Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
World History and today we’re going talk about the Mughal Empire. And we’re also going
to talk about the two most important Mughal emperors, Akbar and Aurangzeb and how their
historical reputations were made. Mr Green, Mr Green? Don’t you mean the Mongol Empire? Oh, Me From The Past, that reminds of the time that you conflated the word forte with
the word forté – which of course you pronounced fort.
But on this occasion you aren’t entirely wrong the Mughals were kind of the Mongols.
But we’ll get to that in a minute. So, the Mughals were Muslims who created an empire in India that held power for roughly
200 years between the early 16th and early 18th centuries, although, technically the
Mughal empire didn’t come to an end until after the Indian Rebellion against the British
in 1857. Now the Mughals weren’t the first Muslims
in India, those would have been merchants, and they weren’t even the first Muslims
to rule significant parts of India. That honor goes to the Delhi sultanate which began in
1206 in northern India. But the Delhi Sultanate didn’t last very
long, and it was replaced by a bunch of regional kingdoms, and one of them, the Lodi sultanate
had the misfortune of falling to the founder of the Mughal dynasty, Babur in 1526.
Not Babar, although that would have been awesome. Babur was descended from Timur, the last great
Central Asian conqueror in the Mongol tradition, and also from Chinggis Khan, which explains
why Babur and his followers are called the Mughals; it’s the Persian-Arabic word for
Mongols. Now I know what you’re saying, something
like 12% of human beings currently living in the world are descended from Chinggis Khan,
but Babur got in on the ground floor of it. Anyway, I think we have some footage of Babur
raiding the Lodi sultanate, don’t we Stan? Ehhh… I don’t feel like that was actual
file footage from 1206. I feel like that was a racist Hercules movie from Italy in the
1950’s. So the Mughal Empire is really important in
India’s cultural history. I mean, the Taj Mahal was built during this time. In architecture
and painting, we see a blending of Indian and Persian styles that demonstrate how cosmopolitan
the empire was. But probably the most important aspect of
the Mughals at least as far as the contemporary world is concerned, is that they consolidated
Muslim rule over much of India and they’re largely the reason that today there are so
many Indians who are also Muslims. And the Mughals were also a really interesting
example of like how to build and maintain an empire. All right, Let’s go to the Thought
Bubble. Muslims were a small minority ruling class
vastly outnumbered by Hindus, and like many empires they relied on military power and
pursued expansionist policies. Like most of the Mughal rulers, especially
Akbar and Aurangzeb spent a considerable amount of time trying to extend Mughal control over
the entire Indian subcontinent. And they created a pretty effective empire. They were able
to incorporate Indian princes into the ruling class while still retaining top positions
for Muslims. They reorganized the bureaucracy and instituted an effective tax collection
system, which was important because the empire was of course very expensive to run – as empires
always are. This meant that it was important to make accurate
tax assessments and taxes were usually collected by local leaders called zamindars. Taxes had
to be paid in cash, and this contributed to the growing commercialization of the Mughal
empire. Reliance on zamindars, who were important men in their communities, meant that the empire
could collect revenue without being too disruptive to local village life. And although almost all
of the revenue came from taxes on agriculture, the Mughals also taxed trade.
Another way that the Mughals were a typical empire is that their rulers engaged in building
projects to enhance their prestige. From Persepolis to Rome to the Forbidden City, building monuments
to one’s greatness is what emperors do, and the Mughals were no exception. As Muslims,
many of their building projects were mosques, but the Mughals also built forts and, most
spectacularly, mausoleums. Thanks, Thought Bubble. So, most history classes
that mention the Mughals focus on the contrast between Akbar and Aurangzeb. Akbar comes off
as a good ruler, and Aurangzeb is painted as the guy who ruined the empire.
The typically positive historians’ view of Akbar, who ruled from 1556 until 1605,
can be summed up in this quote from Asher and Talbot’s India before Europe:
“Through his reforms of administration and taxation Akbar created a sound and enduring
foundation for Mughal governance, while his tolerant attitude and inclusive policies toward
Hindus and Jains helped create a state that was more Indian in character.”
That tolerance aspect is especially important. Like Akbar rescinded the jizya – the tax
that non-Muslims had to pay – and in 1580 he gave all non-Muslims the same rights as
Muslims instituting a policy called sulh-i kul, which translates to “universal toleration.”
Now in part, this policy was designed to lessen the power of Muslim religious scholars, who
might have been disturbed by the way that Akbar blended Islamic and Indian ideas of
kingship, especially the idea that he was, you know, kind of a little bit divine.
Slightly problematic idea to a lot of Muslim scholars given that the foundation of the
Islamic faith is the statement “there is no God but God” but.. you know…
In addition to the sulh-i kul, Akbar built his reputation for toleration by sponsoring
discussions of religion and philosophy. He even commissioned a building for religious
discussions, the Ibadat Khana, where Muslims, and Brahmins, and Zoroastrians, Jains, Christians,
all of them could talk theology. Akbar’s support for intellectual pursuits
are the kinds of things that modern historians like, and it’s not all that surprising that
he is remembered so favorably. Historians are far less kind to Akbar’s grandson,
Aurangzeb who ruled from 1658 until 1707. This partly due to the work of J.N. Sakar
who promoted the idea that Aurangzeb built an Islamic state that discriminated against
Hindus and other non-Muslims. Which in turn led to a loss of unity across
the Indian sub-continent and eventually the decline of the empire.
