Issue :   
December 2017 Edition of Power Politics is updated.         December 2017 Edition of Power Politics is updated.
Issue:Dec' 2017


Exploding the myths

Malladi Rama Rao

Ashoka and Aurangzeb belong to two different periods in Indian history. And history as taught across India presents the Mauryan as a ruler who deserves a kind word and the Mughal emperor as one who deserves no sympathy. Ashoka, we are told from the primary school level, had planted shade giving trees along the highways, and worked to spread the message of Lord Buddha across the country and beyond the Indian shores. On the other hand, Aurangzeb was censured as a Hindu loathing bigot, murderer, and religious zealot.

Sanjeev Sanyal, economist-urban theorist-turned historian, has now come up with a take that demolishes the Ashoka legend. Audrey Truschke, the Newark-based South Asian historian, has penned an interesting narrative on Aurangzeb to offer an untold side of him as "a man who strove to be a just, worthy Indian king". She, however, concedes that Aurangzeb was an enigmatic king but avers that company historians exploited the very trait to show the British rule as enlightened.
Undoubtedly, Indian historical studies were moulded by western perspective during the long years of colonial rule. After independence, history came under the influence of Left thinkers, particularly during the sixties and seventies, when the Left had great sway over the government in Delhi.
From the mid-eighties the Right has been trying to occupy the centre stage in so far as our understanding of our own history is concerned. Jawaharlal Nehru, whose 'Discovery of India' is a must read for Indians also can be said to have had a flawed lens. For instance, while on Aurangzeb, he observed: "The last of the so-called 'Grand Mughals,' Aurangzeb tried to put back the clock, and in this attempt stopped it and broke it up."
As India's experience shows, these two schools – Left and Right have tremendous limitations; while the Left likes to look at the past with today's mindset and prejudices, the Right loves to go overboard in the opposite direction.

The Hindu-Muslim polarisation is a modern idiom; it has had no place in Mughal India. History is not a playground for amateurs. Nor of ideologues either. It is a study based on fact. Not fiction. Not hagiography. If history must be rewritten, the task is best left to professional, unbiased historians – a breed difficult to find in India these days.

Both Sanyal, and Truschke present an account, which is fascinating, bold, and captivating. The American has written "Aurangzeb, The Man And The Myth" after writing about literary, social, and political roles of Sanskrit in the Persian-speaking Islamic Mughal courts (1560-1650). Sanyal's "The Ocean of Churn" is very wide in scope and sweep. He looks at how the Indian Ocean shaped human history, and offers some food for thought to today's diplomats and strategists, who are focused on India's maritime security.Sanyal's earlier book, "The Land of the Seven Rivers", was no less a grand narrative of Bharatvarsha to the delight of Hindutva Bhakts. While Truschke digs deep into Mughal records and contemporary narratives to hold a new mirror to the Grand Mughal, Sanyal explores remote archaeological sites, ancient inscriptions, maritime trading networks, and half-forgotten oral histories to make the reader to put a thinking cap.


Sanyal takes the reader on "an amazing journey through medieval geo-politics, and eyewitness accounts bringing alive a region ….that has defined civilisation from the very beginning". He blandly tells you that "history looks different when witnessed from the coastlines rather than from an inland point of view," and gives a perspective from the sea only to challenge well established claims about many characters that dot the pages of history from western India to North India and South India. One account that interested me was about Ashoka that was spread over some six-seven pages. Equally fascinating was the story on how the Sinhalese came to Sri Lanka. In fact, the book has many such nuggets that hold the reader's interest in what is otherwise a very dry subject.

