Not many know about two old Indian texts, one translated from Persian into Sanskrit, and the other from Sanskrit into Arabic and Persian. Both are examples of interaction between Hindu and Muslim thought, and of some relevance in today’s troubled times.
The first is Majmaal Bahrain or Confluence of Two Oceans by Dara Shikoh, who was executed by his younger brother, Aurangzeb, in the battle for succession to the Mughal empire. Majma was described by the famous French orientalist, Louis Massignon, as “a table of concordance of Muslim and Hindu terms for a metaphysical lexicon.” To reach its other audience it was also rendered into Sanskrit as Samudra Sangama. “The parallels it seeks between Persian Arabic and Sanskrit terms,” wrote Islamic scholar M. Waseem, “would show that between Islam and Brahmanism the difference is largely semantic.”
Dara Shikoh says he “tried to penetrate the symbolism of monotheist Hindu savants.” He held that “idolatory and Islam are two columns on the entrance route to the Unique”. The prince’s assertion was: “There is more than making declaration on oath regarding the Lord; the declaration on oath which concerns Him is: All is He.”
Such views were naturally unwelcome to the orthodox establishment. “It became obvious,” wrote a publicist for Aurangzeb, “that if Dara got the throne the foundation of faith would be imperiled.” His meetings with Hindu ascetics were cited in his fatal indictment for heresy, but his own commitment to Islam was ignored. For he had repeatedly affirmed faith in the prophet, extolling him in the Sanskrit text as “the guide to the supreme light”.
The second, much older, work is Amritakunda — an ancient manual of yogic practice. It was translated into Persian and Arabic as Hauz-al-Hayat or Cistern of the Water of Life. The original translator was Ruknuddin Samarqandi from 13th century Bengal, but the texts available now are by Gaus Gwaliori.
Both translations circulated widely in the Islamic world and over the years, Amritakunda became well-known, especially in Sufi circles. It now exists in over 40 Arabic recensions alone, and is also quoted by later thinkers like Muhsin Fani, the author of Dabistan. Al-Misri described it as an important book for the study of Hindu yogic practices which had become a part of Indian Sufism.
Message for today
The Sufi concept of wahdatul wujud, the unity of all existence, fitted in with the monist philosophy of the Nathpanthi yogis of the time. The latter’s hatha-yoga techniques influenced Sufi meditation practices. Amritakunda deals with breath control, asanas and trances. Orthodox Muslim opinion frowned on yoga, but some of its exercises gained popularity and the accomplishments of experts like Badiuddin Madar were acknowledged.
What is the message of these examples for today' The first is that mutual understanding has since long been a feature of Hindu-Muslim relations in India. Remembering this aspect can reduce incitements to confrontation which continually mark the current-day relations.
Second, the path towards mutual understanding is rarely smooth. Those who propagate it are often opposed or sidetracked, if not overcome, by reactionary thought and vested interests. For the latter, dialogue is a zero sum game in which understanding is equivalent to defeat for one side.
But dialogue can be quiet and constructive as typified in Amritakunda. It can also be perilous, as the history of the unfortunate Dara Shikoh bears witness. The dangers lie mainly in the process of dialogue which engender political perceptions of a threat to power. They can be averted in most cases by combining care with sincerity, prudence with open-mindedness, modesty with laying down the law.
Ultimately, however, dangers must be faced with courage if the course of progress towards mutual understanding is to be sustained.