Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2020 > Shivaji Maharaj and his layered and contested memory

Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 15 New Delhi March 28, 2020

Shivaji Maharaj and his layered and contested memory

Saturday 28 March 2020, by Anirudh Deshpande


Islam and Hinduism are only different pigments used by the Divine Painter to picture the human species. To show bigotry for any man’s creed and practices is to alter the words of the Holy Book.

Shivaji to Aurangzeb, 1679

It is not true that Shivaji succeeded because he believed in the Hindu religion. Evidence suggests that he set out to do something better for the world than merely save his religion.

Govind Pansare

Shivaji (19 February, 1630 — 3 April, 1680)

The contested social memorialization of men, more so great men, is often caused by the ideological mixture of folklore and historiography. In Indian history such men abound; Buddha, Ashoka, Prithviraj Chauhan, Rana Pratap, Akbar, Aurangzeb, Shivaji, Nehru and many others. The memory of these men, like the subject of history itself, is never a settled matter across time and space. Take the contentious image of Aurangzeb for example. In his case, the die was cast for the newly educated Indian when Elphinstone’s pioneering authoritative observations labeled him “a sincere and bigoted Mussalman”. This accusation became a permanent feature of most descriptions of Aurangzeb since the 19th century and, via Jadunath Sarkar’s tomes, became the common sense about the maligned Emperor. However, research on his reign continued and many critics were puzzled when Athar Ali’s statistical masterpiece proved that the court of this ‘bigot’ had more Hindu nobles than the court of the tolerant Akbar. If Aurangzeb hated Hindus, why was that so? Further, the record of conversions during his reign does not lend weight to what the critics have said for a long time. In recent times the story of the enigmatic Aurangzeb has been thoroughly revised by Audrey Truschke who asserts that the “suggestions that Rajputs and Marathas who resisted Mughal rule thought of themselves as ‘Hindus’ defying ‘Muslim’ tyranny are just that: modern.” Even the hagiographic account of Haldighati by Kesri Singh, a master of Dingal and English, highlights facts which inveigh against interpreting Rana Pratap’s resistance to Akbar as an instance of Hindu resistance to Muslim domination. It seems the terms ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ themselves meant something different from their modern connotations in medieval India.

The case of Shivaji is similar in this context.

The memory of Shivaji has filtered down to us through several interpretative layers. Beginning with the eulogy of the contemporary poet Bhushan and the Sabhasad Bakhar (1694) written not long after his death (1680), for three hundred years, Shivaji has been memorialized and canonized by his admirers. He lives in the powadas,bakhars, histories, cinema, television and social media dedicated to his greatness in modern India and especially Maharashtra. He is inseparable from the identity of a modern Maharashtrian. So central is Shivaji to Indian feelings about nationhood that it can be said that the modern Indian identity starting from the 19th Century is incomplete without reference to him. Thanks to the nationalist historians and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Shivaji emerged as a symbol of a resurgent Indian nation in the 19th century. And yet Shivaji’s memory remains besieged by the differing ideas of being Indian. His claimants and their ideological intentions are mentioned in the terse, articulate and immensely popular Who Was Shivaji by the late Govind Pansare. Broadly speaking, the narratives about Shivaji fall into two categories. The first has been popularized by the essentially Brahminical ideologues of Hindutva according to whom Shivaji was a Gau Brahman Pratipalak (custodian of cows and Brahmins) dedicated to upholding the social hegemony of savarna Hindus threatened by Muslim tyranny. According to the Hindu nationalists Hindavi Swaraj or Maharashtra Dharma meant the rise of anti-Muslim nationalism in the Deccan in the 17th Century. Therefore Shivaji’s war against Aurangzeb was no less than a war of national liberation waged by a people united under his charismatic leadership! This claim has been made despite the terms Hindavi Swaraj or Maharashtra Dharma not abounding in the sources. Shivaji claimed descent from the Sisodias of Mewar, was crowned in accordance with prescribed shastric rites by Gaga Bhatt and his Ashtapradhan (advisory council of eight ministers) were mainly Brahmins. This is true but it is questionable whether becoming or aspiring to become an ideal Hindu Raja in medieval India can be squared with an ideology which emerged in the 19th Century under colonialist ideological influence. The second view projects Shivaji as an ideal secular king dedicated to the welfare of his subjects most of whom were the sudra peasants. Jyotiba Phule, drawing upon folk memory and inspired by the work of Shivaji, wrote a powada describing Shivaji as a kunbi-kshatriya kulbhusan who fought simultaneously against the Brahman and Yavana oppressors in Maharashtra. Almost hundred years later Govind Pansare expanded the perspective on Shivaji by suggesting that his popularity must be ascribed to his pro-subaltern political steps taken against the feudal jagirdari ruling class of medieval Maharashtra comprising the saranjam and watan holders. In the words of the slain Communist, Shivaji “turned the commoners into great people. They, in turn, made him a great king. Both came together to fulfill a tremendous task.” It is said that the teachings of the Bhakti saint-poets of Maharashtra and their love of the vernacular deeply affected the lives of the masses and set the cultural context for the rise of a Maratha power heralded by Shivaji.

