Review: Aurangzeb – The life and legacy of India’s most controversial King

Aurangzeb

Authored by Audrey Truschke, this book is a refreshing read that objectively assesses the complex personality of Aurangzeb and faithfully summarizes the major events of his reign and the contexts around them.

Professor Truschke does well in identifying the key problems that are within the popular(and maligned) perspectives towards Aurangzeb and his reign in modern times.

India’s hate-driven narrative against Aurangzeb was given political legitimacy by its first Prime Minister Jahwaral Nehru through his scathing remarks of the Mughal Emperor. Nehru lambasted Aurangzeb for being a “bigot and an austere puritan”. This should not surprise any reader of history as Nehru completed his education in a British University. So naturally, his perspectives were warped by the Colonial Narrative.

Nehru is someone who I regard as equally responsible as Jinnah for the partition of India and the communal tensions that haunt the Subcontinent today.

The communal narrative actually predates Nehru. It started with Jadunath Sarker who like Nehru after him, was inspired, to put it politely, by the Colonialist Propaganda of the British authors. He went on to compose a series of historically inaccurate accounts of Aurangzeb which depicted him as a scourge of the Hindus, thus setting the foundation for Hindutva extremists to build the Islamophobic and hate-driven narrative against the Muslims in India today. It has come to the point where Muslims who have been residing in India for generations are maligned as barbaric invaders.

Truschke demonstrates her knowledge and understanding of Indian history by expertly deconstructing the myth of Aurangzeb being a barbaric bigot.

She starts with defining what the word “Hindu” actually meant in pre-modern India.

In pre-modern India, the word “Hindu” was not used by the Brahmins, Rajputs and the other various non-Muslim denominations as an identity label. “Hindu” was a Persian word and it was used for administrative purposes by the Mughal government.

After Truschke delineates the social and religious apparatus of Mughal India to her readers, she goes on to illustrate how close and cordial the relationship between Aurangzeb and the “Hindu” priests were.

Throughout the book, she periodically points out how Aurangzeb routinely conversed with Brahmin, Jain and Sufi ascetics and often granted them land and wealth for their services to the various communities within the Mughal Sultanate. He patroned Jain and Brahman Temples regularly to the point where many Sanskrit texts were penned in his honor. Jains often referred to him as a “brave and powerful King” in their vernacular works.

Truschke succinctly and sufficiently illustrates how the destruction of the “Hindu” Temples were politically motivated as opposed to Aurangzeb exercising his apparent hatred of the “Hindus”. The Temples that Aurangzeb destroyed were either those of rebels or charlatan soothsayers who were swindling the common people in his domain.

While it is undeniable that Aurangzeb did put down Sikh and “Hindu” rebellions brutally, Truschke emphasizes the fact that Aurangzeb was equally harsh towards Muslim rebels, especially the Pathans who attempted to undermine his authority. Aurangzeb punished them with utmost severity with no consideration for their faith. In addition to that, Truschke quite comprehensively proves that these incidents were not major causes for concern among the Hindu subjects of Aurangzeb as they were a regular occurrence in Medieval India.

But, whenever Aurangzeb had the chance to negotiate and reconcile, he exercised it fully.

One such incident was the Rajput rebellion by the Marwar and Mewar provinces. Truschke brings to light the fact that even when the “Hindu” Rajputs wanted to usurp Aurangzeb’s authority they proclaimed Aurangzeb’s son Akbar, a Muslim as Emperor as opposed to propping up a “Hindu” or a Rajput candidate.

And when Aurangzeb sent a negotiation party to arbitrate the grievances and reassure the Rajputs of their honor and prestige, they readily accepted the arbitration.

What this shows is that the motives behind these rebellions were based on seeking rights from the Sultanate as opposed to uprooting the Sultanate in its entirety.

This further proves the fact that the concept of “Hindu Raj” and the apparent hatred of the “Hindus” towards “Muslim rule” are modern constructs that are anachronistically applied to historical narratives to legitimize institutionalized bigotry against the Muslims in India today.

Truschke further refutes the modern myths of Aurangzeb being a bigoted Muslim ruler by illustrating how Aurangzeb ran a government based on individual merits rather than religious affiliations. His government had a Brahmin financer and many of his trusted generals were Rajputs. During Aurangzeb’s reign around 30 percent of his administration were “Hindus”. He even had Shia Subedhars among his ranks and often chastised officials who petitioned for the dismissal of the Shia Nobles. Hardly the characteristic trait of a bigot.

And as for Dara Shikoh, the favorite son of Shah Jahan and the darling of the orientalist and the Hindutvas alike, Truschke does well to expose him for the conniving and inept Prince that he was, who didn’t hesitate to humiliate and oppress those who opposed him. Truschke brings to light the hatred that Dara had harbored for Aurangzeb, as well as his attempts to undermine his younger brother.

The famous incident, where Aurangzeb has Dara and his son dragged through the streets on a dirty elephant, is not unique punishment Aurganzeb devised for his elder brother.

Rather it is merely Aurangzeb taking a leaf out Dara’s book when Shah Jahan’s favorite did the same to some Mughal officers who earned his ire. Dara’s arrogance and his heavy handed treatment Mughal nobles and officers isolated him. Despite Shah Jahan bestowing the title of Iqbaal e Buland(heir apparent) to Dara, Aurangzeb did not have to work too hard to find allies in his conquest for the Peacock Throne.

