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Jesuits at the Mughal court
Fr. John Felix Raj. S.J.


Mughal Empire

Between Vasco da Gama's arrival in Calicut in May 1498 and his death in Cochin at Christmas 1524, Asia witnessed the emergence of the last great Muslim empires. In 1501 Shah Isma'il founded the Safavid dynasty in Iran, which was to remain in power until the early 18th century. The Ottomans, a Turkish dynasty named after its founder, Osman, had conquered Cairo in 1517 and were advancing through the Red sea with a plan of becoming a power in the western Indian Ocean. Finally, there was the Mughal Empire which reigned in northern India from 1526 through 1858. Babur had pushed ahead with his conquest of Hindustan, taking the throne of Delhi and becoming the first emperor of this newly formed state in 1526. All three empires posed new challenges to the Portuguese, who established their capital in Goa in 1510.

The Portuguese were little used to dealing with political powers in the continent. They maintained a string of settlement that stretched as far as Gujarat. Their survival in southern Asia depended on a successful relationship with the Mughals, which was expressed in a range of fields that included commerce, politics, religion, culture and the arts. The religious relationship was indelibly marked by the Jesuit's influence at the courts of Akbar and Jahangir (1605-27), of course, not neglecting the localized presence and work of the Augustinians and the Discalced Carmelites. The cultural and artistic relationship was based on the multiple influences that affected objects, ideas, tastes and styles.

Babur's grandson, Jalaluddin Muhammed Akbar, who occupied the throne from 1556 to 1605, consolidated Mughal rule over the whole of northern India, taking in Sind, Kashmir, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Orissa and Bengal, forming a partnership with the Hindu Rajputs to govern through a centralised bureaucracy with officers of state and provincial authorities under his personal direction. The empire of Akbar stretched from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal. Akbar himself was a capable (although illiterate), shrewd, and conciliating administrator, who managed to gain the cooperation of the peoples and their rulers in the regions he conquered. He abolished the poll tax that had customarily been levied on non-Muslims.

During the middle of his reign, Akbar's quest for Truth and Knowledge accelerated. He got the Holy Text of Mahabharata translated from Sanskrit to Persian. He took expressed interest in the religious beliefs of his subjects, especially that of the Muslims and Hindus. He enforced many reforms, including the edict of complete tolerance for all religions. From the mid 1570s, he had instituted weekly religious discussions in a specially built structure called the Ibadatkhanch, house of worship. More open-minded than most contemporaries, he invited Islamic, Hindu, Christian, Jain and Zoroastrian scholars to religious discussions. His broad fascination with religions culminated in 1582, in the establishment of the Din-Ilahi, a syncretistic cult incorporating Islamic, Hindu and Christian beliefs.

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Jesuit Mission to India

The Indian mission of the Jesuits lies at the very origin of their Order. It is to India that Ignatius of Loyola, the Founder of the Society of Jesus, sent his greatest son, Francis Xavier, and to him and his collaborators, that he gave that inspiration and those directives, which became the basis of the Jesuit mission and method. India has also been the birthplace of missionary theories and the testing ground of missionary policies.

Francis Xavier was the first Jesuit to set foot on Indian soil on May 6, 1542. That day, he entered Goa in the entourage of the new governor, Martin Affonso de Sousa, with whom he had sailed from Lisbon. They were given a rousing welcome, and the natural beauty of the Mandovi riverside, together with the imposing buildings, could not but move Xavier. He took charge of the College of St. Paul in Goa started in 1541 by a group of Portuguese. This college was the first educational institution in India which became later the cornerstone of wide-spread Jesuit mission in education and in other fields.

Xavier was a zealous “missionary on the move”. He constantly travelled along the Fishery Coast visiting parava villages, then west into Marava country, then to Mylapore (present-day Chennai). He sailed to Malacca and Japan in 1549 where he spent two and a half years. In April 1552 he set sail to China via Malacca from Goa, never to return alive. He died at Sancian, a small island facing China, on December 2 of the same year. Wherever he went, he plunged himself into charitable and pastoral work preaching the message of God’s love to people. At the time of his death there were 64 Jesuits in India. He worked in India for ten years, 1542 to 1552, called the Xaverian decade.

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Jesuits at the Mughal Court

Akbar, the 3rd great Mughal ruler was a religious man, who, in the words of his son, “never for a moment forgot God”. Akbar got his first insight into the Christian character and religion from the actions of two Jesuits – Frs. Antony Vaz and Peter Dias, who had reached Bengal in 1576 at the request of the Bishop of Cochin. These Jesuits had severely rebuked some Portuguese merchants who had defrauded the Mughal treasury by not paying taxes. They had asked them to restitute, otherwise there would be no forgiveness for them. Akbar was greatly impressed by this news and curious about the religion, which insisted so much on honest dealings. Soon he sent for Fr. Julian Pereira, Vicar-General of Bengal in 1576, who in turn suggested that he should invite the Jesuits to his court.

In September 1579, Akbar’s ambassador arrived at Goa with a letter, asking for two learned priests to be sent to Akbar’s court. To quote Akbar’s letter: "... I am sending Abdullah, my ambassador, and Dominic Perez (an Armenian Christian, the interpreter) 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…" He wanted them to provide him and his Muslim and Hindu courtiers with first-hand knowledge about Christian doctrines (which, according to him, consisted of the message of the Tora and the Gospel).

