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The Right and Wrong of Ages Past

The Emperor Aurangzeb Carried on a Palanquin -- Bhavindas (active ca. 1700-1748), from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Can we pass moral judgement on actions from earlier times? If yes, on what basis?

The reviews of Audrey Truschke’s Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth have sparked more debate than the book itself. The terms of the debate are well-known to history enthusiasts: the reviews point out that the protagonists’s life was far more complex than it is made out to be (duh!), while the criticisms of these reviews emphasise that Aurangzeb must be blamed for the ‘immoral’ acts he sanctioned.

Setting the specifics of Aurangzeb’s deeds aside for a moment, the latest exchange of barbs got me thinking about a question that is at the centre of such debates: should we judge people from the past for their supposed ‘immorality’?

Broadly, there are three answers to this question. The first one is a relaxed condition that forms the basis of a philosophical position known as moral relativism. It states that values, mores, and institutions evolve over time and across geographies. The values that we hold dear today were often unimportant for societies of the past. Hence, judging people from the past based on modern values is unfair—morals are relative.

Let me explain with an example. One of the greatest speeches in the history of post-independent India is Grammar of Anarchy by the polymath BR Ambedkar. (Read it now if you haven’t.) A section of this speech reads as follows:

As has been well said by the Irish Patriot Daniel O’Connel, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country.

Seen from today’s worldview, it is clear how even this monumental speech has its dark spots. Pinning the importance of chastity on women alone will be considered problematic by most liberal societies today. This section of the speech can then be used to construct a narrative of how even Ambedkar was patriarchal in his thought. A moral relativist would disagree though. She would argue that this allegation is unfair to Ambedkar because the association of chastity with women was a prevalent thought during those times.

A diagonally opposite viewpoint to moral relativism is an extremely strict condition called moral absolutism. This position says that there are universal standards of right and wrong to which all people should be held regardless of their circumstances. It doesn’t matter where or when they are. This position would be extremely critical of Ambedkar for his disregard of a universally acceptable standard that men and women should be treated equally.

The third position lies somewhere in the middle of model relativism and moral absolutism. Philosopher Miranda Fricker explains this position in a brilliant BBC Magazine article as follows:

The proper standards by which to judge people are the best standards that were available to them at the time.

Let’s term this philosophical position as moral standardism. My view is that this particular approach can help us navigate the complex historical debates in India far better. When applied to the Aurangzeb debate, a moral standardist would ask: what were the best standards of the State’s conduct in religious affairs during Aurangzeb’s time? Are there examples of his contemporaries adopting standards that were much better than he did? From this position, listing the good deeds of Aurangzeb (or any other ruler) to counter their supposed ‘immorality’ becomes irrelevant because it can easily be argued that all historical characters are complex and layered, not monochromatic as they are commonly made out to be. The focus instead is on: could he have known—and done—better based on the standards of the era he operated in?

So, let’s see the charges against Aurangzeb from the perspective of moral standardism. The first allegation is that Aurangzeb destroyed many Hindu temples. But were the best standards available to him at that time any better? Doesn’t appear to be so.

Govind Pansare in his book Shivaji KoN Hota says that the basis for statecraft during Shivaji’s time was the pursuit for rajya, not the pursuit of dharma. Consequently, it was not uncommon for rulers—Hindu and Muslim— to destroy temples that often functioned as wealth banks. Pansare gives the instance of the Sringeri Sharda Temple which was in fact destroyed by the ‘Hindu’ Maratha army and was rebuilt by the ‘Muslim’ Tipu Sultan. He also claims that once the conquests were completed, there were several instances of kings rebuilding temples in order to assuage their subjects: even Aurangzeb rebuilt the Jagannath temple in Gujarat besides other important holy sites in Mathura and Benaras. Thus, it is difficult to say that there were any better standards available to Aurangzeb.

The second allegation is that not only did Aurangzeb’s army destroy temples but it also engaged in a conscious policy of desecrating temple idols. The best standards available at that time were different: even when Hindu armies destroyed temples, idols were generally unharmed. So, perhaps it is difficult to absolve Aurangzeb from this charge unless there is enough proof that even other aspiring rulers of the time engaged in beheading of temple idols.

This approach can be used to investigate other claims of ‘misdeeds’ as well. Because this approach demands a lot of intellectual rigour, this path is often not taken. It requires a thorough analysis of the standards available in various spheres of life in kingdoms and regions not of direct interest. It is much easier to engage in a morally relativist or absolutist positions: after all, they provide answers in black and white.

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About the author

Pranay Kotasthane

Pranay Kotasthane heads the geostrategy programme at the Takshashila Institution. His research interests focus on geostrategy, geopolitics of the Indian subcontinent, public policy, economic reasoning and urban issues.