“A caricature of ‘Aurangzeb the Bigot’ serves many modern political interests in India”: An interview with the historian Audrey Truschke

Courtesy Audrey Truschke
01 May, 2017

Audrey Truschke is an assistant professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. Her work focuses on the cultural, imperial, and intellectual history of early modern and modern India. Trushke’s book, Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, released in 2017, is a historical reassessment of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, one of the most prominent figures of seventeenth-century India. Aurangzeb’s historical legacy is widely contested—in public discourse, the Mughal emperor is often seen as a tyrannical Muslim fanatic, who ordered the destruction of Hindu places of worship. However, Truschke is among several scholars who insist that this depiction of Aurangzeb is both misleading and ahistorical. “The historical Aurangzeb fails to live up (or down) to his modern reputation as a Hindu-despising Islamist fanatic,” she said in a recent interview.

Majid Maqbool spoke to Truschke over email. She discussed her book and its reception, and how some of the popular misconceptions surrounding the emperor came to be.

Majid Maqbool: What prompted you to write a biography of Aurangzeb?

Audrey Truschke: I gave an interview to The Hindu in September of 2015, in which I said a few short sentences about Aurangzeb. Those sentences were bland and non-controversial from a historian’s perspective, but they caused a significant stir among non-academic readers. That’s when I realised that scholarly analyses of Aurangzeb, buttressed by research and critical reading, had not penetrated the popular vision of Aurangzeb in recent decades. I decided to see if I could initiate—or at least make a dent—in that project. In short, the popular misconceptions and stereotypes about Aurangzeb inspired me to write a fresh biography about this crucial Mughal emperor.

MM: Why do you think Aurangzeb is still thought of as a fanatic Muslim ruler in popular discourse in India, despite contrary evidence such as the presence of Hindu nobility in his court?

AT: Many factors feed into the popular image of Aurangzeb as an iconoclastic, Hindu-hating Islamist. People like historical villains, and, as I discuss in the book, a more complicated vision of Aurangzeb is better history—but, for many, a less comprehensible personality. A negative portrayal of Aurangzeb is also part of India’s colonial legacy that has been embraced by many, especially by Hindu nationalists. Perhaps, a caricature of “Aurangzeb the Bigot” serves many modern political interests in India, above all benefiting those invested in stoking anti-Muslim sentiments. The past is rarely, if ever, only about the past. But when we allow modern interests to constrain and dictate our view of the past, then we are engaging in mythology that, however powerful, is not history.

MM: Of all the Mughal kings, what is it about Aurangzeb in particular that made it possible for him to be made into a villain? Former Hindu rulers destroyed temples as well, and other Mughals rulers are not as condemned in the popular imagination.

AT: All pre-modern kings—Muslim, Hindu, and otherwise—could be cast as villains if we emphasise certain parts of their lives and judge them by modern standards. That said, given contemporary ideas, some aspects of Aurangzeb’s life lend themselves to the model of a historical baddie, such as his success in territorial expansion, his long rule, and that the Mughal Empire fell apart shortly after his death. Aurangzeb’s piety is also an important factor that is cited as both evidence for and the origin of his alleged barbarism. In this regard, it matters that Aurangzeb was Muslim, a religious identity under heavy fire and suspicion in India today.

MM: At the time of the war of succession between Aurangzeb and his older brother Dara Shikoh, a large number of Rajput rulers and most Shia Muslim nobles supported the former. But over time, Dara came be considered the face of liberalism, and Aurangzeb, that of fanatic Sunni thought. How did this happen?

AT: For decades, Prince Dara Shikoh engaged in cross-cultural projects that strike most people today as rather liberal, such as translating some of the Sanskrit Upanishads into Persian. In reality, scholars have a more complicated view of Dara’s intentions in such projects, but such detail is often skimmed over in the public realm.

In large part, however, Dara Shikoh’s popular image stems from the fact that he never ruled. If Dara had taken the throne, he would have almost certainly engaged in behavior similar to that of other Mughal kings, including expansion wars, brutal sieges, periodic temple destructions, and more. Since Dara’s career ended as a basically court-bound prince, however, his career was notably blood-free (not counting the war of succession). It is easier to project what one wishes to see onto an absence, which is what Dara offers in many ways.

MM: Would you say that Aurangzeb’s actions, as a leader, were political and not religious? He became a ruler in 1658, but levied the jizya tax on non-Muslims only in 1679, only to suspend it later in 1704. He is also believed to have given grants to temples to gain the goodwill of the Hindu community. Was he trying to protect his kingdom?

AT: I have examined the standard, theological-based explanations for many aspects of Aurangzeb’s rule (for example, the jizya tax, limitations on building Hindu temples), and found them wanting. One major goal of a historian is to explain why things happened, and I think that political explanations often pack more punch than theological ones regarding Aurangzeb. However, I would not say that religion was absent from Aurangzeb’s life or his ruling strategies. In my book, I point to instances where I think Aurangzeb was, in part, motivated by religious considerations, although often these were not the religious considerations that most people have imagined.

MM: Could you explain these instances?

AT: I argue, for example, that Aurangzeb viewed moral policing—of both Muslims and Hindus—within the purview of a just Muslim king. Aurangzeb’s goal was not to convert all Hindus to Islam, a popular caricature of the emperor, but rather to apply a broader set of morals to everyone. I also argue that Aurangzeb may have had religious considerations in mind when destroying select Hindu temples. However, unlike the common idea that Aurangzeb destroyed temples in order to cripple Hinduism, I argue that Aurangzeb did so in order to, in his view, protect both Hindus and Muslims from what he judged to be the immoral teachers of particular temples.

MM: Your biography of Aurangzeb has received considerable attention in mainstream media in India. What reactions have you encountered since the book was released here? How has the book been received by other historians and intellectuals?

AT: The popular reaction to my book has been mixed. I receive a fair amount of fan mail, but I get more hate mail. From historians, the reaction has also been mixed, but in a different sense. Academics typically shy away from hateful discourse, but it is a myth that scholars agree with one another all the time. In fact, if anything, we disagree with alacrity. I have found some of the scholarly criticisms of my book useful, and I look forward to more to come on this front (unlike the popular press, the academic world is often a bit slower to digest and produce criticisms). No book is perfect, and if other scholars can identify some of the fault lines and weaknesses of Aurangzeb: The Man and The Myth, then we have a starting point for producing better research and more compelling arguments regarding this crucial and still poorly understood emperor.

This interview has been edited and condensed.