In Search of Akbar’s Wise Men

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    It is well known that the court of Mughal emperor Akbar was exceptionally enlightened, especially for the times that he lived in. While his contemporaries from the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I of England and Shah Abbas of Persia, were executing opponents and clamping down on new ideas, Akbar sat at the helm of one of the most progressive courts of his time. But did he really have the ‘Navratnas' that he is famously supposed to have had at his court? Though we have all grown up with tales of Akbar’s nine wise men; what is surprising is that no contemporary account of his time including Akbarnama mentions such a group. So where did these stories come from?

    Though illiterate and probably even dyslexic, as some recent research suggests, Akbar’s hunger for knowledge and new ideas was legendary. It is said that not only did he gather around him a huge galaxy of brilliantly learned men, he also maintained a large atelier where hundreds of books were translated from different languages such as Sanskrit and Greek to Persian. These included Persian translations of Mahabharata, Harivamsha or tales of Krishna as well as Panchatantra. The first Persian-Sanskrit dictionary known as Farsi-Prakasha was also compiled and published during his reign.

    Akbar’s liberal ideas meant that his court was a magnet for cultured and learned men. One of them was his finance minister Raja Todar Mal (died 1589 CE), who standardized the land revenue system and introduced the Patwari system which is used in India even today. Another was the famous poet Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana (1556 CE-1627 CE) famous for his couplets or ‘Rahim ke Dohe’ which spoke of the life of the poor and the downtrodden. What makes Rahim’s work so extraordinary is that he was born to great privilege, being the son of Bairam Khan, Akbar’s guardian and regent. Rahim was himself the Governor of Burhanpur. Yet, he had great compassion for the poor and spoke their language.

    Another of Akbar’s greats was the legendary singer Tansen, who many of India’s music gharanas trace their lineage to. He arrived in Akbar’s court in 1562 at the ripe age of 60 and made some great musical compositions that are revered to this day. Several legends grew around Tansen including stories of him bringing down rain with his rendition of the Raga Malhar and light up lamps simply by singing the Raga Deepak.

    The most popular of Akbar’s courtiers was of course Mahesh Das (1528 CE -1586 CE) better known to almost every Indian as Birbal! A close confidant of Akbar, he would be known in popular folklore as a witty courtier through the stories of Akbar & Birbal.

    There were other brilliant men patronized by Akbar like Dastur Meherji, the spiritual leader of the Parsi community in India in the 16th century. He led a delegation of Parsi priests to Akbar’s court in 1577-78 CE and had a great influence on the ruler. Abul Fazl (1551 CE-1602 CE) was Akbar's special friend and biographer who penned the chronicle of the Mughal Empire called 'Akbarnama'. The third part of Akbarnama called 'Ain-i-Akbari' gives one of the most comprehensive accounts of life and times of Akbar. His elder brother Faizi (1547 CE-1595 CE) served as the poet laureate of the court and tutor to Akbar's sons. Another courtier was Fakir Aziao-din, a Sufi mystic and a religious adviser to Akbar, though not much is known of him.

    Raja Man Singh (1550 CE -1614 CE) was the Raja of Amber (later Jaipur) and the commander in chief of the Mughal army who played a major part in the expansion of the kingdom. He Ied the army which fought against Rana Pratap of Mewar in the Battle of Haldighati in 1576 CE.

    Over time, a set of Akbar’s men were grouped together as his legendary ‘Navratnas’ or nine wise men. These nine were Birbal, Tansen, Rahim, Abul Fazl, Todar Mal, Faizi, Mulla Do Piyaza, Man Singh and Fakir Aziao-din. While a reference to Akbar’s Navratnas are frequently made in textbooks and old folk stories, what is surprising is that there is no contemporary historical mention in any text including Akbarnama of these Navratnas. In fact, one of the men Mulla Do Piyaza or the ‘two onion theologian’ seems to be a completely fictional character!

    So how did the legend of Akbar’s Navratnas emerge?

    The answer to that is provided by renowned historian G. S. Sardesai (1865 CE -1959 CE) in his paper titled ‘Nine Gems of Akbar’s Court’ published in 1944. According to Sardesai -

    When a ruler achieves phenomenal success in his craft, popular imagination soon invests him with a glow of praise and gathers round him a list of conspicuous personalities that had shared his toils. It is obvious therefore that neither the actual names, nor the exact number of these gems or helpmates of Akbar can be accurately set down.

    The stories of a numbered set of wise and cultured men in the court of great kings were popular in Indian folklore. For example, the Sanskrit text Jyotirvidabharana, popularly attributed to Kalidasa, but which many scholars consider to be a forgery, speaks about nine wise men in the court of mythical king Vikramaditya of Ujjain. Similarly, there are popular tales of Ashtadiggajas or the eight great cultural giants in the court of Emperor Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagar kingdom (1471 CE -1529 CE) and Pancharatna or five gems in the court of King Lakshmana Sena of Bengal (1178 CE -1206 CE). All these give credence to the theory propounded by Sardesai.

    The most intriguing of Akbar’s ‘Navratnas' is the character of Mulla Do-Piyaza, an orthodox but witty Islamic theologian. He frequently appears in tales of Akbar and Birbal as Birbal’s nemesis, who sometimes gets outwitted by him. C.M Naim, the Professor of Urdu at the University of Chicago, in his research paper titled ‘Popular Jokes and Political History: The Case of Akbar, Birbal and Mulla Do-Piyaza’ looks at the origins of these tales and makes some interesting discoveries. He points out that Birbal is a corruption of ‘Vir Var’ or great warrior, a title given to Mahesh Das (1528 CE -1586 CE), a Hindu courtier who was a favourite of Akbar. But there is no mention of this Vir Var’s legendary wit, in contemporary records.

    The earliest reference to Birbal as a clever and witty courtier comes from the text Ma’athir-al-Umara, a 19th-century biographical dictionary of nobles at Mughal courts, written almost 300 years after Birbal had died.

    Similarly, Dr Naim states the mention of Mulla Do-Piyaza at Akbar’s court is found only at the end of the 18th century. He adds that the ‘inspiration’ of the character of Mulla may have in fact come from Persian or Central Asian folklore where such comic and eccentric characters appear frequently.

    It is quite probable that over centuries the myth of Mulla as a witty but orthodox counterpoint to Birbal got incorporated in the legend of Navratnas. While Akbar’s nine wise men may not have existed as a group, the legend of Navratnas lives on. In modern India, the largest and best performing public sector companies or PSUs are referred to as Navratnas, while the smaller ones are referred to as Mini-Ratnas.

    But Navratnas or no Navratnas in today’s culturally divisive times, Akbar’s thirst to understand and appreciate the world around him and his cultural and religious open-mindedness stand out in more ways than one.

    It is worth remembering the lines written by the renowned English poet Lord Alfred Tennyson 400 years after Akbar’s death. In his poem titled ‘Akbar’s Dream’ (1892) he wrote the following lines, from Akbar's point of view -

    "I hate the rancour of their castes and creeds,

    I let them worship as they will,

    I reap no revenue from the field of unbelief

    I cull from every faith and race the best

    And bravest soul for counsellor and friend.”

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