In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hindus and the Mughal Empire (1526–1857)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of Mughal History
  • Hindus and the Mughal State
  • Literary and Artistic Encounters
  • The Mughals and Modern India

Hinduism Hindus and the Mughal Empire (1526–1857)
by
Shandip Saha
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0283

Introduction

The origin of the Mughal Empire dates back to 1526 when the Timurid ruler of Central Asia, Babur, invaded North India in the final years of the Delhi Sultanate, which ruled over North India between 1206 and 1526. Babur ruled from 1526 to 1530 and was succeeded by his son, Humayun. Humayun ruled over North India between 1530 and 1538, when he was overthrown by the Afghan ruler Sher Shah (r. 1538–1545). Afghan rule over North India remained until 1555, at which point Humayun managed to regain control of North India, only to then die the following year. The territories over which Humayun ruled fell to the hands of his son, Akbar (r. 1556–1605) who left his successors a sprawling empire that stretched across most of the subcontinent. Akbar was succeeded by his son Jahangir (r. 1605–1627), who, in turn, was succeeded by Shahjahan (r. 1627–1658), the great Mughal patron of the arts who commissioned the Taj Mahal. The failed efforts of Shahjahan’s son and successor, Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707) to expand the Mughal Empire triggered the decline of the empire, and by 1759 the Mughals were forced to accept British suzerainty. When, in 1857, Bahadur Shah II (r. 1837–1857) was deposed by the British and exiled to Burma, the Mughal Empire ceased to exist. The impact of the Mughal Empire can still be felt in India today through the manner in which Mughal history has been deployed by individuals to champion either a vision of a liberal, secular India or a vision of India based upon the religious and cultural values of the country’s Hindu majority. India’s Hindu nationalist government, which came to power in 2014, has endeavored to strip Muslims of their rights as citizens and to downplay if not completely erase the role of Mughals in Indian history by promoting a narrative that emphasizes the Mughals—and by extension all Muslims—as violent, intolerant outsiders. This has generated much public debate about India’s future as a nation, and it has also sparked a renewed interest in the religious history of the Mughals. This bibliography is meant to introduce the reader to the study of Mughal religious history and the more specific topic of Hindu-Mughal relations through a survey of relevant primary sources from the Mughal period and secondary sources written from the colonial period onward. The primary sources listed below are restricted to English translations, while the remaining sources represent a wide variety of perspectives written by professional and nonprofessional historians for scholarly and popular audiences.

General Overviews of Mughal History

British colonial scholarship on the Mughals argued that the Mughal emperors were bigoted despots who exploited their citizenry to fuel their own power and pleasure. The fall of the empire was thus caused by the moral decline of the ruling class and popular resistance to Aurangzeb’s attempts to force Islam upon Hindus and other religious communities. Secular liberal historians concerned with using history for the purpose of state-building and communal harmony in the post-independence era argued that the Mughals’ interest in interreligious dialogue helped lay the foundation for the values of equality and tolerance upon which the new republic was to be founded. The tensions between Hindus and Muslims, consequently, resulted from the decline of religious liberalism within the empire, which was then exacerbated by the divide and rule policies of the British. Hindu nationalist historians, on the other hand, continued to perpetuate colonial stereotypes about the Mughals as despots to support their narrative that the Mughals—like their Sultanate predecessors—persecuted Hindus. This persecution reached new heights under Aurangzeb and triggered the dissolution of the empire. Consequently, for these historians, the Mughals—and by extension all Muslims—were violent and intolerant individuals whose injustices toward Hindus need to be corrected in the present day. Marxist scholars centered at the Aligarh Muslim University were instrumental in shifting Mughal historiography away from religion by focusing on economics and the relationship between the Mughal ruling class and its citizens. For these scholars, the decline of the empire had little to do with religion and more with the economic decline of the empire during the reign of Aurangzeb and the accompanying revolts throughout the Mughal countryside. More recent histories of the Mughals focus on the intersection between politics, economics, class, and religion in shaping the history of the empire. These studies emphasize how Mughal governance was driven more by economics and state-building rather than religion. The sources listed below all touch upon these differing interpretations of Mughal history. Colonial historiography on the Mughals is represented by Eliot and Dowson 1873–1877, Mill 1820, and Smith 1961. Majumdar 1974 represents a conservative nationalist perspective on the Mughals, while Chandra 2007 and Mukhia 2004 represent trends associated with the Aligarh school of history. While Fisher 2020, Kinra 2021, Saha 2013, and Richards 1995 represent more standard academic histories, Schimmel 2013 is different for providing a cultural history of the Mughals.

