Birbal, or Raja Birbal, was a hindu brahmin advisor in the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. He is mostly known in the Indian subcontinent for the folk tales which focus on his sly and cunning intelligence. Birbal was appointed by Emperor Akbar as a poet and singer in around 1556–1562. He had a close association with the Emperor, being part of his group of most important courtiers called the navaratna or nine jewels.
Birbal's real name was Mahesh Das Bhatt and he was born in the city of Trivikrampur or Tiwkapur in 1528 to a brahmin couple. His father was Ganga Das and mother, Anabha Davito. His grandfather Rupdhar was a Sanskrit scholar who resided in Patrapunj. Mahesh Das was the third child and at a very young age lost his father Ganga Das. His mother sent him to her father Rupdhar at Patrapunj.
Mahesh Das's grandfather Rupdhar started his education at age of 5 and taught him Sanskrit, Hindi and Persian (the state language). Then according to the family tradition he learned music and poetry. At the time, Rajas were great patronizers of art. They gave royal positions to writers, poets, musicians, sculptors and other artists. When Bhagawan Das, the Raja of Jaipur heard about Mahesh Das, he invited him to join his court. Mahesh Das sang his own compositions in the court. He was writing under the pseudonym 'Brahma Kavi'. Soon his real name was forgotten.
From the court of Jaipur, Mahesh Das went to the court of Raja Ramachandra of Rewa. Raja Ramachandra was great lover of art and Mahesh Das and the famous singer Tansen were amongst his courtiers. Because of his accomplishments and brahman status, Mahesh Das was able to marry a girl from a well known family in Kalinjar, contrary to the notion that he was on poor economic terms before his appointment at Mughal Emperor Akbar's imperial court. The fame of Mahesh Das and Tansen reached the ears of Akbar and he invited the two to his court. They soon became part of the nine gems at the court of Akbar.
Titles And Name Origin
Apart from being a musician, Mahesh Das took part in the attack of Sultanpur Lodhi in Punjab. The Emperor conferred him with the title Veervar and the Jagir of Nagarkoth. Emperor Akbar was very fond of bestowing titles based on hindu cultural system, history and mythology like Kaviraj, Mahapatra or Jagatguru.
The title Birbar or Birbal conferred on Mahesh Das replaced his real name. He himself preferred this name used it sometimes in his verses. Akbar is said to have borrowed this name from 'Vetal Panchvishanti' or the 'betal pachisi' the twenty five tales of Vikram and Vetal. In the third story a man named Veervar offers his services to the Raja and fully earns the high pay allowance by showing extraordinary proof of his loyalty and devotion. The title Veervar was transformed into Birbal on the basis of sanskrit rules according to which when two 'r' sounds occur in close proximity the later is pronounced as 'l'.
The Frontier Problem
Birbal entered the court of Akbar in 1556 and worked with him for 30 years. Birbal rose to a very high position in the court with his sly intelligence. He became one of the closest and trusted ministers of Akbar. Akbar took him on expeditions to Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Because of his high position and influence with the emperor, he was envied by many and had many enemies amongst the courtiers. One of them was Zain Khan Koka who became Governor of Kabul in 1596.
The northwest frontier of India was always of security concern to all the rulers of India. The Yusufzai tribes of Afghanistan had started a rebellion along the east bank of river Indus against the Mughal rule. The Yusufzai and Mandar Afgan tribes living on the border, with their restless ways and abhorrence for any authority, led constant marauding attacks.
The Yusufzais pretended defeat and then came back with renewed fight. The Emperor then sent Shaikh Farid, Shaikh Faizi, Sher Khwaja Fataullah with more reinforcements to no avail. The tribes had the home ground advantage in a huge area 40 miles by 60 miles.
Birbal had a number of bad traits, his worst was jealousy, he required constant adoration especially from Akbar. On religous grounds Birbal was hostile to Guru Arjan and jealous of his daily and increasing popularity. On account of his hostility to Guru Arjan, Birbal fell from grace.
On the failure of Zain Khan in his expedition against the Yusufzais, Birbar was ordered to help deal with the frontier problem by bringing reinforcements. Before his departure he received a written permission from the Emperor to levy a tax of a rupee on the house of every Khatri on the way. He crossed the Beas river and sent his officials to collect the tax in Amritsar. The Khatris there refused payment and complained to Guru Arjan.