"Ashoka, the Not so Great", reads the heading of the sub - chapter on the Mauryan King. The real reason for Ashoka becoming a Buddhist was not the Kalinga war, he asserts, and says: "The readers will be surprised to discover that the popular narrative about this conversion is based on little evidence." No Buddhist text links his conversion to the war. "None of the inscriptions in Odisha expresses any remorse; any hint of regret is deliberately left out. The silence is deafening."
Ashoka invaded Kalinga in 262BC, more than two years after he became Buddhist, according to minor rock edicts. He seems to have had links with Buddhists for a decade before the Kalinga war. If so, why did he become a Buddhist? Evidence suggests that the conversion was "more to do with the politics of succession" that followed the death of his father, Bindusara in 274BC."
Taking the argument further, Sanyal tells the readers that Ashok may have befriended the Buddhists since his rivals in the succession war had links to the Jains and the Aijivikas. Kalinga war too could be part of the power struggle. "My guess is that it (Kalinga) had either sided with Ashoka's rivals during the battle of succession or declared itself independent in the confusion". Sanyal rejects the view that Kalinga was an independent kingdom by the time Ashok occupied the throne. Interestingly, Ashoka was not a good administrator and he became a mute witness to "the disintegration of his empire from rebellion, internal family squabbles and fiscal stress."

Assuring the reader that his narrative is based "on exactly the same texts and inscriptions used to praise" the Mauryan emperor, Sanyal remarks: "Perhaps like many politicians, he made grand high-minded proclamations but acted entirely different". If so, who invested him with greatness? Hagiographic Buddhist texts written in countries that did not experience his reign! "He was rediscovered in the 19th century by colonial era orientalists like James Prinsep. His elevation to being 'Ashoka the Great' is even more recent and is the result of political developments leading up to India's independence". No surprise this assertion has made Sanyal receive uncomplimentary remarks and fulsome praise in equal measure.
The 297-page Sanyal tome says that shipping lines between the Roman Empire and India provided the infrastructure for all kinds of people to move back and forth across the seas. It was fashionable for wealthy Roman women to consult Indian astrologers. The ships of the Indian Ocean had hulls that were stitched together with rope rather than nailed around a frame to give the hull a degree of flexibility. This design most likely originated in India and the Omani Arabs and Yemenis quickly adopted it. It remained the preferred technique till the Europeans arrived at the end of 15th Century. "The Ocean of Churn" gives a peep into India's influence on South-East Asia with trade booming between the kingdoms of southern India, the Arab world and China.During the Chola rule India's maritime trade was financed by temples. There were Islamic, Indic, and the Chinese Zones of civilizational influence in the Indian Ocean Rim at the end of the 12th century but all the three faced a major setback from the invaders from Central Asia. Sanyal speculates that the waves of invaders could have made India lose the civilizational confidence and abandon the sea for the shore.


Reading Truschke's Aurangzeb reminded me what my social studies teacher told us 9th class students long years ago just before he started on the sixth Mughal emperor. "I will tell the good about him first and then the bad about him. And the bad about him will remain etched in your minds for ever", he said half seriously. The author does not do so and has adopted the conventional style.
She has divided her 189-page book into eight chapters - Introducing Aurangzeb, Early Years, The Grand Arc of Aurangzeb's Reign, Administrator of Hindustan, Moral Man & Leader, Overseer of Hindu Religious Communities, Later Years and Aurangzeb's Legacy

A recurring theme is the caveat that Aurangzeb was a product of his time and therefore he should not be judged on the bench marks of modern democratic, egalitarian, and human rights standards. Charles-II of England, Louis XIV of France, and Sultan Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire are among Aurangzeb's contemporaries. None of them were 'good rulers' under present day norms.

Even Ashoka had blood on his hands as he usurped the throne. Truschke argues with some justification that earlier thinkers had used the legacy of Akbar and Dara Shukoh to judge Aurangzeb. Even the likes of Veer Savarkar adopted the same approach. Such comparisons lead to assuming that everything in the Indo-Muslim past was about religion. In reality, Aurangzeb was not the type of Muslim that either his modern detractors or supporters suppose him to have been. He cannot be reduced to his faith. From this hypothesis, Truschke proceeds to offer a racy account that 'recovers' Aurangzeb, and tells he was not as a bad guy as our school text books say.

Truschke debunks the generally held view that Aurangzeb was ruthless in persecuting Hindus, demolishing Hindu temples, and discriminating against minority Shia Muslims. His court had many Hindu officials; head of treasury (diwani) was a Hindu, Raja Raghunatha, who started his career in Shah Jahan's court; he was, in fact, amongst the first to pledge loyalty to Aurangzeb. In the latter half of his reign, Aurangzeb appointed Hindus within the imperial bureaucracy at an accelerated rate. Between 1679 and 1707, Hindu representation among Mughal officials rose by half.

