Book Review: Aurangzeb- The Man & The Myth


AUTHOR: Audrey Truschke

PUBLISHER: Penguin Random House India,2017

Audrey Truschke’s Aurangzeb-The Man & The Myth, is a brave take at reclaiming India’s medieval past from a heap of fabrications & outright lies that attempts to paint our entire history in binaries.

A short biography of the 6th Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb Alamgir; the book offers a fresh look on the life of Aurangzeb often depicted as a fanatic Muslim ruler who destroyed thousands of Hindu temples  & forced millions of Hindus to accept Islam.

Audrey begins by introducing the caricaturized version of Aurangzeb that lives in the popular memory; he’s vile, “tormentor, perpetrator of intolerant inhumane barbaric crimes in India” & someone who deserves no place in “our” history.  She then reasons why Aurangzeb makes for a nearly perfect punching bag for India’s Hindu nationalists; “Aurangzeb stands for an entire category of orthodox Muslims who threaten the Indian society by the virtue of their religiosity”.  The book then traces the origin of such jaundiced opinions on Aurangzeb.  According to the author, the colonial writings are to be blamed in part because their only interest in translating the medieval works was to propagate the myth that Hindus & Muslims are two warring nations.  Unfortunately, this notion has become symptomatic of the Indian & Pakistani society. The intermittent hostilities between the two neighbors has only helped this myth gain credence among the masses.

From here on, the book tries to reclaim, Aurangzeb, the man & “the product of his times” from Aurangzeb- “the myth”.  Audrey reminds us that Aurangzeb’s actions & his ideas about “violence, state authority & everything else were conditioned by the time & place in which he lived” . She also asserts the point that Aurangzeb’s actions should be judged on same pedestal as his contemporaries Louis XIV, Charles II & Sultan Suleiman II.  As the sovereign of a medieval empire where a single wrong decision seals the fate of the ruler, Aurangzeb had little choice but, to quash rebellions & insurrections.

Aurangzeb’s accession to the throne was a bloody affair.  When the dust settled Dara Shikoh was decapitated, Shah Shuja had fled to Arakan & Murad Baksh was locked in the Gwalior fort; thus, emerged Aurangzeb “Alamgir”-the seizer of the worlds.

The book then, busts the myth that Aurangzeb rose to power on the back of a bloody civil-war. The wars for accession were an ancient tradition among the Mughals since, the days they had dwelled in the Central Asian steppes.  Also, these wars helped the Mughal princes seek fresh alliance among the vassal states thus, reinvigorating an ageing ruling clique.  As noted by the author, when asked by Aurangzeb “what he’d have done if their roles were reversed?”  Dara retorted “he’d have Aurangzeb’s body quartered & displayed on Delhi’s four gates”. This is only one instance among the many where Audrey establishes the point that Aurangzeb was no different from his brothers or the earlier Mughal rulers whose only maxim in life was, “ya takht, ya tabut”(either the throne or the coffin) .

The book also revisits his legacy as the “destroyer of the Hindu temples”.  There are strong historical evidences suggesting, Aurangzeb continued the Mughal tradition of supporting temples & priests through grants. He issued orders to protect temples & their leaders from harassment & “provided stipend to Hindu spiritual figures”.

The author never attempts to portray Aurangzeb as a benign figure, a pious Muslim or a tragic historical figure. As the book moves to the second half of Aurangzeb’s reign which he spent campaigning in the Deccan & the south; subduing the sultanates of Bijapur, Golconda & chasing the Marathas, it’s clear that Aurangzeb’s reign needs to be studied dispassionately. He was a despot just like the hundreds of others in his age driven by the only motive of plundering lands & maintaining the stranglehold of Mughal dynasty over the subcontinent. He’d issue grants to the Brahmins & also ordered destruction of temples when their leaders were found supporting insurrections against his rule. He’d side with the Muslim clergy & stopped the grants to the Brahmins but, never enforced the rule which could easily upset the vast majority of his subjects. He disciplined the Rajputs & also smashed the Muslim sultanates of South against the wishes of the Ulema (Muslim clergy).  He had the Maratha Chieftain, Sambhaji brutally executed & also had his own brother beheaded in his quest for the throne.  Aurangzeb Alamgir was an impressive general, a shrewd statesman & possibly 17th century’s single most powerful political figure whose life merits objective scholarly analysis; this is Audrey’s message that time & again resonates.

The book is a welcome change at a time when a singular majoritarian narrative of history is being shoved down our throats. The only negative in this riveting narrative is, Audrey appears to quickly hop between events. Only a handful of occurrences during the reign of Aurangzeb find mention; his accession, his dealings with the Marathas & the campaign in the south are special focus whereas the rebellions in the North find fleeting space.

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