, inherited a land so divided that rebellion forced him into exile back in Persia. He had only just reasserted his leadership in India when a fatal accident dropped the war-riven empire in the lap of the fourteen year old Akbar.

History sometimes falls into slippery hands, sometimes into strong, sure ones. His supporters in Persia and Afghanistan urged him to secure India for Islam. But when he reached his majority after a secure regency under his father’s loyal commander Bairam Khan, Akbar put his own plan into action. He proved his might in battle after battle, showing that he would not easily fall prey to rebellion as his father had. Quickly, Akbar became a mobile ruler, ready to travel across difficult terrain if anyone questioned his rule. His victories were sealed by an arsenal of some of the most advanced firepower of his time, and a steady supply of military elephants that poured in from newly conquered regions.

But now the young emperor showed a rare skill that had eluded his predecessors – the ability to consolidate imperial power. In this, he relied on at least three key tactics. The first was a financial structure that would tie his subjects to him more surely than force ever could. Under Akbar, merchants enjoyed improved roads along Indian branches of the Silk Road, added security on their trade routes, a secure currency (minted in Philip’s Spanish silver), lower custom duties, and restitution for thefts along the way. Where possible, he left established ruling families in situ to enjoy the fruits of his economic policy (whilst ensuring they sent back the proper taxes). He also sweetened the deal for working classes, instituting fair taxation that was adjusted to the natural output of each region so that workers were not pushed beyond their capacity. Zamindar landholders now had to make loans to the peasantry in times of hardship. As a result his subjects were usually willing to accept the blessings of empire; when his annexation of the elephant-rich region of Gond led him to execute its warrior queen, her brother-in-law was all too ready to assume her crown under conditions of Mughal subjugation.

His second strategy was lavish cultural investment. Following a typical Sunni path brought him few benefits, so he broke the bonds that tied him to Islamic orthodoxy further West by declaring himself Khalifa. This meant he could over-rule local Shariah jurists. Soon the court resounded with the debating of diverse religions, as competing views were sought, and all opinions tolerated. In 1579 a delegation of Portuguese Jesuits provoked anger by criticising Islam, but Akbar had their views duly recorded and protected them from the recrimination of his courtiers. Some of his most lavish monuments were libraries – for women as well as men, well-equipped with scribes, bookbinders and translations of scriptures not his own. There is little doubt that his interest was sincere but this promotion of religious diversity was also crucial to his programme of imperial flourishing.

It is this feature of his rule that has captured the imagination of the ages. Then as now, the Indian subcontinent teemed with Hindu followers of diverse deities, dissenting Buddhist, Jain and Sceptic traditions, independent tribal cultures, Christian missionaries, and Zoroastrian, Jewish and Sikh communities, all intertwined along the tangled lines of pilgrimage and trade. Akbar took a strong stance on enfranchising other communities despite criticism from conservatives in power; his idea was not merely to tolerate them, but to enthusiastically support  them, so that they would support  him in turn. Throughout the empire, people converted to Islam were now allowed to return to their faith, and the longstanding pilgrimage tax was lifted so that all could worship freely where they liked. Non-Muslims were incorporated into government, and his subjects gained confidence that their lives under the Mughals would be decided on the basis of merit, not of community bias.

One of the things that made Akbar such an unusual Renaissance ruler was his willingness to alter the ontology of his own class – blending his bloodline, administration, and religion into something new. His wives were not required to convert to Islam but maintained freedom of worship at court, and from them he produced an heir who was half Muslim Timurid and half Hindu Rajput. Even those Sun-God-begotten Rajput nobles who disdained to mix their divine blood with his, were accorded power. He adopted some indigenous practices himself, eating no beef, preferring Ganges water, and supporting the building of Hindu temples in Krishna’s sacred home of Vrindavan. The Ain-i-Akbari , his glorification of his reign, describes the treasure trove of philosophies that his India contained – even today it remains one of our best historical sources for Renaissance India.All of this won over India’s cultural gatekeepers: Akbar seemed the latest incarnation of the longstanding Indian archetype of the Spiritual-King.

At the pinnacle of his reign, Akbar attempted something that history has only seen a few times, in the reign of Akhenaten, Alexander, and others: the creation of a new religion. Echoing the Indian ‘holy empire’ template established nearly 2000 years earlier by the Buddhist Emperor Asoka (c. 268 to 232 BCE), Akbar also shifted from political to ideological empire in his later decades. He wove an eclectic theological tapestry from Chishti Sufism’s mystical universalism, and Hindu Vedanta’s pantheistic metaphysics. This perfectly paralleled contemporary Sikh and Sant devotionalism, which held that any religion can lead a sincere devotee to divinity. The central symbol of his religion was light, resonating with Zoroastrianism and Vedic fire-rituals. The resulting creed was called Tawhid-I-Ilahi  or ‘Oneness of God’ – a rather vague religion advocating devotion to divinity through many paths.

History did not altogether smile on his project: the new religion never had more than a few adherents, and many of his Muslim subjects saw it as heretical. His own great-grandson Dara Shikoh followed its lead in composing a treatise on the compatibility of Islamic Sufi mysticism and Hindu Vedantic monism, but the Mughal syncretist project was blocked by his more orthodox brother Aurangzeb who executed and supplanted him. Today Akbar’s memory has become controversial among both nationalists who favour a ‘Hindu’ India, and Pakistanis who saw him as diminishing Islam’s place on the subcontinent.

Yet Akbar’s cosmopolitan programme left its mark on history: his demonstration of multi-cultural strength inspired architects of modern India such as Mohandas Gandhi, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, and Rabindranath Tagore. It was a Mughal version of the Upanishads that made its way via Latin translation into the hands of Arthur Schopenhauer, and from there inflamed the interest of Western philosophers.

Nevertheless, today the core of his socio-political vision is largely forgotten. He thought that the creation of multi-community polities is not merely a matter of government; it is nothing less than the making of a new culture on the vast canvas of society. Akbar foreshadowed the coming Enlightenment when he argued in a letter to Christian scholars that:

…most men are fettered by the bonds of tradition, and by imitating the ways followed by their fathers, ancestors, relatives and acquaintances, everyone continues, without investigating the arguments and reasons to follow the religion in which he was born…

He thought it better to follow the ‘binding instincts of love and affection’ which urge beings to ‘commingle with each other amicably,’ than to defend a past mode of life one happens to have inherited.

Therefore, he wrote, we should associate with ‘learned men of all religions, and thus derive profit from their exquisite discourses and exalted aspirations.’ Akbar was, perhaps, one of history’s more fortunate rulers: he saw his ideology thrive until his death, but was spared the war between mono- and multi-culturalism that has raged in India ever since.


Jessica Frazier