Jesuits and Akbar

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The bustling coastal city of Goa suddenly filled with talks of the arrival of Mughal messengers to the Archbishops and the Provincial of Jesuits. In September 1579, the messengers handed over a letter from the Great Mughal, which read, “I am sending Abdullah, my ambassador, and Dominic Perez, with the request that you will send me two learned Fathers, and the books of Law, especially the Gospel, that I may know the law and its excellence. For I desire to know it. I beg therefore earnestly that they may come with these envoys, and bring the books of Law….let them come in perfect security, I take their defence on myself.” The Jesuits were overjoyed about this royal invitation, although sending volunteers for this remarkable trip was full of danger yet this was a glorious opportunity to spread the word of Jesus into the den of Islam in India. The three Jesuits, ’appointed to death’ was Father Rudolf Aquaviva, Father Anthony Monteserrat, and Father Henriquez.

After a three month long eventful journey the Jesuit party arrived at Fatehpur Sikri, the elegant capital of the richest Empire in the World, The Mughal Empire. No sooner the Jesuits arrived in the Mughal headquarter they were immediately taken to Akbar. The Emperor was sitting cross-legged on a throne covered with a velvet cushion fringed with gold upon a raised platform. The Emperor had graceful looks, he was broad shouldered, strongly built, wore a turban adorned with rare jewels. His robe was of gold, embroidered with leaves and flowers, a great brooch was on his breast, and he wore a dhoti instead of trouser. The Jesuits presented the Emperor an atlas of Goa which the Archbishop had sent; the Emperor received the gift warmly. Akbar received the newest men in the capital with warmth and hospitality; he changed his dress and put on a Portuguese dress to please his guests. On the 3rd of March 1580 the Jesuit fathers presented Akbar a copy of the Holy Bible, written in four languages, bound in seven volumes. The Emperor in the presence of all his nobles in Diwan-i-Am kissed the Bible and placed the Bible on its head as a mark of respect. Thereafter he asked the fathers to accompany him to his private chamber where he again opened the volumes and after careful scrutiny places the books into his private collection.

After few days of rest the Jesusits were summoned by Akbar to participate in a discussion, which kicked off Akbar’s introduction to Christianity. In the debates hosted by the Emperor himself there were scholars, and religious leaders from all prominent faiths, they debated, argued about many different aspects of religion. More often than not these discussions were mere contests to prove the superiority of one’s religion over the other. Sometimes the debate would turn into heated conversations; Akbar would caution the Jesuits that they have to careful about their argument, choice of words etc. Once in the midst of a passionate conversation the participants found an appalling way of finding the true religion, “let us put into test which Holy book is true, let a pyre be constructed, and kindled. Then let one of you carrying the Gospel, and one likewise of us, carrying the Syndagma ascend the burning pyre. The book which comes out safely together with its bearer shall be judged true.” Akbar approved this awful test, but the Jesuits refused to take part in this saying that it was not in their ethics to test the power of God.

Even though Akbar and the Jesuits relations were quite cordial and there was a signs of mutual affection yet the two were made of different material. On the day they meet, Akbar showered the Jesuits with gifts but the latter won’t receive gold, or anything other than bare necessities. Akbar while expressing his point of view over the approval of the test of religion on pyre came out clear that his real intention was to kill a certain religious preceptor, probably Shaikh Kutubuddin of Jaleswar whom he summarily disliked. Akbar tried to convince the Jesuit to accept the invitation so that Kutubuddin would be destroyed in the process. However after much deliberation the Jesuits would not agree saying that, “we cannot help you, for priests are forbidden not only to kill a man, but also to make any attempts to bring out a man’s execution even if there was an express permission from the King”!


Akbar many times invited the priests into his private room, and indulged long engaging conversation in one such occasion he expressed his desire that Christians would be allowed to live freely in his territory, and build their churches. This great liberty was not surely reserved for the Christians exclusively, since Akbar had extended the same courtesy to other religions as well. Father Rudolf could not hide his cherished desire and one day he clearly asked Akbar whether he could become Christian without stirring up bitter enemies or inviting huge turmoil. Akbar replied briefly, “These things are in the hands of God, who grants to those who ask plain paths from which they cannot stray. I myself have no desires. I reckon wives, children, and empires of no account. If there is no other way of my becoming Christian without rousing a tumult, I will pretend that I wish to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and will go to Goa to be baptised.” No doubt this statement by the Emperor greatly encouraged the Jesuits. On the occasion of Easter Sunday the Emperor paid a visit to the chapel that the Jesuits had arranged in the precincts of the palace. Akbar paid a visit to this chapel, before entering he took off his shoes, while inside he took off his turban as well, and prostrated before the Virgin Mary. Later the Emperor would bring his nobles and his sons to see the chapel, and was presented a picture of Virgin Mary which had been brought from Rome. Abul Fazl then a young man and who was given the charge to look after the welfare of the Jesuits visited the chapel quite often.

