The Life and Legacy of India's Most Controversial King

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Audrey Truschke
  • Stanford, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , May
     152 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Audrey Truschke’s Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King is a reasonably commendable project in the modern historical discourse of Mughal India. One of the most contentious figures, especially in modern times, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (d. 1707) ruled one of the richest empires in the world at the time from 1658 to 1707. The emperor has been the subject of much controversy, especially in modern India with its rising nationalistic tendencies and the coming into power of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Much of the criticism against Aurangzeb has stemmed from popular notions regarding his practices, such as his “destruction of the temples,” “hatred for Hindus,” and “practicing and promoting ‘orthodox’ Islam,” etc.

Truschke offers a fresh perspective on the life and rule of Aurangzeb. In fact, her very thesis as a historian is to discard the popular image of the king, which has developed over the last three centuries. Instead, she evaluates and studies Aurangzeb in the historical setting of his time. She argues that through an accurate reading of the historical sources, the modern popular historical (mis)interpretations do not carry much weight, and thus we need to evaluate and understand Aurangzeb’s actions in the context of his own time and on its own terms.

By analyzing sources such as Futuhat-i Alamgiri, Tabaqat-i Akbari, Tarikh-i Dilkusha, and Alamgirnama amongst others, Truschke strictly and convincingly challenges Aurangzeb’s image as an ‘orthodox-Muslim/hater-of-Hindus,’ who is typically seen as an antagonist of his brother, Prince Dara Shukoh (d. 1659) popularized as the ‘tolerant-Muslim/good-to-Hindus.’ The very first chapter serves as a good introduction to the book’s thesis by describing some of the common myths regarding Aurangzeb, including commentary on why it is important to have a fresh assessment of him (13). In the popular narrative, Dara Shukoh, who was the eldest son of Emperor Shah Jahan (d. 1666) is often depicted to be the ‘liberal’ prince, and as someone who would have made a more ‘tolerant king’ as compared to Aurangzeb.

Dara Shukoh and another prince brother, Murad (d. 1661), were killed by Aurangzeb in the race for succession, while the third brother, Shah Shuja (d. 1661), fled after being defeated by Aurangzeb. In chapter 2, Truschke discusses the early life of Aurangzeb as a young prince, and mentions the Central Asian custom that the Mughals adopted, which allowed all male family members an equal claim to the throne (18). The Persian expression ya takht ya tabut (“either the throne or the grave”) dictated wars of succession and political maneuvering amongst princes (23). The author presents the example of Aurangzeb’s father, Shah Jahan, who had also killed his brothers to succeed to the Peacock Throne. Throughout the book, Truschke challenges the dichotomy between the ‘liberal’ prince Dara Shukoh and the ‘intolerant’ Aurangzeb by providing much more balanced and nuanced profiles of both princes.

Truschke writes that Aurangzeb is often reviled for his destruction of temples and for the persecution of Hindus. She reassesses that narrative and argues that at the time such practices were perpetuated for political purposes rather than religious ones. Aurangzeb was not the first or last king who might have resorted to such actions. The author argues that in fact the very category ‘Hindu’ is itself a questionable category when applied to all the sub-groups considered under the umbrella of ‘Hinduism’ today (61). There was persecution of other groups as well, and not just the Hindus per se.

Truschke notes that the groups aligning with the government––whether Hindus or Muslims––received a favorable stance generally, while the foes were challenged and punished. She points out in chapters 3 and 4 that Aurangzeb would not compromise on state security or on his sovereignty, regardless of anyone’s faith. In fact, he would be much more severe in punishing such people from his own family––for example––his own son, Prince Akbar (d. 1706) (38). The author notes that punishment was driven by Aurangzeb’s fixation on his version of justice (‘adl) (39); those who challenged his sovereignty faced severe and often cruel consequences (53). What would seem like harsh practices today were standard political tactics for that time period, according to Truschke (54).

In chapters 5 and 6, Truschke highlights Aurangzeb’s role as an overseer and protector of the religious institutions of non-Muslims. She argues that contrary to popular opinion, Aurangzeb provided patronage to Hindu temples and had a great interest in Sanskrit texts. He also included Hindu nobles in his court and administration. Similarly, Truschke writes that Aurangzeb’s relationship with Islam was complicated in general; when it came to a choice between Islamic law and state interests, he tended to pick the latter. Thus, she complicates the typical ‘upholder-of-shariah’ understanding about Aurangzeb.

The author concludes that based on historical evidence, we need to discard some of the popular myths about Aurangzeb and look at him as a sovereign and politician of his time (107). Aurangzeb acted according to his idea of justice (‘adl) and ethical conduct (adab and akhlāq), as he deemed right for his political obligations, and his actions were consistent with the distinct cultural and political sensibilities of his era (107). His purpose was to expand his grip across the subcontinent by sustaining his Mughal traditions.

In terms of writing style, the book is a compact, yet carefully written work, using legitimate primary sources. It is a good read, especially for non-specialists. However, the absence of footnotes at times can be unsatisfying. Furthermore, some arguments by Truschke, such as the claim that Aurangzeb had “no overarching agenda” with regard to Hindus (17) are debatable given some of the measures he took (e.g. the re-imposition of jizya [a poll tax on non-Muslims]).

The work is nonetheless an important contribution to Mughal history, as recent scholarship on the Mughal empire has been overshadowed with studies about Emperor Akbar (d. 1605). It is also an important effort for discussions around Muslim-Hindu encounters and the pre-modern/early modern India. While the book might not be completely fulfilling for academic audiences, it will be especially effective in sparking interest in this subject among non-academic ones in light of Truschke’s crisp, comprehensible and concise writing driven by a historical approach.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shaharyar Zia is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
August 28, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Audrey Truschke is Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers University. She is the author of Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court (2016).



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