Aurangzeb, a stranger no more

Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth Audrey Truschke Penguin Random House Rs 399  

Among the Mughal rulers, Babur and Aurangzeb are the most popular in social media among Bhakts of an ideology that has been working hard for the last three years to foist Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan as the sole narrative of a country where custom, costume and customary beliefs change every few kilometres. Social media is the new battleground where anyone holding a divergent view is quickly labelled anti-national or aulads (descendants) of Babur and Aurangzeb. Happily aided by the government, Aurangzeb’s name is being defaced from central vistas and who knows even from school textbooks tomorrow.

Therefore, it is interesting that the idea of Audrey Truschke’s magnificent biography of Aurangzeb took seed on Twitter where firmans are made and executed in 140 characters. Fortunately, some firmans, in this case a request to write on Aurangzeb, got implemented through a scholarly work.

Sticking to facts

Coming a year after her magisterial Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court, in Aurangzeb Truschke employs the tools of an ace academic researcher but makes it accessible to everyone through her racy language that never loses sight of facts and history. It is history that has been unkind to Aurangzeb, painting him all in grey, a terrible ruler who undid the legacy of his great-grandfather Akbar, grandfather Jehangir and father Shah Jehan by razing temples and ordering mass murders of Hindus.

Mindful of extreme emotions that Aurangzeb evokes in India today, Truschke keeps herself away from either hagiography or undue resurrection. Rather, she ‘recovers’ Aurangzeb from the heap of fiction and lies. In the process, she does not mince words and challenges the scholarly, the popular and the bazaar versions of the life and reign of the sixth Mughal emperor. Be it Sir Jadunath Sarkar, Pakistani playwright Shahid Nadeem, or Jawaharlal Nehru, Truschke establishes how each viewed Aurangzeb through a flawed lens, overemphasising his religiosity or ‘adherence to Islam’ as reasons why he became what he became. Nehru called him ‘a bigot and an austere puritan.’ Truschke bemoans such sweeping generalisations and points out how this image of a ‘reviled’ Emperor is often used against the Muslims.

Truschke does not lose her way through the complex and contested life of Aurangzeb. Her focus is on facts and she looks at Aurangzeb in a clinical fashion. Yes, he did destroy some Hindu temples and banned Holi but, as she points out, he also gave grants for maintaining temples and liberally donated land to Brahmins. Also, along with Holi, Muharram and Eid too faced action. Most important, Hindu bureaucrats were at the core of the Mughal empire during Aurangzeb, the period when it expanded the most.

Facts are not the only tools with Truschke nor does she indulge in a slanging match with those who revile Aurangzeb. Instead, she chooses a scholarly path of mapping his 50-year rule through three themes that comprehensively sum up the enigma of Aurangzeb: one, imperial bureaucracy; two, why he thought of himself as a moral leader; and three, Aurangzeb’s policies on Hindu and Jain temples. In addition, her racy account of Aurangzeb’s reign looks at all the flashpoints that have gone into the making of his image. For instance, Truschke provides an insight into Aurangzeb’s handling of the so-called Rajput rebellion that, she argues, was more in the nature of a power struggle between the Mughals and Rajputs. Moreover, she establishes that the Rajput themselves were not united in their opposition to Aurangzeb. Also, Aurangzeb was even-handed in meting out punishment to his uncle Shaysta Khan for failing to put up a defence against Shivaji, as to his son Prince Akbar who had rebelled and, aided by a section of Rajputs, declared himself Mughal emperor.

Truschke is unsparing while dealing with the moral world of Aurangzeb, be it conversion of Hindus or destruction of temples like Vishwanath Mandir in Varanasi or of Keshava Deva in Mathura. But she does not fall for the oft-repeated reasons for Aurangzeb’s act. Instead, she asks why most temples were left untouched, especially in South India. Similarly, she points that the ban on alcohol was not specific to Aurangzeb’s reign but merely an extension of what Akbar and Jehangir had done. Not to mention that the policy of prohibition was a big failure.

Minor quibbles

Truschke mildly disappoints while discussing the Hindu bureaucrats in Aurangzeb’s reign. Three leading lights of his court, Raja Raghunatha, Chandar Bhan Brahman and Bhimsen Saxena, are part of her narrative but without the attention they deserve. Much of the criticism against Aurangzeb is based on his alleged anti-Hindu bias, and for a biography that successfully recovers the Mughal emperor for contemporary readers, it would have helped to flesh them out further since most of them were not merely officials but scholars in their own right. Chander Bhan Brahman’s classic historical biography by Rajeev Kinra proves this.

Overall, Aurangzeb is a fascinating biography of an emperor who continues to dominate the contemporary discourse on the Hindu-Muslim relationship and beyond. Strongly recommended for everyone, scholars, students and general readers, Aurangzeb is an example of how historical biographies of complex characters can be written.

The book addresses Aurangzeb’s concern at the time of his death that he came as a stranger and would leave as a stranger. Truschke has helped take away much of that strangeness.

Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth; Audrey Truschke, Penguin Random House, ₹ 399.

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Printable version | Jan 9, 2021 12:55:28 AM |

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