At the end of the Anglo-Mysore wars, Tipu Sultan was killed in battle in 1799, and the palace at Seringapattanam was sacked. A little pamphlet found on his body, buried under his clothes, was a book of dreams that he had recorded, and tried to analyse. These dreams have been a subject of much speculation, and reflect a long tradition of dream analysis, which predated Freud by almost a millennium. Dream analysis has a long history in various schools of Asian and Indian medicine, philosophy and popular imagination, which persisted well into the 20th century.

Tipu Sultan was born in 1753 in Devanahalli (the site of the airport in Bengaluru) to Haider Ali and Fakhrunissa, and took over the running of Mysore after the death of Haider Ali on December 7, 1782. Tipu was educated well, was fluent in Persian, but was said to have had a difficult adolescence and was once flogged in public by his father. He was a prolific writer and several volumes of his letters and notes exist. His letters to the East India Company, translated and printed in The Times London, protesting the negotiating style and chicanery of the Company, are written with graciousness and courtly élan. One such letter sent to Lord Cornwallis on March 27, 1791, and published in The London Gazette later that year, read: In matters of great importance the secrets of the heart cannot be known but by the verbal communication of a person of consequence…the disagreements existing removed, and the happiness and quiet of mankind established.”

Tipu Sultan’s notes cover a wide range from military operations, regulations, trading, prohibition, religion and morals. He was suspicious of bureaucracy but commanded complete faith of his troops. He was quite a polymath, and in his brief reign, attempted to reform the calendar, build a naval fleet by commissioning a dockyard in Oman, and was interested in astronomy. He was, in his personal demeanour, modest and “affected extreme simplicity of dress”, and usually slept on a coarse canvas bed. His negotiations with the French, and attempts to build a military collaboration have been discussed in history textbooks in detail. He occasionally even signed off his letters to the French as Citizen Tipu. Whether all his scientific and engineering pursuits, and political ambitions, were also being influenced by the news of scientific and technical developments, and revolution, in Europe, has long been a matter of debate.

Dreaming of victory

After his death on May 4, 1799 after the last assault on Seringapattanam, his library was taken away to England and is now part of the libraries at Cambridge and Oxford, as also the India Office Library in London and the Asiatic Society in Calcutta.

It is no surprise that he evinced an interest in his own dreams, and what they meant. The Book of Dreams, which formed part of his personal diary, and Register of Dreams were presented to the Director, East India Company, London on behalf of Marquis Wellesley in April 1800. This book contains 37 dreams, recorded between 1785 and 1798. Most of these dreams are devoted to driving the British out of India, and defeating the Nizam and others who were allying with the British. Of course, ultimately, it was a combination of the Hyderabad forces, the Bengal and Madras army of the East India Company, and the Maratha forces, that collaborated to defeat Tipu. Interestingly, many soldiers never went back, and contributed to the growth of Bangalore as a melting pot of Indian cultures and races.

Tipu Sultan’s analyses of his own dreams reflect a mixture of preoccupations and influences, much like contemporary methods. In two dreams, he sees three dates on a silver platter, and interprets this as a harbinger of his victory over the British, the Nizam and the Mahrattas, literally a sense of victory being served up on a platter. He feels this is true, and is vindicated about the accuracy of the dream by the death of the Nizam soon after.

A portrait of Tipu Sultan in the care of the British Library. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
A portrait of Tipu Sultan in the care of the British Library. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Other dreams show various aspects of wish fulfillment and anxiety dreams. A dream (#9) of a gift of white elephants from the Emperor of China pleases Tipu Sultan because Alexander the Great had been similarly honoured, and the dream was symbolic of what lay in the future. In another dream (#26), Raghunat Rao, a Mahratta, brings him news of the British losses in Europe, and says that the British may now leave Bengal voluntarily. Tipu Sultan replies with an offer of assistance to drive out the Nazarenes (British). Religious issues also intrude into the dreamworld. Many dreams include references to various saints such as Hazrat Banda Nawaz of Gulbarga, Shaikh Sazi of Shiraz, and also dreams of being at the Kaaba. Typical Freudian metaphors also creep in, as exemplified by a dream (#36) where he sees a beautiful young woman offering him three ripe plantains, which he eats and finds extremely sweet and delicious.

The dreams, as interpreted by Tipu Sultan, thus reflect contemporary political events and battles, and also allude to literary and religious (or spiritual) symbols.

