By Attempting to sanitise Aurangzeb’s anti-Hindu legacy, historians have done him a disservice
William Purser’s sketch of the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi made from original sketches by Commander Robert Elliott in Views in India, China, and on the Shores of the Red Sea (1835) by Emma Roberts (Photo: Getty Images)
“GYANVAPI” is an intriguing name for a mosque. Vapi means well. “Gyanvapi” is the corruption of the Sanskrit term Jnana-Vapi or the Well of (Sacred) Knowledge, symbolising Shiva-Tattva (or the Philosophy of Shiva). The fact that for three-and-a-half centuries, even the Muslim community has not bothered to rename the mosque after an Islamic nomenclature reveals its obvious historical truth hiding in plain sight. Physically, and to spell out this truth, in 1669, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb demolished the original Kashi Visvesvara Temple and raised the Gyanvapi mosque using its debris. In fact, another famous mosque which underwent the same Aurangzebian fate still stands in the sacred city: the Alamgir Masjid, built after destroying the Bindu Madhava Temple. The renaming was successful in this event.
The memory of the Gyanvapi mosque presents a curious phenomenon. Both the Hindu and the Muslim communities have preserved this memory in their own ways. To the Hindu community, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, so violently transformed into the Gyanvapi mosque, is one of the most enduring and high-profile proofs of their civilisational and spiritual loss and a heartless usurpation of their piety. In Muslim chronicles written during Aurangzeb’s rule and later, the demolition is described as a celebration of the conquest of ignorance and infidelity. As we shall see, the Muslim community in our own time cannot quite maintain this position in public. However, ever since the Gyanvapi mosque survey began about a month ago, in most public debates—on TV and elsewhere—leaders of the Muslim clergy firmly maintain that the mosque belongs to the community and studiously bypass or downplay the question of its real origins.
Which is where our story really begins.
The very fact that a survey had to be conducted at Gyanvapi reveals two major but interlinked and familiar themes of India’s political history and public discourse since 1947. The first is the destructive extent to which Hindu-Muslim friction has been deliberately stoked for a prolonged period by powerful forces masquerading as secularists, who have purposefully sided with the most fundamentalist elements of the Islamic clergy. The second, which is concomitant with the first, is the manner in which the Hindu community was continually pushed to the corner and rendered nearly voiceless until the Ram Janmabhoomi movement unleashed a vigorous reassertion. However, the reassertion began to spread and sprawl in a decisive fashion only after 2014.
The damage that all of this has inflicted upon a vast swathe of our national life has been irreversible, irreparable and irretrievable in several areas. For one, Hindus have suffered an appalling erosion of their cultural roots and civilisational identity. But more significantly, the nation has also witnessed a sinister and calculated derailment of the prized national project that non- Nehruvian Indians were so passionate about when we achieved political independence. This was the comprehensive decolonisation of our cultural psyche which alone would have recovered the lost genius that birthed perhaps the most glorious spiritual civilisation in the history of humankind. As early as 1927, the brilliant scholar NN Law had fired a warning shot about the ongoing cultural erosion in his own time:
“The interpretation of the religious and spiritual side of the Hindu civilization has… suffered much… at the hands of the modern writers of the history of India. Deficiencies in the matter of interpretation of an ancient civilization are only natural because of the gulf that keeps it apart from the civilizations of the present day. In the case of the ancient Hindus, the value of the spiritual side of their civilization is very difficult to be realized by a man of the twentieth century because of the frame of mind that is generally developed in him under the influence of the current thoughts and environment. But it was this spiritual culture which was indissolubly bound up with every phase of the ancient Hindu civilization, and influenced and determined… their manners, customs, and institutions, through which their thoughts and feelings found expressions. So long as this basic and central element of spiritual culture remains a sealed book to us, the value of the several branches of ancient Hindu [civilisation]… will not be realized.”
Neither was Law alone in this diagnosis. His luminous contemporaries, such as PV Kane, M Hiriyanna, DV Gundappa, Ananda Coomaraswamy, S Srikanta Sastri, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Radhakumud Mookerji, Ramachandra Dikshitar and scores of others, echoed the same sentiment in a single-throated fashion. None of them laboured under the illusion that India was merely a political entity that had to be built afresh after the British left. On the contrary, they regarded the political facet of the freedom movement as simply a means for achieving a more profound goal: of liberating and rebuilding a grand spiritual civilisation based on its foundational values. The tragedy and travesty of the ‘state’ that Jawaharlal Nehru thought he was building from scratch is that, today, only a handful among the 140-crore Indians are even aware that the aforementioned stalwarts existed in flesh and blood.
