Girish Karnad's Tughlaq : A Nietzschean Enigma


By Rajesh Kumar Sharma


“Can an ass be tragic? – To be crushed by a burden one can neither bear nor throw off? … The case of the philosopher.” –Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols 33


“I wish it was as easy as that. I have often thought of that myself—to give up this futile see-saw struggle and go to Mecca. Sit there by the Kaba and search there for the peace which Daulatabad hasn’t given me. What bliss! But it isn’t as easy as leaving the patient in the wilderness because there’s no cure for his disease. Don’t you see—this patient, racked by fever and crazed by the fear of the enveloping vultures, can’t be separated from me? Don’t you see that the only way I can abdicate is by killing myself? I could have done something if the vultures weren’t so close. I could have crawled forward on my knees and elbows. But what can you do when every moment you expect a beak to dig into you and tear a muscle out? What can you do?” –Tughlaq in Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq 196



    Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq has Nietzsche’s venom and brilliance, and like Nietzsche he is tortured by a blocked spiritual vision.


    Nietzsche turned reason, and logic, inside out and exulted in the Dionysian destruction. Limits did not scare him; he often went over. Total and authentic scepticism became his norm. As a matter of critique he did muse, in The Will to Power (263), on the probability of a transcendental critique of knowledge and looked over the edge of the intellect, but his project of “the revaluation of all values” (which included his brilliantly dark critique of the church) neither required nor permitted him to articulate an integral spiritual vision. The risk was too heavy. The inauthentic faith of the ill-constituted rabble could infect the reception and even the articulation of a spiritual vision. Otherwise his wholesome affirmation of life had the potential to mature into spiritual vision. The affirmation was, in fact, an incipient spiritual act.


    But in Tughlaq there is no affirmation. He cannot cope with suffering and destruction. Chaos scares him. He desires a logically laid out Kingdom of Heaven in which everything is in neat and settled order according to a lucid, Apollinian logic. The inevitable, fatalistic irruption/eruption of events shatters him and drives him mad. He becomes a destroyer, a “lord of skins” as Azam describes him (211). His tenuous and inchoate spiritual vision cannot sustain the overwhelming demands of the affirmative instinct. Part lunatic and part sage, he has formidable cunning and frank self-insight but blends incalculable cruelty with sublime intellectual refinement. A gorgeous evil freak – that is what he eventually becomes.


    Though ironically self-aware of his “madness” (196) and craving the other, divine madness (206), he yet ends up in despair when he cannot see beyond, or even under, the logic. Hence he strikes a bleak compromise with loneliness and madness:


Sweep your logic away into a corner, Barani, all I need now is myself and my madness—madness to prance in a field eaten bare by the scarecrow violence. (219-20)


    This is a cry of negation, concealed in ironic affirmation. And there is a fake ring to his declaration to the “historian” Barani:


I have a companion to share my madness now—the Omnipotent God! (Tired) When you pass your final judgement on me, don’t forget Him. (220)


    He is tired, not refreshed and light. Not that he has not had a revelation, but it has been a personally shattering experience instead of being a transfiguring one. Indeed, he has reason to feel utterly betrayed by the inhuman irony of events. It has turned out that Aziz has been his “true disciple” since he is the one to have comprehended his “ideas and acts” most fruitfully (216). The cynical appropriation of his dreams by Aziz enacts their subversion by the other that lurks as nightmare in the heart of great dreams. His unearthly project “to spread the Kingdom of Heaven on earth” has yielded (if a ‘historical’ link may still be posited) a hellish harvest. Yet the insistent events, with their unpredictability and illogic, fail to puncture his appropriative fantasy of history which probably no one appreciates and which only persons like Aziz comprehend in order to profitably pervert. He cannot take measure of the inerasable chasm that must ever separate the reality of events from the unreality of subjectively projected history. 


    Tughlaq seeks redemption in history, hoping that he can shape it (“History is ours to play with—ours now!” 155). But history has never brought redemption to anyone. Instead of being inscribed, it tends to inscribe. It instrumentalizes the dreamer who wants to make it the instrument of his redemption. One can do no more than be a mere scribe of history. To be its author and architect is impossible. The Kingdom of Heaven is not made of bricks and mortar but is a matter of “liv[ing]”, of “practice” (Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ 159). It is an “inner realit[y]” (Anti-Christ 158).


    Hence, when Tughlaq seeks eternity in history, he finds himself peering down the abyss of nothing:


Tell me, Barani, will my reign be nothing more than a tortured scream which will stab the night and melt away in the silence? (185)


    His passion to create a secular Heaven in his kingdom is an attempt to rediscover a lost spiritual vision and to force that vision to its culmination by way of translating it into reality. The vision had broken over him like a sudden wash of rain when he was young. The gathering insanity of years, poised on the edge of another breakthrough, recalls that vision in a night of inky despair. He is silently contemplating retracing the steps to Delhi, dragging the decimated populace along once again when the memory strikes:


Nineteen. Nice age! An age when you think you can clasp the whole world in your palm like a rare diamond. I was twenty-one when I came to Daulatabad first, and built this fort. I supervised the placing of every brick in it and I said to myself, one day I shall build my own history like this, brick by brick.


