For many, the history of the Mughal empire looms heavy over contemporary South Asian social imaginaries. The lightning rod figure within modern day myths about the past is the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707). Some think of him as a violent Muslim fanatic who went out of his way to oppress Hindus and destroy their temples. Others consider his nearly 50-year reign (1658–1707) one of the most consequential for pre-modern South Asian history. Audrey Truschke, Associate Professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University–Newark, wanted to probe the pre-modern archive in order to understand the historical life and legacy of Aurangzeb.
In Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India's Most Controversial King
(Stanford University Press, 2017) she offers a rich and detailed biographical account of his social, political, and intellectual contexts. The narrative unfolds through both a chronological portrait of the late 17th century Mughal imperial world and a thematic account of Aurangzeb’s administrative governance, the moral underpinnings of his self-perception, and questions of religious diversity and intolerance. In our conversation we discuss the textual sources we can use for South Asian history and the challenges they pose to modern readers, the early Mughal empire, Aurangzeb’s competitive climb to rulership, state security and uprisings, the construction of moral leadership and ethical judgement, managing difference across empire, motivations and circumstances for temple destructions, and Aurangzeb’s hallmark policies, final years, and legacy. We also consider the challenges of doing public scholarship, hate mail, and the benefit of bringing the historical record to bear on modern debates.
Kristian Petersen is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Old Dominion University. You can find out more about his work on his website, follow him on Twitter @BabaKristian, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.