In essence, unless we regard ‘issues’ like the Gyanvapi mosque from this civilisational standpoint, their real profundity will continue to elude us. It will lead us astray, miring us in peripheries, such as treating it as a court case or a political or communal issue.
BUT EVEN IF WE FRAME THE ISSUE IN POLITICAL and historical terms, the logical question arises: What exactly changed from the peaceful rebuilding of the Somnath Temple in 1949-50 to the violence and strife-ridden, long path to rebuilding the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya? The answer: distortion, denial, falsification, and whitewashing of the dark truths of the Muslim period of Indian history. All in the service of a singular cause: keeping the captive Muslim vote bank firmly captive, a euphemism for Indian secularism. Or, in the memorable words of Arun Shourie: “Indian secularism consists of branding Hindus communal.”
As with Ayodhya, the same behaviour patterns, the same evasions and sleights of hand are at play even now, in the case of the Gyanvapi mosque, although with reduced vehemence and power. And history, more than any other element, continues to be used as a weapon in this destructive endeavour.
IN A SENSE, AURANGZEB REMAINS THE ULTIMATE LITMUS test to prove one’s credentials as a secular historian. The reasons date back to the origins of the vandalism of Indian history but its encapsulated summary is as follows.
Aurangzeb’s death inaugurated the decimation of Muslim political power in India. Including him, every Islamic invader and ruler dutifully and proudly chronicled his largescale temple destruction, cow slaughter, slave-taking, mass rapes and forcible conversions of Hindus as his pious service to the holy cause of spreading Islam in India. These voluminous and copious chronicles are firsthand accounts that leave little room for doubt about
the intent and purpose of these savage and bigoted acts. Medieval Muslim chroniclers revel in the humiliations meted out to the infidel Hindus with great poetic flourish. Historian Vincent Smith characterised their psyche as follows:
“The [Muslim invader] was a typical specimen of the ferocious Central Asian warriors of the time, merciless and fanatical. His valour and profuse liberality to his comrades endeared him to the bloodthirsty historian of his age, who praises him as having been a ‘beneficent and victorious monarch.’ …His gifts we are told, ‘were bestowed by hundreds of thousands, and his slaughters likewise were by hundreds of thousands.’ All the leaders in the Muslim conquest of Hindostan similarly rejoiced in committing wholesale massacres of Hindu idolaters, armed or unarmed.”
More than anyone else, it was Aurangzeb who left behind the most detailed—and almost day-to-day—records of his dogged bigotry against Hindus. These accounts include a slew of measures against Hindus, such as banning festivals, largescale temple destructions, Jaziya, discriminatory economic practices, eviction from administrative posts, and so on. An overwhelming mass of these records have survived intact up to our own day.
If Aurangzeb had to ‘purify’ the original temple by destroying it, why did he replace it with a mosque instead of rebuilding the same temple? Nor do members of the Muslim clergy answer that other vital question confronting them in physical form: the Nandi which faces the Gyanvapi mosque instead of facing the new structure that Ahilyabai Holkar built in 1775
The ultimate and total loss of Muslim political power at British hands was followed by the eventual spread of European ideas such as liberalism, equality, fraternity, enlightenment, rationalism, and intellectual inquiry. All these left their mark on the Indian Muslim psyche as well. Thus, a climate arose in which the Muslim elite could no longer celebrate the fanaticisms of its past sultans. Some Anglicised sections of the community even felt squeamish of this past.
It was roughly around this time, that is, during the second half of the 19th century, that the community invested heavily in education along the lines of the European university system. A major undercurrent of this project was to seek answers to the shock-loss of political power and to find methods to recover it. The vehicle used for this purpose was an emulation of the methods and models of a Europe which had by then swallowed more than half of the globe. The Muslim gentry led by the likes of Syed Ahmad Khan assiduously cultivated the British ruling class, learned the fine art of divide and rule and concealment. A cardinal stratagem he devised and then propagated throughout the Indian Muslim community is best understood in his own words:
“Do not show the face of Islam to others; instead show your face as the follower of true Islam representing character, knowledge, tolerance and piety.”