One night I was standing on the ramparts of the old fort here. There was a torch near me flapping its wild wings and scattering golden feathers on everything in sight. There was a half-built gate nearby trying to contain the sky within its cleft. Suddenly something happened – as though someone had cast a spell. The torch, the gate, the fort and the sky – all melted and merged and flowed in my blood-stream with the darkness of the night. The moment shed its symbols, its questions and answers, and stood naked and calm where the stars throbbed in my veins. I was the earth, was the grass, was the smoke, was the sky. Suddenly a sentry called from far: ‘Attention1 Attention!’ And to that challenge the half-burnt torch and the half-built gate fell apart.


No, young man, I don’t envy you your youth. All that you have to face and suffer is still ahead of you. Look at me. I have searched for that moment since then and here I am still searching for it. But in the last four years, I have seen only the woods clinging to the earth, heard only the howl of the wild wolves and the answering bay of street dogs. (194)


    The half-burnt torch and the half-built gate remain unrecovered and uncompleted. Mundanity intervenes to wrap the vision in its dull glare once the vision has been interrupted. The guard’s interruptive “‘Attention! Attention!’” breaks the trance and returns the youthful Tughlaq to the passing instant, to the process of history. Paradoxically, and tragically, he would seek to penetrate into history and overdetermine it ahead of its happening. He would search for that transhistorical vision in his fantasy of history dissembling as prophecy. And the prophecy would, inevitably, invert itself. The historical would fatally infect his Kingdom of God.


    His magnificent fort in Daulatabad that rises out of the landscape like a concrete metaphor of his dream has “a long passage, a big passage, coiled like an enormous hollow python inside the belly of the fort.”  The Old Man says people “will be far, far happier when that python breaks out and swallows everything in sight—every man, woman, child, and beast” (193). Azam dies on the mouth of the passage, probably killed by Aziz. When this happens, Aziz and Azam suddenly emerge as two masks of the “actor” (The Will 293) Tughlaq, a truth which latter must, however painfully, come to terms.  The e-vent of the passage thus brings Tughlaq to his pathetic-tragic (self-) revelation through his subsequent encounter with his other – Aziz – who has grown rich sticking to the underbelly of the “mad” Tughlaq’s great dream. The Kingdom of Heaven, in fulfillment of the Old Man’s prophecy, does “crumble from the inside” (192).


    Nietzsche realized he was “born posthumously” (Foreword, Anti-Christ 125); Tughlaq doesn’t. Hence his impatience: “I have a long way to go. I can’t afford to crawl—I have to gallop” (164). He is incapable of playfulness in the face of events, which Nietzsche regarded as a mark of greatness:


I do not know any other way of associating with great tasks than play:  as a sign of greatness, this is an essential presupposition. The least compulsion, a gloomy mien, or any harsh tone in the throat are all objections to a man; how much more against his work! (Ecce Homo 258)


    Is Tughlaq the “higher type of man”, the kind visualized by Nietzsche in The Anti-Christ (129)? Not at all, though he appears to posses some ingredients of the type. He seems to have the “pathos of distance” that filled Nietzsche with contempt for the rabble. For instance, he is impatient with the Young Man who cannot appreciate his vision: “You don’t understand! You don’t understand! Why do you live? Why do you corrupt the air with your diseased breath?” (194) Yet there are times when he wants the rabble and himself to “melt” into each other (155). True, he is “multiple” (The Will 270) and cherishes his multiplicity and tells Imam-ud-din that he cannot disown the Greek, the Zoroastrian and the Buddhist in him (165), but it is significant that his heroes are Socrates, Plato, the Buddha and Zarathustra – the first three are “decadents” according to Nietzsche and the fourth one was the one who committed “the most calamitous error, morality” by “consider[ing] the fight of good and evil the very wheel in the machinery of things” (Ecce Homo 327-28). The decadents embodied the exhaustion of their civilizations, represented by the triumph of reason and cold logic over instinct. As far Zarathustra, since had erred most disastrously, he alone could act to undo the error. Hence, Nietzsche had to create him anew in order to effect “the self-overcoming of morality” (328). Obviously, Tughlaq’s Zarathustra is not the Nietzschean Zarathustra.


    In comparison to Nietzsche, therefore, who philosophized with a hammer to sound out the idols, Tughlaq is no better than a heroic hero-worshipper. Of Socrates, Nietzsche said that he “was the buffoon who got himself taken seriously” (Twilight 41). Of Tughlaq, one might say he is a serious dreamer who gets himself taken as a buffoon. His misfitness in his times, his self-ignorant posthumous existence is quietly metaphorised in his post-sleep disorientation at the drop of the curtain.


    Nietzsche’s work as well fate might open a window on what blocks Tughlaq’s spiritual vision. Thanks to his fiercely appropriative will to power, Nietzsche’s scepticism did not grow on to become self-reflexive. Hence it remained shut against the probability of an authentic and openly received spiritual vision. Tughlaq, too, never returns to the innocent openness, to the “innocence of becoming” (The Will 299) that he experienced when he was nineteen. He appropriates the epiphany of the “melting” world as a subjective fantasy that he would impose on the world in the form of a self-enclosed transformative rational project. The appropriation, like a ball of nails ingested, paralyses him from within. In his final vegetable helplessness, therefore, he mimics Nietzsche.




Works Cited


Karnad, Girish. Three Plays: Naga-Mandala, Hayavadana, Tughlaq. Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1994. Tughlaq was originally written in Kannada in 1964 and translated into English by the author in 1971.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1968.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce Homo. Trans. and ed.  Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1967. 

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale.London: Penguin, 1968.



June 2003

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Department of English

Punjabi University, Patiala – 147002