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By Richard von Garbe
The Ulemas must have been horror—stricken when they found out that Akbar even sought religious instruction from the hated Brahmans. We hear especially of two, Purushottama and Debi by name, the first of whom taught Sanskrit and Brahman philosophy to the Emperor in his palace, whereas the second was drawn up on a platform to the wall of the palace in the dead of the night and there, suspended in midair, gave lessons on profound esoteric doctrines of the Upanishads to the emperor as he sat by the window. A characteristic bit of Indian local color! The proud Padishah of India, one of the most powerful rulers of his time, listening in the silence of night to the words of the Brahman suspended there outside, who himself as proud as the Emperor would not set foot inside the dwelling of one who in his eyes was unclean, but who would not refuse his wisdom to a sincere seeker after truth.
Akbar left no means untried to broaden his religious outlook. From Gujerat he summoned some Parsees, followers of the religion of Zarathustra, and through them informed himself of their faith and their highly developed system of ethics which places the sinful thought on the same level with the sinful word and act.
From olden times the inhabitants of India have had a predisposition for religious and philosophical disputations. So Akbar, too, was convinced of the utility of free discussion on religious dogmas. Based upon this idea, and perhaps also in the hope that the Ulemas would be discomfited Akbar founded at Fathpur Sikri, his favorite residence in the vicinity of Agra, the famous Ibadat Khana, literally the “house of worship,” but in reality the house of controversy. This was a splendid structure composed of four halls in which scholars and religious men of all sects gathered together every Thursday evening and were given an opportunity to defend their creeds in the presence and with the cooperation of the Emperor. Akbar placed the discussion in charge of the wise and liberal minded Abul Fazl. How badly the Ulemas, the representatives of Mohammedan orthodoxy, came off on these controversial evenings was to be foreseen. Since they had no success with their futile arguments they soon resorted to cries of fury, insults for their opponents and even to personal violence, often turning against each other and hurling curses upon their own number. In these discussions the inferiority of the Ulemas, who nevertheless had always put forth such great claims, was so plainly betrayed that Akbar learned to have a profound contempt for them.
In addition to this, the fraud and machinations by means of which the Ulemas had unlawfully enriched themselves became known to the Emperor. At any rate there was sufficient ground for the chastisement which Akbar now visited upon the high clergy. In the year 1579 a decree was issued which assigned to the Emperor the final decision in matters of faith, and this was subscribed to by the chiefs of the Ulemas,–with what personal feelings we can well imagine. For by this act the Ulemas were deprived of their ecclesiastical authority which was transferred to the Emperor. That the Orient too possesses its particular official manner of expression in administrative matters is very prettily shown by a decree in which Akbar “granted the long cherished wish” of these same chiefs of the Ulemas to undertake the pilgrimage to Mecca, which of course really meant a banishment of several years. Other unworthy Ulemas were displaced from their positions or deprived of their sinecures; others who in their bitterness had caused rebellion or incited or supported mutiny were condemned for high treason. The rich property of the churches was for the most part confiscated and appropriated for the general weal. In short, the power and influence of the Ulemas was completely broken down, the mosques stood empty and were transformed into stables and warehouses.
Akbar had long ceased to be a faithful Moslem. Now after the fall of the Ulemas he came forward openly with his conviction, declared the Koran to be a human compilation and its commands folly, disputed the miracles of Mohammed and also the value of his prophecies, and denied the doctrine of recompense after death. He professed the Brahman and Sufistic doctrine that the soul migrates through countless existences and finally attains divinity after complete purification.
The assertion of the Ulemas that every person came into the world predisposed towards Islam and that the natural language of mankind was Arabic (the Jews made the same claim for Hebrew and the Brahmans for Sanskrit), Akbar refuted by a drastic experiment which does not correspond with his usual benevolence, but still is characteristic of the tendency of his mind. In this case a convincing demonstration appeared to him so necessary that some individuals would have to suffer for it. Accordingly in the year 1579 he caused twenty infants to be taken from their parents in return for a compensation and brought up under the care of silent nurses in a remote spot in which no word should be spoken. After four years it was proved that as many of these unhappy children as were still alive were entirely dumb and possessed no trace of a predisposition for Islam. Later the children are said to have learned to speak with extraordinary difficulty as was to be expected.
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