It was very friendly relation; the Jesuits were allowed to roam about freely in the palace. Akbar had told his guards to allow them free passage even to his private room. Whenever he took them in his private chamber he greeted them warmly, shook hands, and made them sit beside him. He would often send them royal dishes out of his table, and send them lavish gifts in pretext of alms. Akbar handed over his second son Murad to the Jesuits for education. The child was an excellent student, devoted in learning and humble. Akbar though illiterate regularly inquired from Murad what he learnt throughout the day, the boy was to recite him the lessons, and made all possible efforts to please his extraordinary father.

Akbar raised very interesting questions about Christianity, and some of his doubts were quite fascinating, one day he asked the priests what they mean when they say Christ sits on the right of God, how could they sit since they had no mortal body. The priests assured that by the phrase they only mean that Christ is equal to God in glory, honour and power. They further clarified that Christ had been given bigger responsibility, power and glory by God his father over any other creations in the Universe. On one occasion while marching towards his half brother Muhammad Hakim, in which campaign Father Monsserate had joined, he asked the latter why the priests choose to be celibate since it was not a divine command. The priest replied that they refrained from marriage to be indulged in other things in life, and being free from family, wife, kids they could pursue their life free from all desire! Although the Jesuits comforted Akbar saying that not all are needed to remain celibate because there are some positions where marriage is essential, for example for a King like him where it is necessary to have an offspring to carry the dynasty forward. Akbar sometimes posed tricky questions such as: if Christ is God then is it not foolish to be like him. The priest assured that they wanted to follow the human characters of Christ, his humility, unending love, his self inflicted poverty and above all his love towards creator. So basically as the priests said that they were in an act of imitating Christ like a sculptor or a painter who replicates Nature skill fully, but not without errors. The Emperor is said to have accepted that he liked the Christian Law but he could not accept the concept of three Gods, The God, Son and the Holy Spirit!

Akbar was specifically interested about the Last Judgement he inquired from the priests whether there was any hint in the scripture about its possible occurrence, and the signs which would precede the mega event. The Jesuits replied that there was no reference in the scriptures about the exact timing of the occurrence of Last Judgement but the basic thing about it was to be ready for the final day. The symbols or events preceding the Last Judgement the priests clarified, “Christ mentioned especially wars and rebellions, the fall of kingdoms and Nations, the invasion, devastation, and conquest of Nation by Nation and Kingdom by Kingdom, and these things we see happening very frequently in our time”. One of most outstanding feature in this debate is that throughout the discussions Akbar maintained an unusual level of tolerance and patience to the rude criticism of Islam by the priests. The Jesuits claimed that Akbar explicitly mentioned, “By God I am not the man to have my feelings outraged by these things. I am only seeking for the truth, and by Holy Spirit I conjure you to expound the truth to me and not to be afraid”. Assured by the Emperor the Jesuits were to bit too outspoken in their criticism of Islam that is noticeable in the commentary of Father Monserrate. Akbar’s association with the Jesuits and his tolerance towards Christianity led many to believe that the Emperor was turning away from Islam. In 1580 the Kazi of Jaunpur, Mullah Mohammad Yazdi issued a fatwa against the Lord of Hindusthan which made the matter worse for Akbar, for sometime the Emperor avoided the association of Jesuits but nevertheless he came to self again very soon.

Akbar according to the Jesuits continuously looked for the truth in religion, or the true religion. In the conclusion of a religious discussion the Emperor said, “I perceive that there are varying customs and beliefs of varying religious paths. For the teachings of Hindus, the Mussalmans, the Jews and the Christians are different. But the followers of each religion regard the institutions of their religion as better than those of the other. Not only so, but they strive to convert the rest to their own way of belief. If they refused to convert they not only despise him, but also regard them for this very reason as their enemies. And this causes me to feel many serious doubts and scruples. Wherefore I desire that on the appointed days the books of all religious laws be brought forward and that the doctors meet together and hold discussions, so that I may hear them, and each one may determine which is the truest and the mightiest religion.” The discussions as said before were held quite regularly but gradually the participants lost interest in it. Occasionally in the discussions the royal Princes would join accompanied by other nobles. However the Jesuits eventually discovered that Akbar wished to form a new religion with ideas from all different religion.

Akbar another coveted plan in his mind and that was to send an embassy to the King of Spain, Phillip II. The Emperor chose Father Montessor for the purpose accompanied by Sayid Muzaffar. It is difficult to say about the real intention of this particular mission, maybe it was Akbar’s wish to form a league against the Turks with the support of the Spanish King. Akbar’s long letter to Phillip is a tedious reading, decorated with flattery and flowery languages like an exquisitely embroidered Mughal dress, yet the ending is interesting, “Sayid Muzaffar who is endowed with many excellent qualities, loyal, and distinguished by our special favour will orally communicate to you certain matters and may be trusted. Please always keep open the portals of communication.” The embassy although started from Fatehpur in August 1581, reached Goa in the spring of 1582, and never went to Spain, Akbar’s Spanish ambition remained buried until his son Jahangir took afresh.

