‘Hindu philosophy was sophisticated under Mughals’

‘Second-class citizenship would have been meaningless to a Hindu in the Mughal empire.’

Not long ago, historian Ramchandra Guha recently tweeted that he was reading Abhishek Kaicker‘s The King and The People: Sovereignty and Popular Politics in Mughal Delhi.

‘If you are a student of history and want to know more about India’s medieval history, then Kaicker’s book is a must-read,’ Guha tweeted.

In his book, Kaicker reveals what transpired in the Mughal empire after Aurangzeb’s death.

In an e-mail interview, Kaicker, an associate professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Syed Firdaus Ashraf/Rediff.com, “The first few decades after Aurangzeb’s death were a time of great intellectual and cultural efflorescence.”

Most people lose interest in Mughal history after Aurangzeb’s reign. And here you have made great efforts to write in your book the details of what happened to the Mughal dynasty after Aurangzeb’s death. What made you take on this subject?

The decades after Aurangzeb’s death are exciting precisely because it receives comparatively little attention and because of the intrinsic interest of the period.

Most histories of the Mughal empire tend to focus on the so-called ‘high’ period of Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan. There has been a very great deal of scholarship on Aurangzeb over the past century.

It is generally assumed that after Aurangzeb’s death India languished in the waiting-room of history, and that the story only continues after the establishment of colonial rule.

It is telling that in the popular imagination, Aurangzeb (died 1707) is succeeded by Bahadur Shah Zafar (died 1862).

As a student, I quickly realised that the history of the period of decentralisation and political fragmentation is enormously complex, but that the first few decades after Aurangzeb’s death were a time of great intellectual and cultural efflorescence.

This is particularly apparent in the cities of the empire, about which we still know so little. Uncovering a sense of this liveliness in the case of 18th century Delhi has been a primary goal of this book.

What did successive Mughal rulers lack in terms of quality to be a shrewd ruler as compared to Aurangzeb or his predecessors?

Focusing on the personal qualities of rulers suggests that they are the sole holders of power and the only agents in the story of history. But a quick look around us today reminds us that while those who hold supreme political status would like to claim all authority, there are, in fact, a multitude of other actors whose actions arguably have as much or even greater impact on the unfolding of everyday life.

For these reasons, I have tried to turn away the focus from the questions of any individual ruler and their ability — or lack of it. Instead my book makes a plea for historians to turn away their gazes from the figures of kings and princes, and towards the vast masses of the ordinary people who populated the cities they ruled.

The repeated display of dead Mughal kings after Aurangzeb did not kill the idea of kingship in India as happened in France in 1789. Why do you think Indian society was not ready for new ideas of rulers like the French were?

I don’t believe there was — or is — any intrinsic shortcoming in the political imagination of Indian society. Historians have long argued that the French revolution — like ‘great’ events of all kinds — was contingent in nature: It was not fated to happen, and its unfolding and consequences depended on chance and happenstance.

This is also true of other large historical processes, such as the collapse of the Mughal empire and the establishment of colonialism. Given this contingency of history, we ask instead — how did political ideas change and evolve in India over the 18th century?

And here we see a sophisticated tradition of reflecting on politics and making sense of dramatic political change that is apparent across a great range of writings among those observing the contortions of elite politics in this period.

You cover in great detail the Delhi massacre of 1739 by Nadir Shah. And this happened only 22 years after Aurangzeb’s death. Could you tell us what military equipment and tactic did the invading Iranian army have which the Mughal army didn’t, which resulted in their defeat?

Following on the previous point, the battle of Karnal in which Nadir Shah triumphed was a contingent event, which should be treated separately from the massacre in Delhi that occurred some days later.

As regards to the clash at Karnal, both sides must have believed they had a decent chance to win on the eve of battle — if either side was convinced of the impossibility of victory, they would have retreated or surrendered.

It has been suggested that Nadir Shah’s troops were more experienced or better trained; but this, too, is doubtful. The Mughal army would go on to win battles against Nadir Shah’s former soldiers in the years ahead.

Even if the Iranian army were better trained or equipped, what would have happened if a stray bullet had killed Nadir Shah at the outset of hostilities?

In the event of such an entirely plausible possibility, Indian history would have unfolded quite differently, and we would have celebrated the cunning and vitality of the Mughals, and not their decrepitude.

I present this counterfactual example to illustrate the precept that all historical events are in their nature contingent on many circumstances. We must therefore acknowledge that Nadir Shah’s victory was as driven by chance and luck as by any superiority of arms or skill.

What we learn about Aurangzeb in our history books is that he was against poetry and music. What made you choose and research a full chapter on poetry and public in Aurangzeb’s Delhi?

Here, we return to the problem of the focus on a single individual as the key actor in history, a problem that particularly bedevils writing on Aurangzeb. It is probably true that Aurangzeb had a somewhat different religious sensibility from his ancestors and siblings, though much more serious research in the primary sources of his reign is needed to make any worthwhile claim about his personality and the broader effects of the empire’s actions on its subjects.

My point has been to argue that whatever Aurangzeb’s personal predilections, and however influential they may have been, there was in fact a large urban world outside his grasp — one that did not passively accept his dicta.

In fact, as the book shows, the population of Delhi in the 17th and 18th centuries was at least as irreverent of the grand claims of political authority then as it is today, and Aurangzeb had the good sense to understand that he should silently bear the mockery to which he was subjected.

In the circulation of this scathing poetry we see the emergence of a realm of public discussion and opinion about the king that was outside his control. Such a realm of public engagement with the political activities of the ruler is suggestive of the ways in which the residents of cities came to hold, express — and ultimately act — on their political views.

