Aurangzeb A Tragic Figure? Jadunath Sarkar Thought So

by Vikrant Pande - Oct 17, 2015 06:53 PM +05:30 IST
Aurangzeb A Tragic Figure? Jadunath Sarkar Thought So

Aurangzeb was a man driven by his extreme religious faith, and ended up destroying an empire. But when analysed in the light of cold historical facts, his reign was no better or worse than the other Mughal kings.

Of late, there has been a succession of articles on Aurangzeb, the debate caused by the renaming of a road. Aurangzeb has always been portrayed as the most hated Mughal Emperor in Indian history.

Aurangzeb’s reign from 1658 to 1707 covered nearly the entire second half of the 17th century and created the largest Empire till the British took over the Indian subcontinent. His Empire was larger than that of Ashoka, the Guptas or any other Indian Empire before. Except for the Marathas, whom he was never able to conquer completely, Aurangzeb did not have any large enemies threatening to take over his Empire. Unable to accept the way Shivaji and his son Sambhaji escaped from Agra, he finally found his revenge when he captured Sambhaji and tortured him to death. Sambhaji, refusing to accept Islam and the conditions put forth by the Mughal Emperor, was tortured mercilessly. It remained one of the cruelest acts of Aurangzeb but seen from a perspective of an Emperor trying to protect his Empire, one might understand the anger and need for revenge. Such was his desire for revenge that he spent the last 26 years of his life in tents and cantonments fighting the Marathas in the Deccan, leading to a drain on the treasury and the morale of his soldiers.

He finally managed to capture Sambhaji and put him to death, while taking the young Shahu under his fold but very few could see the signs of the decline of the Mughal Empire, which were to follow. Despite realizing the tragic plot unfolding itself, Aurangzeb, in his single-minded and adamant pursuit, got on to a horse at the age of 82 to conduct the war himself, for six long years, till he finally succumbed to death at Ahmadnagar.

In his outstanding book ‘A Short history of Aurangzib’ Jadunath Sarkar writes,

‘The life of Aurangzeb was one long tragedy- a story of a man battling in vain against an invisible but inexorable Fate a tale of how the strongest of human endeavour was baffled by the forces of the age. A strenuous reign of fifty years ends in colossal failure. And yet this king was one of the greatest rulers of Asia in intelligence, character and enterprise. This tragedy in history was developed with all the regularity of a perfect drama.”

The irony is Aurangzeb is made out to a devil, a tyrant, a zealot, and someone who killed his brothers to take over the Empire. Everyone knows how he threw his father Shah Jahan into Agra Fort where he remained till his death. No one reading Mughal history knows that Aurangzeb’s act was just one of the long list of atrocities committed by each of the Mughal Emperors since Akbar.

In his outstanding book ‘India- A History’ John Keay writes,

Akbar’s long reign from 1556 to 1605 was punctuated by a succession of brilliant but rewarding conquests and as it drew to a close it was overshadowed by rivalry and rebellion. In 1600, Prince Salim, the future Jehangir, attempted to seize Agra during Akbar’s absence. In 1602 he actually proclaimed himself Emperor, and in 1605, a few weeks before Akbar’s death, he re-erected that Ashoka pillar at Allahabad and, in a blatant assumption of Indian sovereignty, had his genealogy inscribed alongside the Mauryan edicts and Samudra-Gupta’s encomium. Abul Fazl, by now a senior commander as well as Akbar’s memorialist, was sent to deal with the prince but was coolly murdered on the latter’s orders. Even when, after reconciliation with his father, Salim/ Jahangir’s succession seemed settled, it was opposed by some sections of the nobility who preferred Prince Khusrau, Salim’s eldest son. When his father was duly installed as Emperor Jahangir, Khusrau fled north, laid siege to Lahore, and had to be subdued in a battle. Captured, he was eventually blinded under his father’s instructions.

To continue quoting the book, John Keay states, “Sovereignty does not regard the relation of father and son,” explained Jahangir in his enlightening but decidedly naïve memoir. “A king, it is said, should deem no man his relation.” Distrust between father and son, as also between brothers, would be a recurring theme of the Mughal period generating internal crises more costly and more serious than any external threat. Of another trouble maker, Jahangir quoted a Persian verse: “The wolf’s whelp would grow up a wolf, even though reared by man himself.” This proved unintentionally apposite.

In 1622 Prince Khurram, Jahangir’s second-best loved son, on whom he has just bestowed the title Shah Jahan, would dispose of his elder brother (the blind Prince Khusrau) and himself rebel against his father. The whelp was indeed worth of the wolf. Father and son were only reconciled 18 months before Jahangir’s death in 1627. Then there followed more blood-letting as Shah Jahan made good his claim to the throne by ordering the death of his one remaining brother, plus sundry cousins.

And so it went on. Deeming no man his relation, least of all their father, in due course each of Shah Jahan’s four sons would mobilise separately against him as against one another. When Aurangzeb won this content and in 1658 deposed his father Shah Jahan and imprisoned him in Agra Fort for the rest of his days, he not unreasonably justified his conduct on the ground he was merely treating Shah Jahan as Shah Jahan had sought to treat Jahangir and Jahangir had sought to treat Akbar. Unsurprisingly Aurangzeb himself would in turn be challenged by his progeny.

The brilliant historian puts to doubt any such claims that it was Aurangzeb alone who seemed like a murderer.

In his best-selling novel, Shehenshah, a historical fiction of Aurangzeb, Marathi author NS Inamdar shows the human side of the Mughal Emperor. Having put his father Shah Jahan into incarceration in the Agra Fort, he laments of his father’s rumoured incestuous relationship with his daughter, Aurangzeb’s sister, Jahanara. He is unable to fathom why his father should at that age try and have sexual escapades with maids some as young as fifteen years. The author shows through his fictional novel that Shah Jahan, so widely regarded as a loving Emperor, has his weaknesses, one of them being the inability to control his libido. “Why does not my father read the Quran five times a day, as I do,” laments Aurangzeb to his confidante in a rare display of emotion.

The author, in one of his episodes, shows the other sister Roshanara, who sided with Aurangzeb from day one, as the main culprit behind Shah Jahan’s heartbreak and eventual death.

Here is an extract:

Aurangzeb left for a hunting trip in the jungles adjacent to the Yamuna. He had been on a trip after a gap of many years. It was a contingent of nearly two thousand men… The trip was cut short when he felt a little ill… Roshanara, managing the affairs of the zenankhana, was soon informed of the Badshah’s condition and rushed to see him one afternoon when Aurangzeb returned from his durbar for a siesta.

Entering his room she exclaimed, “Hai Allah! You are burning with fever. What’s the need to spend time in the Diwan-e-Aam when you are not well?”

“Begum Sahiba, it is just an ordinary fever. I wasn’t here for two weeks, and work has piled up. How can I afford to rest?”

“Tauba! Tauba! Is it not better to rest now rather than allow the situation to become worse?”

Aurangzeb’s forehead was glistening with sweat. He felt weak. She patted his forehead with a satin handkerchief. Aurangzeb said, “Begum Sahiba, why should I be worried about an ordinary fever when I have someone like you to take care of me?”

“You call this an ordinary fever? I am worried,” Roshanara said, holding his wrist to check his pulse.

“The Hakim said it was due to excessive strain of the shikar.”

“The Hakim does not know anything, Bhaijaan. I know the reason for this fever.”

“What is it?”

“Till the time the cursed woman is alive…”

“Begum Sahiba, please mind your tongue. Whom are you referring to?”

“I am talking of your elder sister Jahanara Begum Sahiba.” Roshanara said, her words spitting poison. “Badshah Shah Jahan still believes that he is the Shehenshah. Jahanara stayed back in the fort to take care of him. With the help of aulias and other fakirs she is trying out various voodoo practises to hurt you. Your fever is a result of such things.”

Aurangzeb was aware of the hatred between the two sisters. He could see that Roshanara was visibly disturbed. He teased her saying, ‘If that be the case, why don’t you try some reverse voodoo magic?’

“On whom?”

“On the royal prisoner at Agra Fort?”

“Hai Allah! You mean Shah Jahan Badshah?”

“Why? Won’t your magic work on him?”

“Where’s the need for it? Aurangzeb, listen to me. It is a question of time; our father, if he remains imprisoned in the fort like an ordinary criminal, would die of heartbreak within no time.”

Aurangzeb knew Roshanara was speaking in riddles. He said, “Our father is enjoying the life of a Badshah within the four walls. He has all the luxuries not to mention the constant care provided by Jahanara. Dara’s daughter, his favourite granddaughter, Jahanzeb Banu too is his companion. Where is the opportunity for my father to lament about his conditions?”

“I have something to share with you. I am told he sits at a window watching his favourite Taj Mahal for hours together. I am convinced that is what is keeping him alive.”

“Is that so?”

“My advice is to seal the window which keeps alive the memory of Mumtaz Begum. I am confident he will wither away in no time once the sight is removed from him permanently.”

It was a suggestion which shook Aurangzeb for a moment. He was quite contended to have put his father away from public view. Except for a few unreasonable demands that cropped up from time to time he had been able to manage the situation well. He kept a strict control on the amount of liberties given to the royal prisoner in the fort. The thought that he needed to do something different never occurred to him. The suggestion to remove all his liberties one by one to ensure his death had been made by his daughter!

He watched his sister without saying anything. Noticing his silence Roshanara said, “Don’t you like my suggestion? Aurangzeb, please keep this in mind; till the time our father is alive in the Agra fort, you can never consider yourself as the Emperor in the true sense. Jahanara Begum is looking for every possible opportunity to rouse public opinion against you. You must be aware of the amount of dissent she managed to create when you executed the fakir Sarmad.”

Encouraged by his silence as an implicit approval, she asked, “Are you aware that Jahanara was a disciple of the naked fakir, and she often met him in private?”

The mullahs and the religious leaders, enjoying the rule under a devout Musalmaam like Aurangzeb took advantage of his religious beliefs and, often, blind faith in their advice. Here is another excerpt:

It was a holiday on account of it being a Friday. Aurangzeb, along with their chief Kazi Abdul Wahab, a few key officials and Jaffar Khan sat in an office next to Moti Masjid. The Badshah supervised the arrangements of some of the key Amirs who were planning to make the pilgrimage to Haj.

Abdul Wahab, sensing an opportunity began, “The ulemas and maulvis are very happy to see you occupying the throne at Delhi.”

Aurangzeb was aware the Kazi wanted to suggest something else. He brushed aside the praise saying, “What’s so great about that? Someone else would have been ruling had it not been me. It could have been my elder brother, Dara, for that matter.” The Kazi, pondered for a moment and said, “But it is different when someone as devout as you takes charge.”

“I am not interested in small talk. Do you have any advice for my pilgrimage to the Haj?”

“The Quran says you need not go. The very fact that you are a Shehenshah and are spreading the word of Islam is equivalent to visiting the Haj ten times.”

“Does the Quran say that?”

The Kazi looked at one of the ulemas, who sat a little away reading the holy books. He said, ‘Yes, Huzoor. The Quran and the Hadis say that the job of the Emperor is to spread the word of Allah. He need not go for the pilgrimage.

“I am doing that in any case. What else did you want to say?”

“Huzoor, your father Shah Jahan and your brother Dara Shikoh were competing to do things against our religion. Allah has given you the opportunity to ascend the throne. We feel you should create some special rules for the Muslims in our country.”

“Please be specific.”

“Consuming alcohol or wine is prohibited as per Islam. We would want Badshah Salamat to issue strict orders against the same.”

“I am hearing a good suggestion for the first time. It has been nearly ten years since I took charge. I am against any habit forming substance. Please issue orders on my behalf immediately.”

“Huzoor the Hindus have built temples all over. We request the Jahanpanah to issue orders to destroy all of them.”


“Islam prohibits idol worship. The sounds of the temple bells are a disturbance to a pious Musalmaan.”

“Kazi Sahab, the Mughal throne has dealt with such issues in a different manner ever since the time of Shehenshah Akbar. Let the kafirs practise what they believe in and let the Muslims lead the way Islam suggests. Of course, we will not allow their practices to interfere with our administration.”

The kazi was not the one to give up easily. He said, puffing out his chest, “Huzoor, the world expects the common man to behave as per the rules of the Quran ever since you have come to power.”

Aurangzeb was tired of the discussions. He said, “If you need to issue firmaans to ensure that the common people behave as per the laws of Islam please go ahead. I will honour your firmaans.”

Kazi Abdul Wahab was overjoyed. He said, “Such an assurance is enough for me. I was sure the Badshah Salamat would encourage us to spread the word of Islam.”

“But please ensure one thing,’ Aurangzeb said, his eyes half closed in contemplation. ‘Let it be known that the rules you put forth for the common man apply to each and everyone equally. You know I offer my prayers along with the common people at the masjid. Islam does not differentiate between a Badshah and a fakir.”

The ulemas raised their hands up saying, “Qayamat! Wallah, kya baat hai!”

Aurangzeb smiled indulgently. He got up saying, “If there is nothing else, I would like to end this discussion.”

In the novel, the author NS Inamdar shows how Aurangzeb was deeply troubled that many of his actions have been misinterpreted and misread by the people at large. His religious zeal makes him blind to his own deeds and he suffered the tragedies as any ordinary human being.

The novel is a story of a tragic human being, despite achieving all the greatness that could crown Aurangzeb as the single biggest ruler of Hindustan. He was an Emperor, who had no vices, was extremely intelligent and worked hard like no one did. He did not hesitate to pick up his sword and lead the Army at the age of 82! His attention to public affairs was remarkable. He worked harder than the lowliest clerk in the Empire. He led a disciplined life.

The paradox of Aurangzeb’s long reign was that it left an Empire in tatters. The study of the Mughal Empire under Aurangzeb is of great interest to a student of Indian history. Coming to any simple conclusions about the Mughal Emperor would be at best naïve. And renaming a road just because some people think he alone was a cruel king would be tragic at best!

Note: The author is translating the Marathi masterpiece Shehenshah, by NS Inamdar, into English to be published shortly by HarperCollins.

A graduate of IIM Bangalore, Vikrant Pande’s day job is spearheading the TeamLease Skills University at Baroda. His keen desire to see his favourite Marathi books being read by a larger audience saw him translate Raja Ravi Varma by Ranjit Desai (Harper Perennial). He has since translated Shala by Milind Bokil, and is currently working on several other books. He is fluent in many languages including Marathi, Gujarati, Bangla, and a smattering of Tamil and Kannada.
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