The Jesuits were also disheartened to see the Emperor’s favour to the Hindu’s; he had banned the sale of buffalo flesh. The Emperor had built a wooden platform and placed it on the highest point of the palace from where he watched the rising sun in the form of worship. The Jesuits had been convinced that the Emperor would not turn Christian. Monserrate summed up why Akbar never became Christian, he wrote in Latin, “Nam si opus hoc a Deo fuisset, nullis incommodis, aut obstaculis, inpediri non potuisset. At vero, quia non erat a Deo, per seipsum, etiam renitente Rege, concidit et dissolutum est.” It means Akbar’s invitation for the Jesuit mission was never the work of God if that had been the case nothing could have prevented its success. Perhaps they had failed to gaze the nature of Akbar, the Emperor was like a tree sucking in nutrition from the best minds of his Empire and developing his own independent idea. As was his creative nature he was attracted to the best ideas and philosophies and practiced that without fearing any consequence perhaps testing the patience of the fundamentalists. The mistake that Akbar could turn Christian probably came from the Emperor’s zeal and reverence towards Virgin Mary and Christ. Akbar impressed the Jesuits by paying a visit to their makeshift holy place, the little chapel they had constructed, yet from there the long road towards Christianity was never probably cherished by the Emperor, he was happy with what he was.

Father Rudolf once asked Abul Fazl why the Emperor wanted to keep them in the palace if he did not want to become Christian, the only satisfactory reply he got was that Akbar liked the company of learned men! After spending a long time in the court the Jesuits clearly understood that Akbar was not a “Christian material” the kind they were looking for, he was not only an independent sovereign but also an incredibly independent man. The Emperor was interested in all sorts of affairs, and obligations, he had many forms. Akbar did not eat meat from Saturday evening till Sunday, and on many important occasions he does not allow animal slaughter making it difficult for the Jesuits to obtain meat on Sundays. At one point Father Rudolf accepts, “I really cannot understand him”! There was a big political issue opening up as well which made the Jesuits rethink about their mission. The Imperial army had developed frictions with the Portuguese soldiers in Daman and Diu. Akbar was regularly supplying arms and ammunitions to fight the Portuguese establishments. He was even sending spies disguised as ambassadors to take note of Portuguese developments, even what kind of goods or merchandise landed from Portuguese ships!

Although Akbar did not completely succeed in winning over the Portuguese yet during the love and hate relationship in the political front the Jesuits perceived to be caught up in the turmoil, “while all this was going on the King very frequently asked the priests who was the Governor of Diu, though at that time they had no idea why he was asking them this…they had concrete proof that all Jallaluddin professions of friendship for our master the King of Spain were a hypocritical and malicious pretence.” They were to take a leave but Akbar would not allow, eventually he had to bid them goodbye one by one, Father Montessor was the first to leave for the Spanish mission which never turned up, Father Rudolf took leave as well and arrived in Goa but unfortunately he was killed in July 1583 by an unruly mob. Father Monserrate was at Goa when Rudolf was killed, but apparently was not present at the martyrdom. Eventually Monserrate was sent on a mission to Ethiopia, but was wrecked at Dofar in Arabia and was captured by the Turks there and taken to Eynam and afterwards to Sanan where he was imprisoned for over six years. He finished his Commentary (which is the source of this write-up) there in January 1591. He was ransomed and returned to Goa in 1596. He was afterwards posted to Salsette and died there in 1600.

So the first mission to the Mughal Emperor did not succeed from the conversion point of view, but it was certainly not the last there other missions as well, even when Akbar was on his death-bed in 1605! What fruitful came out of this mission is surely questionable, but from historical point of view the Jesuit mission has immense importance. For it presented a wonderful sight into the world of Akbar, it pointed out everything about Akbar without biasness, his ambitions, glory, scandals all every bit of it. The Commentary of Montessor is a delightful reading it is bereft of flattery and the boring write-up of Abul Fazl. It is a wonderful story of an inquisitive and inventive Emperor who even designed his shoes! From that perspective it presents a rare outlook into the individualistic perception of God, it surpasses the strict bindings of scriptures and offers fresh air of religious tolerance quite unknown and unpractised during which the Emperor lived, although in his lifetime Akbar relentlessly pursued the truth, he most tolerantly respected the truth in all religions, in all faiths and that needed no conversion!

Sumit Soren is the founder of Livelystories. Basically an Agricultural Engineer, Sumit has interest in varied topics. He regularly writes on tribal history, internet and science related topics.

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