Could you tell us about Alanquwa, the mythical Mongol queen, and why Mughal rulers felt that their rule had heavenly favour? Do you feel Mughal kings used to feel it was their divine right to rule because of their lineage to Alanquwa?

Whether or not individual Mughal rulers genuinely believed it was their God-given right to rule we cannot say, but such claims were made on behalf of the dynasty overall.

The Mughal emperors of the 17th century liked to describe themselves as universal rulers — as is evident in their regal names of Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb, all of which imply possession of the world — even if they were aware of their limited power and the claims of competitors.

To support such large claims, the Mughals availed themselves of as many sources of sacred authority as possible, in a realm where their competitors claimed descent from solar or lunar deities. Alanquwa, the mythical founder of the Mongols, was a powerful symbol that linked the dynasty to a distant steppe past and the favour of heaven for a particular dynasty.

You explain in the book the concept of daulat, that ministers too can have daulat. Why is this concept so deep-rooted in Indian society that only the king could possess daulat?

The idea of daulat has always contained several distinct but related meanings: Most prominently in the idea of ‘fortune’, both in the sense of good luck and that of wealth.

Mughal courtiers argued their patrons were blessed with divine fortune — a heaven-granted daulat — that alone gave them the right to supreme authority.

But the by the 18th century, the sense of ‘wealth’ becomes more prominent in the idea of daulat; increasingly, the nobility began to see themselves as in possession of the right to rule, which was no longer derived so much from heavenly assent but the control over material resources.

This changing understanding of the power as deriving from the control of wealth is associated with the dispersal of kingly authority in the decades after Aurangzeb’s death.

By 1729, the poet Shaikh Zuhur al-Din Hatim explains how the noble class had become impoverished and the low class had risen in wealth. How did this change take place? The men who carried palanquins now ride them. How did this economic change happen?

The recent discovery of Yemeni coins across the Eastern Seaboard of the United States has given credence to the theory that Henry Every, the notorious pirate who looted the Mughal ship — the Ganj-i Sawai — managed to escape with some of his crew to the colonies in the new world.

Such coins represent only a miniscule sum from the treasures carried on the looted ship, which itself only represented a fraction of the trade that brought silver from Europe and Asia to India’s shores in exchange for the spices and cotton cloths produced here.

The Mughals fostered this trade and profited tremendously from it: A huge convoy carried as much as ten million silver rupees from Bengal to Delhi annually in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Although the economic prosperity of the period was by no means evenly distributed, these flows of silver into the city did not remain confined to the king’s coffers. Trade stimulated investment and production, which, in turn, enriched new groups of people.

The unease of the traditionally wealthy in observing the rise of these nouveaux riches can be seen in the poetry of men like Zuhur al-Din Hatim; at the other end of the spectrum, poets such as Ja`far Zatalli and Nazir Akbarabadi complain of poverty or counsel its acceptance in a world of glittering conspicuous consumption.

From their poetry, and more generally that of the 18th century, we can discern a variety of attitudes towards the effects of commercialisation on Mughal society.

Did Hindus in general feel that they were being treated as second-class citizens under the Mughal rule post Aurangzeb’s death too? And while researching the book did you come across any traits of Hindu awakening in Mughal India post Aurangzeb’s death like it happened in Bengal under British rule?

Given that there was no concept of ‘citizenship’, and that Indian society was intensely hierarchical, the idea of ‘second-class citizenship’ would have been meaningless to a Hindu (or indeed anyone else) in the Mughal empire.

Let us take the perspective of a Hindu intellectual in Aurangzeb’s reign such as Bhim Sen Saksena, who came from a North Indian family and served in the Deccan, and whose writings have been studied by generations of Mughal historians. Members of his clan were deeply involved in the bureaucratic administration of the imperial administrative and military establishments in the reign of Aurangzeb.

As Taymiya Zaman has recently written, Bhim Sen was frequently critical of Aurangzeb’s actions — not because he was anti-Hindu, but because he was an ineffective ruler (in contrast to Shah Jahan).

Bhim Sen thus is more offended by the corruption of tax officials rather than the imposition of the jizya, which, after all, was only one of many different kinds of taxes demanded by local and state officials. At the same time, Bhim Sen appreciated Aurangzeb’s piety and regarded it approvingly as appropriate for a ruler.

Bhim Sen’s attitudes were typical, not exceptional. Like their Muslim counterparts, Hindu intellectuals understood that there had once been an Islamic conquest of India. But by the 17th century, both regarded India with an intense patriotism framed against the other realms of Safavids and the Ottomans.

One of the chief virtues of India was supposed to be the great debate between religious traditions in which both adherents of different faiths believed that there was wisdom and truth to be gained from other traditions. This, however, did not preclude sharp disagreements and violent conflicts in the realm of ideas between adherents of different faiths.

And, as I explore in my book, a great deal of social conflict was at times expressed in communities of faith. But those who strove after higher truths attempted to reconcile these seemingly incommensurable traditions. To a great extent they were successful in doing so.

Prince Dara Shukoh’s efforts to produce a confluence of the two great oceans of truth of Hinduism and Islam (recently studied by Supriya Gandhi) in this regard were again not unique but instead typical of Mughal culture.

In this light, to say that there was an awakening of Hindus under British rule implies that they were asleep before the arrival of colonialism!

Much recent scholarship has instead shown us how sophisticated Hindu philosophy and thought were in the Mughal period.

This richness derived from interaction between persons who adhered to different faiths but were profoundly curious and interested in the traditions of others, and from which they believed they could learn about the fundamental questions which confront us all: about the meaning and purpose of life, the nature of reality and the pursuit of truth.

This is at least one respect in which the history of our ancestors has something still to teach us.

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