Fatehpur Sikri is the now ruined Mughal capital built by the emperor Akbar outside Agra at the end of the sixteenth century. In the center of the palace that lies at the center of the city stands the diwan-i-khas, or Hall of Private Audience. Standing alone at the center of that room is a single, elaborately carved pillar.
On top of this pillar rests a round platform from which four walkways branch out to the corners of the building. There, four smaller platforms hang suspended. Though academics continue to argue about the exact purpose of this strange and intriguing structure, most agree that it formed some sort of throne for the emperor. Here, sitting on silken cushions raised on the central platform, so proclaiming his position as the axis mundi, the central pillar of the Mughal Empire, Akbar would listen carefully as philosophers, mystics, and holy men of different faiths knelt at the ends of the different walkways debating the merits of their different conceptions of metaphysics.
Muslim rulers are not usually thought of in the West as standard-bearers of freedom of thought; but Akbar for one was obsessed with exploring the central issues of spiritual truth, and doing so with as open and inquiring a mind as possible. To accomplish this ambition, he turned his new city of Fatehpur Sikri into a philosophical laboratory for his spiritual inquiries.
Holy men from all of India’s different religions were invited to the city to make the case for their particular understanding of the metaphysical. In this way Akbar set up the earliest known multireligious discussion group, where representatives of Muslims (Sunni and Shia as well as Sufi), Hindus (both Shaivite and Vaishnavite), Christians, Jains, Jews, and Zoroastrian Parsees came together to discuss where and why they differed, and how they could live together. There was also a party of atheists represented in the discussion: the skeptical Charvaka school, dating back to the sixth century BC, which denied the existence of any transcendental deity.
It was like a more ambitious version of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Platonic Academy in Florence a century earlier, and astonished many more orthodox Muslim contemporaries such as the Sheikh Nur al-Haqq: “Learned men from Khorasan and Iraq and Transoxiania and India, both doctors and theologians, Sh’ia and Sunnis, Christians, philosophers and Brahmins all assembled together at the sublime court,” wrote the Sheikh.
Here they discussed the rational and traditional methods of discourse, travel, and histories as well as each other’s prophecies. They widened the circle of debate and each attempted to prove his own claim and desired the propagation of his school. Outstanding thinkers appeared…. The lofty Lord [Akbar] declared before the people: “Oh learned ones! Our purpose is to seek the truth….”
It is an almost unquestioned commonplace these days that the West is the home of ideas of religious freedom, of free intellectual and theological inquiry, and above all of democracy: when George Bush talks of bringing freedom and democracy to the …