Anything that moves

Aurangzeb was a bigot not just by our standards but also by those of his predecessors and peers

Audrey Truschke’s biography of the king fails to demolish the conventional view of the Mughal emperor.

This week marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of the controversial Mughal king Aurangzeb. All right, it marks the 399th anniversary, but since Narendra Modi turned the 124th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s famous Chicago speech into the 125th, I feel entitled to do something similar. Having written about Shah Jahan and Akbar in preceding columns, it seems apt to round off the series with a piece on the last Great Mughal.

Much of the debate on the subject this year has been driven by Audrey Truschke’s biography, Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth. It’s a slim volume that promises a lot in its introductory chapter, but delivers little. It received good notices from reviewers who seemingly took those promises at face value, but I found it a joyless read about a joyless man, consisting mainly of well-known biographical details retold with neither enthusiasm nor verve.

In an early page, Truschke states that Aurangzeb,

“Expanded the Mughal Empire to its greatest extent, subsuming most of the Indian subcontinent under a single imperial power for the first time in human history.” 

In truth, the contours of the Maurya empire at its peak were extremely similar to those of the Mughal kingdom following Aurangzeb’s expensive and short-lived expansion into the Deccan.

The book’s gravest shortcoming lies not in errors like this one, but in a failure to prove its case. Taking issue with Jawaharlal Nehru’s description of Aurangzeb as “a bigot and an austere puritan”, the author states that such critiques are based on “shockingly thin evidence.” Yet, she accepts that Aurangzeb, “rolled back some of his court rituals with Hindu roots and withdrew imperial patronage from certain practices, such as music.” She admits his reintroduction of the discriminatory jizya tax,

“upset many Hindus. A scathing letter to Aurangzeb, perhaps penned by Shivaji or Rana Raj Singh, the Rajput ruler of Mewar from 1652 to 1680, disparaged the jizya on the grounds that it went against the notion of sulh-i kull (peace for all), which had been a bedrock of Mughal policy since Akbar’s time.” 

In 1672, she writes,

“Aurangzeb issued an order recalling all endowed lands given to Hindus and reserving all such future land grants for Muslims.” 

So, a king ends patronage for music, prohibits rituals with Hindu roots in his court, burdens his non-Muslim subjects with a religious tax, and introduces discriminatory provisions in land grants, and yet people calling him a bigot are basing their view on shockingly thin evidence?

In Aurangzeb’s defence, Truschke points to his incorporation of Hindu Maratha nobles from the Deccan, which substantially increased the proportion of Hindus in the Mughal nobility. Tackling his rules for endowments, she writes,

“Some modern historians have suggested that the 1672 order was followed almost nowhere in the empire, remaining ‘on paper only’ except in select areas such as the Punjab.” 

And as a general justification of the emperor’s behaviour, she opts for the relativist route,

“It is not difficult to identify specific actions taken by Aurangzeb that fail to meet modern democratic, egalitarian, and human rights standards. Aurangzeb ruled in a premodern world of kingdoms and empires, and his ideas about violence, state authority, and everything else were conditioned by the time.”

The problem with the actions specified above is not just that they seem abhorrent to modern individuals, but that they undercut the liberal policies of previous Mughal rulers, something Truschke herself admits. Bringing up modern morality is a red herring, because the namazi, as his eldest brother Dara Shikoh contemptuously called him, was a bigot not just by our standards but by those of his predecessors and peers.

Temple Destructions

The most contentious issue related to Aurangzeb, though not uniquely to him, is his destruction of Hindu temples. The Vishvanath temple at Benares and Mathura’s Keshava Dev temple were the most prominent shrines razed under his orders. Both were replaced by mosques. We have no idea precisely how many such acts were committed under his command, but Truschke accepts a figure of a few dozen. Levelling a hundred or so shrines does not, in her estimation, qualify a king for the label of bigot. After all,

“He also issued many orders protecting Hindu temples and granted stipends and land to Brahmins.” In the author’s view, “A historically legitimate view of Aurangzeb must explain why he protected Hindu temples more often than he demolished them.”

