One of the most common mistakes you can make is to explain history from the lens of today’s perspective. For example, people commonly believe that Aurangzeb was a Muslim ruler who hated all Hindus.
But there are lesser known facts about Aurangzeb that paint a more complicated — and hence, truer — story. Here are some lesser known facts about Aurangzeb from Audrey Truschke’s insightful book: Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King
Aurangzeb wasn’t fighting against “all” Hindus.
Aurangzeb didn’t have anything against Hindus. He couldn’t. Because in those days, even Hindus didn’t look at themselves as “Hindus.” The Rajputs often fought with Aurangzeb against the Marathas. For example, Aurangzeb sent a Hindu, Jai Singh, to besiege Shivaji at Purandar. In the eyes of the Rajputs, they weren’t fighting “Hindus”. They were simply fighting Marathas.
Aurangzeb frequently took part in Hindu rituals.
He appeared daily at his window to give his subjects a darshan, or auspicious glimpse, of his royal visage. On his solar and lunar birthdays he was publicly weighed against gold and silver that was distributed to the poor, a Hindu ritual that the Mughals had adopted in Akbar’s days.
Aurangzeb maintained personal contacts with Hindu religious figures.
From Professor Truschke’s book: For instance, he penned a letter to Mahant Anand Nath in 1661 requesting a medicinal preparation from the yogi. In the 1660s he increased Anand Nath’s landholdings in a village in the Punjab. Such connections echoed Jahangir’s meetings with the Hindu ascetic Jadrup and Akbar’s land grants to Vaishnava communities in Mathura.
Aurangzeb appointed Hindus to top positions in his court.
The Mughals were consistently secular. In Akbar’s time, Hindus were 22.5 percent of all Mughal nobles. That percentage hardly budged in either direction under Shah Jahan, and, in the first twenty-one 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.
Aurangzeb didn’t entrust people with responsibility because of their religion.
Again from Truschke’s book: Raja Raghunatha was one of Aurangzeb’s most cherished state officers. Raghunatha’s influence at court outstripped even his high office, and the French traveler Bernier described him as acting vizier of the empire. For Aurangzeb, Raghunatha’s religious identity was irrelevant to his memorialized status as a great vizier.
Aurangzeb protected Hindu temples
As this article in Quartz says, Aurangzeb counted thousands of Hindu temples within his domains and yet destroyed, at most, a few dozen. But he also destroyed mosques. His destruction of religious places always had to do with political reasons — to put a local rulers or officials in their places, and show them who was the boss.
To give just a few examples: In 1687, the emperor gave some empty land on a ghat in Benares to Ramjivan Gosain in order to build houses for “pious Brahmins and holy faqirs.” In 1691 Aurangzeb conferred eight villages and a sizable chunk of tax-free land on Mahant Balak Das Nirvani of Chitrakoot to support the Balaji Temple. In 1698 he gifted rent-free land to a Brahmin named Rang Bhatt, son of Nek Bhatt, in eastern Khandesh in central India. The list goes on and includes temples and individuals in Allahabad, Vrindavan, Bihar, and elsewhere.
Sure, Aurangzeb was a religious man. For instance, he was no staunch Islamist. For instance, Aurangzeb broke Islamic law when he deposed his father and imprisoned Shah Jahan for the better part of a decade.
Truschke also writes about a time when 1700 Mughal soldiers captured nine Hindus and four Muslims during the siege of Satara Fort. Following the Fatawa-i Alamgiri, a legal book that Aurangzeb had sponsored, a Mughal judge sentenced the Muslims to three years in prison. The judge offered the Hindus a full pardon if they converted to Islam. Dissatisfied with such leniency, Aurangzeb ordered the judge to “decide the case in some other way, that control over the kingdom may not be lost.” The rebels were all executed before sundown.
Aurangzeb was a very ambitious man who never let religion get in the way of his political aspirations. You can call him tiresome. Or hypocritical. But by no means, was he a bigot.