Book review— Aurangzeb: A zealot, or a product of his times?

The Asian Age.  | Samir Krishnamurti

The best way to view Aurangzeb is as a prince enmeshed in a web of royal dynamics that shaped his early years.

Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth by Audrey Truschke Penguin, Rs 399

Any book on Aurangzeb Alamgir, the last of the great Mughal emperors, is always going to be relevant, but more so today given the country’s socio-cultural climate. He is a man who has been widely reviled, particularly by the 20th century historians, as typifying the extreme despotism and religious bent of Islamic rulers, particularly in India, ruling as they were over a substantially non-Muslim population.

A considerable part of any interest in Aurangzeb is driven by the common stereotypes that have been perpetuated about him. From Jadunath Sarkar to Jawaharlal Nehru and many others, Audrey Truschke, in Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, is at pains to demonstrate just how Aurangzeb has been repeatedly vilified as an archetypical Islamic despot, known for his religious bigotry, cruelty and thirst for empire. But, she says emphatically, and as my Mughal history college professor repeatedly pointed out, that amounts to judging him by contemporary standards of what constitutes acceptable state and moral behaviour.

Aurangzeb was a product of his times, and was shaped by them as much as he shaped them. Understanding him in historical context is much more important, and is what Truschke has tried to do with this book. As she eloquently puts it, the best way to view Aurangzeb is as a prince enmeshed in a web of royal dynamics that shaped his early years, and then as a monarch who hungered after territory, political power, and a personalised ideal of justice.

Much like studying history at the college level, Trushke deals with the major issues that are connected with Aurangzeb, without falling prey to an overtly teleological or hagiographically defensive perspective. Muslim-ordered temple destruction, for one, is a major and emotive issue, which is felt viscerally here in India, and “son of Aurangzeb” or “son of Babur” are still common insults in certain parts of India. She argues that people, including Aurangzeb’s contemporary supporters, think defensively, not historically, and this can blind them to the facts of the matter. Temple destruction is a good case in point. Far from the thousands he is often accused of destroying, the number was at most a few dozen, and as Truschke is at pains to point out (as Richard Eaton has repeatedly said as well), hardly ever without a political motive of some sort, often to punish a rebellious ruler and his people.

Hindu rulers often did the same to mosques and, on rarer occasions, each other’s temples as well. Aurangzeb also ignored laws in Islam that didn’t serve his own interests, like when he deposed and imprisoned his father, Shah Jahan, for the better part of a decade. Whenever Islamic piety came into conflict with Mughal state interests in Aurangzeb’s world view, the latter inevitably triumphed.

Aurangzeb also had a stricter definition of what constituted moral Islam than his predecessors. He never consumed opium or alcohol, for example, and one of his favourite pursuits in later years was sewing prayer caps. Despite this, Truschke cogently notes that his behavioural proscriptions weren’t religiously targeted. While anti-Aurangzeb demagogues are quick to point out that he restricted the celebration of Holi and Diwali, they often fail to acknowledge that he did the same to Id and Nauruz, the Persian New Year, as well. Like the syncretic India of today, people of different religions often celebrated each other’s holidays, hence his policy was more a generalised moral policing than being targeted at any particular community.

Another polemical and often divisive issue associated with Aurangzeb is his attempt to forcibly convert his subjects to Islam. Truschke is dismissive of this, stating that there was no forced-conversion agenda per se, but individuals could find compelling reasons to convert to Islam, like getting a job further up the Mughal hierarchy, or obtaining a higher mansab, which was the system which determined both your military rank and your payment. Truschke also devotes an entire chapter, perhaps excessively, to noting how Aurangzeb sought to win over Hindu hearts and minds by incorporating them into the Mughal bureaucracy.

If anything, according to Trushcke, Aurangzeb targeted Muslims the most as subjects of state brutality, particularly groups whose ideologies ran counter to his vision of political Islam, like the Mahdavis in Gujarat, or non-political groups he found aberrant, like the Ismaili Bohras. As Truschke often emphasises, all his actions must be seen in a specific socio-political context. Otherwise, they lose their historical significance.

While certainly less bloodthirsty than his far more ruthless Mongol ancestors, Chengez Khan and Timur, Aurangzeb spent a significant portion of his life in the saddle (or, as he grew older, in the palanquin) engaged in pushing further the frontiers of the Mughal empire — as a young man along the north-west frontier, and in later years in the Deccan peninsula.

The most famous of these conflicts, of course, was with the Maratha warrior and later King Shivaji Bhonsle. Perhaps one of the greatest adepts the world has ever known at the art of guerrilla warfare, Shivaji was a perennial thorn in the Mughals’ side and for Aurangzeb particularly, both before and after he became emperor.

Truschke does an excellent job here of presenting this story in précis form, from their first meeting through to Shivaji’s continued insurgency. She also points out that Shivaji, much like Aurangzeb and many of their contemporaries, believed in the aristocracy of talent, allying with Islamic states against the Mughals and having Muslims at very senior ranks within his Army and bureaucracy. Their conflict wasn’t religious as much as it was political, but it was often expedient for both sides to use religious justifications for acts of war.

The one major problem with Truschke’s narrative, however, is her occasionally less than heuristic approach to humanising the other major characters of the time. Apart from Shivaji, very few biographical details are provided of other significant figures, like Dara Shukoh, Murad, Tej Bahadur, the major Rajput rulers, or the sultans of Bijapur and Golconda. Coming to this book with some knowledge of the subject, say as a history student or as an avid reader of Mughal literature, that wouldn’t be much of a problem. For a complete newcomer however, the book fails to flesh out a substantial amount of detail, and that, in a book which purports to be setting the historical record straight, is a striking deficiency.

Where this book excels in is drawing what has been known in the historical community for years, the fact that Aurangzeb wasn’t a crazy Islamic zealot or a bigot but a product of his times and needs to be understood as such in the mainstream, public discourse.

In current Habermasian discourses of alternative and revisionist history, particularly in India, Truschke does an excellent job, in such a relatively short book, in dealing with all the important facts, myths and legends that make up Aurangzeb’s historical record, without ever losing sight of her primary goal, which is clarifying the many distortions and assertions that have sprung up around one of India’s most controversial historical figures while remaining true to a pragmatically realist historical ethic of exposition.

The writer is research director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant.