Dara Shikoh and the Upaniṣads
Among the works comprising Vedic literature, the Upaniṣads were the first to attract the attention of the western scholars and their wide and well-deserved praise. Several of these works were translated into Persian in Moghul times. Dara Shikoh (1615-1659 CE), the eldest son and the legitimate heir of Emperor Shah Jahan (1592-1666 CE) and Mumtaz Mahal was attracted by the Upaniṣads and had them translated in Persian language.
Dara devoted much effort towards finding a common mystical language between Islam and Hinduism. His spiritual quest for monotheistic strands in Hindu philosophy was a continuous process. This led him to study the Upanishads, and with the help of some scholars of Benaras he translated 50 (52?) Upaniṣads from Sanskrit to Persian, so it could be read by Muslim scholars. His translations is often called Sirr-e-Akbar (The Greatest Mystery, completed in 1657), where he states boldly, in the Introduction, his speculative hypothesis that the work referred to in the Holy Quran as the Kitab al-maknun or the hidden book, is none other than the Upaniṣads. His most famous work, Majma-ul-Bahrain (The Confluence of the Two Seas), was also devoted to a revelation of the mystical and pluralistic affinities between Sufic and Vedantic speculation. (- Wiki)
The aim behind the translation of these Hindu religious works was to search common elements in Hinduism and Islam and he draws remarkable parallels between the concepts described in the Holy Quran and the Upanishads with respect to unity of God. The comparison led him to reach on the conclusion that the Quran and the Upaniṣads represented two different facts of God. In the introduction of this book he states with full boldness his speculative hypothesis that the work referred to in the Quran as the “Kitab-al-Maknum” or the hidden book, is none other than the Upaniṣads. He was of the firm opinion that the ‘Great Secret’ of the Upanishads is the monotheistic message, which is identical to that on which the Quran is based.
This annoyed the orthodox mullas who issued a fatwa (decree) against him. These statements were exploited by his political opponents also and provided them an excuse to execute him with utmost cruelty in 1659, by his sectarian brother Aurangzeb, who seized the Moghul throne. Though his search for the truth cost him his life, his was a pioneering effort at religious synthesis or syncretism.
Dara was a Sanskrit Scholar. He first translated the Iśavāsyopaniṣad into Persian. He was a seeker of Truth, and in his search for the Truth, studied the Quran, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Vedas with the help of some pundits. As a result of his search, he made the following remarks, ‘After gradual research, I have come to the conclusion that long before all heavenly books like the Quran, the Old Testament and the New Testament etc., God had revealed to the Hindus, through the ṛṣis of yore, of whom Brahmā was the Chief, his four Books of Knowledge, the Ṛgveda, the Yajurveda, the Sāmaveda and the Atharvaveda.’ ‘A fortunate person, who relinquishing the selfishness of his polluted mind, for the sake of God, being free from bias, will study my translation of the Īśopaniṣad, the Word of God, will attain salvation and be free from death, fear and misery.’
Subsequently from Persian language, they were translated into Latin about the beginning of the 19th century. It was through this Latin translation that they came to be known for the first time in Europe. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 -1860 CE), the German philosopher, who can be termed one of the greatest European thinkers during his time, admired them through these translations.
The Upaniṣads were translated from Sanskrit into Persian by, or it may be, for Dara Shukoh, the eldest son of Shah Jehan, an enlightened prince, who openly professed liberal religious tenets of the great Emperor Akbar, and even wrote a book intended to reconcile the religious doctrines of Hindus and Mohemmedans. He seems to have heard of the Upaniṣads during his stay in Kashmir in 1640. Afterwards he invited several pundits from Benaras to Delhi, who were to assist him in the work of translation. The translation was finished by 1657. Three years after the accomplishment of the work, in 1659, the prince was put to death by his brother Aurangzib, in reality, no doubt, because he was the eldest son and legitimate successor of Shah Jehan, but under the pretext that he was an infidel, and dangerous to the established religion of the empire.’
However, neither any translation under Akber’s reign (1556-1586 CE), nor the translations of Dara Shikoh attracted the attention of the European scholars until the year 1775 CE. In that year, Anquetil Duperron, the famous traveler and discoverer of the Zend Avesta, received one MS. of the Persian translation of the Upaniṣads, sent to him by M. Gentil, the French resident at the court of Shuja-ud-daula, and brought to France by M. Bernier. After receiving another MS. Anquetil Duperron, collated the two, and translated the Persian translation into French (not published), and into Latin. The Latin translation was published in 1801 and 1802 CE.
Sir William Jones (1746-94), who founded the Asiatic Society in Calcutta in 1784, felt that “one correct version of any celebrated Hindu book would be of greater value than all the dissertations or essays that could be composed on the same subject.”
(Dr. Amartya Sen notes in his The Argumentative Indian that it was Dara Shikoh’s translation of Upanishads that attracted Sir William Jones, the great scholar of indic literature, to Upanishads, who read them for the first time in a Persian translation by Dara Shikoh.)
German scholars such as Friedrich Von Schelling (1775-1854), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and Paul Deussen (1854-1919) were fascinated by the Upanishads. Fredrick Schelling’s admiration for the ‘Oupnekhats‘ led him to ask Max Mueller to translate them, for he ardently felt that the Upanishads deserved wide circulation in Germany, and every member of the German intelligentsia need to know of them.
Arthur Schopenhauer was among the greatest admirers of the Upanishads in the west. His magnum opus “The World as Will and Idea” strongly reflects the power influence of the Upaniṣads on him. He felt that no other thought of humanity ever came near the Upaniṣads in the depth of their wisdom and in the service, it can provide humankind. Speaking of the wisdom of the ancient sages of India as contained in the Upaniṣads, the German philosopher said that “it has been the solace of my life, it will be the solace of my death.”