I came as a stranger, and I leave as a stranger.
—Aurangzeb, letter written on the verge of death
When the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb looked back at his life in 1707 at the ripe age of eighty-eight, he saw failure.
From his deathbed Aurangzeb penned several poignant letters to his sons voicing his gravest fears, including that God would punish his impiety. But, most of all, he lamented his flaws as a king. To his youngest son, Kam Bakhsh, he expressed anxiety that his officers and army would be ill-treated after his death. To his third son, Azam Shah, he admitted deeper doubts: “I entirely lacked in rulership and protecting the people. My precious life has passed in vain. God is here, but my dimmed eyes do not see his splendor.”
Aurangzeb ruled for forty-nine years over a population of 150 million people. He expanded the Mughal Empire to its greatest extent, subsuming most of the Indian subcontinent under a single imperial power for the first time in human history. He made lasting contributions to the interpretation and exercise of legal codes and was renowned—by people of all backgrounds and religious stripes—for his justice. He was quite possibly the richest man of his day and boasted a treasury overflowing with gems, pearls, and gold, including the spectacular Kohinoor diamond. But these accomplishments failed to assuage his angst about his political deficiencies in his final days.
To both Azam Shah and Kam Bakhsh, Aurangzeb also confessed his religious shortcomings and the bitter divine judgment he believed he would soon face. A devout Muslim, he thought that he had “chosen isolation from God” both in this life and the next. And while he came into the world unburdened, he flinched at the idea of entering the afterlife saddled with the weight of his sins. He ended his final letter to Azam with an evocative, lingering flourish, pronouncing his farewell thrice, “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.”
Aurangzeb exited this world more than three hundred years ago, in the winter of 1707. He was buried in a simple, open-air grave in Khuldabad, Maharashtra. In contrast to Humayun’s imposing tomb of red sandstone in Delhi or Shah Jahan’s lavish resting place at the magnificent Taj Mahal in Agra, Aurangzeb’s grave made no demand that he be remembered. In accordance with Aurangzeb’s wishes, the tomb was plain and unmarked, located within a Sufi shrine. Over the centuries, marble floors were added, as well as a marble railing and an identifying plaque. Even with these embellishments, however, the modesty of Aurangzeb’s tomb issues a strong contrast to the massive blocks of stone that boldly proclaim the burial sites and earthly legacies of his predecessors.
Aurangzeb may have been content to be forgotten, but the world is not ready to let him go. Aurangzeb lives on as a vibrant figure in public memory in twenty-first-century India and Pakistan. In India people hotly debate his reign and often condemn him as a vile oppressor of Hindus. Whereas Aurangzeb questioned his legacy, many Indians today have no doubt that he was a zealous bigot who ruled by the sword and left behind a trail of Hindu tears. Recent political attempts to erase Aurangzeb from the face of modern India—such as by renaming Aurangzeb Road in Delhi—have injected new life into debates about this emperor and India’s Islamic past. In nearby Pakistan Aurangzeb fares only slightly better. Some follow the Indian line that Aurangzeb was a straight-up bigot, whereas others view him as one of the few truly righteous Muslim rulers of old. Precious little history surfaces in these modern visions.
Rather, as misinformation and condemnations of Aurangzeb swirl about twenty-first-century South Asia, the man himself remains an enigma.
Aurangzeb was the sixth ruler of the Mughal Empire, a polity of vast proportions. Although the world outside of the subcontinent rarely recalls the Mughals today, in their time they were a subject of intense fascination and awe. By 1600, the population of the Mughal kingdom outstripped the entirety of Europe, and Mughal wealth was unmatched in the world. Aurangzeb rose to power in 1658 in the midst of a bloody war of succession that left two of his brothers dead, a third exiled to Burma, and his father imprisoned. Aurangzeb named himself the “Seizer of the World” (Alamgir) and lived up to the title by seizing kingdom after kingdom during his forty-nine-year reign.
Even during his lifetime, Aurangzeb captured imaginations across the world. In 1675 John Dryden, then poet laureate of England, penned Aureng-zebe, a heroic tragedy about the reigning Mughal sovereign. Meanwhile, European travelers traversed India in increasing numbers, and many sought an audience with the famed Aurangzeb Alamgir. British, Dutch, Portuguese, and French traders established operations in pockets of the subcontinent and pursued trade agreements with the Mughals. From a Mughal perspective, however, Europeans were small fish. Aurangzeb, like his predecessors, was preoccupied with ruling one of the largest empires in world history, a kingdom encompassing 3.2 million square kilometers (roughly the size of modern India) and esteemed for its riches, prosperity, and religious and cultural diversity.