Truschke also reveals a hitherto unknown side of Aurangzeb. His cultural pursuits. While it is true that while Aurangzeb did dismiss musicians and artisans from his Imperial Darbar, he allowed them employment in the Princely courts and often reassigned musicians for a higher stipend. What this shows is Aurangzeb didn’t enforce his private tastes and preferences on his subjects. Furthermore Aurangzeb actually preserved Mughal culture and practices and left his own mark on it. He even encouraged his successors to integrate certain rituals and festivals into the daily governance because it helps the poor and needy.

Aurangzeb does credit to his Islamic obligations by issuing the best manuscript of the Hanafi Legal code and the grandest Mosque in the Subcontinent. The Badshahi mosque. Whereas Shah Jahan and Akbar left beautiful tombs, monuments in their own right, Aurangzeb left the Muslims a lasting legacy that is truly Islamic.

For all of the great deeds and qualities of Aurangzeb, Truschke doesn’t hesitate to point out his flaws and failures.

Contrary to the popular myth peddled by Muslims about Mughal India being free from brigands, Truschke notes how highway robberies were becoming more and frequent in the Mughal realm. It proved to be the precursor of what was to happen in India. No matter how much Aurangzeb pressed his officials to resolve the issue, they all failed to give the issue its due recourse. And with the Mughal administration losing its control of the realm, brigandry slowly evolved into raids and eventually full-scale invasions.

Aurangzeb also failed to curb the corruption within his government which was apparent to everyone. Muslims and Non-Muslims officials alike were easily swayed by bribes.

Aurangzeb’s efforts to ban Wine and Opium also proved to be futile. The Mughal Nobility had become spoiled and preferred indulging in the hedonistic pleasures of intoxicants and women in the luxurious palaces instead of working to ensure justice for the people who lived in their domains.

The contrast between the Emperor and his nobles is most apparent when Aurangzeb went to campaign in the Deccan himself. Aurangzeb relished traversing in the Deccan terrain and being the front lines whereas his courtiers felt queasy and longed to go back to their palaces.

This excerpt does well to illustrate the mentality of the Mughal courtiers.

“For instance, Bhimsen Saxena, a Kayasth from Uttar Pradesh whose family had served the Mughals for generations, wrote frankly about the hardships of travel and long separations from family. He characterized South Indians as an utterly foreign people who disgusted him. Describing the Deccan battles of the mid-1690s, Bhimsen wrote about southern “Hindus”: “They are dark of complexion, ill-shaped and ugly of form. If a man who has not seen them before, encounters them in the dark night, he will most likely die of fright.” Faced with life among people that they viewed as repulsive, many felt that Mughal service had lost its appeal.”

Aurangzeb’s drive and determination also proved to be his undoing. As Bhimsen in his accounts of the illustrious Mughal emperor writes that Aurangzeb’s greed more than anything else, has been his undoing. Bhimsen states that Aurangzeb’s ambition has sent him on endless military campaigns that have ruined entire cities or subjected them to poor administration. Aurangzeb is nothing like his just and wise father Shah Jahan; Shah Jahan’s subjects were loyal and clean of heart and only required the king to preside over court once a week while Aurangzeb has to hold court twice a day and still his subjects swarm in with uncountable grievances. Shah Jahan placed effective grandees in each principality, but Aurangzeb has put small men with small armies in charge of conquered provinces and “no one gets any justice.” Bhimsen writes that Burhanpur, his birthplace, has been laid to waste and he shares with his readers his memories of Burhanpur in better days.[1]

With his administration starting to unwind itself, Aurangzeb’s brutal campaign in the Deccan had sapped the Sultanate of its resources but more importantly the Sultanate lost many of its veteran soldiers, the capable officers and its honest governors. His heavy handed treatment of his sons not only deprived them of experience but also prestige from the increasingly greedy and corrupt Mughal elites. Thus setting the precedent of incompetent successors who were puppets of the Mughal Nobility, and in the years to pass by, the Afghans and the Marathas, and eventually the British who will go on to abolish the Sultanate for good.

At the end of his Deccan campaign Aurangzeb despite his illustrious and successful military career, is left with nothing but a sense of foreboding of the difficult times ahead. Despite his best efforts the rebels still remain at large while his Sultanate stands on fragile pegs. In his deathbed Aurangzeb reflects upon his reign as a failure. And he morbidly predicts that his successors will be unable to handle the upcoming challenges that will plague the vast but the already fragmenting domain that he is leaving behind.

All in all, Audrey Truschke has done justice to the much maligned Aurangzeb. She faithfully relays to her readers, the true image of the Mughal Badshah. Not a bloodthirsty slayer of Hindus or the faultless Champion of Islam as he is perceived to be by the masses. But a flawed man with great intentions.

I must end this glowing review with a small caution to the Muslim reader. As great as Truschke’s balanced approach was, one should be wary of how Truschke tries to subtly illustrate the secular nature of Aurangzeb’s reign, as is the case with every non-Muslim Historian. Her description of the incident regarding Aurangzeb rebuffing the Mughal noble who was petitioning for the dismissal of a Shia Subedar, can be misquoted and misused by those who aim to separate the Quran and Sunnah from the public sphere.

However, that is only a single instance in an entire book where it showcases how Aurangzeb’s governance was very much rooted in his Islamic ethos. And it is a futile exercise if anyone tries to illustrate otherwise, even Truschke, the book’s author. Because Truschke quite faithfully writes that, while Aurangzeb did sometimes compromise on his Islamic ethics for his political and military pursuits, he didn’t hesitate or shy away from acknowledging his actions being contrary to his Islamic ideals.

All in all, a must read for an avid reader of history who wants to learn about Aurangzeb from an unbiased source. Much recommended.

  1. thewire.in/19341/a-hindu-soldiers-aurangzeb/

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