The invitation elicited great hopes among the Goan Jesuits. The Provincial, Fr. Rui Viccente chose three Jesuits for the project. They were Fr. Rudolf Acquaviva (who later suffered martyrdom at Goa and was declared blessed) who led the mission, Fr. Antony Monserrate and the Persian born Br. Francis Henriques as his companions. They reached Fatehpur Sikri some 110 miles south of Delhi, via Surat and Gwalior on February 28, 1580 and were received with extraordinary warmth and affection by the emperor, whose attachment continued throughout the three years of the duration of the mission. Since Akbar did not become a Christian and appeared to be doubtful as to all forms of faith, unwilling to commit himself, the Jesuits thought they might, as well, spend their time elsewhere. In 1582, Francis Henriques and Monserrate returned back leaving behind Rudolf who wanted to pursue the efforts for some more time. But in 1583, Rudolf too returned to Goa as nothing positive happened, thus ending the first Jesuit Mission to the great Mughal Empire.

The one clear objective of the Jesuits was to convert the emperor. Throughout the three years of acquaintance, Akbar showed sincere friendliness with them, but remained uncommitted. Their uncompromising advocacy for the Christian faith, occasionally perceived by the audience as aggressive, was met by the firm commitment of the Muslim scholars to Islam. The interest that Akbar showed in Christianity, giving rise to Jesuit hopes that they could be converted, turned out to be nothing more than a reflection of the religious eclecticism of the emperor who had hesitation in using Christian imagery as propaganda tool. The eclectic and rationalist politician, Akbar, who was also mystic, did not embrace Christianity. The announcement of Din-Ilahi also dashed the Jesuit hopes of Akbar becoming a Christian. To the Jesuits, he was first an encouragement, and then became an enigma, and finally, a bitter disappointment.

Fr. Anthony Monserrate is said to be the first Jesuit geographer in India. When the team left Goa for the Mughal mission, he was asked to keep a diary of all events, which he did faithfully, adding greatly to its value by his geographical and astronomical observations. On his journey from Surat to Fatehpur Sikri in 1580, he mad a survey and took observations for latitude. When Akbar marched to Kabul in 1581 against his half-brother Mirza Muhammed Hakim, he took Fr. Monserrate along for continuing the tuition of his second son Murad. Akbar encouraged Fr. Monserrate to take observations en route. He, however, showed no interest in the date collected by Fr. Monserrate who kept it with himself even when he returned to Goa. Later in 1804, Francis Wilford of Bengal Engineers made use of Fr. Monserrate’s manuscripts to prepare a valuable map of the countries west of Delhi.

The first Jesuit Mission, however, cannot be considered as a total failure. The Jesuit presence did help to bring about a better understanding and dialogue between Islam and Christianity. Art, literature, and history, in India as well as in Europe, benefited by the presence of Jesuit missionaries at Akbar's court. The Jesuits at the Mughal court did end up writing an extremely important chapter in the history of inter-religious dialogue in India. The opening of a religious dialogue was precisely what the circumstances thrust upon them there. The friendship that came into existence outlived the first missionaries. This first contact created a pattern of normal relationships between the learned of different religious convictions. Subsequent Jesuit missionaries were similarly well received by the Mughal court.

In 1591, a second mission consisting of Fr. Edward Leitao, Fr. Christopher de Vega and Bro. Stephen Riberio arrived at Lahore on Akbar’s invitation. But it lasted less than a year. The Jesuits soon felt that they were engaged in a futile task and feared that Akbar was manipulating them for his own ends.

Once again after a gap of 13 years, Akbar’s earnest efforts to obtain a replacement were rewarded. In May 1595, Fr. Jerome Xavier (grand nephew of Francis Xavier) accompanied by Fr. Manuel Pinheiro and Bro. Bento de Goes arrived in Lahore on a third mission. This time Akbar gave them permission to open a school and to build churches at Agra and Lahore. However, the king avoided the subject of religion with the Fathers on the pretext that the Jesuits needed to learn Persian before embarking on religious discussions. The third mission had more of an impact on both Mughals and Portuguese. Akbar commissioned Fr. Xavier to translate the Life of Christ into Persian as the Dastan-i-Masih. This was completed in 1602.

The Jesuits enjoyed the patronage of Akbar and his son Jahangir; but under Shah Jehan and Aurangzeb this disappeared. Though there were no Christian congregations of importance in Moghul India, there were a number of individuals who wielded considerable influences in Court and elsewhere.

Akbar also married an Armenian Christian, Mariam Zamani Begum. Mariam’s sister, Lady Juliana was the doctor of the royal harem. Juliana was given in marriage to Prince Jean Philipe de Bourbon of Navarre of the royal house of France. It is said that Juliana built the first Church at Agra. Akbar had an adopted son, Mirza-Zul-Qarnain (Zulcarnen), first son of Mirza Iscandar an Armenian who was a cavalier at Akbar’s court. Mirza-Zul-Qarnain was the founder of the Jesuit College at Agra.

He was brought up in the palace Queen Mariam, and grew up as the brother and playmate of Jahangir and Shah Jehan. His rise was fast. He was the Governor of Sambar, Mogor, Babrich (Oudh), Lahore and Bengal. Both Jahangir and Shah Jehan had affection for him, appreciated his administrative ability and respected his staunch faith and virtuous life. He was a genuine Christian and was in very good relations with Jesuits Fathers. He built a Church in Mogor and promoted Christianity. He always helped the Jesuits by donating funds. He gave them a large sum of money to purchase a land in Salsette(Mumbai), to the College in Agra and to establish a mission in Tibet.

He freed them when they were imprisoned. On all solemn feats of the year, he would send to the Jesuits large sums of money to be distributed as alms among the poor Christians. He won the admiration of the Jesuits Fathers, and they have left glowing accounts of him. One recod refers to him as the “Father of Mogor Christians” and the “Pillar of Christianity in India”. He is also referred to as an Apostle, a second St. Paul.


The author is Vice Principal, St. Xavier’s College, Director, Goethals Research Society, Kolkata.

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