That Shivaji was exceptionally considerate towards the rayats and checked the power of the entrenched watandar class underlined by the didactic Ajnapatra (1715) written by Ramachandra Pant Amatya, a surviving Brahman of Shivaji’s advisory council. The Ajnapatra emphasizes that a sovereign, following Shivaji’s example, should never expropriate anything, including dead trees embodying the labor of the poor, from the people by force. By all accounts Shivaji was, or at least perceived himself to be, a just ruler. Evidence also suggests that he had no “rooted hatred to the Mahomedans” as Grant Duff claimed in the first ‘modern’ history of the Marathas written from a colonialist perspective. While everyone believes that Shivaji was an ideal ruler, what remains unclear in public history is his relationship with Islam and Muslims. In this respect some facts, which must be repeated now, tell an interesting story. Recounted below is his relationship with Muslims which is hidden from public memory in the time of pretentious social media history. The Maharashtrian Brahmans have claimed Shivaji because after all the Peshwai whish replaced Shivaji’s swaraj in early 18th century had the blessings of Shivaji’s grandson Shahu. Kunbi peasants, the latter day Marathas, and even medieval police castes like the Ramoshis have also staked their claim to Shivaji’s memory. English officer-ethnographers in the early 19th century discovered and documented the subaltern popularity of Shivaji decades before the nationalists wrote of him as a 17th century champion of a Hindu nation. But contemporary India must examine the possibility of the Muslims, especially the Marathi or Dakhni speaking Muslims, partaking of Shivaji’s political legacy.

