“For the first time in their history, the Mughals beheld a rigid Muslim in their emperor—a Muslim as sternly repressible of himself as of his people around him, a king who was prepared to stake his throne for the sake of his faith. He must have been fully conscious of the dangerous path he was pursuing, and well aware … against every Hindu sentiment. Yet he chose this course, and adhered to this with unbending resolve through close on fifty years of unchallenged sovereignty.”
This statement by renowned British Orientalist and archaeologist Lane-Poole might make one believe that Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was a diehard Sunni Muslim, allegedly intolerant towards Hindus. According to commonly held belief, Aurangzeb attempted to convert all Hindus to Islam; however, when this endeavour was unsuccessful, he is said to have massacred millions of Hindus. Numerous Hindu temples allegedly were levelled during Aurangzeb's deliberate destruction of Hindu cultural institutions.
But these arguments are incongruent with the fact that two of his most trusted commanders- Maharaja Jaswant Singh and Mirza Raja Jai Singh, were Hindus. Moreover, what makes for an interesting statistic is that the share of Rajput mansabdars had increased from 24% under Shahjahan to 33% in 1689 under Aurangzeb.
Even though Aurangzeb had hundreds of Hindu temples in his territories, he only demolished a few dozen of them. If we continue to believe that Aurangzeb was an intolerant bigot with a single-minded goal of purging India of all houses of religion, then this contradiction is difficult to understand.
In order to discuss whether Aurangzeb was more inclined toward political pragmatism or religious orthodoxy, one must first consider whether he actually intended, as Jadunath Sarkar claimed, to establish ‘dar-ul-Islam’ or a truly Islamic State in India, convert the entire populace to Islam, and exterminate any dissenters.
Therefore, historians have been debating over the intolerance exhibited in Aurangzeb’s religious policies and analysed various factors that moulded them. They argue that the state’s political and economic circumstances led to the creation of this programme.
Some scholars have highlighted that the ban on ‘tika’ (A ritual of the Rajputs) can be attributed to the financial crisis faced by the state in this period, a big gap between the ‘jama’ and the ‘haasil’. Matrimonial alliances with non-Muslims also had come to an end during Aurangzeb's reign. However, this started during the time of Shah Jahan itself.
Historians like Truschke, in fact, refuse to accept the claim that Aurangzeb destroyed temples because he detested Hindus. She asserted that the enduring Hindu-Muslim hatred actually originates from the colonial era policy of ‘divide and conquer’ engineered by the British. One might argue that the British found in Aurangzeb, a bait, as his barbarism made the British colonial administration appear civilised in contrast.
The re-imposition of Jizya by Aurangzeb in 1679 is generally regarded as the culmination of his spirit of religious bigotry. Regarding this, it is argued that Aurangzeb was in need of money to carry out his policy of expansion. He, therefore, imposed different kinds of taxes. Since Hindus were quite rich, they had to bear the burden of various taxes.
Furthermore, it is inaccurate to claim that the step was taken in order to coerce Hindus into conversion. Because priests and religious leaders were spared from it, as were those who served in the Mughal army.
During this time, Aurangzeb also had to deal with a number of domestic difficulties. Along with ongoing hostilities with the Afghans, Assamese, and Marathas, the Jat and Satnami uprisings, as well as the imbalance in income and expenditure, contributed to the growing financial crisis. One of Aurangzeb's responses was to reaffirm Islam as a crucial point of unification by putting in place a number of orthodox policies and establishing a tighter relationship with the ‘ulama’.
The Vrindavan document from 1704 makes a reference to a Parwana issued by Aurangzeb which recognised Brajanand Gosain's right to receive a fee from the sect's followers on account of “kharj sadir o warid”, that is, expenses on guests and travellers from each village- which sanctioned the rights of Chaitanya gosains who had founded Vrindavan and established pilgrimages in Braj Bhumi. It amounted to a tax levied by Emperor Aurangzeb in favour of Brajanand Gosain and his Vaishnavite followers.
Even, in the struggle for succession, Aurangzeb did not declare ‘jihad’ or that Islam was in peril, nor did he establish a new religious policy that was in conflict with that of his predecessors. There are several established instances of Aurangzeb supporting Hindu religious establishments.
Why then do we have in mind the popular stereotype of "Aurangzeb the bigot" when we speak of the 6th Mughal Emperor, who was an able administrator that ruled for nearly 50 years?
This can be attributed to the ideologically skewed image of the emperor. This image makes it difficult to understand why there were more Rajput mansabdars under Aurangzeb's reign than during Akbar's or of the patronage to temples made by him.
Therefore, it would not be wrong to conclude that the complexity of history and the actual circumstances surrounding the Emperor have been ignored in favour of narratives that cater to particular groups of historians and scholars of various time periods. A case in point is the colonial manipulation of history. What ultimately transpires is that, as Audrey Truschke puts it, “…we are left with a mixed assessment of a complex man and monarch who was plagued by an unbridgeable gap between his lofty ambitions and the realities of Mughal India”.