Some days ago, Emperor Aurangzeb—recently toppled from the towering heights of a Delhi signpost—found his way to the more untroubled comforts of my bookshelf. The woman behind this restoration is Audrey Truschke who, when not exploring the place of Sanskrit at the Mughal court, is evidently part of a cabal of “soul vultures”, according to one furious local website. They have reason to dislike her. After all, Aurangzeb—Muslim tyrant, persecutor of Hindus, stitcher of skull caps, etc., etc.—deserves no honour. And writing a book called Aurangzeb: The Man And The Myth concedes too much dignity to a despot who deserves only contempt. Or so we are told.
In itself, this very contested setting makes the prospect of reading Truschke attractive, but if one is looking for overblown sympathy that projects Aurangzeb as a tragic hero (currently a place reserved for his slaughtered brother, Dara Shukoh), this isn’t the book. On the contrary, what we receive is a sequence of sober, unvarnished sentences that demolish political propaganda and show Aurangzeb as a man who certainly made many mistakes, but not the ones for which he is blindly condemned. To begin with, he was not the destroyer of “thousands” of temples—in his 49 years on the Peacock Throne, the number of shrines demolished was perhaps half that figure.
“Aurangzeb was an emperor,” Truschke writes, “and as such he needed no special justification for seeking to enlarge his empire.” I confess to liking this otherwise dry statement, for in one stroke it puts the man in the correct perspective—he was a despot, but he lived in an age of despots, answering to the demands of his own situation and not to the retrospective needs of ours. Dara Shukoh, his more amiable, philosophically inclined brother, would have been relatively heterodox perhaps, but even he admitted that had he won the war of succession, Aurangzeb would have been neatly chopped up and put on display in Delhi. “Either the throne or the grave” was the reality of the Mughals, and the most excellent of them lived by this dictum.
Truschke agrees that Aurangzeb was a a clever strategist but a bad ruler—he stretched the empire to unsustainable limits and on his deathbed was preoccupied with the inevitable unravelling of his house. His unnecessary imposition of the jizya tax on Hindus (from which Rajput and Maratha officials as well as Brahmin dignitaries were exempt) only lined pockets in the decaying bureaucracy. For years he patronized temples as far away as Guwahati and later rescinded such orders when his princely mood turned. He allied with mullahs where it served his purposes, and discarded them when it didn’t. Leading clerics, for instance, opposed his usurpation of the throne. Aurangzeb simply had them replaced.
Understandably, it was insecurity that guided his strange actions. When he took the title Alamgir, the Shah of Iran sniggered that “Seizer of the World” was somewhat exaggerated when the only thing Aurangzeb had seized was his own father. As Truschke states, “Being branded an illegitimate Muslim monarch likely prompted Aurangzeb to become more devout.... Here, Aurangzeb’s religiosity did not shape state policy so much as his kingly experiences inspired changes in his religious life.” He appropriated religion to invent legitimacy—a technique not unfamiliar to rulers from other faiths—but if conflict arose between Islamic ideals and imperial business, it was the latter that prevailed. When the mullahs objected to his war against Muslim sultans in the Deccan, Aurangzeb ignored them.
Truschke also insists that we must not hold Aurangzeb up to Akbar since “in such comparisons we also commit the classic error of assuming that everything in Indian history, especially the Indo-Muslim past, was about religion”, where Akbar becomes the “good” Muslim whom Hindus respected, and Aurangzeb the “bad” one everyone resented. Aurangzeb was generally austere—he restricted Holi celebrations, but also festivities around Muharram and Eid. The love of his life was a Christian, and for a man who didn’t permit music in his presence, his companion towards the end was a musician wife. His daughter was a poet and his uncle, Shaista Khan (a villain for the Marathas), composed in Sanskrit. If we must compare him with Akbar, it is instructive that Hindus comprised 22.5% of all the nobility under the former, while during Aurangzeb’s time the number reached an unprecedented 31.6%.
It is a deathless travesty that political interests today draw nourishment for current interests from decontextualizing history, without actually going through the effort of learning enough of it. Aurangzeb occupied a complex world with competing interests and changing personalities—the scheming prince who took the throne in 1658 was not the emperor who died in 1707, fearing the advent of ruin. He probably realized he had failed, retiring to an unmarked grave, hoping possibly to be forgotten. But those who came after him are unwilling to let him go—from 300 years ago, Aurangzeb is dragged into the battles of the present, waged in school textbooks, and in the naming of roads. That, perhaps, is the fate of all emperors but thanks to a “soul vulture” called Audrey, we can at least now view the man in his own context and in the terms of his time.
Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore. Medium Rare is a weekly column on society, politics and history.