Guru Arjan spoke to Birbal's officials, "The tax is on Khatris. We are Sikhs and look for exemption. Up to the present the government has never imposed forced labour or taxes on the Guru's house. My kitchen is kept open by the offerings of Sikhs and saints. No one is refused access to it. Take as much corn and food as you require, but I have no money to give you. I live on confidence in God."
Threats To Peaceful Sikhs
The officials repeated this speech to Birbal, who became furious on hearing it. He said, "I am a commander of many men; how dare the Guru disobey me? Moreover I bear the Emperor's order. Even if it be the Guru's house, it is for Sikhs and not for me to respect it." This time Birbar sent some soldiers to Guru Arjan with the following message, "You are a Khatri, a subject, and in every way subordinate to the state. If you come to meet me, it will be well; otherwise I will destroy your city."
The soldiers went, but were dumbfounded in the presence of the Guru. Divining their visit Guru Arjan addressed them, "My friends, I care not for anyone, nor do I fear anyone. Let Raja Birbal come and do what he pleases. The Creator will protect me." The soldiers, fearing the Guru's words and also their master's wrath, went and falsely told him that the Guru would arrive on the following day.
Birbal said, "What does it matter if he is a saint or an object of reverence, or even very old, if he does not fear me? Well, if he does come tomorrow, I will destroy Amritsar." Unfortnately for Birbal, God had other plans. That night the Birbal did not sleep due to unforeseen anxiety and mental uneasiness. Meanwhile another order arrived from the Emperor telling the Birbal to make haste and proceed with his troops by forced marches to unite with Zain Khan against the Yusufzais.
Birbal was very disappointed on receiving this peremptory command, as it left him no time to wreak his vengeance on Guru Arjan. He ordered his staff to remind him of the Guru on his return, and said that if he did not then get a rupee from each house in Amritsar, he would raze the city to its foundations. Birbal's spirit burnt with anger at the recollection of the Guru's language. When the Sikhs communicated Birbal's wrathful words to Guru Arjan, he merely said, "Only 'if' Birbal returns will he give us trouble." The Sikhs understood that Birbal would not return.
Birbal travelled to meet Zain Khan, the Commander-in-Chief, but as Birbal and the army advanced into a narrow pass in the Swat valley at night (present-day Pakistan) the Afghans were waiting in prepared positions in the hills. In the ensuing heavy defeat, Birbal and over 8000 soldiers were killed and his body was never found.
It was a terrible defeat called in the history as the Yusufzai disaster, in which Birbal, along with his entire army perished. Birbal lost his life on 16 Feb 1583. This was one of the largest military losses for Akbar. He was said to have expressed his grief over the loss his favourite courtier and not taken food or drink for two days. He was anguished since his body could not be found for hindu cremation.
Historic Role Versus Folklore
In the folk tales, Birbal is always portrayed as a pious hindu, being younger than Akbar, and being morally strict in the midst of opposing muslim courtiers, who are shown plotting against him; his success was only because of his perceived skill and he convinces the Emperor to favour hinduism over Islam. An Akbar-Birbal joke may also be used to signify 'hindu' subversion of 'muslim' power.
Birbal is thus depicted as acquiring religious, political and personal influence over Akbar, using his intelligence and sharp tongue and never resorting to violence. However, historically he never played such a role and Birbal's modern portrayal is a fallacy. Modern hindu scholars assert that he made Akbar make bold decisions and the orthodox muslims in the court despised him, since he made Akbar renounce Islam. But no evidence is present that he influenced Akbar's beliefs.
Though sources suggest he influenced Akbar's policies to some extent. It was Akbar's affection, religious tolerance and social liberalism which was the reason for this and Birbal was not the cause. Historically, he was more of a supporter of Akbar's religious policy and his religion, Din-i-Ilahi. Ain-i-Akbari mentions an incident of Birbal involving prostitutes, where Akbar wanted to punish him, contrary to how he is portrayed as a deeply religious man.
Associated with Sri Guru Ram Das Ji, Sri Guru Arjan Sahib Ji, Sri Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji, Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji.
In 1573, Sri Guru Ram Das Ji built his home at the site of Gurdwara Sri Guru Ka Mehal as a residence for the Guru's family.