Rare is the book that causes a sea-change in opinion or perspective; this book – Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, by Audrey Truschke, is one in that category. A book that quite successfully challenges, at least in my case, a strongly held opinion, and overturns it through sheer dint of a strong, logical, data-and-fact backed series of arguments that is also intuitively accurate when put into the larger picture of the era under question. The inconsistencies that are contained in the modern impression of the man Aurangzeb, that should have been apparent to me, came to the fore in the hitherto-understood picture of the man Aurangzeb.

 

 

THE BOOK

I would rather you read this for yourself; no description in one or two paragraphs can do justice to this masterpiece of a historical paper. In a nutshell, this is a factual, no-holds-barred examination of Aurangzeb, the historical figure. His life has been examined in a scholarly paper based on hard period evidence, and the popular image of the man has been successfully taken on. What emerges is a far more logical, nuanced and realistic historical figure. All the controversies have been examined – some have been proven right, while bringing to light other aspects which were not known to us.

 

We think of Aurangzeb as a religious zealot, anti-Hindu,  who oppressed the Hindus in his kingdom; we – at least I did – assume that it was this that lead to the eventual demise of the Mughal empire. I thought of him as a temple-destroyer, and even a mass-killer, a cruel leader. Ms Truschke has looked at all of these aspects and more, bringing to light his other traits, his protection of Hindu temples as well as the sporadic destruction of the same; his penchant for morals and for justice, and the import of his policies and his politics on the Empire and its future is all brought to the fore here.

 

THE ANALYSIS

The best part I liked was the acceptance of the negative traits, all too well known to us. This work does not try to whitewash {or, given my brown skin, perhaps brownwash is a better term} Aurangzeb. Far from it; it categorically accepts his negative aspects, while filling in unknown details of the emperor. It establishes the motives for his negativity, as well as the scale of the same, putting the things in the proper perspective. Best of all, it steers clear of modern norms of judgement, morality, legality, society etc, and takes a deeper perspective.

 

It was nice to read a historian accepting what has been my consistent stance in the past 9 years of reviewing history books : that history should be not judged by modern standards. One has to understand the era of which we are talking about, its society, its politics, its norms. And one has to steer clear from the temptation of taking a judgemental  stance basis a modern thought process; any judgements that are made in your mind should ideally avoided,  or at best made from a mindset that lies in the era which you are judging.

 

Question 1 to the Author: This is the first negative of the book; there is a strong felt need for historians like Ms Audrey to elaborate this concept and explain why we should  not use modern yardsticks to judge history, and what are the pitfalls of the same. The book missed a golden chance for pitching this point in a much stronger manner to the audience. Given that it challenges a strongly held belief in at least a segment of the people, there was a strong need for this addition, which would have made the arguments it contains much stronger.

 

The Aurangzeb that emerges from this book is far more realistic, while most certainly not likeable. The book does not make the contention that he was a well liked leader or anything like that; it admits his weaknesses, in fact highlights them. But it adds the positives he had as well; this fleshes out the character Aurangzeb, makes him seem real to us. That is logical : any person would have positives. It also highlights his politics, which was at the centre of most of his actions rather than religion, if not all. Now this should have been apparent to an amateur historian like me; he was an Emperor, and such a man would value politics – he did rule for 49.5 years. Without adequate focus on politics, that would have been impossible to achieve.

 

The book also gives a deep insight into Mughal India as it existed in the 1600s, and we begin to understand why did we fall so rapidly politically in the 1600s and 1700s. The slow cancerous degeneration of the hold of the center over its vassal states due to the policies – and personal traits of – the ruler become apparent; as is the deleterious impact of relentless expansionism, loose control and physical absence of the Emperor from Delhi…. {Aurangzeb spent the last 2-3 decades of his life away from Delhi}. These policies and traits had nothing to do with Religion, for the most part.

 

It gives a fascinating insight into Aurangzeb’s religious philosophy, piety – while making it clear that in a matter of Religion Vs Politics, he always chose Politics. His penchant for justice, positive engagements with Hindus {Started around the 1560s by Akbar}, protection of temples etc has been thoroughly examined. The destruction of temples and its sporadic political nature has also been well covered. His steps were not limited to Hindus, which comes as a surprise. It underlines how Hindu participation was the highest under Aurangzeb, which was a stunner.

 

On the religious aspects of this debate, I would much rather you looked it up for yourself; suffice it t state that there is enough material in the book that forces a rethink, at least in my case. Both sides of the debate have been fairly examined in a scholarly fashion; I certainly could not detect any agenda. And I am a person who is on record stating a preference for Indian Books – Fiction or Non-Fiction; most of the {nearly all} books to feature on my blog in History section are Indian in origin, or by Indian origin people. Question 2 :  Interestingly, this book also challenges my notion – that history is best understood by insiders, that is people living in the culture / nation on which  the history book is based on. That said, I do still believe a co-author from India or Indian Origins would have had a positive impact in terms of the acceptability of the content, as its presentation would have been far more nuanced and in keeping with Indian Audience Tastes and impressions. I could be wrong on this point, though.

 

I have stated two questions of the author above : let me conclude this review with a third Question. Annotations and Evidence: The book  would have had a much stronger impact had a proper notation been adopted, with footnotes on each page for each evidence –based point being made, linked to detailed descriptions in End-Notes as has been done in other works. In simple words, the author should have given footnotes with summary of proofs and sources, with a detailed bibliography at the end. As  of now there is only a detailed bibliography, which is not indexed to specific pages and paragraphs on the main content. There is only a bold lettering giving main point; making it slightly hard for the reader.

 

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, this is an excellent summary analysis of the Emperor Aurangzeb. The book sets out with an objective of telling Myth from Fact about Aurangzeb; in this, it succeeds admirably. Rated 5 stars, and a highly recommended read. But, I have another, a fourth question : Ms Trushcke missed a golden opportunity of going deeper into this fascinating Emperor; this book has given a tantalizing glimpse of how his impact on Central Politics in the India of the 1600s and the 1700s was much greater than we the people believe it to be; perhaps, his weaknesses contributed to bringing the colonial rape of our lovely land, as the Empire weakened in the last 2 decades of his rule, leaving us open to Invasion.