Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dharma: Babur’s Conquest for Self

24 April 2011
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Throughout his conquest across the Indian sub-continent, Zahir ud-din Muhammad Babur (1483-1531) found an inherent entitlement to rule. Reflecting in his memoir, The Baburnama,1 Babur alludes to his dharma by defining his role as the leader of Mughal empire. “Since we had always had in mind to take Hindustan, we regarded as our own territory the several areas [...] which had long been in the hands of the Turk,” writes Babur, “We were determined to gain control ourselves - be it by force or peaceful means” (Thackston 271). Here, Babur’s dharma was to acquire territory preemptively understood as his. Dharma, however, would come in conflict with  kama - a reality Babur uniquely accounts in his memoir. The Baburnama provides an intimate portrait of a leader contemplating on his pleasures and fears, in pursuit of dharma. “I do not intend by what I have written to compliment myself,” Babur describes, “I have simply set down exactly what happened” (Thackston xviii). Babur’s stated intentions modestly match the efforts that he made to both justify and ruminate his path in life, in writing a memoir.
Babur’s belief of his “entitlement” to rule sources from lineage, one that merges the Mughals and the Khans. His maternal side had ties to the Mughals, who were nomads that preferred not to settle. This lifestyle of constant relocation made the Mughals exemplary on the battlefield. Babur’s paternal side, on the other had, came from the Timurid background - one which settled into agricultural practices. Both the Timurid and Mughal ancestry would come to influence Babur’s style of leadership. As a conqueror, his thirst for the empire’s expansion can be undoubtedly traced to the Mughal culture. “I had craved Hindustan” (Thackston 329) illustrates the desire for territorial expansion. Babur’s distinguishing appreciation for gardens reveals his dual regard for civilisation, perhaps a product of his Tumurid side. Writing extensively on each fruit and flower found in Hindustan, Babur notes: “When the mango is good it is really good [...] In fact, the mango is the best fruit in Hindustan. The tree is elegantly tall, but the trunk of the tree is ugly and ill shaped” (Thackston 344). The precarious detail in describing the region’s fruits suggest an attachment to agriculture, despite the nomadic aspects of his military expeditions.
The Baburnama offers a rare glimpse into the personal thoughts of a pre-modern leader. Although Babur had optimistic prospects, such as his determination to rule Hindustan, he additionally questioned his ability to lead. In one particular instance, Babur reconsiders his army’s loyalty as they endured meager conditions in Agra. The army came to a disappointment after finding that all the villages had been already looted, with the fields previously harvested. It was also an unusually hot year, causing many to fall ill, if not die. The failure of entering the region brought the army to doubt Babur’s decision-making abilities. “I expected that if I went into fire or water and emerged, they would come in with me and emerge along with me at my side wherever I went,” lamented Babur, “not that they would speak out in opposition of my purpose” (Thackston 357). With recognition of his failure, Babur pleaded his men to endure the temporary hardships: “For some years we have struggled, experienced difficulties, traversed long distances, led the army, and cast ourselves and our soldiers into the dangers of war [...] What now compels us to throw away for nor reason at all the realms we have taken at such cost?” (Thackston 358).
One could only assume that a conqueror waging war fears their own death, to some degree. Babur recounts this fear various times, including a moment in hiding from capture: “I felt that I could endure no more. I rose and went to a corner of the orchard. I thought to myself that whether one lived to a hundred of a thousand, in the end one had to die” (Thackston 137). Babur ponders the thought that death was inevitable in one’s life, yet fear would ensue. Experiences close to death, however, renewed a perspective on the value of life. After an attempt to food poison Babur, the emperor remarks: “Thank goodness now everything is all right. I never knew how precious life was” (Thackston 374). This makes reference to a poem he wrote earlier in his life , where he mentions: “From fear and hardship we found release - new life, a new world we found” (Thackston 111). The component of fear admits a humanistic tone to The Baburnama by beginning to illustrate the significance of an indefinite life.
Throughout his memoir, Babur recognized that he over-indulged in wine - reintroducing the kama path of life. “The next morning, at a wine party in this same garden, we drank until night, and had a morning draught,” Babur recalls, “While touring the harvest my companions who were inclined to wine began to agitate for some. [...] We sat down under the colorful trees and drank. The party continued there until late that night” (Thackston 299). Babur did not practice Sharia law, but understood that his kama was limiting his dharma. Reputation and legacy become central, driving Babur to make a pledge for temperance. In a poem, he writes: “If I die with good repute, it is well. I must have a good name, for the body belongs to death” (Thackston 384). Dharma here concerns the “good name” of Babur and excessive indulgence in kama may deplete that name.
Works Cited:
  1. The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor. Trans. Wheeler M. Thackston. New York: Modern Library, 2002.

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