  • Chandra, Satish. History of Medieval India: 800–1700. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2007.

    This text is meant to be a general introduction to India prior to British rule. Chandra provides a very thorough analysis of society and culture under Mughal rule and argues that religion was not the principal reason for the decline of the Mughal Empire. Its decline was, rather, caused by a weakening economy, technological backwardness, and political unrest caused by Aurangzeb’s conflict with the Marathas and Sikhs.

  • Eliot, Henry M., and John Dowson, eds. The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians. 5 vols. London: Trubner, 1873–1877.

    These five volumes were meant tell the history of Muslim rule in India purely through the translation of extracts from Persian chronicles. The selections were deliberately chosen to highlight the despotic nature of Mughal rule and the necessity for British rule in India. Volumes three to five are devoted to the Mughals and would help to shape the narrative of Hindus as an oppressed majority under the Mughals.

  • Fisher, Michael H. A Short History of the Mughal Empire. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

    Fisher’s book is a very concise and well-written narrative history that touches upon topics ranging from gender and economics to religion and literature. The text is primarily directed at nonspecialists and would serve as an excellent entry point into the study of the Mughal Empire.

  • Kinra, Rajeev. “The Mughal Empire.” In The Oxford World History of Empire. Edited by Peter Fibiger Bang, C. A. Bayly, and Walter Scheidel, 751–758. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780197532768.003.0027

    Kinra’s introduction to the Mughal Empire is an extremely readable and comprehensive introduction to Mughal history. Kinra argues that the decline of the Mughal Empire was caused by a number of factors that included Mughal intervention in the internal affairs of Rajput states, the Deccan campaigns, and long-term factors that put much stress on the Mughal economy.

  • Majumdar, R. C. The Mughuls. History and Culture of the Indian People, Vol. 7. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1974.

    This is the seventh volume in the eleven-volume history of India edited by Indian historian Romesh Chandra Majumdar (b. 1888–d. 1980), and it reflects the larger Hindu nationalist agenda of the series’ main visionary, Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi (b. 1887–d. 1971). Majumdar argues that histories of Hindu-Mughal relations have been shaped largely by the political agendas of secular liberal authors and politicians, when, in fact, the historical record shows Hindus were consistently oppressed under the Mughals and, particularly, under the reign of Aurangzeb.

  • Mill, James. The History of British India. 2d ed. London: Baldwin, Cradock, & Joy, 1820.

    Mill’s history of India presents the Mughals as outsiders to the Indian subcontinent who established an empire that was ruled by despots who wielded power capriciously and illogically over its citizens. Despotism combined with the backwardness of both Hindus and Muslims justified, in Mill’s view, the civilizing mission of the British in the subcontinent.

  • Mukhia, Harbans. The Mughals of India. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470758304

    Mukhia’s history of the Mughals is a richly illustrated and comprehensive introduction to the political, social, religious, and cultural history of the Mughal Empire. Mukhia argues that the Mughals wanted to adapt and integrate themselves into the Indian political and cultural landscape. Consequently, decision-making was not driven by religious considerations but largely by political and economic ones.

  • Richards, John F. The Mughal Empire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    Richards’ oft-cited overview of Mughal history argues that the Mughal state was a highly centralized administrative structure, with the ruling emperor using his grip on power to extend his authority to every part of North India. The decline of the Mughal Empire, according to Richards, was triggered by opposition to what he believes was Aurangzeb’s desire to create an Islamic theocracy in North India.

  • Saha, Shandip. “Mughal Empire (1526–1857).” In The Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 4. Edited by Knut Jacobson, 81–95. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013.

    This article is meant to be a comprehensive introduction for nonspecialists to the Mughal Empire and addresses issues relating to conversion, temple desecration, and the connection between religion and imperial power. The author argues that the principal reason for the Mughals’ decline was not religion but the pressures placed upon the empire by rebellions and a severe land crisis, both of which were caused by Aurangzeb’s attempts to expand the empire.

  • Schimmel, Annemarie. The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture. London: Reaktion Books, 2013.

    Schimmel’s book is a cross between a narrative history and an encyclopedia of facts and names about those who helped to create the Mughal cultural landscape. For nonspecialists looking to study Mughal cultural history, Schimmel’s book would be a useful starting point.

  • Smith, Vincent A. The Oxford History of India: From the Earliest Times to the End of 1911. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.

    Smith’s influential history of India represents another example of colonial writing on India that reiterates the view that Mughal India was ruled by despots whose tyranny over their subjects would necessitate their liberation by the British.

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