Audrey Truschke: “Aurangzeb is most in need of scholarly attention.”

In the latest edition of #WritersTalkPolitics, historian Audrey Truschke speaks to Souradeep Roy and Ishita Mehta, members of the Indian Writers' Forum. ICF had  published an interview with Truschke earlier in which she gives her version of the events in Hyderabad, where her talk was cancelled. In this interview, she talks about her work on Aurangzeb, her visits to India, her approach to history writing, and more.  Following the interview is an extract from the chapter "Overseer of Hindu Religious Communities" from her book Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth.

Overseer of Hindu Religious Communities



Protector of Temples

 [Ellora] is one of the finely crafted marvels of the real, transcendent Artisan [i.e., God].
—Aurangzeb describing the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist temples at Ellora

Hindu and Jain temples dotted the landscape of Aurangzeb’s kingdom. These religious institutions were entitled to Mughal state protection, and Aurangzeb generally endeavored to ensure their well-being. By the same token, from a Mughal perspective, that goodwill could be revoked when specific temples or their associates acted against imperial interests. Accordingly, Emperor Aurangzeb authorized targeted temple destructions and desecrations throughout his rule.

Many modern people view Aurangzeb’s orders to harm specific temples as symptomatic of a larger vendetta against Hindus. Such views have roots in colonial-era scholarship, where positing timeless Hindu-Muslim animosity embodied the British strategy of divide and conquer. Today, multiple websites claim to list Aurangzeb’s “atrocities” against Hindus (typically playing fast and loose with the facts) and fuel communal fires. There are numerous gaping holes in the proposition that Aurangzeb razed temples because he hated Hindus, however. Most glaringly, Aurangzeb counted thousands of Hindu temples within his domains and yet destroyed, at most, a few dozen. This incongruity makes little sense if we cling to a vision of Aurangzeb as a cartoon bigot driven by a single-minded agenda of ridding India of Hindu places of worship. A historically legitimate view of Aurangzeb must explain why he protected Hindu temples more often than he demolished them.

Aurangzeb followed Islamic law in granting protections to non-Muslim religious leaders and institutions. Indo-Muslim rulers had counted Hindus within the Islamic juridical category of dhimmis since the eighth century, and Hindus were thus entitled to certain rights and state defenses. Yet Aurangzeb went beyond the requirements of Islamic law in his conduct toward Hindu and Jain religious communities. Instead, for Aurangzeb, protecting and, at times, razing temples served the cause of ensuring justice for all throughout the Mughal Empire.

Aurangzeb’s notion of justice included a certain measure of freedom of religion, which led him to protect most places of Hindu worship. Mughal rulers in general allowed their subjects great leeway—shockingly so compared to the draconian measures instituted by many European sovereigns of the era—to follow their own religious ideas and inclinations. Nonetheless, state interests constrained religious freedom in Mughal India, and Aurangzeb did not hesitate to strike hard against religious institutions and leaders that he deemed seditious or immoral. But absent such concerns, Aurangzeb’s vision of himself as an even-handed ruler of all Indians prompted him to extend state security to temples.

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Aurangzeb laid out his vision of how good kings ought to treat temples and other non-Muslim religious sites in a princely order (nishan in Persian) that he sent to Rana Raj Singh, the Hindu Rajput ruler of Mewar, in 1654: “Because the persons of great kings are shadows of God, the attention of this elevated class, who are the pillars of God’s court, is devoted to this: that men of various dispositions and different religions (mazahib) should live in the vale of peace and pass their days in prosperity, and no one should meddle in the affairs of another.” When we strip away the flowery style of formal Persian, Aurangzeb’s point is this: kings represent God on earth and are thus obliged to ensure peace among religious communities.

In the same princely order Aurangzeb condemned any king “who resorted to bigotry (taassub)” as guilty of “razing God’s prosperous creations and destroying divine foundations.” Aurangzeb promised to turn his back on such un-Islamic practices once he ascended the throne and instead to “cast luster on the four-cornered, inhabited world” by following “the revered practices and established regulations” of his “great ancestors.” In Aurangzeb’s eyes Islamic teachings and the Mughal tradition enjoined him to protect Hindu temples, pilgrimage destinations, and holy men.

Aurangzeb had forty-nine years to make good on his princely promise of cultivating religious tolerance in the Mughal Empire, and he got off to a strong start. In one of his early acts as emperor, Aurangzeb issued an imperial order (farman) to local Mughal officials at Benares that directed them to halt any interference in the affairs of local temples. Writing in February of 1659, Aurangzeb said he had learned that “several people have, out of spite and rancour, harassed the Hindu residents of Banaras and nearby places, including a group of Brahmins who are in charge of ancient temples there.” The king then ordered his 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.”

The ending of the 1659 Benares farman became a common refrain in the many imperial commands penned by Aurangzeb that protected temples and their caretakers: they should be left alone so that Brahmins could pray for the longevity of the Mughal state.

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Destroyer of Temples

It is not lawful to lay waste ancient idol temples, and it does not rest with you to prohibit ablution in a reservoir which has been customary from ancient times.
 — Advice given by Muslim jurists to the future Sikander Lodi of Delhi (r. 1489–1517)

Of the tens of thousands of Hindu and Jain temples located within Mughal domains, most, although not all, still stood at the end of Aurangzeb’s reign.

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 of confirmed temple destructions during Aurangzeb’s rule at just over a dozen, with fewer tied to the emperor’s direct commands. Other scholars have pointed out additional temple demolitions not counted by Eaton, such as two orders to destroy the Somanatha Temple in 1659 and 1706 (the existence of a second order suggests that the first was never carried out). Aurangzeb also oversaw temple desecrations. For example, in 1645 he ordered mihrabs (prayer niches, typically located in mosques) erected in Ahmedabad’s Chintamani Parshvanath Temple, built by the Jain merchant Shantidas. Even adding in such events, however, to quote Eaton, “the evidence is almost always fragmentary, incomplete, or even contradictory.” Given this, there were probably more temples destroyed under Aurangzeb than we can confirm (perhaps a few dozen in total?), but here we run into a dark curtain drawn across an unknown past.

A few beams of suggestive light shine through, however, that suggest temple destructions were relatively infrequent in Aurangzeb’s India. For example, the Maasir-i Alamgiri of Saqi Mustaid Khan, a Persian-language chronicle written shortly after Aurangzeb’s death, characterized the 1670 destruction of Mathura’s Keshava Deva Temple as “a rare and impossible event that came into being seemingly from nowhere.” The Maasir-i Alamgiri overall presented Aurangzeb’s reign through the lens of Islamic conquest, sometimes changing facts to suit the author’s tastes. This tendency means that the work—as much a rhetorical masterpiece as a history—must be cited with extreme caution. The Maasir-i Alamgiri has a noted tendency to exaggerate the number of temples demolished by Aurangzeb, which adds credence to its acknowledgment here that such events were unusual and unexpected.

In the case of precolonial temple destruction in India, it is a fool’s errand to get “swept up in a numbers game,” as Eaton has put it. We stand on firmer ground in reconstructing the reasons that prompted Aurangzeb to target specific Hindu temples while leaving the vast majority untouched.

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Political events incited Aurangzeb to initiate assaults on certain Hindu temples. For example, Aurangzeb ordered Benares’s Vishvanatha Temple demolished in 1669 and Mathura’s Keshava Deva Temple brought down in 1670. In both instances Aurangzeb sought to punish political missteps by temple associates and ensure future submission to the Mughal state.

The idea that religious institutions could be subject to politically motivated destructions makes many modern people see red, but premodern Indians did not draw such a firm line between religion and politics. On the contrary, temples were widely understood—by both Hindus and Muslims—as linked with political action. The Sanskrit Brihatsamhita, written perhaps in the sixth century, warns, “If a Shiva linga, image, or temple breaks apart, moves, sweats, cries, speaks, or otherwise acts with no apparent cause, this warns of the destruction of the king and his territory.” Acting on this premise that religious images held political power, Hindu kings targeted one another’s temples beginning in the seventh century, regularly looting and defiling images of Durga, Ganesha, Vishnu, and so forth. They also periodically destroyed each other’s temples. Some Hindu kings even commissioned Sanskrit poetry to celebrate and memorialize such actions. Indo-Muslim rulers, such as Aurangzeb, followed suit in considering Hindu temples legitimate targets of punitive state action. (…)

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(…) Mosques were erected on the former sites of both the Vishvanatha and Keshava Deva Temples, although they were built under different circumstances. The Gyanvapi Masjid still stands today in Benares with part of the ruined temple’s wall incorporated into the building. This reuse may have been a religiously clothed statement about the dire consequences of opposing Mughal authority. Convenience may also have dictated this recycling. While the Gyanvapi Mosque dates to Aurangzeb’s period, its patron is unknown, and the structure is not mentioned in Mughal documents.

Aurangzeb sponsored the mosque that replaced Mathura’s Keshava Deva Temple. This may be explained by the death of Abdul Nabi Khan, a Mughal commander and a patron of the major mosque in Mathura, during the Jat rebellion. A mere eight months after Abdul Nabi’s death, a loss within the patronage community of Mathura mosques, the Keshava Deva Temple lay in ruins.

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While we can reconstruct the politics of Mughal temple destruction, medieval observers rarely, if ever, outlined realpolitik arguments for attacking specific sites. Many Hindu and Jain thinkers chalked up temple demolitions to the degeneracy of the Kali Yuga, the current age. Muslim writers commonly fell back on jihad or some other religious-based concept in their narrations of temple destructions. This Islamic proclivity was perhaps rooted in the idea that government interests do not justify harming religious institutions under Islamic law, whereas such acts were arguably permissible for spreading Islam. This logic was culturally appropriate, but it is not historically persuasive for explaining temple demolitions in Aurangzeb’s India.

Although the Kali Yuga and jihad fail to explain—in historical terms—why Aurangzeb razed certain temples while leaving most unmolested, alternative religious reasons may well have been at play. According to Saqi Mustaid Khan, a historian who wrote after Aurangzeb’s death, in 1669 the king learned that “in Thatta, Multan, and especially at Benares, deviant Brahmins were teaching false books at their established schools. Curious seekers— Hindu and Muslim alike—traveled great distances to gain depraved knowledge from them.” Similar issues may have been present in the case of Mathura’s Keshava Deva Temple, which attracted Muslims as early as Jahangir’s reign.

Generations of Mughal kings had attempted to curb certain religious behaviors, especially those of errant Brahmins who, in Mughal eyes, took advantage of the less sophisticated. For example, Akbar took Brahmins to task for misrepresenting Hindu texts to lower castes and hoped that translating Sanskrit texts into Persian would prompt these (in his opinion) arrogant leaders to reform their ways.

Aurangzeb similarly evinced concern with elite Brahmins deceiving common Hindus about their own religion and was perhaps especially alarmed that Muslims were falling prey to charlatans. Brahmins may even have profited financially from such ventures. The French traveler Jean de Thevenot opined that Brahmins were numerous in Benares and “find their Profit” in lavish festivals that drew large crowds. In such cases Mughal royal obligations demanded strong intervention to prevent their subjects from being hoodwinked. For most temples in Benares and elsewhere, Aurangzeb ordered Mughal officials to investigate alleged dubious practices. But in the case of certain institutions, including the Vishvanatha and Keshava Deva Temples, he deemed demolition appropriate.