Long before Freud

In Islamic medicine, analysis of dreams has a long history, and is part of Avicenna’s classic texts. He described the conscious experience arising from the faculty of virtus imaginative, which can alter images stored in the imagination to make new experiences. All internal faculties serve one soul, but the soul cannot employ all of them at the same time (for instance, during contemplation, one cannot observe the external world minutely). Given the religious emphasis of the times, and since the soul was supposed to be a direct manifestation of divinity, celestial and prophetic dreams occurred through the soul’s kinship with celestial spheres.

Some can see waking what others see only in sleep, and the virtus sancta was thus a direct insight into the nature of God. These were distinct from corporeal dreams, which included natural dreams that are observed by doctors. They arose from the “animal spirit” acting on the imaginative (for example, hunger produced dreams of food), while voluntary dreams carried on the preoccupations of the day. In general, true dreams came to people with true imaginations, and not to malicious men, liars or drunkards; or people who are sorrowful. In contemporary psychiatry, qualitative changes in dream content are even now described as a typical symptom of withdrawal from addiction, and in depressive states.

Avicenna also suggested that dreams of early morning are likely to be true, since by morning the movements of the humours had reduced. These ideas share a lot in common with Hindu and Buddhist notions about the nature of dreams. Avicenna had thus laid out a framework to describe the structure of dreams, the nature of dream work, the representation of conscious experience in dreams, and the roles of various psychological faculties in creation of dreams. This description of dream work is quite consistent with many contemporary theories, and somewhat similar to what Freud proposed in the 20th century.

A miniature of Ibn Sina or Avicenna. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain]
A miniature of Ibn Sina or Avicenna. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain]

Dream analysis

Franz Mesmer’s (1734-1815) ideas on hypnotism and animal magnetism rekindled this interest in issues of soul and psyche in Europe. It is interesting that the Mesmer and Tipu Sultan were almost contemporaries, and Tipu Sultan was aware of political and cultural ideas from France. Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) was a famous neurologist based in Paris who took the ideas of Mesmer forward, and these were further extended by the Freudian model of dream analysis. Freud (1856-1939) proposed dreams as a model for pathological thought organisation, and the royal road to the unconscious.

Displacement, condensation (the fusion of cows and tigers), symbolisation (the white elephant as a gift) and projection (dreams of victory), to use the nomenclature of Freudian defence mechanisms, are identifiable in these dreams, and are often described by Tipu Sultan himself in a somewhat similar manner.

The discomfiture about dream analysis as a method of enquiry, and the necessity for its rediscovery by Freud was perhaps related to the growth of natural sciences and industrial societies, accompanied by the decline of religious influence. Dream analysis reflected the theological issues of Christian, Islamic and the Indic religions, and was viewed with suspicion by the new Age of Reason. The French Revolution in particular, and the secularisation of the mind in European culture in the middle ages, allowed the hierarchies of society to be questioned by positing a common psychological space: the unconscious, which though mysterious, was similar across everyone. This democratisation of the soul made it analogous to the body: just like dissection of the body had proved that everyone was the same on the inside, the soul/psyche could now be posited to be equal across all humans. As an extension, subjective experiences were now thought worthy of enquiry or attention, and Freud’s emphasis amplified this trend further.

The ‘native mind’

However, the difficulty of accepting the validity of the psychological space of others was an essential part of the cultures of slavery, imperialism and colonialism in the non-European world (including the culture of medicine and politics) of the 19th and 20th century. These societies were, by then, often portrayed as being psychologically unsophisticated and lacking introspection; in essence lacking reason, just as their earlier subjugation had been thought necessary as they lacked faith.

Tipu Sultan and his analysis of his own dreams suggest quite the opposite, and that preoccupations about the inferiority (or at least the un-understandability) of the so-called native mind in psychotherapy and psychiatry, and in much of our discourse, needs to be reconsidered.

His dreams are an example of the psychological sensitivity and preoccupations of an Indian contemporary of Franz Mesmer, Benjamin Franklin, Antoine Lavoisier and display comparable sophistication and introspection. The urge to paint him as a barbarian, as the jingoistic press of Britain was wont to do then, and many local contemporaries now, may thus be misplaced. He was a man of his times, a warrior-king and a philosopher-king, in a time of tyrants. It is quite anachronistic that the armies that did defeat and kill him were acting on behalf of King George III, who, by then, was most assuredly mad. The consequences of who the victor was, and who the vanquished, and whether reason or madness prevailed in India is what we may need to come to terms with, even now.