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     Volume 5 Issue 108 | August 18, 2006 |

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In Retrospect

An Emperor's Letter to His Teacher

Azizul Jalil

Imagine a poor teacher in his old age, seeking a reward from his former student. It would be quite natural for him to expect that the student will try to repay the debt of gratitude for his teachings. That was what Mullah Sahe had in mind when he wrote to Aurangzeb, one of the Great Mogul Emperors, who came to the throne in Delhi in 1658 after cruelly killing his brothers. Aurangzeb had an unflattering reputation. But unlike his forefathers, who indulged in great luxury and ceremonies, he worked hard and lived a very simple and austere life. He believed that a child well-educated and instructed owes as much to his master as to his father. He took the time to personally reply to his teacher, but it was a scathing and sarcastic letter. The letter is included in 'The World's Great Letters' edited by M. Lincoln Schuster.

In the letter, Aurangzeb expressed his unhappiness with the teacher. He had many complaints. It is not that he was accusing his teacher for not trying hard, but for teaching subjects, which were not relevant to the grooming of a young prince to be a future emperor. Aurangzeb knew about Aristotle's tutoring of Alexander and believed that it was of great benefit to the world conqueror. He told Mullah Sahe that had he received similar education, he would have been obliged to reward his teacher generously. He asked pointedly whether Mullah Sahe could reasonably expect that the emperor would make him one of his chief Omrahs of the court.

Aurangzeb was taught that the king of Hindustan was the greatest king in the world, compared to whom the kings in Europe and other parts of Asia were petty Rajas. The kings of Persia, Uzbek and China trembled at the name of the kings of Hindustan. Instead of such flattery, Mullah Sahe should have given him a good perspective of the states of the world and their geography, customs, religions, and governments. Aurangzeb was informed about his fore fathers but not the history of their life, how they made such great conquests and managed a vast empire.

He made two acute observations in the letter concerning the medium of instruction and the importance of a relevant curriculum. He was taught Arabic, which Aurangzeb found very difficult to master. The grammar was not easy to follow and in any case he thought that learning the languages of the neighbours would have been of more practical value. Aurangzeb was a devout Muslim, who used to copy the Koran in his own hand. It is, therefore, quite surprising that he questioned whether so much time should have been spent in mastering Arabic. He asked, “The law, prayers, and sciences, may they not as well be learned in our mother tongue as in Arabic?”

Mullah Sahe had advised Shah Jahan, Aurnagzeb's father that he would teach philosophy to the young prince. He did this with a great deal of enthusiasm. Aurangzeb did not appreciate the effort at all-in fact he was amused. He sarcastically told his tutor that he remembered very well that Mullah Sahe had entertained him for many years with airy questions of things that afford no satisfaction at all to the mind and are of no use in humane society. These were empty notions and mere fancies, which were very hard to understand and very easy to forget. Instead, he would have been grateful if his teacher had taught him that philosophy, which would have accustomed him to be satisfied only with solid reasons. His tutor should have instilled in the mind of the young prince excellent precepts and doctrines, 'which raise the soul above the assaults of fortune, and permit her not to be lifted up by prosperity nor debased by adversity."

Aurangzeb's main grievance against Mullah Sahe was that the latter did not anticipate his student's need to be trained for the future responsibilities of state and the struggles and wars that a king inevitably confronts. Aurangzeb believed that future rulers ought to be taught the reciprocal duties of a sovereign to his subjects and those of subjects to their sovereigns. He asked, “Ought not you to have considered that one day I should be obliged with the sword to dispute my life and my crown with my brothers? Have you ever taken care to make me learn what it is to besiege a town, or set an army in array? For these things I am obliged to others, not at all to you.”

From the above, it is clear that the emperor was not inclined at all to assist his former teacher. One might consider such conduct to be very unkind. However, Aurangzeb felt no obligation to Mullah Sahe for the education that he received. His parting words were, “Go, and return to the village whence you are come, and let nobody know who you are or what has become of you.” What subsequently happened to the emperor's boyhood tutor is not known. According to Lincoln Schuster, he is unknown to history except as the recipient of the letter from his illustrious pupil.

Azizul Jalil writes from Washington.

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