450 years ago, a ruler made India great by transcending bigotry & misogyny

Remarkably mellow for a descendant of Genghis Khan & Tamerlane

Holy wars consumed most of the world in the 16th and 17th centuries. Across Europe, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox sects grimly butchered one another over abstruse theological disputes. In eastern Europe, Christians clashed bitterly with Muslim Turks and Tatars. Overseas, European invaders cited their faith to justify enslaving Africans and conquering American Indians. In Southwest and South Asia, the Shia, Sunni and Sufi vied for dominance within Islam while battling Zoroastrians, Sikhs and Hindus.

Religion is rarely the real cause of war. Properly manipulated, faith cleanses the conscience, enlisting avarice and bigotry in the service of the divine, thus empowering people to kill without compunction or compassion.

At the time, few people anywhere had the imagination or the decency to take a live-and-let-live attitude regarding religion.

Akbar the Great, however, eventually came around to that conclusion.

Akbar the Great fording a river astride a war elephant

Born in 1542, Akbar grew up in Kabul, the heir to the throne of the Mughal Empire, a Sunni Muslim dynasty occupying parts of present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan and northern India. His people claimed descent from Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, two of history’s most brutal conquerors. As a boy, he trained for hunting and warfare. He received tutoring, but he never learned to read; some scholars speculate that he may have been dyslexic. Despite his illiteracy, Akbar became a lifelong learner and sponsor of libraries, culture and the arts. The emperor had people read to him, and he enjoyed discussing philosophy and theology.

Akbar was not a man of peace. In the course of his reign, he trebled the size of his father’s empire, primarily through warfare. A strategic genius and a tactical innovator, he never lost a battle. Astride an armored elephant, the young emperor built a “gunpowder empire,” adapting European artillery and firearm technology to outgun his enemies.

Three gunpowder empires, including Akbar the Great’s realm

However, he avoided unnecessary killing. He disciplined or dismissed officers who committed or permitted atrocities. Whenever possible, the emperor used diplomacy to forge alliances with neighbors and absorb client states, often using marriages to cement those new ties.

Later in his reign, he shifted his focus from expanding his empire to consolidating it. He promoted trade within his realm and with neighboring states, and oversaw robust economic growth. Akbar reformed the government to make it more efficient. In the interest of fairness, the emperor adjusted agricultural taxes based on the productivity of the land (and thus the ability of residents to pay).

Akbar, who began life as a doctrinaire Sunni Muslim, eventually concluded that religious differences posed the greatest threat to the unity of his realm. He invited scholars to his court and made himself the arbiter of religious debates, first within Islam, and then among the various faiths of his realm, even including atheists. His rulings in these debates led to policy changes: the emperor abolished the tax on non-Muslims, introduced religious toleration and ended the Muslim monopoly on government offices.

A Mughal harem

Perhaps improbably for a man with multiple wives and a massive harem, Akbar elevated the status of women in his realm. He ended child marriage and imposed a minimum marriage age of 14 for girls. In Hindu areas, he spared widows from the duty of sati (ritual suicide) and permitted them to remarry.

Most controversially, in 1582 Akbar proclaimed a new faith, the Religion of God, a blend of Islam and Hinduism with dashes of Zorastrian, Sikh, Jain and Jesuit influence. He hoped that by incorporating the best elements of the major faiths in his realm and creating a common code of ethics, he could help his people transcend their tribal and religious differences and live together in peace and unity.

The Mughal Empire enjoyed a Golden Age during Akbar’s reign. His heirs continued some of his tolerant and multicultural practices, but they promptly dropped the Religion of God. Over time, the region reverted to today’s jumble of mutually hostile ethnic and religious factions, but occasionally wise leaders arise in South Asia who draw upon the emperor’s noble legacy of tolerance.

Akbar died of dysentery in 1605.

Akbar’s tomb in Uttar Pradesh

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History, politics, education, music, culture. Award-winning high school teacher, former principal. College instructor. Seahawks Diehard. Twitter: @brian_mrbmkz

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