Unlike other Mughal rulers, who have attracted significant attention from historians, Aurangzeb has been neglected over the past several decades. The task of capturing the life of this king, about whom we know surprisingly little, is far from straightforward. Aurangzeb was a complex emperor whose life was shaped by an assortment of sometimes conflicting desires and motivations, including power, justice, piety, and the burden of Mughal kingship. Such a man would be a challenging historical subject under any circumstances but especially so given the gulf of cultural knowledge that stands between his time and our own.
Aurangzeb is also a live wire of history that sparks fires in the present day. Current popular visions of Aurangzeb are more fiction than reality, however. If we can pierce the haze of myth that shrouds Aurangzeb today, we can begin to recover perhaps the single most important political figure of seventeenth-century India. Since no path to the past can begin anywhere but in the present, I turn first to the imagined Aurangzeb of our times. I then analyze the man himself as both a product of his age and an emperor who shaped the times in which he lived.
The Myth of Aurangzeb the Villain
The last of the so-called “Grand Mughals,” Aurungzeb, tried to put back the clock, and in this attempt stopped it and broke it up.
The year 2015 was a bad one for Aurangzeb. A debate raged for much of the year over whether to strip the Mughal emperor’s name from a major thoroughfare in Delhi. The reason, as given by a local Sikh group that raised the idea, was that Aurangzeb was “one of the most tyrannical tormentor perpetrator of Intolerant Inhuman Barbaric crimes in India” [sic]. A few Members of Parliament affiliated with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) jumped on this bandwagon and issued their own calls to tear what they viewed as a painful page out of Delhi’s history, or at least erase the offending ruler’s name from the city’s road signs. In late August of 2015 New Delhi officials capitulated and rechristened the street A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road, after India’s eleventh president. A week later, city employees crept out in the dead of night and chiseled Aurangzeb’s name off the street signs.
Rather than induce a society-wide amnesia about Aurangzeb, however, such events only propelled him into the forefront of people’s minds. A mere month later, in October 2015, a Shiv Sena MP was caught on tape hurling invectives at a civic official, including “Aurangzeb ki aulad” (Aurangzeb’s progeny). Such language mirrors “Babur ki aulad” (Babur’s progeny), a term of abuse lobbed against Indian Muslims, especially during the late 1980s and early 1990s in the lead up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by a right-wing, Hindutva mob. But why replace Babur with Aurangzeb?
From a divisive Hindu nationalist perspective, Babur and Aurangzeb are to some degree interchangeable as oppressive Muslim conquerors. In this sense Aurangzeb stands in for an entire category of “orthodox Muslims” who are supposedly implicated in unsavory aspects of India’s past and, consequently, unwelcome in India’s present. It is not incidental that Aurangzeb is widely believed to have been the most pious of the Mughal kings. Aurangzeb thus typifies zealous Muslims overall—both past and present—who allegedly threaten Indian society by virtue of their religiosity. In this formulation Indian and Hindu cultures are collapsed into a single, flattened entity that offers little breathing room for other religious groups.
But Aurangzeb also holds a special, uncoveted place among India’s reviled kings. Common opinion, even among those who do not share the sentiments of the BJP and like-minded Hindu nationalist groups, pillories Aurangzeb as a callous Islamist oppressor who despised everything about India, especially Hindus. Across the border in Pakistan, too, many endorse the vision of an evil Aurangzeb, even responsible for South Asia’s modern woes. As Shahid Nadeem, a Pakistani playwright, recently put it: “Seeds of Partition were sown when Aurangzeb triumphed over [his brother] Dara Shikoh.” Such far-fetched suggestions would be farcical, if so many did not endorse them.
The Pakistani playwright’s view has a precedent in the writing of Jawaharlal Nehru, a founding father of modern India who was no fan of Aurangzeb. In his Discovery of India, first published in 1946, Nehru listed Aurangzeb’s purported faults at length, rebuking him as “a bigot and an austere puritan.” He excoriated the sixth Mughal king as a dangerous throwback who “put back the clock” and ended up destroying the Mughal Empire. Perhaps Nehru’s most damning blow was to pronounce Aurangzeb too Muslim to be a successful Indian king: “When Aurungzeb 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.” For Nehru, Aurangzeb’s adherence to Islam crippled his ability to rule India.
Nehru was hardly original in his censure of Aurangzeb as dangerously pious and therefore a bad emperor. Such views were espoused by many of Nehru’s contemporaries, including Jadunath Sarkar, the foremost twentieth-century historian of Aurangzeb. British colonial thinkers had long impugned the Mughals on a range of charges, including that they were effeminate, oppressive, and Muslims. As early as 1772, Alexander Dow remarked in a discussion of Mughal governance that “the faith of Mahommed is peculiarly calculated for despotism; and it is one of the greatest causes which must fix for ever the duration of that species of government in the East.” For the British the solution to such an entrenched problem was clear: British rule over India. While Indian independence leaders rejected this final step of colonial logic, many swallowed the earlier parts wholesale. Such ideas filtered to society at large via textbooks and mass media, and several generations have continued to eat up and regurgitate the colonial take that Aurangzeb was a tyrant driven by religious fanaticism.
Over the centuries, many commentators have spread the myth of the bigoted, evil Aurangzeb on the basis of shockingly thin evidence. Many false ideas still mar popular memory of Aurangzeb, including that he massacred millions of Hindus and destroyed thousands of temples. Neither of these commonly believed “facts” is supported by historical evidence, although some scholars have attempted, usually in bad faith, to provide an alleged basis for such tall tales. More common than bald-faced lies, however, have been biased interpretations of cherry-picked episodes selected with the unabashed goal of supporting a foregone rebuke of Aurangzeb. For instance, detractors trumpet that Aurangzeb destroyed certain temples without acknowledging that he issued many orders protecting Hindu temples and granted stipends and land to Brahmins. They denounce that he restricted the celebration of Holi without mentioning that he also clamped down on Muharram and Eid festivities. They omit altogether that Aurangzeb consulted with Hindu ascetics on health matters and employed more Hindus in his administration than any prior Mughal ruler by a substantial margin. We cannot reconcile these less-frequently reported but historically important aspects of Aurangzeb’s rule with the fictitious image of this ruler as propelled by religious-based hate.
Of course, no one would contend that Aurangzeb was without faults. It is not difficult to identify specific actions taken by Aurangzeb that fail to meet modern democratic, egalitarian, and human rights standards. Aurangzeb ruled in a premodern world of kingdoms and empires, and his ideas about violence, state authority, and everything else were conditioned by the time and place in which he lived. Aurangzeb’s contemporaries included such kings as Charles II of England, Louis XIV of France, and the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman II. No one asserts that these historical figures were “good rulers” under present-day norms because it makes little sense to assess the past by contemporary criteria. The aim of historical study is something else entirely.
Historians seek to comprehend people on their own terms, as products of particular times and places, and explain their actions and impacts. We need not absolve our subjects of study of guilt, and we certainly do not need to like them. But we strive to hold back judgment long enough so that the myth of Aurangzeb can fade into the background and allow room for a more nuanced and compelling story to be told.
Recovering Aurangzeb the Man
The stability of the foundation of sovereignty depends upon justice (‘adalat).
—Maxim for rulers, quoted approvingly by Aurangzeb
Aurangzeb organized his life as ruler of Hindustan around a few key ideals and preoccupations. He wanted to be a just king, a good Muslim, and a sustainer of Mughal culture and customs. Aurangzeb also headed an expansionist state and so labored to extend imperial control over the subcontinent and its inhabitants, often using violence. My narrative of Aurangzeb revolves around his attempts to pursue these core values, above all justice, and includes instances in which he forfeited his ideals in the hunt for raw power.
Aurangzeb’s vision of justice was deeply colored by the wider Islamic tradition, much of which had little to do with theology. Premodern “Islamic” ideas about justice drew extensively from Persian and Greek philosophies that predated Islam. In this vision divisive concepts such as jihad and jizya (holy war and poll tax) were less important than the ideals of akhlaq and adab (political and ethical conduct). Aurangzeb was also influenced by his imperial predecessors and modeled himself on prior Mughal kings. Of course, Aurangzeb’s ideas about justice do not tally with those commonly accepted today. But that is hardly the point. In lieu of judging Aurangzeb by contemporary standards, I seek to construct a historical account of his life and reign and thereby recover the man and the king from underneath the mounds of misinformation that we have blindly accepted for centuries.
Aurangzeb’s devotion to justice, piety, and the Mughal state are recurrent subjects in Persian histories, the king’s letters, and other primary sources from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Critical readings of these Persian works form the backbone of my narrative of Aurangzeb, along with research in Hindi, Sanskrit, and other languages (for more, see the Bibliographical Essay and Postscript). Aurangzeb’s ideas—especially his notions of justice, ethics, and correct Islamic behavior—are often a world apart from how most define these things today. But the question before us is not whether Aurangzeb was a just king. Rather, I want to know what Aurangzeb thought it meant to be a just Mughal king and how that shaped his worldview and actions as emperor of Hindustan.
Understanding Aurangzeb on his own terms is a promising project but one little tried to date. This approach can help us better grasp Aurangzeb’s impact on medieval India and his crucial position within Indo-Muslim history. Moreover, grounded historical claims can temper the passions of the present that so often present Aurangzeb as something he never was. That my suggested intervention in current distortions of Aurangzeb is based on serious history is especially germane. In contrast, earlier thinkers have tried to defuse the volatile popular image of Aurangzeb by using two distinct tactics that have both failed because they are defensive.
The first futile approach has been to concede that Aurangzeb was a religious tyrant but to contrast him with “heterodox Muslim” Mughal figures, chiefly Akbar and Dara Shukoh. In comparison to the orthodox Aurangzeb, the argument goes, Akbar and Dara absorbed many Hindu ideas and thus became sufficiently “Indian” to be acceptable rulers of the subcontinent. This line of thought does not reconsider or reevaluate Aurangzeb. Instead, he is maligned for supposedly demolishing the culture of tolerance built by Akbar, the third Mughal ruler and Aurangzeb’s great-grandfather, and for snatching the Mughal throne out from under Dara Shukoh, Aurangzeb’s elder brother. In the grand arc of history, however, Aurangzeb’s sectarianism was purportedly counterbalanced by the syncretic legacy of exemplary Indian Muslims. This thinking is shared even by the likes of V. D. Savarkar, an early ideologue for Hindu nationalism. Following this logic, during the debate over renaming Aurangzeb Road in Delhi, the idea was floated to perhaps retitle the street Dara Shukoh Road.
In reality both Akbar and Dara Shukoh, like Aurangzeb, were more complicated than their popular reputations suggest. By holding up Akbar and Dara to balance Aurangzeb, we fail to learn anything new about any of these men and shackle ourselves to ranking Mughal kings according to their purported Muslimness. In such comparisons we also commit the classic error of assuming that everything in Indian history, especially the Indo-Muslim past, was about religion. Aurangzeb was a Muslim, although not the type of Muslim either his modern detractors or supporters suppose him to have been. Moreover, Aurangzeb cannot be reduced to his faith. To be honest to the past, we need to reclaim a fuller picture of him as a prince and an emperor.
Taking a different angle of attack, some have argued that we have judged Aurangzeb too harshly. Perhaps India’s most loathed Muslim evildoer was not so heinous after all?
This argument rests on correcting misinterpretations and presenting overlooked aspects of Aurangzeb’s reign, which are largely accurate. Contrary to popular belief, for instance, Aurangzeb never oversaw a large-scale conversion program that offered non-Muslims a choice between Islam or the sword. Aurangzeb did not destroy thousands of Hindu temples (a few dozen is a more likely number). He did not perpetrate anything resembling a genocide of Hindus. In fact, Aurangzeb appointed Hindus to top positions in his government. He protected the interests of Hindu religious groups, even ordering fellow Muslims to cease harassing Brahmins. He tried to provide safe roads and basic law and order for all of his subjects.
Setting the record straight falls within a historian’s purview, and this much is true: Aurangzeb was less malevolent than his contemporary reputation would have us believe. But by merely trumpeting that Aurangzeb lacked total depravity, we do not move beyond the terms set by popular condemnations of Aurangzeb. More troubling is that we fail to do justice to India’s intricate past. Surely there is more to say about a man who ruled for half a century and reshaped the political landscape of precolonial India than whether he is palatable according to twenty-first-century sensibilities? We must resist the strong, modern instinct to summarily judge Aurangzeb and, instead, first recover what we can about the actions and ideas of this influential king.
We need a fresh narrative about Aurangzeb. Here I offer one such story.