The kernel of the phenomenon of whitewashing the brutal history of Islamic despotism in medieval India is found in this dictum of subterfuge. And it paid substantial dividends. Syed Ahmad Khan’s Aligarh movement quickly transformed into a large and powerful den for providing intellectual and academic varnish for the gradual and methodical revival of Islamic political power in India in a multipronged fashion. He also obliquely birthed and inspired two prominent leaders in his mould: Allama Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
THE REAL PROGENITOR
A NOTABLE PIONEERING EXPONENT OF THIS SUBTERFUGE emerged from the same precincts: the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). His name was Mohammad Habib, grand son-in-law of Badruddin Tyabji. As a student of history at Oxford, Habib came under the spell of Maulana Mohammad Ali of Khilafat Movement notoriety. After graduating, Mohammad Habib returned to India to first teach at Jamia Millia and then joined the newly founded AMU as a reader, and was then promoted as professor of history in 1922-3. In this position, he began a series of deft academic moves which had an ostensible “scientific” goal for advancing the discipline of historiography: to write the history of the medieval Muslim period using primary sources— coins, Farmans, court chronicles, administrative records, oral narratives by Sufis, etc. This was merely the outer shell but it was also a firm foundation. The core was a long-term vision to fundamentally transform the approach to writing the history of the medieval Muslim period in order to thoroughly sanitise its extensive gory record. A noteworthy outcome was the creation of a new spurious school of history later known as the Aligarh School of History. Dipesh Chakrabarty, author of a fine volume on Jadunath Sarkar (The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth) notes how Habib seeded a “secular” and “left-leaning tradition of historical research in the 1920s.” Some prominent early disciples of Mohammed Habib include Satish Chandra and Nurul Hasan, who later became the education minister under Indira Gandhi and founded Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Mecca of Indian Marxists. Mohammad Habib also spared no occasion to remind the country that Nehru learned history at his feet. Which is no empty boast because a quick survey of The Discovery of India shows how deeply Nehru had ingested Habib’s fictions about the Muslim period.
Habib’s method of ‘interpreting’ the blood-soaked annals of the medieval Muslim period was to recast it in economic terms. And he chose Mahmud of Ghazni to inaugurate this generational endeavour of history-whitewashing. Here is a sample of Habib’s creative reinterpretation of Mahmud’s substantial record of temple destructions throughout north India culminating in the wrecking of Somnath in Gujarat:
“It was impossible that the Indian temples should not sooner or later tempt someone strong and unscrupulous enough for the impious deed. Nor was it expected that a man of Mahmud’s character would allow the tolerance which Islam inculcates to restrain him from taking possession of the gold…when the Indians themselves had simplified his work by concentrating the wealth of the country at a few places.”
This was not history by any standard but Habib’s fond hope of erasing the uncomfortable past in the service of Islamism and communism. However, with the ascent of his ‘school’ of history-writing under Nehru’s patronage, it had the far-reaching consequences of defacing and distorting the collective psyches of at least three generations of Indians. Thus, by the late 1960s, the history of the medieval Muslim period boiled down to these main items:
– The Islamic invasions of India was a myth
– Muslim invaders were not motivated by their scripture in their conquests of India
– Forcible conversions of Hindus were also a myth because millions of “low caste” Hindus voluntarily, joyfully accepted the universal brotherhood of Islam to escape “Brahminical oppression”
– Islam was a liberating force which for the first time introduced true social equality in India due to which lakhs of Hindus voluntarily helped build magnificent mosques and palaces for Muslim sultans
– Aurangzeb’s vast empire imploded due to a “revenue crisis” and not because of the series of revolts owing to his all-encompassing oppression of Hindus
Needless, Mohammad Habib’s Ghaznian template was extrapolated to all Muslim despots, all the way up to Aurangzeb. Thus, if an Audrey Truschke is able to write such a brazen book pasteurising Aurangzeb, it is because the field had already been primed by our Marxist ideologues cloaked as historians.
THE KNOTTIEST PROBLEM
HOWEVER, AURANGZEB ALSO PRESENTED THE knottiest problem of all because he left behind copious firsthand records in which he gloats about his anti-Hindu bigotry in both theory and practice. In our context, the destruction of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is recorded in a Farman dated September 2, 1669: “News came to Court that according to the Emperor’s command, his officers had demolished the temple of Vishwanath at Benares.” In fact, the third book of Jadunath Sarkar’s majestic volumes on Aurangzeb gives an appendix documenting just the major temples he destroyed throughout India, including Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka. That was about 70 per cent of the total geography of undivided India.