The military connection of the Verul based Bhosale clan with the Deccan Sultanates is well documented. Shivaji’s immediate ancestors were high ranking military commanders of the Adil Shahi and Nizamshahi Sultanates and had cultivated long standing cultural connections with the Deccan Sufi pirs and their dargahs. While the role of Malik Ambar and the Ahmadnagar regime in the military and economic rise of the Marathas is well known, the syncretic religious beliefs of the Maratha clans of the period must be remembered to the public. Shivaji’s grandfather Maloji (1552-1606), a deeply religious man, was a disciple of Shaikh Muhammad and Mahadeva both. Maloji named his sons Shahaji (1599-1664) and Sharfiji (1596-1624). They were born after he received the blessings of the Muslim Sufi saint Shah Sharif. The tradition of remaining a lifelong pupil of a Sufi pir was followed by Shivaji despite the spiritual influence on him of Ramadas Samartha during his last few troubled years (1672-80). Among his known saint-gurus was Baba Yakut of Kelsi whose shrine received regular grants from the royal treasury. Like most rulers in medieval India, Shivaji made no distinction between Hindu and Muslim saints honoring them equally. We are told that he erected a “special mosque” in Raigad, his capital, for the Muslim devotees among his subjects alongside the Jagadishwar temple in which he prayed every day. Even the outer architecture of this Raigad temple contains features of a mosque for reasons which we may speculate today. Many of his trusted naval admirals like Daulat Khan, Siddi Misri and Ibrahim Khan were devout Muslims and even the servant who covered his escape from Agra at the cost of his own life was one Madari Mehtar, a Muslim farrash. Obviously his life post 1666 cannot be imagined without this iconic escape made possible by a Muslim’s self sacrifice. More Muslim commanders like Siddi Hilal and Noor Khan Beg are mentioned in the sources. In fact the practice of enlisting Pathan soldiers in the Maratha armies probably goes back to 1648 when, on Gomaji Naik’s advice, Shivaji employed five to seven thousand Pathans who came over to Shivaji from Bijapaur. In view of these well documented facts of Shivaji’s life and work the nationalist historian Sardesai was right in saying that, “Shivaji was in no way actuated by any hatred towards the Muslims as a sect or towards their religion. Full religious liberty for all was his ideal and the practice in his state.” While those alive enjoyed the liberty of worship and security of service even slain political enemies, like Afzal Khan, were buried with honor. Shivaji never dishonored the Koran or a Masjid during his military operations across the Deccan. One aspect of Shivaji’s resistance to Aurangzeb’s invasion of the Deccan and economic impositions must be mentioned to underscore his nuanced understanding of Mughal rule in India. In a letter to Aurangzeb protesting the imposition of jazia, Shivaji heaped praise on Emperor Akbar calling him a Jagatguru. He wrote glowingly of Jahangir and Shah Jahan, praising them for following in the footsteps of Akbar and “never” resorting to “injustice.” In his carefully chosen words these Emperors preceding Aurangzeb “had always their eyes fixed on people’s welfare.” According to Shivaji, by departing from the fair policies of his predecessors towards all their subjects Aurangzeb was setting an example of bad governance. In this letter Shivaji did not conflate either Alamgir or his ancestors with Islam per se; for a ruler, in his view, all subjects Hindu, Muslim or others were equal and deserving of consideration. Therefore Jazia had to be opposed despite large sections of the Hindu elite being exempt from it. After all its weight would fall disproportionately on the poor which included the lower castes, the Janata Raja understood.

Conclusion: the layering of memory.

Cynthia Talbot has asserted that historical memories survive in society in the layers of descriptions produced by the bards and historians over centuries. Of these the latest is always the contemporary layer These layers contain important individuals as sites of historical and ideological collective memories which buttress social identities. The historian must show why and how this memory is produced stage by stage and whether there are multiple memories of a fetishized subject. Thus the Samrats,Rajas,Sultans and Badshahs of Indian history are remembered as good, bad, benevolent, great, patriotic, bigoted, foolish, treacherous etc. These historical actors continue to excite differing, adulatory and critical passions among their detractors and appropriators. In Maratha historiography and public history two names emerged as major sites of collective memory in the 19th Century; Shivaji and Panipat. The third site, Bhima-Koregaon emerged as a symbol of Dalit assertiveness in the 20th century thanks to Ambedkar. It is tempting to apply Talbot’s model of historical layering to these names and sites. Both subjects Shivaji and Panipat are intertwined with Hindu nationalism in the contemporary popular imagination saturated by social media images. Their Bollywood and media versions are the latest layers constructed by the establishment friendly film makers as the historical ‘truth’. But these images are superimposed over other images and must be deconstructed. While celebrating Shivaji’s birthday every year we must re-interrogate his story present in the layers of memory which began their journey into our lives from the 17th Century itself. Upon revisiting the Shivaji of our times we might answer whether he belonged equally to his Muslim, Hindu and other subjects. If he did, even the non Hindus have a legitimate claim on his memory. Whether the masses of India living beyond the Western Deccan in the 17th century had heard of his exploits is a different and difficult question to answer.

Anirudh Deshpande is Associate Professor, Department of History, Faculty of Social Sciences, Delhi University

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.