The author fields the question whether Aurangzeb had ordered large scale demolition of Hindu temples. "Nobody knows the exact number of temples demolished or pillaged on Aurangzeb's orders, and we never will. Richard Eaton, the leading authority on the subject puts the number at just over a dozen, with fewer tied to the emperor's direct command. (Page 107). In Feb 1659, Aurangzeb heard that several people out of spite and rancour, have harassed the Hindu residents of Benares, and nearby places including a group of Brahmins who were in charge of ancient temples there. So went the order to local officials: "You must see that nobody unlawfully disturbs the Brahmins or other Hindus of that region so that they might remain in their traditional place and pray for the continuance of the Empire." Yet, ten years later in 1669, Aurangzeb had ordered Benares's Vishwanath temple demolished; Mathura's Keshav Deva Temple was brought down in 1670. "In both instances, he sought to punish political missteps by temple associates and ensure future submission to the Mughal state (Page 108).
Two factors appear to have prompted the attack on Kashi temple. One the support to Shivaji by Jai Singh, great-grandson of Raja Mansingh, who had built the temple during Akbar's reign. Two a rebellion amongst the Benares landlords connected to the temple, many of whom were also implicated in Shivaji's escape from the Mughal court. The Shivaji factor also resulted in obliteration of the Mathura temple. Moreover it was patronised by Dara Shukoh, his main rival.

Significantly, most of the temples that Aurangzeb had targeted were in northern India. With a handful of exceptions, he did not destroy temples in the Deccan, where the Mughal kingdom expanded during the last three decades of his life. There is evidence to show that his regime made liberal grants to temples and Brahmins.

According to Truschke, Aurangzeb's approach to religion was hardly puritanical. On the contrary, he consulted with prominent Hindu religious figures of the day like Bairagi Hindu Shiv Mangaldas Maharaj, and showered them with gifts.

He rejected demands to discriminate against Shias in government, saying "What connection have earthly affairs with religion? And what right have administrative works to meddle with bigotry?…

If this rule were established, it would be my duty to extirpate all the Hindu Rajahs and their followers. Wise men disapprove of the removal from office of able officers." He clashed with the Ulema especially in their role as Qazi throughout his reign.
What about conversion of Hindus to Islam during Aurangzeb rule? "As per his agenda to promote moral behaviour, Aurangzeb attempted to mould the theological leanings of hissubjects especially Muslims but never spearheaded a programme to marshal widespread conversion of Hindus. Overall, relatively few Hindus converted to Islam in Aurangzeb's India".
What about Hindu hostility to Muslim rule of the day? There was no such thing; there were rebellions by Hindu and Muslim rulers alike against the Mughal rule; it was all part of power struggle. In fact, when Aurangzeb's son Prince Akbar rebelled, he received support of Rajput rulers

Aurangzeb was not against music, says the author drawing upon Persian and Hindu sources and contemporary court records.

His first lover was a singer Hirabai Zainabadi. He passed his later years largely in the company of another musician, Udaipuri.
In the early 1690s a poet, Chandraman dedicated to Aurangzeb his Nargisistan (Narcissus Garden) a Persian poetic retelling of the Ramayana. In 1705, another poet, Amar Singh dedicated his prose Ramayana in Persian to the king.

the king. In a letter on the verge of death, Aurangzeb wrote: "I came as a stranger, and I leave as a stranger."

Sadly, he remains a stranger to the students of Indian history even today with public discourse divided between Aurangzeb the Bigot and Aurangzeb the Pious. He had built world's largest mosque(of his time) in Lahore but chose to be buried in an unmarked grave in the courtyard of Chishti Sufi shrine of Zaynuddin Shirazi at Khuldabad, close to Aurangabad in Maharashtra.
You can visit his grave today although there is not much to see in the small, open-air space. It draws far fewer visitors annually than the soaring mausoleums of his father, Shahjahan, grand-father Akbar, and great grand-father Humayun.
Audrey Truschke deserves a "big thank you" for her scholarly yet clinical approach to look beyond the headlines on Aurangzeb. Her conclusion: one must be sceptical of communal visions of Aurangzeb that flood the popular sphere.