Thursday, March 5, 2020

Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth by Audrey Truschke

Aurangzeb Alamgir, the sixth Mughal emperor, the last of the greats, as it were. His reign lasted nearly fifty years, I was not aware of that somehow. What I have been made consistently aware of in popular local media, is that he's a much-hated figure in Indian history; known more than anything else as an intolerant anti-Hindu tyrant who destroyed many temples. It's been repeated so often that I never actually stopped to wonder if it were true. A great example of history being bent into a political weapon. 

Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth by Audrey Truschke aims to distinguish fact from propaganda. The book begins with a chapter long disclaimer stating what the book is and isn't. It then spends another chapter telling us how it wants us to use the information presented to view Aurangzeb impartially. I am no expert, but I feel that no compelling content should require so much contextualising. The author is so busy making her case, when she could have let the content speak for itself - then again, maybe the issue is that the content is unable to stand on its own.

“I wish you to recollect that the greatest conquerors are not always the greatest kings. The nations of the earth have often been subjugated by mere uncivilized barbarians, and the most extensive conquests have, in a few short years, crumbled to pieces. He is the truly great king who makes it the chief business of his life to govern his subjects with equity. —Aurangzeb, writing to the recently dethroned Shah Jahan."

I liked more than a few things I learnt about Aurangzeb through this book. We all know that Aurangzeb earned much scorn, during and after his times, for overthrowing and trapping Shah Jahan at the Red Fort while he was still able. What I did not know was that Aurangzeb was plagued by guilt for these actions, especially in the latter part of his reign. The author quotes letters penned by the king to various trusted sources and his obsession with his "impending judgement" is revealing.

I had no information beyond Shah Jahan's imprisonment about the war of succession between his sons. Aurangzeb was not the heir apparent. It's interesting how he hounded, murdered and drove out his brothers in the pursuit of the crown. As the author puts it, given the choice, any of his brothers would have done the same. 

I am fascinated by the fact that the emperor asked to be buried in a simple tomb without the pomp and glory of the Mughal tradition. The detailing of his love for mangoes, dislike for courtly music and bias for his grandsons makes the king more than a caricature to sway historical narratives.  

The driving argument of the book is that we fail to see Aurangzeb as a product of his times. Colonial politics carved out the Hindu-Muslim dichotomy and enmity that was close to absent to during the Mughal times. It is therefore unfair to judge Aurangzeb through that lens. Though more pious than his predecessor and his brother, he was not a Muslim king. His motivations for controlling religious practices of either Muslim, Hindu, Jain or Sikh communities were political. He was a brilliant military and political tactician. Politics and religion are viewed as largely and purposefully separate in the modern world. This distinction did not exist in Aurangzeb's time. The head of the state, the ruler of the empire was to take it upon himself to do God's work. Therefore, his interest in religion was not interference as it would be in the modern mould. 

What the author has proved with a shadow of doubt is also that Aurangzeb was ruthless and power-hungry. His ambition often stood in the way of his sense of justice. Needless to say, it is this hunger for power that makes it so easy and compelling a narrative to cast this emperor as a soulless villain. Consider this example used by the author to show his lack of bias towards religion - paraphrased, a group of rebels caught by Aurangzeb's army were to be punished differently, the punishment for the Hindus being more severe than that of the Muslims. Aurangzeb did not make such religious distinctions when doling out punishments. Instead, he ordered all their heads to be chopped off. It is difficult to contextualise any actions and eliminate our internal biases (products of our own time) when judging historical characters. 

The tragedy is that with a man as ruthless as Aurangzeb, there's little incentive to see him as anything other than the devil himself. The author urges us to understand that this emperor was no more cruel than was expected in his times and she asks us to ease up on the ill judgement of his character. The book reiterates then that he was cruel and formidable. But, an honest treatment of history must make the distinction that this cruelty did not stem from a religious bias. This is an important point, and I'm glad it was presented so passionately by the author. I appreciate what the book hoped to achieve, I just wish there was more content. What we have is interesting, informative, but is it really enough to build empathy?

"Too great is the grief of this world, and I have only one heart bud - how can I pour all the desert's sand into an hourglass?" - Aurangzeb 

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