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‘Aurangzeb’ — reimagining the misunderstood emperor

If we glance back to review some of the most controversial figures of Indian medieval past, we should have no difficulty conjuring up the image of Aurangzeb Alamgir, the sixth Mughal emperor of the subcontinent. Aurangzeb to some, survives as a religious fanatic, whose treatment of his subjects specifically Hindu, and Jain communities was brutally inhumane, and unfair. His alleged adherence to narrow minded Islamic chauvinism is also held responsible for destroying the legacy of tolerance built by Akbar, leading to the disintegration of the empire. It is the inconsistency of the standard view of the emperor with the ‘historical’ Aurangzeb that this tantalising book under the title Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King examines, and enriches our understanding of Aurangzeb as a compounded individual, whose personality reflected the complexities of the world he inhabited.
Author Audrey Truschke, renowned American historian, stresses that rational understanding of Aurangzeb based on ‘serious history’ supersedes the oversimplification and high-minded dogmatism of ‘defensive’ agenda (proposed by earlier thinkers) that has been channeled into two directions. In the first case, the aura of Aurangzeb as a despot is balanced by pairing off the ‘orthodox’ Aurangzeb with his predecessor the ‘heterodox’ Akbar. At the heart of this binary, lies the argument that Aurangzeb’s austere religiosity prevented him from fully assimilating Indian values, unlike Akbar, whose flexible and laid-back “Muslimness” eased him into Indian syncretism, making him thereby an acceptable ruler of the subcontinent. Many view Aurangzeb’s kingship, as the triumph of sectarianism over the tradition of pluralism established by Akbar. This assertion has also shaped contemporary opinion, that unjustly holds Aurangzeb responsible for catalyzing a tragic course of events that saw the ultimate partition of India in 1947. The second line of thought although corrects many misconceptions about Aurangzeb, but it refuses to see flaws in him. To think of him as without any imperfections would again be a far cry from forming any sort of realistic perception of the emperor. She emphatically argues that proper historical research is the only effective stratagem as opposed to “defensive” thinking that can help us demystify Aurangzeb’s personality. By this she implies an examination of Aurangzeb’s figure, which is independent of political propaganda, religious fanaticism, and nationalist sentiments and to study him purely in the light of historical data.
The book enacts a fascinating reassessment of Aurangzeb, by recognizing him as a product of his age, as opposed to previous research that makes the elementary mistake of judging Aurangzeb by modern sensibilities. Aurangzeb’s actions do begin to make sense, when he is placed within the context of Indian codes of conduct and values rather than within the context of twenty first century codes and values. We see a prince who wades through blood, to ascend the imperial throne, not because he is a villain, but because he is following his ancestral tradition that accepts fratricide on one’s way to the crown; encrypted in the age old Mughal slogan “yatakhtyatabut” (either the throne or the grave). Bloody wars of succession that pitted brother against brother, and son against father, were a normal feature of Mughal rule and not Aurangzeb’s phenomenon as amplified by his modern detractors. The containment and defeat of his rival brothers naturally forms focus of Aurangzeb’s concern during ascension struggle. The author rightly points out, that if their roles were reversed, Dara Shukoh, Aurangzeb’s eldest brother, and his major rival for the throne, would not have acted differently because showing generosity to a beaten adversary would cost one their victory and their life.
Modern scholars have pointed out that kingship in India was regarded as open-ended in nature, with rulers constantly facing challenges to their authority if they were perceived, in any way, weak by tributaries, and subordinates. It was therefore organic for Indian kings to rule with an iron hand, to maintain peace, and to keep the integrity of kingdom intact. Truschke highlights that the punitive measures that Aurangzeb took against some Hindu temples were not a religious harassment (as his detractors have imagined), but a political penalty for supporting subversive elements within the realm. To ensure order and safety, and to preserve balance in society, also formed part of the recognized role of a king- a dynamic that resonates well with Aurangzeb’s vision of justice. It was therefore out of his concern for public safety that Aurangzeb constrained religious celebrations, including Hindu festivals of Holi, and Dewali, and the Muslim commemoration of Muharram. William Darlymple, in his novel, White Mughals, evokes disturbing graphic details of the condition of deathly chaos, that such festivities often transformed into by the end of the day. One cannot help but appreciate the wisdom behind Aurangzeb’s protective measures. Truschke tells us that in Aurangzeb’s India Hindu and Jain communities were treated equally well as their Muslim counterparts. She makes her case by alluding to numerous instructions issued by the emperor to state officials to protect temples from “unnecessary intervention”, as well as to grant land and monetary favours to Hindu and Jain religious institutions. The author reveals that Aurangzeb’s name is preserved in laudatory tone in vernacular Jain literature, of the period which offers testimonial to his religious leeway. Truschke observes that the Mughal kings acted within the traditional mores of the time- but they also had their own distinct qualities: Akbar’s was establishing a legacy of tolerance; Shah Jehan is known for his architectural brilliance; and Aurangzeb’s is his supreme sense of justice. But sometimes his notion of justice had to be configured to suit political needs. For example the dethronement of his father Shah Jehan cannot be justified under any principle of justice.
The authors highlights that what makes Aurangzeb unique, is perhaps his vaulting political ambition. During the last ten years of his life, his ambition turned in directions unprecedented for a man of Mughal line, for he conquered the Deccan “a prize” that had been coveted by the Mughals for generations. With the absorption of the south Indian states of Bijapur, and Golconda, the Mughal Empire stretched to its maximum limit. But his ambition, the writer reflects, also became his Achilles heel, for it had severely drained the resources and prevented him from passing on his legacy to an able successor.
In many ways, Aurangzeb can be likened to Shakespearean heroes, who are generally overreachers. Driven by their enterprising impulses, they tax their abilities to the full; exert all their faculties of mind, will, energy and in doing so achieve many features of heroic grandeur. But their obsession with one thing often spells out their own misfortune. Aurangzeb’s intoxication with enlarging his kingdom, threw him off balance- a mistake that finds an echo in his private writings. The author alludes to his letters to his sons, which are heavy with an elegiac tone lamenting his weakness and human fickleness, for example, when he says “I came as a stranger and I leave as a stranger.”