Written and presented by Sahil M Bansal. Sahil works as a “Cloud Computing Guy” or, perhaps when he’s on his second glass of wine, he may describe his day job as “trying to make the internet a slightly better place”. If he’s not found talking to Claude, our resident Albino alligator at Cal Academy, you’ll likely find him spending his weekends trying to bring more AR/VR into Sci Comm world. Talk to him about the two times he’s been to Brazil – once intentionally, and once a little bit unintentionally – but make sure you have the whole evening to digest that insane story
“But in spite of feeling possibly like the odd person out in the emperor’s court, Birbal out shown everybody else in Emperor Akbar’s court through his wit, through his intellect, through the sheer power of his mind and his soul.”
In this episode, Odd Salon Fellow Sahil M Bansal explores a story on the line between historical fact and folklore, and the exceptional 16th century relationship between India’s Mughal Emperor Akbar, and his witty advisor, Birbal.
Emperor Akbar ascended the throne at the young age of 14, after the tragic loss of his father. Ruling over a vast territory, Akbar’s policies of religious and cultural tolerance led to him being known as “Akbar the Great” – but in popular culture, it is his relationship with his intelligent, witty, and loyal courtier Raja Birbal that is most famous, and has come down through the centuries in the form of stories and lessons.
Let me take you back in history, more than 450 years ago. Imagine you are a 13 year old teenager who has tragically lost his father. Imagine then being asked to take over the reigns of one of the largest kingdoms on the planet spanning over a hundred million people who do not speak the same language, who do not follow the same religion as you. And you have to manage that with no formal education, little military training, and with everyone around you trying to plot against you. Easy peasy. That’s what teenagers did back then?
Hi, my name is Sahil M. Bansal and today I will tell you more about this time in history from the 16th century about this teenage king dealing with odds stacked against him, and how he came across a sharp, intelligent, witty, and loyal courtier in his kingdom who helped him lead his kingdom to prosperity.
Our story begins in the year 1582: the third generation emperor of a mighty Mughal kingdom who has expanded his territories stretching over a land area approximately half the size of continental US, all the way from Afghanistan to present day Bangladesh spanning through Northern and Central India, a land area that covers well over a hundred million people… in the 16th century! He came from the Mughal Dynasty, which was a Muslim ruling dynasty. They spoke mostly Turkic languages. They did not speak the same languages as the Indian subcontinent. With all these things in mind, how does this emperor keep his kingdom unified?
How do you manage a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious kingdom when you yourself are an outsider? How do you rule over a predominantly Hindu population as an Islamic ruler? How does your kingdom not dissipate into smaller factions fighting against one another?
These are some of the questions that plague the mind of a teenager, an early twenty-something king, Emperor Akbar. And then he comes across an idea that at that point of time was rarely, if ever, tried before in a kingdom of that magnitude.
“We will rule with tolerance. We will respect every faith. We will not punish anyone if they worship a different God, we will celebrate their festivals with them. This will be a new religion built on tolerance that respects the diversity of our great kingdom, and that is how we make everyone’s lives better. We will call this new religion Din-i-ilahi, or “God’s Religion”, no matter what “God” means to you. Will you join me in practicing this new religion?” said Emperor Akbar, probably.
Now remember we are talking about the 1500s. That statement coming from a political leader would be impressive in 2022, let alone 1582. There was probably stunned silence when Emperor Akbar, an Islamic ruler, declared that he’s going to make his kingdom a tolerant, multi-religious place.
That was a radical proposal, and he probably looked at his courtiers, when one of them stood up. “Your majesty, I, the only practicing Hindu in your court, will shed our religious differences, and I will follow you to become a disciple of this new universal God’s religion.”
That courtier here, the only Hindu member of this Islamic emperor’s coat was Raja Birbal. This is the story of an unlikely friendship. This is the story of an extremely young king learning to rely on a few trustworthy people. This is the story of radical ideas for the 16th century. This is the story of how one king ruling over a hundred million people, taking over as a 13 year old led his kingdom to prosperity.
This is the story of Emperor Akbar. And his courtier, King Birbal.
Let’s rewind in time a little bit. So Akbar is the third generation – he’s the grandson of the original king that founded the Mughal Empire. His father has tragically died while falling down the stairs. He’s 13 years old. He’s barely earned the right to listen to the K-pop equivalent of that time, and now he’s being asked to make decisions that will probably impact a hundred million people.
What does he do? Luckily, he had a few good, trustworthy people that he could lean on, but more than the fact that, you know, he was ruling over a big kingdom as a teenager Akbar is known and remembered in time for developing his faith, his belief as a tolerant, prosperous, ruler. He spent a lot of time, effort, money in promoting the arts, architecture, musical talents of his time.
He had nine gems in his coat, nine Navratnas, nine people who excelled at their crafts so much that Akbar considered them the best gems in his kingdom. He had a fantastic poet, a singer, a warrior, a finance minister. But most of all, the man he relied on the most was his right hand man, King Birbal, whose official post was being a foreign minister, but he was much more than that to Akbar.
Birbal was known to be exceptionally smart, quick-witted, knowledgeable in many different fields. And over a period of time, Birbal and Akbar developed a mutual respect, a mutual friendship even; an Islamic ruler and a smaller Hindu king. A bit of an unlikely friendship if you ask me in the 16th century.
But in spite of feeling possibly like the odd person out in the emperor’s court, Birbal out shown everybody else in Emperor Akbar’s court through his wit, through his intellect, through the sheer power of his mind and his soul. And that’s why I personally love the story of Akbar and Birbal so much.