And it’s true that by the time of Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 the Mughals were losing control
of their empire. I mean the stark reality of that decline came in 1757 when the British
East India Company established itself permanently in Bengal and began its inexorable efforts
to colonize all of India. But that was, you know, 50 years after Aurangzeb
died so maybe he shouldn’t get all the blame. In fact, whether these guys deserve their
reputations really depends both on what aspects of their reign you look at and how you interpret
them. As conquerors Akbar and Aurangzeb had a lot in common.
Like Akbar might have sponsored high-minded discussion but he was also willing to use
extreme violence to keep his subjects in line. For example, he slaughtered thousands of inhabitants
of the fort at Chittor and ordered his generals to pile up the skulls of Indian princes to
frighten them into submission. That’s not especially tolerant.
And here’s another detail about Akbar’s rule that’s meant to paint him as a modern,
enlightened ruler. Because he was interested in science, Akbar arranged an experiment.
“… He had infants moved to a special house where no person was to talk to them, so that
the natural language of mankind might be revealed. The experiment failed, but it is a reflection
of Akbar’s desire to explore in a scientific manner the nature of humans and what he believed
to be their common condition.” Now you can read that as a leader trying to
understand the underlying connections among all humans no matter their religious backgrounds.
Or you can read it as horrifying child abuse. And then we have Aurangzeb was a devout Muslim
and did try to introduce Islamic principles into Mughal rule, but the trend towards orthodoxy
and away from Akbar’s toleration had begun with his predecessor, Shah Jahan.
He is best known for building the Taj Mahal – good work. Stan, he build it by himself?
Oh, apparently he had some help. But the maintenance of the Taj Mahal took
all the revenue from thirty villages, and maybe Aurangzeb’s orthodoxy was less important
than his desire to appear to be a sober and frugal leader.
Aurangzeb was also accused of destroying temples in 1669, although in fact they were just damaged,
and this was primarily done to send a political message to opponents, not as an act of religious
orthodoxy. He also tried to limit expenses at court by
prohibiting the use of gold in men’s garments and he stopped the traditional practice of
being weighed against gold on his birthday. Unlike Akbar, who is seen as being a patron
of the arts, Aurangzeb is remembered for getting rid of court musicians and poets, but he got
rid of them because of financial constraints. Well, and also because of his interpretation
of Islamic law. And that last point interests me, for those who want to see him negatively,
Aurangzeb’s orthodox Islam had no room for musicians or poets.
But it’s also possible to see that decision as a prudent cost saving measure.
Here’s another detail of Aurangzeb’s life that has been used to paint him as a zealot.
Aurangzeb, unlike his predecessors, was buried in a simple, outdoor grave, rather than an
elaborate, and expensive, tomb. You could see that as a symbol of religious
faith, or as a sign of humility or an attempt by a thoughtful ruler to spare his subjects
the expenses of like keeping up his tomb. That said, in the long run the Taj Mahal has
done pretty well in terms of generating tourist money. Whereas I don’t think anyone is paying
to see Aurangzeb’s grave. But the thing is, Aurangzeb needed to save
money. If he was a bad ruler, it’s mostly because
he spent so much time and treasure on fighting rebellions in the south of his empire, and
then neglected the north, where unrest grew as well.
It’s overly simplistic to say that the glory days of the Mughal Empire were about tolerance
and the downfall was about intolerance. Really, there were lots of factors that played
into the decline of the Mughal Empire including growing factionalism at the Mughal court,
the rise of regional powers, and the breakdown of the system of governance by local nobles.
Historians are in the business of making claims about what happened and supporting those claims
with evidence, and often this evidence provides the details that make reading and learning
about history so much fun. Now, sometimes the details suggest only one
interpretation, but in many cases they can lead us to multiple conclusions.
And the reigns of Akbar and Aurangzeb provide good examples of why we need to be careful
with our details. It’s possible that Aurangzeb was a terrible ruler because he tried to impose
Muslim orthodoxy on a Hindu majority – and no doubt many Hindus felt so, especially
after he re-instituted the jizya. And he did try to introduce sharia law as the governing
principle in the Empire. But it’s also possible that Aurangzeb’s
bad reputation comes from a contemporary preference for tolerance over piety in our rulers.
Or from a general feeling that states are better ruled by secular than religious laws.
Or from the fact that it’s just hard to rule a declining empire well.
Ask President Obama. Our experiences and biases make us more likely
to see the dismissal of court musicians and poets as an example of religious fanaticism
than as like a cost saving measure. And maybe Akbar, who could be as brutal in
his military conquests as any emperor, comes out in a good light because he did advocate
religious toleration. But it wasn’t totally, or even primarily,
due to his religious tolerance that Akbar was able to win most of his wars.
And the many rebellions against his reign suggest that he wasn’t as popular with his
subjects as he is today with historians. One last note about how the way that we look
at the past can shape the present and vice-versa.
We need to be particularly careful here, because the Mughals continue to play an important
role in how Indians imagine themselves today. One of the roots of contemporary Hindu nationalism
is pride at India’s throwing off the shackles of imperialism and for many Hindu Nationalists,
that history of imperialism starts not with the British, but with the Mughals.
We often use history to define ourselves today, and one of the most commons ways to do that
is to make negative claims about the people that we say we are not.
And so when we look at historical figures we need to be conscious of the fact that
WE are looking at them. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week.
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