What did Vivekananda think about the centuries of Muslim rule in India? A perusal of Vivekananda’s writings and speeches and of the accounts of people who knew him, shows that his views on Islamic rule in India were the exact opposite of those held by the Sangh and its ideological gurus.

In a lecture he gave in India titled “The Future of India”, he speaks about the effect of Muslim rule. “Even to the Mohammedan Rule we owe that great blessing, the destruction of exclusive privilege. That Rule was, after all, not all bad; nothing is all bad, and nothing is all good. The Mohammedan conquest of India came as a salvation to the downtrodden, to the poor. That is why one-fifth of our people have become Mohammedans. It was not the sword that did it all. It would be the height of madness to think it was all the work of sword and fire.”

While Vivekananda believed that the early invasions saw forced conversions, he did not believe that Islam spread throughout the Indian subcontinent by force of arms.

Rather, the oppressed condition of the lower castes who were denied any freedom made Islam, with its more egalitarian social order, a welcome home for those who wished to escape the tyranny of the caste system. The Muslim conquerors, especially the Mughal dynasty, ruled India not as colonisers, but as rulers who identified with the country and its people, carrying out administration like any other native dynasty.

Vivekananda’s attitude towards India’s Islamic past was not one of mere toleration. He saw the Muslim contribution as an essential part of the fabric of national life. A history enthusiast, Vivekananda was fascinated by Mughal architecture, by its art and poetry, but above all by the Mughals themselves. His disciple Sister Nivedita recounted that the greatness of the Mughals was a theme that never wearied the sanyasi.

Though a rationalist by conviction, Vivekananda was a romantic at heart, and his exquisite imagination had full play in the presence of the past. He would be absorbed by ancient ruins, palaces, paintings, and sculpture, and his companions could expect to be treated to a rhapsody of historical reconstruction. Vivekananda’s vivid imagination and erudition combined to paint a panoramic picture of the lives, events, and personages whose genius had left its imprint on rock and stone.

All phases of India’s history exercised his passion, but it seems he was especially captivated by the allure of the Mughal period. He is known to have visited Akbar’s palace and the dargah of the Muslim saint Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra, the Taj Mahal in Agra, and the Mughal monuments and ruins in Delhi. Enchanted by the Taj Mahal, Vivekananda described it as, “A dimness, and again a dimness, and then a grave.” Vivekananda first visited the Taj Mahal in 1892. The beauty of the monument apparently overpowered him. He told a companion, “Every square inch of this wondrous edifice is worth a whole day’s patient observation, and it requires at least six months to make a real study of it.”

Before Vivekananda reached Agra, he was in Lucknow, where he had visited the palaces, monuments, and gardens built by the nawab of Oudh. He visited the monuments again in 1898 with his Western friends, disciples, and brother monks, marvelling at the glory of the nawab’s court. The party, which was travelling to Nainital in the Himalayas, then proceeded to Delhi, where they spent a day admiring the Mughal monuments. Vivekananda was enthralled by the splendour of the Mughal dynasty and spoke of it fervently to those who accompanied him. One of them recollected “He vivified the past before us. Indeed, we forgot the present in the past and lived with dead emperors and mighty kings of old.”

Nivedita wrote about the experience of travelling with Vivekananda and hearing him bring to life India’s past for his Western disciples. The Mughals were a frequent topic for Vivekananda’s perorations and Akbar an especial object of the sanyasi’s admiration. It would seem that in Vivekananda’s eyes, except for perhaps Ashoka, Akbar was the greatest monarch who had reigned in India.

In Akbar, he saw a marvellous combination of temporal power and spirituality, of valour and piety, of cultivation and tolerance. Particularly impressive was Akbar’s religious pluralism and the emperor’s idea of a universal religion, a notion that found an echo in Vivekananda’s own philosophy.

“Oftener still, it was Akbar of whom he would tell, almost with tears in his voice, and a passion easier to understand,” Nivedita writes. Vivekananda estimated Akbar’s character so highly that he used to remark that Akbar was a soul aspiring for enlightenment in his last birth, but who had missed the goal. His admiration was not confined to the most famous of the Mughals. Babur, Humayun, Jahangir, Noor Jahan, Shah Jahan, all elicited praise and appreciation. About Shah Jahan, he exclaimed, “Ah! He was the glory of his line! A feeling for, and discrimination for beauty that are unparalleled in history. And an artist himself! I have seen a manuscript illustrated by his hand.” According to Vivekananda, Mughal emperors were anything but non-Indian.

We have a first-hand account of Vivekananda’s impassioned perorations on the Mughals from Christine Greenfield, a German-born American disciple. She accompanied him, Nivedita, and others on a journey from Calcutta to the Himalayas. During the journey, Vivekananda entertained his Western friends with a narration of Mughal history. It is worth reading Christine’s account of Vivekananda’s fascination with the Mughals in her own words.

“The Moguls seemed to have cast a spell over Swami Vivekananda. He depicted this period of Indian history with such dramatic intensity, that the idea often came to us that he was telling the story of his own past…We saw Babar, the 12-year-old king of Ferghana, influenced by his Mongol grandmother, and living a hard rough life with his mother…The time came when we saw his men booted and spurred, crossing the great mountain passes and descending on the plains of India. Although an alien and invader, as Emperor of India, he identified himself with the country, and began at once to make roads, plant trees, dig wells, build cities. After his death the kingdom fell into other hands and Babur’s heir, Humayun, became a fugitive. In the deserts of the Sind, with only a handful of followers he fled from place to place, in danger of his life. Here he met the exquisite young Mohammedan girl Hamida, married her, and shared with her his most unhappy fate…And in the deserts of Sind was born, her only son, later to become the emperor Akbar…Humayun regained his empire, but he was not to enjoy it long for in the 48th year of his age he met with a fatal accident at his palace in Delhi and died, leaving his throne to his only son Akbar, then little more than 13 years old. From that time, until his death at the age of 63 Akbar was the undisputed master of India…Mohammedan though he was, he listened to teachers of all religions – listened and questioned…In later years he conceived the idea of establishing a new religion of which he was to be the head – the Divine Religion, to include Hindus, Christians, and Parsees as well as Mohammedans…His genius as an administrator enabled him to pass on a united empire to his son Salim, later known as Emperor Jehangir. Under this ‘Magnificent son of Akbar’ the Mogul court reached a splendour before which all previous ideas of luxury paled.”

— Quote shortened

The natural consequence of Vivekananda’s regard for Islam and appreciation of Islam’s contributions to India, was an idea of India in which Muslims were as much a part of the national life as Hindus. Vivekananda’s idea of nationhood stands as a polar opposite to that of the RSS and the Sangh, who conceive of Muslims as second-class citizens, who have to accommodate themselves within a Hindu national ethos. While Savarkar and Golwalkar blamed India’s civilisational decline on foreign conquests by Muslims and Christians, Vivekananda blamed the Indians themselves.

For Vivekananda, India’s decline started before the Islamic conquest, with the ossification of the caste system, an increasing insularity of intellectual life, unremitting orthodoxy, and restrictions of social freedoms. He understood and appreciated the piety of Muslims and saw them as integral to the fabric of Indian civilisation.

Excerpted with permission from Vivekananda: The Philosopher of Freedom, Govind Krishnan V, Aleph Book Company.