How Acharya Jadunath Sarkar Wrote the Majestic Volumes of the History of Aurangzeb

A brief journey exploring the approach, method and discipline that went behind Acharya Jadunath Sarkar's writing his five-volume magnum opus, "History of Aurangzeb."
How Acharya Jadunath Sarkar Wrote the Majestic Volumes of the History of Aurangzeb

WITHOUT DOUBT, ACHARYA JADUNATH SARKAR’s five-volume History of Aurangzeb is not only his magnum opus but remains an enduring masterpiece dissecting that Islamic monster to the last cell of his bigoted entrails. It is also a fine specimen of history-writing being elevated to art. As the maxim goes, art first captures us but the discerning connoisseur will launch an investigation into the forces that worked behind the capture. So is it with Jadunath Sarkar’s writing of the Aurangzeb volumes.

The documented stories of this daunting endeavour are many and do not fit the space of this essay so we can only look at a few samples offered by Sarkar’s disciples and admirers.

English Literature, not History

The first thing that strikes us about Jadunath Sarkar is the fact that he took his M.A. in English literature and started his career as a lecturer in the subject. The other surprising rediscovery is the fact that he admired Macaulay as a prose stylist more than as a historian. His other favourite was, deservedly, Gibbon. In hindsight, Sarkar’s early writings on history reveal the influences of both Macaulay and Gibbon apart from William Irvine and Napier.

Choosing Aurangzeb

The reason Jadunath Sarkar chose Aurangzeb is both intriguing and rather straightforward. For one, it was reflective of his fiercely independent temperament. Second, his literary bent of mind careened off the beaten and boring track of archaeology, epigraphy and numismatics, fields which allowed almost no scope for infusing artistic beauty. From this perspective, all of Jadunath Sarkar’s works on history have an elevating literary mien, which fuses the best of these prosaic disciplines into an enchanting tapestry. Third, Aurangzeb presented a singular challenge in the sense that until he burst on the scene, no comprehensive history on the tyrant existed in a form which he chiselled through the sheer dint of his individual genius and hard work that can only be described as otherworldly. Aurangzeb—and broadly, the Mughal period—was a virgin mine filled with material waiting to be discovered. Plus, Aurangzeb also presented an opportunity for Sarkar to showcase his prowess as an original historian.

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Acharya Jadunath Sarkar was also a Hindu who had embarked on writing about Aurangzeb, the hero of the Islamic world, even in his time. Only two Hindus predating him had written about Aurangzeb: the first was Ishwardas Nagar who wrote the Futuḥāt-e ʿālamgiri in the 17th century and was rewarded by Aurangzeb himself; the second was Bhimsen Burhanpuri, author of the Nuskha-i-Dilkusha, written in his capacity as a Mansabdar of Aurangzeb.

The third Hindu to write about Aurangzeb and put him in his place was Jadunath Sarkar who arrived three centuries later amid vastly changed political and social conditions.

Indeed, Sarkar clearly realised the enormity of the task he had set for himself: almost all the primary sources were available in Persian and Marathi. He didn’t know both languages. If the challenge was extremely formidable, the Acharya’s preparation was equally strenuous and well-planned. He approached everything with a sense of movement and zeal. He began to learn Persian from the alphabet, and gradually learnt enough to tackle the Persian chronicles in its manuscript form. The result: his India of Aurangzib: its Topography, Statistics and Roads, published in 1901 hit the scholarly world like a storm, surprising and stunning his contemporaries, and was immediately hailed as a model of neat and exact scholarship.

As Jadunath progressed in his study of Aurangzeb, he was confronted by a massive pile of original materials in Marathi. These were documents and correspondences related to the eventful attempt of Aurangzeb to quell the Marathas. It was Acharya Jadunath Sarkar who first discovered the valuable correspondence between Aurangzeb and his general Mirza Raja Jai Singh. This singular discovery enabled the Acharya to dethrone the ”great“ historian, Grant Duff, who was regarded as an authority on the life of Shivaji.

Indeed, Aurangzeb became an obsession with Sarkar. His friend and fellow scholar G.S. Sardesai recounts an extraordinary anecdote which has to be quoted in full:

Once when we were visiting the Mughal palaces within Agra Fort, we stopped at the Diwan-i-Khas musing over the reception of the great Shivaji in that hall by Emperor Aurangzeb. To amuse and instruct us, Jadunath staged there veritably an One-Act drama himself playing the role of the second-bakhshi Asad Khan, leading Shivaji to the foot of the empty imperial masnad, making him perform kornish and presenting nazars on behalf of Shivaji and his son; and filled the gaps in his action by courtier-like addresses.

THE FIRST TWO VOLUMES of the History of Aurangzeb were published in 1912 to greater acclaim and the fifth and final volume, in 1924. However, the actual preparation and final execution consumed a quarter century of his highly productive and fruitful life. He had the fortune of being justly recognised as the authority on Aurangzeb, and colonial British scholars were forced to condescend praise upon his work: “Jadunath Sarkar’s manner of treating the subject might as well serve as a model to writers dealing with periods of Indo-Musalman history,” said Denison Ross. The Muslim community, especially the Ulema and Islamic scholars predictably erupted with fury but were unable to match his grasp over the primary sources. Understandably, they did not comprehend Jadunath Sarkar’s spirit of detachment and equanimity in expositing historical truths and denounced him, a Hindu who “dared to interpret Islamic institutions and personalities.”

Quanungo, a disciple of the Acharya and a scholar of history makes a perceptive observation about the volumes on Aurangzeb: “In order to understand a Muslim one must understand Islam, and the key to Islam lies with Islamic history. Jadunath spent a couple of years over Islamic history and culture outside India so that he might do justice to Aurangzeb who was much less an individual than an ideology that had inspired the Muslim community at every critical period.” (Emphasis added)

The Muslim furore renewed itself with the publication of each volume but the Acharya remained unperturbed. However, when the vehemence remained dogged and refused to go away, he wrote an occasional rebuttal, quoting from the original sources and silenced his critics forever.

The Method of the Mendicant

ACHARYA JADUNATH SARKAR’s majestic volumes on Aurangzeb are akin to forces of nature. And like it, no one can really understand the sheer ardour, dedication and penance he put into it. Or the pain and suffering he had to endure in the process. Nor did he disclose it. On the contrary, he considered it vulgar, a breach of decency and taste to speak about his own work. Indeed, this attitudinal difference illustrates the chasm that exists in the value system of our scholars of his vintage and the cut-and-paste self-promotionists of our own time.

He spent lavishly on books and travels, and both were purpose-driven: of unearthing the facts of history from first hand sources. It was not enough if he merely read about say, the Third Battle of Panipat. He had to visit Panipat. Acharya Jadunath Sarkar also copied rare manuscripts by his own hand, spending weeks at libraries and archives. In some cases, he would spend substantial amounts to procure microfiche copies of documents and manuscripts from say, London. To quote another remarkable and rather moving anecdote from G.S. Sardesai, this was the method of this mendicant:

His own personal needs are quite few. He can sleep on the floor and take rest wherever he needs it. I have observed him working with a kerosene lamp during the long hours of the night and soundly asleep in the late morning hours… He would never leave to others what he can do himself. When he is my guest, he has always done his own washing himself and even cleaned the cup and saucer that he has used. To my objection he used to reply by quoting Socrates, “He who has the fewest wants is most like the gods.” He never requires the services of a stenographer or a typist. His own drafts are always better than printed matter, accurate to a comma.

This is how works of immortality are created. By Nature incarnating as a sage.

|| There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.||

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