My narrative incorporates many aspects of Aurangzeb’s life and reign little known today and thereby adds much-needed historical depth to a misunderstood king. It also addresses the alleged “worst” of Aurangzeb—his temple desecrations, Machiavellian political instincts, violent tactics, persecutions of select religious communities, and so forth—but it is not defined by such topics. Merely countering the misinformation and dubious claims promulgated by Aurangzeb’s detractors would be an empty exercise because it would fail to fulfill a core guideline of history: understanding historical figures on their own terms.
A good example of this distinction—thinking defensively versus historically—is Aurangzeb’s treatment of Hindus. In popular thought Aurangzeb is imagined to have detested all Hindus and sought to stomp them down at every turn. A responsible historian could retort that Aurangzeb handled Hindus differently depending on the circumstances. Frequent conflicts arose between the Mughal state and specific Hindu communities, sometimes involving sensitive religious issues. But toleration and state protection were equally common experiences for Hindus in Aurangzeb’s India. This historical correction, although accurate, shares a false assumption with the charges that it answers: namely, that generalizing about Hindus is a fruitful way to think about Aurangzeb’s rule.
In reality Aurangzeb pursued no overarching agenda vis-à-vis Hindus within his state. “Hindus” of the day often did not even label themselves as such and rather prioritized a medley of regional, sectarian, and caste identities (e.g., Rajput, Maratha, Brahmin, Vaishnava). As many scholars have pointed out, the word Hindu is Persian, not Sanskrit, and only became commonly used self-referentially during British colonialism. The Mughals, too, emphasized differences between groups of “Hindus.” For example, Mahabat Khan, who led Mughal efforts in the Deccan for a short period in the early 1670s, preferred “Rajputs and Hindus” among the Mughal nobility, even while fighting the Marathas (who apparently did not count as “Hindu” in this instance). Instead of assessing Mughal-Hindu relations under Aurangzeb as a block, we are better off—in terms of historical grounding—considering specific groups and actions separately. Accordingly, readers will find here no section on Aurangzeb’s treatment of Hindus writ large but rather more precise discussions of Hindu nobles who worked for the Mughal state, Brahmin religious leaders, and armed Maratha opposition.
If we think beyond the restricting, communal terms of our day and instead strive to recover the seventeenth-century Mughal world, a striking picture of Aurangzeb emerges. Aurangzeb was an Indian emperor who strove throughout his life to preserve and expand the Mughal Empire, gain political power, and rule with justice.
Historians agree on certain basic data about Aurangzeb’s life. He was born in the autumn of 1618. He held his first coronation ceremony at the age of thirty-nine in 1658. He moved the entire imperial court to the Deccan in 1681, when he was in his mid-sixties, and subsequently conquered Bijapur, Golconda, and even parts of Tamil Nadu. He died in 1707 at the age of eighty-eight. But everything interesting about Aurangzeb comes out in how we string the facts together. In other words, it is the narrative that matters.
My narrative of Aurangzeb investigates both the breadth and depth of the emperor’s life and is arranged partly chronologically and partly topically. In tracing Aurangzeb’s life from childhood to death, we can grasp the major forces that shaped his ideas about Mughal kingship, ethical conduct, and politics and see how these evolved over time. By delving into select episodes and facets of his years on the throne, we gain a deeper appreciation of the motivations that drove Aurangzeb and the outcomes of his hallmark policies.
I begin with the first four decades of Aurangzeb’s life, especially his young adult years as a prince who positioned himself to outmaneuver his brothers in the impending war of succession. Aurangzeb secured the throne after a bloody two-year struggle and immediately began adjusting his inherited ruling culture to suit his own needs, a project that unfolded across his nearly fifty-year reign. Three aspects of Aurangzeb’s reign help us better grasp his ruling strategies and vision of justice: the imperial bureaucracy, Aurangzeb’s view of himself as a moral leader, and his policies regarding Hindu and Jain temples. These topics encompass some of the most controversial facets of Aurangzeb’s reign and bring out little-known features. Above all, these sections add historical depth to a king often crudely caricatured through a single lens. I next narrate the later years of Aurangzeb’s life, including his final decades spent toiling in the Deccan and his death. I close with a brief discussion of Aurangzeb’s legacy, including the charge that he bears responsibility for the splintering of the Mughal Empire in the eighteenth century.
Based on detailed research, I propose that we can fruitfully view Aurangzeb as a prince who was enmeshed in a web of royal family dynamics that shaped his early years and then as an Indian king who hungered after territory, political power, and a particular ideal of justice.