To respond to a Twitter request, author Audrey Truschke ventured on to write an “accessible” biography of India’s most controversial Mughal emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir. According to the author, this is her effort to introduce 

“historical Aurangzeb – to all of his complexity – to a wide readership”

This book is very short only 108 pages. The rest of the pages consist of the index, bibliography and other footnoting elements. Truschke divides the book into 8 short chapters. All chapters focus on Truschke’s attempt to answer and address many controversial questions and rumours surrounding this historical figure. This book appears to be well-researched and detailed references are to be found towards the end of the book. 

Names of Mughal emperors have set popular with Indianan politicians as the medium of insult and abuse to the Muslim minorities of India. Jawaharlal Nehru, the pre-eminent leader of India’s nationalist movement against the British Raj,  quotes in his book The Discovery of India, “ When Aurangzeb began to oppose (the syncretism of earlier Mughal rulers) and suppress it and to function more as a Moslem than an Indian Ruler, the Mughal Empire began to break up.” Truschke elucidates “For Nehru, Aurangzeb’s adherence to Islam crippled his ability to rule India.” 

Nahru’s idea may appear to the reader to be empirical and authentic. However, ideas aren’t impervious to India’s colonial past. Alexander Dow in his The History of Hindostan (1772) writes, 

“The faith of Mahommed is peculiarly calculated for despotism, and it is one of the greatest causes which must fix forever the duration of that species of government in the East”

In 2015 one of the major roads in Delhi was renamed, from Aurangzeb road to A.P.J Abdul Kalam road. Again in 2015, one Shiv Sena MP  cast the insult “Aurangzeb ki aulad” (Aurungzeb’s progeny).  In today’s India Aurangzeb has become even more relevant than he was ever before, however, for all the wrong reasons. Aurangzeb became a tool of oppression. 

So it becomes crucial to dig down deeper to discover the real historical figure, Aurangzeb. It appears understanding Aurangzeb can help us understand India’s bittersweet relation to its historical past. Moreso, it can help us see the hindu-muslim relationship from a renewed lens. 

See Aurangzeb on his own terms

Over the years many historians and commentators have created this “…puritan, bigoted, evil authoritarian image…” of Aurangzeb based on very “this evidence.” Trushke investigates some of the popular narratives however she rather takes a more pragmatic approach. People are products of their time and place hence, it would be unjust to see him through the lens of “…modern democratic, egalitarian, human rights standard” and “It makes little sense to asses the past by contemporary criteria.”

We surely do not need to like our subject but we need to be just in our assessment. We need to see him on his “own terms”, we need to assess or compare him to his contemporaries and not ours. 

War of Succession 

Mughals adopted the popular central Asian custom of succession; all the heirs of the monarch had equal rights over the throne meaning everyone had the right to fight for it. During Emperor Akbar’s time, he abrogated the rights of the nephews and limited the right of succession only to the emperor’s children. 

Siblings pitted against each other for the throne is not an alien custom to India’s history or to the world’s history. Great king Ashoka also fought his brothers Susima and Vitashoka over the succession.  England saw seventeen long years of civil war known as The Anarchy over the succession of Henry I. Aurangzeb was expected to fight his brothers. 

Many may consider Dara Sukoh the mere victim of Arangzeb’s lust for dominion.  One needs to understand Aurangzeb simply followed the path shown by his predecessors. Shah Jahan has ordered the murder of his two brothers Khasru and Shahriyar. Emperor Jahangir was responsible for the death of his brother Danyal. Mughal kinship has been long guided by the Persian Phrase, “ya takht ya tabut” (either the throne or the grave). Also, when Dara Sukor was asked what would he do if the roles were reversed, he sneered, “ …he would have Aurangzeb’s body quartered  and displayed on Delhi’s four main gates.” It’s simply wrong to assume after the war of succession was over the rest of the family fell apart. Like any other brother, Aurangzeb paid off the loan of his brother Murad after his death. Also, he married his sons and daughters to Dara Sukoh’s family. 

Aurangzeb the puritan and intolerant to the majority Hindu population 

Aurangzeb may not stand a chance to the modern standard of a Muslim. Mughals have been long admirers of Sufi orders. Aurangzeb burial place speaks a lot about his belief system. According to his wish, he was buried next to the dargah of Zainuddin Shirazi, a saint of the Chishti Sufi order.  

Not only that, but the Mughals had also adopted many pagan traditions to well-integrate themselves into a society vastly foreign to their belief system. Emperor Akbar had adopted the old Indian practice of kings weighing themselves against gold on his birthday and then distributing it among his subjects. Aurangzeb had carried on with this tradition for some time before he stopped it. However, in letters to his grandson, he advised him to continue with this old hindu-mughal tradition, also to do it at least four times a year. 

It was also very common for the Mughals to consult their court astrologer before they made any big decisions and Aurangzeb was no exception to this tradition.