When Hindus and Muslims lived in harmony

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AT a time when the Muslims are being hunted like animals on the benign watch of the BJP, two brave new books revisit a time when they ruled the country. The Hindus and Muslims lived in harmony under Muslim rulers, including under the powerful Moguls, argues Audrey Truschke of Stanford University, an authority on South Asian culture and history.

In her fascinating book, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court, Truschke suggests that the heyday of Muslim rule, from the 16th to 18th centuries, had been one of "tremendous cross-cultural respect and fertilization and not religious or cultural conflict."

Emphasizing that the high-level interaction between learned Muslims and Hindus was marked by collaborative encounters across linguistic and religious lines, her research overturns the common perception that Muslim rulers had been hostile to traditional Indian learning. The Moguls extensively patronized and engaged with Indian thinkers and ideas.

Much of the current religious conflict and the stereotypes about Muslims as mass murderers and destroyers of temples have been fueled by ideological assumptions and distortions about the Mogul period, rather than an accurate rendering of history, notes Truschke.

And no prizes for guessing who started it all, contributing to the current climate of hate. The divisive interpretation of the past began and developed during the colonial period from 1757 to 1947. “The British benefited from pitting Hindus and Muslims against one another and portrayed themselves as neutral saviors who could keep ancient religious conflicts at bay," says Truschke. "While colonialism ended in the 1940s, the Hindu Right has found tremendous political value in continuing to proclaim and create endemic Hindu-Muslim conflict.”

The ideology underpinning such violence “erases Mughal history and writes religious conflict into Indian history where there was none, thereby fuelling and justifying modern religious intolerance”.

Early modern-era Muslims were in fact “deeply interested in traditional Indian learning, which is largely housed in Sanskrit,” says Truschke, who spent much time in India and Pakistan as part of her research. The new rulers embraced the Indian values, customs and civilizational heritage. She rejects the notion that the origin of the Hindu-Muslim conflict began in medieval times and is a result of Muslim invasions.

Through her study of Sanskrit and Persian texts and authentic accounts of life under the Moguls, she provides the first detailed account of India’s religious scholars and intellectuals and their interaction with Mogul elites.

Understandably, Truschke has invited the wrath of the saffron clan as her work flies in the face of Hindutva’s claims of the imagined oppression and persecution of Hindus by Muslims. Still, the author hopes her findings “will provide a solid historiographical basis for intervention in modern, political rewritings of the Indian past.”

The ‘Culture of Encounters’ was followed by another groundbreaking tome on perhaps the most controversial figure in Indian history. Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth is another brave attempt to understand the life and times of the last great Mogul emperor who ruled for nearly half a century and whose reign covered the length and breadth of India including Afghanistan and parts of Mynamar.

“The Aurangzeb of popular memory bears only a faint resemblance to the historical emperor,” notes Truschke as she seeks to clear the cobwebs that have always clouded his image. She sifts fact from fiction and the man from the many myths that have grown around him over the centuries, thanks to biased telling of history as part of the British colonial project.

She dismisses the myth that Aurangzeb had been driven by religious zeal and his rule was defined by the oppression of Hindus.

She bridges the chasm between the real and mythical Aurangzeb — the man and the emperor. He had his share of flaws like any other human being but he was not the crass villain and fanatic out to spread Islam with his sword that he is made out to be.

That Aurangzeb was a Hindu-hating fanatic is a myth of recent origin. He wasn’t perceived as such by the chroniclers of his times including historians like Bhim Sen and Ishwar Das. It was in the late 18th century and later when the British arrived on the scene that the emperor known for his religiosity and puritanical lifestyle began to be vilified as a zealot by colonial historiographers.

Aurangzeb was complex, like most rulers are. He may have been guilty of demolishing some temples — not justifiable by any means of course — including the one at Kanshi ostensibly after the wife of one of his Rajput commanders was molested. But he is also known to have bestowed vast grants on a number of temples and monasteries. The number of Hindu nobles at the Mogul court was the largest under him. His army was led by Rajput commanders like Raja Jaisingh and Jaswant Singh.

If he is famous for his conflicts with Hindu chieftains, he also fought his own brothers and Muslim sultanates. He was no saint; only human. This is what Truschke’s book seeks to stress and with great conviction.

Hardly a surprise then the brickbats that the scholar has been receiving from Hindutva devotees, with many perpetually trolling her on social media. However, she is far from daunted and is already on to her next book, a study of Sanskrit histories of Muslim dynasties, in her attempt to retell history as it is.

In the current environment of intolerance, it’s immensely courageous of the young author to undertake such projects for the sake of truth and academic honesty, if nothing else. This is what more and more historians need to do.

History is a double-edged sword; it has been used widely and indiscriminately to deadly effect by everyone, poisoning impressionable minds and creating strife. It was the successful exploitation of imagined history that helped the BJP grow from a fringe group to the party of power in the world’s largest democracy.

If historians were free of their blinkers they would discover that Islam spread in South Asia not at gunpoint but thanks to the simple honesty of Arab traders and love and humanity of Sufis. Rulers with Muslim names may have built some mosques and assumed lofty titles but they didn't represent Islam nor fought their wars for it. It was all for power. This is what needs to be recognized by objective chroniclers of history. This is why we need more honest scholars like Truschke — to call the bluff of orientalists and colonial project.


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