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The Complexities of Shivaji

Our modern consciousness harbors within itself rather peculiar ideas. We pride ourselves on our tremendous advances from a pre-modern
In 1668, Shivaji's repeated petitions to Aurangzeb won him the title 'Raja' and Chakan fort. After the Mughal treasury refused to reimburse him for a trip he took to Agra, he took up arms again. With Aurangzeb the battle was over power and resources, rather than on religious grounds.
past which we almost universally see as depraved (at the very least in economic and political terms). On the other hand, we turn to the past for our heroes: and these heroes are absorbed without criticism (in fact, criticism is tantamount to heresy in some circles). Thus, America lauds its Founding Fathers (Jefferon, Madison, Hamilton, Washington) even though these gentlemen practiced a form of slavery which does not square with their genteel image. The Indian Republic has immortalized Gandhi, which is one of the tragedies of our contemporary world: Gandhi, the mischievous radical, is reduced to being a statue rather than a living presence in our corrupt and battered body politic. The Pakistani state has hallowed Jinnah, whose virulent criticisms of theocracy are now not allowed to inform the citizens of a state wracked by avarice and hypocrisy. The Rashtriya Sevak Sangh and its American kin, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), have taken Shivaji as their icon (India West, 21 June 1996): that adoption needs to be criticised for what it does to the historical record.

At their 16 June Hindu Sangathan Diwas, the HSS hosted Shripati Shastry (RSS) who recounted the life of Shivaji who (as India West reports) "fought Mughal emperor Aurangzeb." "Hindu civilization," Shastry said, "had been battered by the constant brutal assaults of foreigners. Shivaji challenged that attack." HSS also presented a play by Bal Bihar students entitled 'Shivaji and Afzal Khan.' Reading this story, I was startled by the ease with which our media allows such presentations to pass by without comment. At the very least, the historical record should be scoured to check if Shivaji indeed did fight Aurangzeb to constitute 'Hindu civilization' and if he made it his purpose to cleanse the subcontinent of 'foreigners.'

(1) Shivaji and Aurangzeb.

Shivaji Bhonsla (1627-1680) came from a family of Maratha aristocrats and military bureaucrats. The first half of his career (until 1660) as a fief-holder was consumed by his battle with the rather powerless Sultanate of Bijapur. He was able to extend his power by making alliances with Maratha hill chiefs and by ensuring that the Mughal overlord was given a wide berth: Shivaji was not interested in taking Delhi, only in forming a fiefdom in Aurangabad and Bijapur. In November 1656, Aurangzeb and his amir, Mir Jumla, went ahead with an old plan to take Bijapur at the death of the Sultan, Muhammad Adil Shah. Shivaji was not a factor in the equation (for he was only one of many factious nobles and zamindars). Shivaji was able to rout the Bijapur army and Afzal Khan, commander of a Mughal force. of 10, 000. In Shivaji's second phase (1660-1674), he extended his holding, notably by destroying Baharji Borah who was reputed to be the world's richest merchant. At Purander in 1665, Shivaji capitulated to Jai Singh and Aurangzeb. In 1668, Shivaji's repeated petitions to Aurangzeb won him the title 'Raja' and Chakan fort. After the Mughal treasury refused to reimburse him for a trip he took to Agra, he took up arms again. With Aurangzeb the battle was over power and resources, rather than on religious grounds. Shivaji very comfortably petitioned Aurangzeb to recognize him as a 'Raja,' a feat which would not sit well with the HSS rendition of the man as a fighter for Hinduism.

(2) Shivaji and 'Hindu civilization'

In June 1674, Shivaji was crowned as a Hindu monarch. Since he came from Shudra stock, the chief sent for Gagga Bhatta (the notable Brahmin from Benares) to declare that Shivaji's ancestor's were truly Kshatriyas who descended from the solar line of the Ranas of Mewar. He was invested with the janeau, with the Vedas and was bathed in an abisheka. A Shudra became a Rajput, but the bulk of the other dalits remained in their misbegotten position at the bottom of society. Shivaji's investiture was a political move which allowed him to exert his power over hill chiefs who were not under his military control. One would imagine that Shivaji would now eschew alliances with Muslims, however, the first major alliance made by the monarch was with Abul Hasan, the Qutb Shah Sultan. They began a campaign against the Bijapur Karanatak, including the monarch's own half-brother, Vyankoji Bhonsla. The Mughal r‰gime was left untouched by this 'Hindu' king. The later Shivaji did not consolidate 'Hindus' to fight 'Muslims,' but he continued his trajectory of securing power in the Konkan region. One might add that Shambhaji, Shivaji's son, raped a Brahmin woman in December 1678: such facts often get lost in the blind valorization of historical figures.

I have offered all these details for the simple reason that one must not allow our contemporary politicians (and the HSS/RSS are politicians) to define our historical record. There is a tendency to simplify, which is tantamount to distortion. Shivaji claimed to be a 'Hindu' king when it suited him, but he acted (most of the time) as a rebellious zamindar and hill-chief. History must remain more than propaganda. The tragedy of the communalization of history is that those who write these false histories are less interested in the past and more interested in organizing people into bigoted groups.

Vijay Prashad

Vijay Prashad
Assistant Professor, International Studies
214 McCook Academic Building
Trinity College, Hartford, CT. 06106.
Ph: 860-297-2518.


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Last updated: October 28, 2000 .