Kashi Vishwanatha Temple
Audrey Truschke has written the worst book ever on Aurangzeb. The one saving grace of her book Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth
is its brevity. I did not have to spend more than five hours reading it. In the book’s Chapter 1, “Introducing Aurangzeb,” she sets the tone for her book by lashing out against her favorite whipping boy: Hindutva. She imposes on the BJP the sinister sounding label of “Hindu nationalist party,” and she excoriates the BJP leaders for renaming Delhi’s Aurangzeb road.
Having performed the ritual of blaming the Hindutva forces, she goes on to make this comment: “We need a fresh narrative about Aurangzeb. Here I offer one such story.”
It is pertinent that she should call her book a “story.” Indeed, her book is a story; it does not come remotely close to being a work of history. She has written a novel which has as its protagonist a character called Aurangzeb. Her Aurangzeb does not resemble the historical Aurangzeb, who, in his quest for political power, tortured and slaughtered tens of thousands of people, including his own brothers and other close relatives. He imprisoned his father. Wars and genocides against Hindus were a constant feature of his reign—according to historian Jadunath Sarkar, during Aurangzeb’s reign India’s population saw a steep decline.
Truschke’s Aurangzeb is a complete antithesis of Jadunath Sarkar’s Aurangzeb. Her Aurangzeb is an avuncular figure—elderly, wise, kind, and loving. In several passages in the book, Truschke surprises her readers (readers like myself who have read Sarkar) by arguing that the conflict between Shivaji and Aurangzeb was the former’s fault. She absolves Aurangzeb, laying much of the blame on rulers like Shivaji. She blames Hindus for the violence that happened in this period. She seems to lament that Aurangzeb and rulers like Shivaji did not end up happily ever after.
She insists that Aurangzeb did not destroy temples and commit genocide of Hindus; she insists that he protected the temples and he loved Hindus. In the final section of Chapter 1, she writes, “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… He protected the interests of the Hindu religious groups, even ordering fellow Muslims to cease harassing the Brahmins.”
In Chapter 4, “Administrator of Hindustan,” Truschke presents Aurangzeb as the epitome of piety, culture, and sophistication, and Shivaji as a man who was looked down upon “as an uncouth upstart” by not only the Islamic political elites but also the Rajputs. She writes: “Indeed, unlike most Rajputs, Shivaji lacked exposure to Persianate court culture.” But why should Shivaji accept Persianate court culture? He was not a vassal of Aurangzeb. He was a Maratha warrior and an independent ruler—what is wrong with him living by the tenets of his Indian culture?
Truschke wants her readers to believe that Aurangzeb destroyed only those temples which were involved in rebellion. In Chapter 6, “Overseer of Hindu Religious Communities,” she claims that Aurangzeb destroyed the Vishvanatha Temple in Benares because the local landlords rebelled against his rule and some of them were “implicated in Shivaji’s escape” from Agra in 1666. The destruction of Keshava Deva Temple in Mathura, she insists, was also due to political reasons—the Brahmins there were collaborating with Shivaji and they had been patronized by Dara Shukoh, Aurangzeb’s elder brother and his main rival for Delhi’s imperial throne.
In one particularly silly passage in Chapter 6, she claims that Akbar was more serious about preserving the Sanskrit texts of Hinduism than the Brahmins. She vacuously writes: "Akbar took Brahmins to task for misrepresenting Hindu texts to lower castes and hoped that translating Sanskrit texts into Persian would prompt these arrogant leaders to reform their ways.” In the following paragraph, she delivers an obnoxious racist rant against the Brahmins: “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."
She suggests that Aurangzeb ordered the building of Gyanvapi Masjid in the exact place where the Hindu temple had been razed because he wanted to punish those who had rebelled against his authority. “The Gyanvapi Masjid still stands today in Benares with part of the ruined temple’s wall incorporated in the building. This reuse may have been a religiously clothed statement about the dire consequences of opposing Mughal authority.”
Thus, according to Truschke, the Brahmins were responsible for India’s woes—Aurangzeb destroyed India’s temples because the Brahmins were bad. She makes the case that the Hindus made a mistake by cooperating with the Marathas and other Hindu kings and rebelling against Aurangzeb’s regime. There are passages in which she is blaming Hindu kings for destroying the temples of rival Hindu kings: “Hindu kings targeted another's temples beginning in the seventh century, regularly looting and defiling images of Durga, Ganesha, Vishnu, and so forth.”
In the book’s final Chapter 8, “Aurangzeb’s Legacy,” she presents Aurangzeb as a progressive and secular ruler. She writes: “He was not interested in fomenting Hindu-Muslim conflict—a modern obsession with modern stakes—but he was fixated on dispensing his brand of justice, upholding Mughal traditions, and expanding his grip across the subcontinent.” The first part of Truschke's statement contradicts the last part—she fails to acknowledge that Aurangzeb could not uphold Mughal traditions and expand his grip across the subcontinent without decimating the Hindus.
Truschke has criticized Jadunath Sarkar in several passages—this is because her aim is to refute Sarkar’s history of Aurangzeb. But her history or story of Aurangzeb smacks of ignorance, frivolity, and racism—her book does not come close to Sarkar’s detailed, masterful, and scholarly work. This is how I would summarize her book in three lines: Truschke’s book is a brazen project to whitewash history and humanize Aurangzeb. It is a hatchet job on rulers like Shivaji and the Hindu masses who suffered during Aurangzeb’s reign. Truschke is not a serious historian.
PS: The image used in this article is a 1915 picture of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple that was destroyed on Aurangzeb’s orders in 1669. In 1780, the temple was rebuilt by the Maratha ruler, Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore. This temple has recently been renovated.