The Riddle That Emperor Aurangzeb Was



May 7, 2022

Emperor Aurangzeb

Zoya Ansari lifts the veil from the most enigmatic Mughal ruler


The sixth and the last great Mughal was Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir who was the third son of Emperor Shahjahan and came to the throne after defeating and subsequently executing his three brothers and imprisoning his father for the last eight years of his life after dethroning him. These unfortunate series of events made Aurangzeb widely despised as a monarch and history appears to be grossly unkind to him without realizing that his career must be viewed within the ambit of prevailing standards of rule and it must be kept in view that he existed in the 17th century. Aurangzeb was a mature person who came to the throne at the age of forty and was known to be an accomplished prince and was deeply seeped in the imperial traditions. In this context, his half-a-century-long rule may be understood through core Mughal cultural values that were at best a mix of power, justice, piety, and the rigors of kingship.
Aurangzeb was raised in a different atmosphere than his earlier generation as both his father and mother were Muslims. His mother was particularly a devoutly orthodox lady from Persia who inculcated a strong adherence of religion in Aurangzeb. The tilt was clearly manifest in his character as after taking over as emperor at the age of 40 he memorized the Quran and in his devotion started copying and sewing prayer caps. Despite his religious piety, it would be a misnomer to treat him as an Islamic hardliner. It is however noted that his imperial ambitions took precedence over his piety and it was the exigency of governance that compelled him to act as he did. It must also be simultaneously noted that he did not deliberately publicize his piety and never hid behind its façade.
It was in this context that soon after taking over the throne he found himself in a dilemma as it was certainly true that Shah Jahan made a full recovery within a few months but by then the power struggle among his sons could not be stopped. In Mughal tradition, one could kill one’s princely brothers but not one’s father, which was considered heinous so Aurangzeb imprisoned his father in the Red Fort in Agra where he wrote increasingly acerbic letters to Aurangzeb. It was the rigor and compulsion of the open-ended Mughal succession system that most rulers faced tough conditions at the time of succession and came out as hard-hearted power grabbers but this deduction was partly true.
Despite the most trying circumstances Aurangzeb had to count on his way to the throne, he was also noted as the mildest, the least violent, and the most law-abiding of the Great Mughals. Historians observed that Aurangzeb’s humanity and kindness were such that the severest punishment was the reduction of dignity and this even was soon restored through the intercession and kind offices of men high in office. Ironically, the lowlier the offender, the more merciful was Aurangzeb and it was often mentioned that he always assumed great humility of attitude even when an officer disobeys him he betrayed no anger but he repeated his orders and adopted every exact means of getting them executed. In this context, he is known to history as the most hardworking and efficient of royal rulers who exercised total authority for well over four decades and to a ripe old age.
Many observers emphasize that humility was his hidden weapon and even his father suspected that Aurangzeb was dissimulating humility merely to gain the support of officials in the succession struggle. In all probability, Shahjahan was not very right as guile certainly was an element in Aurangzeb’s humility but the humility itself was not pretense. Though he would not permit any weakness in himself and would strive hard to make others conform to his own dour ideals, he had throughout his life show a more humane concern for the welfare of the people and a greater tolerance for human frailty than any other Mughal ruler.
Like his father, Aurangzeb was unfailingly courteous though his mild manner was free of any arrogance. The moderation in speech and action that he practiced, he demanded of his officers too. Though he maintained strict decorum in his court yet if a supplicant at the court talked too much or acted in an improper manner, Aurangzeb was never displeased. His courtiers often desired to prohibit people from showing so much boldness but the emperor always remarked that by hearing their words and seeing their gestures, he acquired a habit of forbearance and tolerance. It is a matter of record that, unlike his great-grandfather Emperor Jahangir, Aurangzeb under the dictates of anger and passion never issued orders of corporal punishment.
There is certainly a strong case to argue that the actual reason for his contemporaries to consider him a saint was not merely because of his religiosity but because he was, contrary to his later reputation, benevolent and charitable. What happened later was that his innumerable everyday acts of kindnesses were ignored and historians tended to magnify his few notable misdeeds, such as his religious intolerance, his ruthlessness as a conqueror, his use of stratagems to get the better of others, and, more than anything else, his harsh treatment of his father, brothers, and sons. No one took into consideration that his predecessors too were guilty of similar acts—Jahangir and Shah Jahan had rebelled against their fathers; Jahangir had imprisoned and blinded and had even thought of executing one of his sons; Shah Jahan was guilty of liquidating his brothers and nephews in first of its kind of fratricide.
The main issue here is that it was his extremely aloof and formal personality that made historians portray him negative light. Aurangzeb was not used to displaying passion openly and he was by nature very secretive and serious, carrying on his affairs in a hidden way most energetically. Like his illustrious predecessor Emperor Akbar, he was of a melancholy temperament always busy with something or another. He exercised extraordinary self-control and this fetish of his bordered almost sickness. Success, Aurangzeb apparently believed, was the only earthly or heavenly judge of right and wrong. Yet he also tried to maintain in all his actions and appearance of righteousness and a semblance of legality, being anxious to preserve his reputation for orthodoxy and saintliness. For him, unlike his predecessors, his whim was not the law. The Sharia was inviolable and he would always abide by the letter of the law, if not its spirit. Aurangzeb would twist facts without compunction to suit his purpose and gain his goals but would never overtly violate the law.
Aurangzeb’s obsession with righteousness was his basic characteristic yet paradoxically this strict adherence to the law was what distressed his subjects most, for the law he abided by was the law of Islamic theocracy, which was oppressive to his predominantly Hindu subjects. Aurangzeb saw it differently as, for him, the laws of Islam were sacred and immutable, the only possible laws, and to enforce them was his sacred and inexorable obligation. One may agree or disagree but this was the most suitable option available to a monarch of the medieval age and that was what Aurangzeb certainly was. TW

Zoya Ansari has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense


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