Aurangzeb: Dispelling Myths about Religious Intolerance

Emperor Aurangzeb is frequently viewed as a discriminatory figure, unlike his great grandfather Emperor Akbar, who is celebrated for his religious policy of tolerance. However, if we look past this, it becomes clear that Aurangzeb’s main concern was the maintenance of the empire, and not religion. What people view as Aurangzeb’s botched and discriminatory religious policy really isn’t one at all, as instead of a religious policy Aurangzeb was trying to maintain a larger policy of empire.

Bhimsen, a Hindu Kayastha memoirist, claimed that Aurangzeb had willingly sacrificed the ‘happiness of the subjects’ during his reign, suggesting that Aurangzeb had thrown out with his great grandfather’s policies of religious tolerance.[1] Another example of this is Aurangzeb’s banning of religious festivals eight years into his reign, such as Eid al-Fitr, Holi and Diwali.[2] On the surface this appears to display Aurangzeb’s religious intolerance, in comparison to Akbar, who welcomed different cultures and religious ideas. Aurangzeb also reinstated the Jizya tax, a tax specifically levied against non-Muslims within the empire in 1679, which further fuelled the image that he was a discriminatory, nasty piece of work.[3] Aurangzeb’s decision to tear down several Hindu temples also painted him in a religiously intolerant, in contrast to Akbar.[4] However, upon closer analysis we can actually see that Aurangzeb’s actions were not religiously motivated, unlike Akbar’s, but politically motivated for the maintenance of the empire. The maintenance and strengthening of the empire were Aurangzeb’s primary concerns, even if this resulted in accusations that he wasn’t prepared to give other religions the time of day.

At first it may appear that the restrictions Aurangzeb placed on religious festivals displayed his religious intolerance, but this isn’t true! In his writings, Bhimsen Saxena describes a festival that occurred every twelve years near Trimbak, Maharasthra, in which armed bands fight one another, which lead to fatalities.[5] Frenchman Jan de Thevenot describes the Muharram celebrations in his work, writing that in Golconda in 1666 to 1667, violence was standard between Muslims and Hindus.[6] At the Murharram celebrations of Burhanpur in 1669, fifty people were left dead.[7] Aurangzeb wasn’t happy about this, and was also disturbed by the use of ‘obscene language’ used during the festivals of Holi and Diwali.[8] Unlike nowadays, it appears that back in the day, festivals were violent and unruly events, which often ended in death. Based on these facts, Aurangzeb’s decision to ban such gatherings should not be linked to some sort of religious policy, but linked to his desire to maintain order and stability within his empire. In this situation Audrey Truschke notes that Aurangzeb’s key concern was ‘public safety,’ not religion.[9] Aurangzeb adopted the idea that pleasing everyone was not essential to the running of a successful empire. His banning of such festivities was not related to some sort of religious policy, but related to his desire to preserve the empire, and prioritise the safety of those within it. Makes sense, right?

Aurangzeb’s reinstallation of the Jizya tax in 1679 was also not religiously motivated but was motivated by his larger policy of empire instead. Satish Chandra recognises this, arguing that the reinstallation of the tax was in response to the current economic crisis.[10] The tax was reinstalled to fund money for the maintenance of the empire, not to discriminate against non-Muslims. The tax also provided much needed work and employment to those within the empire, and admin posts were given to Hindus.[11] The fact that Aurangzeb provided work for Hindus further supports the idea that he was not religiously intolerant towards them, but more concerned about the state of the economy within the empire and not the religion of those within it. See, he’s not that bad really!

Aurangzeb is also known for destroying several Hindu temples across the empire. Richard Eaton notes that Aurangzeb only destroyed just over a dozen temples, and that he did order the construction of some.[12] Aurangzeb only destroyed temples for valid reasons, such as Benares’ Vishwanatha Temple in 1669, and Mathura’s Keshava Deva Temple in 1670.[13] Both temples acted as bases for political unrest within the Mughal empire, which prompted Aurangzeb to take action. His destruction of the above temples was not religiously motivated but motivated by his desire to ensure peace within the empire. The Keshava Deva temple was patronised by Dara Shukoh, Aurangzeb’s brother and main rival to the throne, and after several uprisings in 1669 and 1670, Aurangzeb destroyed the temple to put down the political unrest that it had encouraged.[14] Aurangzeb believed a good ruler was one that ensured expansion of the empire, and he did so by putting down political unrest.[15] Again, this decision was not motivated by some sort of religious policy, but a larger policy of empire.

Aurangzeb even said that he was not massively concerned with the religion of others, drumming home the fact that he was more concerned with his empire. A Muslim from Bukhara who had entered Mughal service in the late 1680s argued that the emperor should take the religion of people into account before they were allowed to enter into Mughal service. Aurangzeb rejected this proposal, asking ‘what connection have earthly affairs with religion?’ This clearly shows his disregard towards the subject of religion, in favour of the subject of empire.[16] He also noted that ‘for you is your religion and for me is mine.’[17] Aurangzeb was willing to recruit people of all faiths into Mughal service, demonstrating yet again that all his decisions revolved around the maintenance of the empire. It also shows that Aurangzeb was not intolerant towards people of other faiths as people have incorrectly stated. In the first twenty one years of Aurangzeb’s reign, twenty one percent of the Mughal nobles were of the Hindu faith.[18] This is only one percent off from the amount of Hindu Mughal nobles in Akbar’s reign, which disapproves the common perception that Aurangzeb discriminated against non-Muslims.[19]

So here we can see that Aurangzeb shouldn’t be criticised for what some perceive to call his “religious policy.” I hope I’ve proved that, despite common misconceptions, all of Aurangzeb’s actions, as described above, were undertaken for the maintenance of the empire, his number one priority.

Thanks for reading!

Stay safe, stay inside. Read something cheerful.

[1] B. Metcalf and Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India, p.30.

[2] Truschke, Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King, p. 74.

[3] Ibid., p. 376.

[4] S. Chandra, ‘The Religious Policy of Aurangzeb during the Later Part of his Reign – Some Considerations’, Indian Historical Review, Vol. 47, 1-2 (1986-7), p. 373.

[5] Truschke, Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King, p. 74.

[6] Ibid., p. 74.

[7] Ibid., p. 74.

[8] Ibid., p. 74.

[9] Ibid., p. 74.

[10] Chandra, ‘The Religious Policy of Aurangzeb during the Later Part of his Reign – Some Considerations’, p. 380.

[11] Ibid., p. 376.

[12] Truschke, Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King, p. 84.

[13] Dale, ‘India under Mughal rule’, p. 85.

[14] Ibid., p. 86.

[15] Asher and Talbot, India Before Europe, p. 228.

[16] Truschke, Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King, p. 58.

[17] Ibid., 58

[18] Ibid., 56

[19] Ibid., 56

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: