With civilisational India coming out of its slumber, albeit slowly, it would be short-sighted to leave a historic wound of the scale of Kashi and Mathura festering
Defending Aurangzeb is a tough job today. One has to be either incredibly ignorant, ideologically jaundiced, or zealously religious to do so. For, there is more than enough evidence left by no other than the Mughals proudly conceding their act of vandalism. They thought they were fulfilling their ‘sacred duty’ as devout Muslims to convert kafirs and destroy Hindu temples, which for them were “institutions of ignorance and darkness”. So much so that Aurangzeb would duly sign and put on the royal insignia each time his firmans announced such acts of terrorism.
There are, however, some historians who still vehemently defend Aurangzeb. They see it as an easy passport to the elite club of top historians. The more passionately Aurangzeb is defended and the more stringently Hindutva is decried, the easier it is to impress upon the big daddies and mummies of Indian historiography. Audrey Truschke, Associate Professor at Rutgers University, is a classic example. Often defending the indefensible, she is ready to do the dirty job of picking up fights and calling names seemingly at the behest of her bosses, who would pretend to be above such petty things!
And it has paid Truschke well. Someone who has done her PhD in 2012, written her first book in 2016, she is today the unofficial spokesperson of all things Indian history on social media. Her journey is incredibly successful in such a short period of time, more so if one looks at her book on Aurangzeb, for instance. This 189-page tome, Aurangzeb: The Man And The Myth, is a simplistic assessment of Aurangzeb and his times. Someone who finds Aurangzeb a ‘secular’ ruler just because he employed more number of Hindus in his higher bureaucracy, cannot be taken too seriously. It reminded me of American historian Bryan Rigg’s book, Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers, wherein the author writes how “thousands of men of Jewish descent and hundreds of what the Nazis called ‘full Jews’ served in the military with Hitler’s knowledge”. Rigg writes, “The Nazis allowed these men to serve but at the same time exterminated their families.”
On an even more serious note, it exposes flippancy in Truschke’s basic line of argument. She writes, “Under Akbar, for example, Hindus constituted 22.5 percent of all Mughal nobles. …in the first 21 years of Aurangzeb’s reign (1658-79), it stayed level at 21,6 percent. But between 1679 and 1707 Aurangzeb increased Hindu participation at the elite levels of the Mughal state by nearly 50 percent. Hindus rose to 31.6 percent of the Mughal nobility.”
The large presence of Hindus in Mughal nobility should not be seen as Aurangzeb’s tolerant policy. It was instead a policy of divide and rule, something which the British perfected a century later. Aurangzeb used Hindu generals to either fight the Hindu enemies of the Mughals (like Marathas) or to win over the empire’s most treacherous terrains (Afghanistan). One should just look at the fate of Raja Jai Singh and Raja Jaswant Singh to know the real intent behind Aurangzeb’s move.
Also, Truschke, more often than not, is seen putting the cart before the horse. She, for instance, claims that Aurangzeb attacked Mathura and destroyed the Keshav Deo temple because of Jat rebellions. The fact is that Jat — historically, the defenders of Hinduism — rebelled as a result of Aurangzeb’s growing intolerance vis-à-vis Hindus. Truschke’s desperate attempt to look for political reasons for temple destruction is the 21st century version of Mohammed Habib’s attempt to turn Mahmud of Ghazni’s raids into an economic exercise aimed at plundering India’s disproportionately rich temples.
Truschke, in fact, takes her admiration for Aurangzeb to a ludicrous level when she shows the Mughal ruler as a reformer who tried saving his citizens from “fleecing” Brahmins. She writes, “Aurangzeb… 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 then showcases Aurangzeb’s temple destruction as “Mughal royal obligations” to “prevent their subjects from being hoodwinked”.
Today, as the Gyanvapi mosque controversy has gained national traction, one can see three sets of reaction: One, there’s a section of people who deny Aurangzeb destroyed so many temples and killed and persecuted the so-called infidels. Even if they concede his vandalism in some prominent places like Kashi and Ayodhya, they would try putting his other acts of terrorism under the carpet. Sanitise his crimes as much as possible!
Two, there are people like Truschke who blame Hindus, especially Brahmins, for being persecuted at the hands of Aurangzeb. The two groups actually work hand-in-hand and part ways only when it becomes obvious to the second group that any stringent positioning on the ‘Aurangzeb-didn’t-destroy-temples’ theory is turning laughable in the light of contrarian evidence, most of them recorded by Aurangzeb’s own men as a badge of honour. They then manufacture the theory of the victims inviting Aurangzeb’s wrath on themselves.
In the process, the two groups, in varying degrees, try to hide the fact that Aurangzeb’s attack on Hinduism and Hindu temples was widespread and began from the very first year of his regime when he disallowed “the building of new temples”. In fact, as Sir Jadunath Sarkar writes in A Short History of Aurangzeb, he began his desecration act during his viceroyalty of Gujarat in 1644 when he killed a cow in a newly built Hindu temple of Chintaman in Ahmedabad, and then turned it into a mosque. His iconoclastic rage only increased as his hold over his administration improved and he thought he could take on the Rajputs who had been the pillar of strength for the Mughals since Akbar’s time. On 9 April 1669, he issued a general order “to demolish all the schools and temples” of the infidels and to put down their religious teachings and practices”.
If blaming the Hindu victims themselves for their plight were not bad enough, a new line of attack was mounted at Hindus, reminding them of their own ‘iconoclasm’. Here comes into play the third set of people: This group, quite hyperactive after the discovery of a Shivling at the Gyanvapi mosque, takes a more circuitous but more sinister route to remind Hindus of their alleged role in the destruction of Buddhist and Jain temples in ancient times.
“Oh, where is all this going to end,” a veteran journalist asked me in the wake of the Gyanvapi mosque controversy. He continued: “Are we going to return thousands of Buddhist and Jain temples we destroyed in ancient times?”
When I asked the learned journalist the source of information, he looked askance. He thought it was a well-known and universally accepted historical fact. Maybe he also felt sorry for my lack of historical knowledge. He, of course, didn’t provide any reference.
The incident, however, reminded me of American scholar YC Rosser who met historian Harbans Mukhia after he had “mentioned destruction of temples by Hindus” in an article in the Hindustan Times on 19 March 2000. “I asked him what documents on the subject he had in possession. He told me that Prof Romila Thapar has some information to support the proposition.” He also claimed to possess “some references” in a file that he could not locate! Yasser then met Thapar. “She (Thapar) said she has not written anything, but an American research scholar, Richard Eton, has written something recently about it in the preface to his new book.”
Interestingly, Financial Times journalist Edward Luce, who recently saw traces of Hitler in Narendra Modi when he celebrated the 125th birth anniversary of Subhas Chandra Bose this year, wrote in his 2003 review of Romila Thapar’s Early History: “Romila Thapar’s masterful recent book, Early India, ends before the Islamic era, but it makes it plain that the destruction of temples — a highly combustible issue in today’s India — was also the normal thing for incoming Hindu dynasties to do… Well before Islam appears in India, Hindu dynasties had erased almost all the Buddhist and Jainist temples of early dynasties.” So, everyone claims Hindus destroyed Buddhist and Jain temples, but no one has the proof. And when asked for it, they all point at others!
So, what’s the truth?
The truth is, it is difficult to put in place a Hindu theology of iconoclasm on the line of Islam. As historian Meenakshi Jain writes in Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples, “To counter-pose Islamic jubilation at the ‘bravado of iconoclasm’ with instances of Hindu desecration was dubious, at the very least. Instances of appropriation of images by Hindu kings in times of conflict reiterated the contrast with Islamic iconoclasm. Almost without exception, Hindu rulers honoured the images they acquired, thereby reaffirming a shared sense of the sacred. In the Islamic case, seizure of an image entailed its very dismemberment.”
Meenakshi Jain gives numerous instances — from Kalinga ruler Kharvela (2nd-1st century BC) vanquishing Magadha empire and retrieving an image of Kalinga Jina (a Jain Tirthankara) taken away by a Nanda king, to Pallava king Narasimhavarman (7th century AD), after defeating Chalukya ruler Pulakesin II, taking an idol of Ganesh and placing it with honour in a shrine in the Uthirapasupatheeswarar temple complex.
As per Purva Karana Agama, a king, before invading another kingdom, should ensure that the women, children, aged, and sick were relocated to safe places and sheltered from the ravages of war. Further, the victorious king was supposed to bring deities from the vanquished kingdom and arrange for their worship in an appropriate manner. This will not just divest the defeated ruler of divine protection, but also ensure that the idols remained under veneration. Also, it was obligatory for the vanquished king to try and retrieve the images within a span of three years.
There are a few names that are invariably tom-tommed to claim Hindus’ iconoclastic tendencies. The name Pushyamitra Sunga comes at the top, based on a Sri Lankan Buddhist text, written centuries later, that accuses him of offering prizes to those who brought to him heads of Buddhist monks. Incidentally, the famous Buddhist viharas and stupas at Bharhut and Sanchi were built during his time, puncturing the persecution claims. The Gupta period — which supposedly heralded the golden period for Hindus — saw the coming up of several Buddhist monasteries at Bodh Gaya, Nalanda and Sarnath; even the Nalanda Mahavihara was built during that time.
There are a few other names used to bolster the intolerant Hindu theory: Like a Pandyan king of Madura persecuting Jains (the book claiming this also says that he had also persecuted the Saivites). Or, King Shashank of Gauda, who was a contemporary of King Harsha of Thanesar and believed to have persecuted Buddhists, destroying their places of worship and even cut the Bodhi tree. But even in these cases, the evidence presented, as per historian RC Majumdar, is “extremely unsafe”.
The most interesting case of Hindu iconoclasm is presented by Kalhana’s Rajataringini, which mentions that King Harsha of Kashmir plundered Hindu and Buddhist temples. Again, what our eminent historians deliberately downplay is Kalhaņa’s comment that in doing so, Harsha “acted like a Turushka (Muslim)” and was “prompted by the Turushkas in his employ”. This one statement made it clear that murti desecration and destruction was not an Indic phenomenon, and if someone like King Harsha of Kashmir did it, it was severely criticised as a Turushka-like act!
The defenders of Aurangzeb, especially those who wear their liberalism on their sleeves, need to realise that truth and reconciliation — and not duplicity and deception — are the first fundamental step towards amicable relations between Hindus and Muslims. By clubbing Aurangzeb and his ilk with today’s Muslims, they are casting aspersions on the community as a whole. The way out is, first, acceptance that atrocities were committed and temples destroyed. Second, with civilisational India coming out of its slumber, albeit slowly, it would be short-sighted to leave a historic wound of the scale of Kashi and Mathura festering. There was a time it might have worked when Bharat was too weak and wounded to respond to the negationistic tendencies, but not anymore.
The court’s verdict might be the easy way out, but it is not the ideal way to deal with a festering historical issue. Any side winning won’t be seeing it as a concession or large-heartedness from the other side. Community leaders should, therefore, sit together and reach a mutually agreed consensus where Hindus’ civilisational sentiments are respected, while at the same time Muslims’ fear and concerns are rightfully addressed. It is only then that India’s long-term communal conundrums can be dealt with harmoniously.
This will be good for Hindus, and for Muslims. And this would be good for India that is Bharat, too. The only people left sullying would be rent-a-cause activists and so-called historians like Truschke. They would be left jobless. After all, who will they divide if there is no one to divide?
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