Resurrecting Shivaji

March 09, 2008

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In 1883, an Englishman, James Douglas pointed out in his Book of Bombay, that the Samadhi of Shivaji at Rajgarh, the capital of his kingdom, was being neglected and in a pathetic condition.

Douglas expressed his disappointment at the apathy of the Maratha people who seemed to have forgotten their hero and his memorial. This prompted Tilak, a prominent politician, to use the image of Shivaji for mobilization of Maharashtrian nationalism.

Consequently by 1900, Shivaji emerged as the hero of Maharashtra and a number of books were written eulogizing his achievements. Some historians raised his status from a local to a national hero.

Different groups owned him by interpreting his person according to their point of view. For example, the Dalit leader Mahatama Jotirao Phule proved that he was a shudra by caste who played an important role to carve an independent kingdom. On other hand; Eknath Annaji Joshi argued that he was a defender of the Hindu religion who revolted against the Muslim hegemony, struggled for freedom during the medieval period hence changing the course of Indian history.

Jadunath Sarkar in his book Shivaji and His Times argued that he should be recognized as a national hero because he was the man who had elevated the Marathas from the lowest status to a nation. In his opinion, without him there would have been no Maratha nation and its history.

In case of Shivaji, we could easily discern the process of myth making. From a caste hero he became defender of the Hindu faith and then converted to great national figure whose military expeditions shattered the Mughal Empire. Tilak started to celebrate Shivaji 's festival in 1896-97 and as a show of respect took his portrait with elaborate ceremony to Rajgarh where he spoke on the career of his hero justifying all his actions including the murder of Afzal Khan who was killed by Shivaji in violation of his promise. Tilak's argument was that great men were above moral values and if they committed violence it should be accepted in the greater interest of society because their personal interest remained uninvolved.

In communal politics which emerged forcefully in the 1920s, Shivaji was honoured as a great national hero. A number of politicians praised him and presented him as a model for national struggle. During this communal milieu, for the first time Muslim rule was called 'foreign' and to resist it became a national struggle. This image served in the interest of the Hindu communalist's political agenda.

David Kincid wrote a book titled the Grand Rebel and paid him a glowing tribute. Other writers and politicians who admired him were Ranade, Sawarkar, Lala Lajpat Rai, Rabindranath Tagore, Aurobanda Ghosh and Nehru, who recognized him as national hero in his book Discovery of India.

In the textbooks of Maharashtra his image is that of a great general, a brave soldier, a mature statesman and an obedient son who great had respect for his mother. Popularly known as Chatarpati Shivaji, he was tolerant with the people of every caste and wanted to make Maharashtra a naval power.

Persian sources carry a different image of Shivaji. He is referred to as a rebel. Aurangzeb called him a 'mountain rat'. Even in the early colonial records he is portrayed as a bandit and robber.

Recently James W. Lane published a book Shivaji Hindu King in Islamic India which created an uproar against the author in the extremist Hindu class because of his criticism against established views. However, he attempts to analyze the rising image of Shivaji with different perspectives. Lane discussed the historical background of Maharashtra in the 17th century which was not communal and integrated both Hindus and Muslim in one cultural identity. Hindu nobles in the court of Muslim rulers were as loyal to them as were the Muslim courtiers who fought on their behalf against their own co-regionists and served their rulers with sincerity. Like Muslims they were attached to different Sufi orders and sought the blessings of the sheikh. Shivaji's grand father served the ruler of Ahmadnagar and enjoyed the title of Raja. He was the disciple of a local Sufi and named two of his sons Shahji and Sharifji. His tomb at Aler is constructed like a Muslim mausoleum. He was also a patron of the temple of Mahadev and hence the epitome of shared culture.

According to Lane, in the 17th century, there was no concept of Indian nationalism; it was a product of the 20th century which originated against colonialism. Therefore, to call Shivaji an Indian national hero is incorrect. He was more affiliated to the Hindu culture rather than India as a country which was indicated through his respect for the city of Benaras, his preference of Sanskrit over Persian and through the fact that he called Hindu pundits from Benaras for his coronation.

According to Lane he enjoyed both the titles of Raja and Padsha.He could not get rid of prevalent Mughal culture as he wore Persian dress, spoke Persian language and adopted the Mughal style in his court.

Lane points out that he went to the court of Aurangzeb with the hope that he would be appointed the viceroy of Deccan. He escaped from the court only when he failed to accomplish his ambitions. However, he wanted to have friendly relations with the Mughals and was ready to send his son Sambhaji(1667) to the Mughal court. His whole struggle was for achieving personal power and not the benefit of his pepole.

However, in the modern period, for the fulfillment of their own agenda, religious and political parties transformed him into a religious and national hero. Once there is a myth, it becomes difficult to demystify it.