I grew up in India in the 1990s. We grew up on stories of Akbar and Birbal. Well, I certainly did, and they were not just fun anecdotes from the past. They served as a moral compass for me growing up in an era before social media influencers, before 24/7 cable television. I remember reading the stories and watching shows on the TV about Akbar and Birbal, and they were guided towards kids, a lot of them were animated shows. And for me, it wasn’t just a bit of fun, it wasn’t just a bit of intrigue: It was part of how I learned growing up, how to do the right thing.
Here’s a quick short story.
Akbar and Birbal were walking around one fine December. In North India, it gets pretty cold in December, even more so in the 1600s before global warming and climate change. So Emperor Akbar mused, as he was likely to do, “Birbal,” he asked, “do you think anybody could stand in the river Yamuna, which flowed by his kingdom all night, and not freeze to death?
Birbal said, “Well, Emperor Akbar, possibly. Why don’t you give out a prize?” And so they did. They held a competition, a big pot of gold for any person who could stand in the cold freezing waters of the river, in the month of December without leaving the river.
And one person did and he managed to stay there, one of the members of the emperor’s kingdom. The next day, now Emperor Akbar is feeling like, “nah, maybe I don’t want to give away my part of gold. I don’t know. Can somebody find some loophole?” You know, finding loopholes was a thing even in the 16th century
Turns out the person who stood in the river, he was fixated on a little lamp, a handmade lamp, just lighting up the emperor’s castle, probably 200 meters away, maybe more than that. That’s about 200 yards from my American audience. But Akbar found that out and Akbar said, “oh no, he was getting some heat from that lamp.”
But it was so far away. How can you be getting any heat from it? And so people heard about it and Birbal is feeling bad about it, but how does he convince his emperor? The next day, Emperor Akbar says, “Hey, let’s call all my courtiers today. I have some business to discuss with them.” And Birbal refuses to go.
Wow, you’re telling the emperor you’re not gonna go into court? What’s the reason you’re gonna give? You say you are cooking food. Okay, fine. He’ll come in half an hour when the food is cooked. One hour, two hours, three hours later and no sign of Birbal. Akbar goes himself to Birbal’s house. “Birbal. What is happening? Why? Why did you not come to court?”
Birbal said, “Emperor, I’m cooking food.”
And they look at the little contraption that Birbal has come up with and he has a fire lit up a little stove, and he’s trying to make a vegetable stew, a khichri. And this is about 30 feet distance between the fire and the stew. The stew is hung up high above the fire and that person says, “Birbal, are you mad? You’ll never get enough heat from the fire to cook your vegetables too.”
And Birbal said, “but that person apparently got enough heat from that one lamp, and that was 200 yards away. So why can I not cook my vegetable stew?” And Emperor Akbar realized his mistake, and the person in the kingdom got his pot of gold.
Really amazing story. And for me, the moral of the story was twofold: You have to try to be true to your words. In fact, if you’re a leader, an emperor, you must be true to your words. If you don’t, who’s going to trust you in the future? And secondly, grit and determination can lead you to do amazing things in life.
Now, I’m not saying Akbar was all great and perfect. No human being is, and Akbar had his faults too. in fact. In the before times at an in-person Odd Salon, we’ve previously shared the story of Salim and Anarkali. Prince Salim, the son of Emperor Akbar, fell in love with Anarkali, a courtesan in Akbar’s court. Anarkali loved Salim, too, but Akbar could not allow his son, the future emperor, to marry a courtesan.
So what did he do? He had Salim handcuffed, and Anarkali was buried alive. They carved up a big hole in a wall, they pushed Anarkali inside the hole, and she was buried alive while Salim watched, handcuffed. So much for being a progressive ruler. But by that time, I think Akbar was in his sixties, so he might have lost his progressive streak, or maybe he just had a dark side to him.
But coming back to Birbal: so it’s not simply his intellect that he was known for. He had a joke or three up his sleeves. Here is another short anecdote I like.
Akbar, as he was often known to just muse about random things because you don’t have smartphones to keep you busy all day
He asked one fine day, “Um, you know, I was wondering what punishment should be given to a person that pulls my mustache? What would be an appropriate punishment for such an act?”
And you are listening to your emperor ask this question, how do you respond? One of the ministers answered, “My Lord, such a person should be beheaded if they are pulling your mustache.”
The treasurer answered, “He should be flogged.”
The head of the army said they should be hanged.
Everyone in the court suggested extreme punishments, trying to outdo one over the other because how dare somebody tried to pull the mustache off the emperor? Akbar turned to Birbal. Akbar asked, “Birbal, what do you think?”
Birbal will kept quiet for a moment. And then he said, “My Lord, they should be given sweets.”
Sorry. Now just imagine being in the court at that moment, the emperor is saying, “How should I punish someone who pulls my mustache?” And you say they should be given sweets?
“Birbal. Have you gone crazy? How can you suggest that I should reward the person who pulls my mustache?” Akbar asked in anger.
Birbal replied politely, “My Lord. The only person that can dare to pull your mustache is your grandson. Should your grandson not be given sweets?”
Haha. Everyone lived happily ever after, but I digress.
There were many other stories like this that we grew up on, about Akbar and Birbal. That could be a whole podcast series of its own, but I’ll leave you in one final thought.
Akbar again, in one of his moods, asked, “Can you tell me one line that when I read when I’m happy will make me sad and when I read that line, when I’m sad, will make me happy?”
Birbal thought for a little while and then he remembered that he had heard something from a Persian poet known as Farīd ud-Dīn from the 12th century.
Birbal replied, “This too shall pass.”
That’s all for today. And remember, your grandkids are allowed to get sweets in return for pulling your hair.
CREDITS: This episode was written and performed by Sahil M Bansal and recorded by Mig Miner in Oakland, California. The Odd Salon Podcast is produced by Annetta Black and Tre Balchowsky.
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