This seems like a very low bar indeed. Should we not criticise sportspersons who take money to fix matches unless they do so in most games they play? Should we defend sexual predators on the grounds that the vast majority of their interactions with women are respectful? Should we object to a serial killer being called a psychopath because we can’t be sure why he targeted particular victims but not hundreds of other people he met? It is important to push back against the Hindutvavadi idea of Muslim rulers as genocidal maniacs who destroyed shrines indiscriminately. But it is imperative we do it without explaining away Muslim religious prejudice where it exists. That’s what clear eyed thinkers like Tagore, Nehru, Gandhi and Ambedkar managed in their assessment of medieval India. For all their differences, none of them turned apologists for past zealotry in their effort to counter contemporary biases. It’s a pity that Truschke fails to distinguish between Nehru’s assessment of Aurangzeb and that of Hindu right-wingers.

Historical error

Needless to say, Nehru was not infallible, and a revisionist history setting the record straight on Aurangzeb’s temple desecrations would be welcome if accurate. Unfortunately, in tracing the history of desecrations by Muslim rulers, Truschke shifts into apologism based on an erroneous reading. Conventionally, desecrations have been seen as conditioned by a strong iconoclastic streak within Islam. Truschke contests this, arguing that temple destructions by Muslim kings merely copied temple destructions by Hindu kings:

“Hindu kings targeted one another’s temples beginning in the seventh century, regularly looting and defiling images of Durga, Ganesha, Vishnu, and so forth. They also periodically destroyed each other’s temples. Some Hindu kings even commissioned Sanskrit poetry to celebrate and memorialize such actions. Indo-Muslim rulers, such as Aurangzeb, followed suit in considering Hindu temples legitimate targets of punitive state action.” 

One might think Hinduism has enough crimes to answer for without iconoclasm being added to the list, but Truschke doubled down on this line in a recent article, writing,

“Medieval Hindu rulers desecrated one another’s temples and idols (a practice which inspired similar behaviour among Muslim rulers after they arrived in India).”

Were the likes of Mahmud of Ghazni and Aurangzeb just following an indigenous Hindu tradition when they sacked religious sites? Truschke bases her conclusion on three sources, Richard Davis’s Lives of Indian Images, Richard Eaton’s, Temple Desecrations in Pre-modern India, and Michael Willis’ Temples of Gopaksetra. Eaton’s article contains no original research in this respect, merely recounting the findings of Davis and Willis, also cited by Truschke. Davis, in a chapter from his book titled Trophies of War, describes how Hindu kings often looted idols considered specially powerful, and installed them in custom-built shrines within their own domains. This seems the precise opposite of the idol smashing of Islamic iconoclasm. Acknowledging this, Eaton writes,

“Although the dominant pattern here was one of looting royal temples and carrying off images of state-deities, we also hear of Hindu kings engaging in the destruction of the royal temples of their political adversaries. In the early tenth century, the Rashtrakuta monarch Indra III not only destroyed the temple of Kalapriya (at Kalpa near the Yamuna River), patronised by the Rashtrakutas’ deadly enemies, the Pratiharas, but also took special delight in recording the fact.”

The notion that medieval Hindu kings destroyed Hindu temples, and therefore served as forerunners and inspirations of Islamic acts of desecration, comes down to this single example. Eaton’s footnote leads to a different essay by Michael Willis, but the incident and the verse is obviously the same one referred to by Truschke. Here is the verse in the book cited by Truschke, and here the same verse in the chapter cited by Eaton. It says,

“After the courtyard of the temple of Kalapriya was knocked askew by the strokes of his rutting tuskers, his steeds crossed the bottomless Yamuna, which rivals the sea.” 

Is this a description of a temple being razed, or merely of a temple courtyard being damaged by elephants who might have been stabled there while the army rested?

Dineschandra Sircar, in his book Studies in the Geography of Ancient and Medieval India (page 305 – 306) states that Indra III encamped near the temple, as did his successor Krishna III, who,

“Developed a fondness for installing gods under the name Kalapriya in different parts of his empire”. 

It certainly seems as if the temple of Kalapriya survived Indra III’s rutting tuskers.

Truschke and Eaton, between them, produce just one example of a Hindu temple being destroyed by a Hindu king. This turns out to be a fictive incident created by misunderstanding a bit of verse. They then seek to balance the entire sordid history of temple destruction on this feeble base. If you want shockingly thin evidence, you will find it not in descriptions of Aurangzeb’s bigotry (for which there is ample enough proof) but in revisionist histories like those of Truschke and Eaton.

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