THE real mind of Akbar was perhaps disclosed when, summoning the priests to a private audience, he declared of his own accord that he wished the Christians to come and live freely in his empire, and build their churches where they willed, just as he allowed the Hindus to build their temples unmolested. The Fathers were so struck with this spontaneous declaration, spoken with such ‘love and kindliness,’ that Aquaviva postponed an address which he had prepared to his imperial pupil, the tenor of which was most uncompromising. Akbar seems genuinely to have been afraid of assassination on account of his heterodoxy; he hinted this, and explained that if he were killed, his dynasty would perish and his empire crumble. He must therefore move warily and slowly.
The Jesuits on their part felt that they too must be circumspect and not push their cause too urgently at first. One cannot imagine that what Akbar proposed to them was anything but disappointing and distasteful; that is, if this were all he had to offer. At this stage, no doubt, it seemed a token of conciliation, and more might come of it: but they were for all or nothing. Either Akbar would be converted, an immense and resounding triumph for the Church, or they would turn their backs on his court and go back to Goa. To be put on a level with the idolaters, as they always termed the Hindus, was humiliating: a concession that might be turned to great advantage, but by no means what they had been led to hope.
Yet such a concession as this was all that Akbar had to offer. He saw good men professing various creeds; there must be good in all of them, he argued. A sympathetic toleration in religious matters was his settled policy. It was the intolerance of the Muslims which had repelled him and turned him away from the faith of his forefathers. And now in the Christians he found an intolerance of equal intensity and force. This, more than anything else, we may surmise, prevented him from accepting Christianity, if ever the thought really held his mind.
But if he would not accept, neither would he reject. He encouraged; he conciliated; but just when it seemed that he was at the point to promise all and submit himself, he eluded them. And yet how far he went! He would often spend half the night with the Fathers, questioning, debating, and seeking instruction. Aquaviva on his part begged for a Persian teacher, and in a few months was so proficient in the language that he was able to translate parts of the Gospels and to dispute with the Muslims in their own tongue. But what raised the greatest hopes was Akbar’s giving the Jesuits charge of his second son Murad, for education was ever the means on which their order most relied.
They made friends with Abul Fazl, who delighted in their company and gave them strong support, just as he was the emperor’s chief abettor in his policy of toleration throughout the empire. And feeling now on securer ground, the Fathers did not hesitate to rebuke the emperor with great frankness for some of his proclivities, and for certain things which he permitted in his realm. They refused to attend a gladiatorial show; they protested vehemently against a suttee which they were invited to witness; they admonished him on the wickedness of letting his sons be corrupted by the teachings of Islam. Akbar showed no resentment. Indeed, he refused thenceforth to attend a suttee, which infuriated the Brahmans. He convesed with them familiarly and without ceremony; would pace up and down with his arm around Aquaviva’s shoulder. They had the entry into the innermost parts of the palace, and would have been overwhelmed with gifts had they allowed themselves to accept them. In short, such was the favour shown to the priests that the hospitality of the Muhammadans became more and more outspoken; and the rumour was spread abroad that Akbar was on the point of embracing Christianity. The orthodox, wherever the rumour ran, became restless: the ambitious waw in the deplorable laxity of the emperor an opportunity for rising against him. The opposition on the part of Akbar’s wives was not less powerful because not publicly shown. To them Christianity was a pernicious creed, with its odious principle of monogamy. It was inconceivable, or at least lamentable to conceive, that the emperor should adopt this foreign faith and be induced to discard at a blow all his wives. Still more atrocious would it be were he forced to the invidiousness of choosing one. Truly, Akbar was in no enviable position.
The accounts given by the Jesuits of Akbar and his attitude to Christianity are so full and intimate, written moreover by acute observers of high intelligence, that we may easily be led into laying a disproportionate emphasis on their influence over his mind. If he was attracted to the religion of Christ, he was not less attracted by the doctrines of the Jains and by the ancient Persian faith of Zoroaster, while he also followed the Hindus in some at least of their observances. To Islam alone he became by degrees definitely hostile.
Had we equally full accounts from those who instructed him in the various creeds, we should, no doubt, see Akbar behaving in the same manner as he did to the Jesuits, though perhaps none appealed to him so much by their personal character. With each religion he went so far that each in turn claimed him as a convert, or as being about to be converted: in each case he stopped upon the threshold.
Of all these religions it is probable that Zoroastrianism had the strongest hold on his mind. Dastur Meher-ji Rana, a Parsee theologian from Gujerat, whom he first met at the siege of Surat in 1573, played the part of Aquaviva. He was summoned to court, and Akbar was initiated by him into the Zoroastrian mysteries.
It would seem that Akbar, in his restless seeking for a faith that should satisfy his inner nature, never contented himself with abstract inquiries, but as if determined to put on the whole habit of a creed, and to taste its efficacy from the inside, adopted with each its outward ceremony and ritual, and used its symbols, all apparently with a like sincerity of approach.
So, since the Zoroastrian faith centres round the worship of the sun, a sacred fire, never to be extinguished, was kindled in the palace. It was committed to the charge of Abul Fazl. And from the beginning of the twenty fifth year of Akbar’s reign the emperor began the custom of prostrating himself solemnly and in public before the sun. When in the evening the lamps were lighted, the whole court were required to rise in honour of what Akbar himself called ‘a commemoration of the sunrise.’ It is a singular thing that this public adoption of Parsee rites took place in March 1580, a month after the arrival of the Jesuits. But they apparently were so absorbed in contending against the Muhammadans that Akbar’s fire-worship was not remarked on; or they did not take it seriously. Yet it is likely that the simplicity of the Zoroastrian symbolism made a strong appeal to Akbar’s mind, with its tendency to mysticism, its dislike of complicated doctrines and hatred of bigotry. It is characteristic of him that while he was engaging the Jesuits in such frequent talk and earnest inquiry into Christian doctrine, he was all the time encouraging, and himself practising, the Zoroastrian ritual.
Yet another religion was to occupy his attention and to exert considerable influence on his life. This was the religion of the Jains. That religion is almost, if not quite, as old as Buddhism. And, like Buddhism, it arose as arevolt against the Brahmans. Its chief tenet was the absolute prohibition of the taking of any life, whether human or animal. From the year 1578 two or three Jain teachers were always at the court. The chief of these, Hiravijaya, played a part, in relation to Akbar, similar to that of Aquaviva.
With the Sikh religion also the emperor had some contact, and though it did not influence him he treated the Sikhs with sympathy and favour. The Brahmans complained of them, and Akbar, as usual, was eager to have a discussion between them, but the proposal was not accepted. The Sikh Guru Arjun was accused of treating with contempt both Muslim prophets and Hindu gods. Akbar however found in his writings nothing but love and devotion to God: they were, he said, ‘worthy of reverence.’