The British Viscount George Valentia, who visited Benares a hundred and thirty five years after the Kashi Visveswara Temple was destroyed, paints a heartrending picture of desolation:
“The [Gyanvapi] mosque with its minars was built by Aurungzebe, to mortify the Hindoos. Not only is it placed on the highest point of land, and most conspicuous from being close to the river, but the foundations are laid on a sacred spot, where a temple before stood, which was destroyed to make room for it. This edifice violated the holy city, and proudly overlooked all the temples… I therefore satisfied myself with ascending to the roof of the mosque, whence I overlooked the whole of the town and the river… A little stone temple, dedicated to Maha-deva, displays its trident at an humble height, close to the side of the crescent at the summit of the minars… Tyranny and oppression seem to be necessary concomitants of the Mussulman religion, whose first principle is intolerance…
It is a pity that anything should prevent this noble city from being brought to that perfection of which it is capable. I felt myself sufficiently a Hindoo when viewing the lofty minars [of the Gyanvapi Mosque] to wish that hereafter, [the British] Government may restore the spot to its original owners, and remove this cruel eye sore from the holy city.”
The core of Mohammad Habib’s project was a long-term vision to transform the approach to writing the history of the medieval Muslim period in order to thoroughly sanitise its extensive gory record. Habib also spared no occasion to remind the country that Nehru learned history at his feet
Valentia was preceded and followed by other European travellers and officials who wrote in a similar vein about the tragic event. Thus, faced with such a mountain of incontrovertible evidence, the Habibian and Marxist ‘historians’ embarked on a spree of historical cookery. A chief dish that emanated from this kitchen was the fiction that the Rani of Kutch was violated by a Mahant of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in its very basement. As a consequence, an angry petition of Hindu Rajas to Aurangzeb moved the compassionate sultan so profoundly that he ordered the destruction of the temple in order to… purify it! More than two decades ago, the intrepid scholar Koenraad Elst traced the root of this fiction and found its source. It appears as an essay in his 2002 book titled Ayodhya, the Case against the Temple:
“So now, we finally know where the story comes from: an unnamed mullah friend of an unnamed acquaintance of Pattabhi Sitaramayya’s knew of a manuscript, the details of which he took with him in his grave. This is the “document” on which secularist journalists and historians base their “evidence” of Aurangzeb’s fair and secularist disposition, overruling the evidence of archaeology and the cold print of the Maasiri Alamgiri…”
However, the fiction has endured. Even today, members of the Muslim clergy who appear on TV debates (and I have been part of several such debates) on Gyanvapi use this fiction to justify Aurangzeb’s vandalism. But this is the question they don’t answer: If Aurangzeb had to ‘purify’ the original temple by destroying it, why did he replace it with a mosque instead of rebuilding the same temple? Nor do they answer that other vital question confronting them in physical form: the Nandi which faces the Gyanvapi mosque instead of facing the new structure that Ahilyabai Holkar built in 1775.
HISTORY CLEARLY IS EITHER THE HERO OR THE villain of this piece depending on whether one is a votary of the truth or a secularist. The Kutch Rani fiction apart, the other device of the secularist historians was to simply ignore or dismiss inconvenient facts. For the longest period, Jadunath Sarkar had remained a thorn in their flesh. However, once they acquired political clout and captured institutions, they lost no time in banishing Sarkar’s entire body of stellar work by simply branding him a “communal historian”. PhDs were summarily rejected if the student as much as approvingly cited Sarkar in just one footnote. Sans the Nehru dynasty’s sustained political patronage, it is doubtful whether the secularists would have got away with crimes against Indian history on such an epic scale.
The patented template of our secular historians follows this Marxist ideology of political scavenging: the first lesson of politics is to forget the first lesson of history.
Fortunately, there is renewed interest in Jadunath Sarkar’s works, and universities across the world have fittingly categorised them as classics of historical scholarship while his detractors have witnessed their credibility being shattered in their own lifetime.
However, in their zeal for specifically whitewashing Aurangzeb’s documented anti-Hindu fanaticism, our secular historians forgot a key element of his psyche. He destroyed the Kashi Visveswara Temple not in a fit of rage but in full faith that doing so would land him an esteemed place in Jannat, and that on the Day of Judgment, he would proudly hold his head high and declare to God that he had remained a true Ghazi who had shown the idol-worshipping infidels their place. Thus, by attempting to fumigate this legacy of Aurangzeb, our secularist historians have actually done him a disservice.
Had Aurangzeb been alive today, our secularist ‘historians’ would have been the prime candidates for receiving unspeakable punishment at his hands.