Shivaji – From Mortal hero to political icon

Murad Ali Baig

The banning of James Laine’s controversy afflicted little 127 page book… `Shivaji - Hindu King in Islamic India’ may have been justified on grounds that it is rather dull but the Supreme Court upheld India’s right of free speech by lifting the ban. It is most unlikely that any of the agitating Shiv Sainiks would have read it so they do not know that it hardly does any insult the great Maratha hero. If anything their agitation gave unexpected fame to a small scholarly work that would otherwise have soon faded into oblivion. Shivaji, who was the first Hindu ruler to successfully challenge the Mughal Empire, was to therefore become an iconic love and hate figure for most Hindus and Indian Muslims.

Those who do plough through the text will however find that it quite objectively records the great differences between the accounts written by Hindu and Mughal sources during Shivaji’s lifetime in the 17th century and the later accounts in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries that glorified his life, customs and deeds with increasing degrees of criticism or adulation.

The book, in no uncertain terms, extols Shivaji’s heroic feats. It briefly lists whatever facts were known about the killing and beheading of Afzal Khan, the daring raid on Shaista Khan’s fortified camp, the loot of Surat, the escape from Agra and the conquest of Simhagad. It clearly shows how Shivaji’s audacious courage in daring to humble the hitherto invincible Mughals instantly made him a great Hindu hero at a time when Hindu’s had no hero role models to emulate except for those of mythology.

The contemporary accounts however contain several inconvenient facts that do not fit in well with later accounts that sought to glorify Shivaji’s life notably:

• Shivaji’s grandfather Maloji loyally served as a Jagirdar of Nizam Shah of Ahmadnagar and was a devotee of a Sufi saint after whom he named his two sons Shah (Shahji) and Sharif. His tomb at Ellora is so Islamicate that it looks like a Muslim tomb.

• Shivaji was born in February 1639 at the hill fort of Shivneri, and hardly knew his father Shahji who abandoned his mother Jijabai soon after he was born. Shahji was then for many years in the service of Adil Shah of Bijapur including a long stint as governor at Bangalore. Some accounts say that Shivaji stayed with his father in Bangalore for some time but was sent back because he was unruly.

• Jijabai named him Shivaji after the local goddess Shivai and not the Hindu deity Shiva as many assume. Shahji married again and had a son called Vyankoji who was also known as Ekoji who was to rule at Tanjore.

• Jijabai, of the Jadhav clan, was of a better caste than that of Shahji who was a Bhonsle of a lower farming caste that is not listed among the ninety-six high caste Maratha families. He was thus not born with a high Kshatriya pedigree as was later conferred on him. Tradition has it that Shahji sent his trusted lieutenant Dadoji Konndev Kulkarni, a Brahmin, to look after Jijabai and Shivaji. He was a warrior and swordsman and became Shivaji’s guardian, teacher and mentor.

• Shivaji began his career as an Adil Shahi jagirdar of Pune and like his father and grandfather before him served, allied or opposed the Muslim rulers of Ahmadnagar, Golconda, Bijapur and Delhi as and when it was expedient. Shivaji had gone to Delhi in the hope of being made a Mughal Amir but rebelled when the emperor Aurangzeb did not give him the rank and respect that he felt he deserved. Shivaji’s sons Sambhaji and Rajaram both married their daughters to Mughal nobles. Marathas fought in Muslim armies and there were many Muslims in the Maratha armies. These and many other examples clearly show that Maratha opposition to the Mughals was purely political and not at all religious.

• Shivaji’s rise did not have the support of all Marathi speakers and there was as yet no concept of a Maratha nation. His main supporters, the Mavlis, were simple hill people who were opposed by the aristocratic Maratha sardars like the Nimbalkars, Deshpande’s, Ghorpandes, Moreys and others some of whom he had to kill before he could establish his kingdom.

• When Shivaji sought to carve out his own independent kingdom instead of being a Mughal or Shahi vassal he had to have a high caste that the heads of other Maratha clans could respect. The local Brahmins however refused to perform the rites of kingship on a non Kshatriya making him import two Brahmins Gaga Bhatta and Parmananda from Benares who dutifully organized a huge ceremony and declared a celestial pedigree linking him to the Sisodia clans of Udaipur. The coronation ceremony in June 1674 is reported to have included a feast for 50,000 Brahmins.

• Shivaji seems to have died a sad and disappointed man at the young age of 50, in April 1680. He had been unable to resolve a succession for his sons. The dissolute elder Sambhaji, who he had offered his territories in the south. Shivaji wanted the younger Rajaram to rule the heartland.

• Because Shivaji died of a long illness and not as a hero in combat, like his commander Tanaji who had conquered Simhagarh, he was denied the honours of a warrior’s death.

• Many contemporary records show that Shivaji was a Shaivite and a devotee of the goddess Bhavani who like Durga and Kali needed constant blood sacrifices of buffaloes, goats and fowl. He was also a follower of the non Brahmin Tukaram and records also show that he also went to the tombs of several Sufi Pirs.

• Marathi was not yet widely known as a written language and most contemporary accounts were in the state language of Persian. The early Marathi accounts were also so Persianised as to make them very difficult to understand today. Even his costumes and the etiquette of his court were in the Persian style of the Mughal court.

After Shivaji’s death the rule of his sons did not last very long and Sambhaji wrested the throne from Shivaji’s second wife (he had seven wives) Soyarabai who was ruling as regent for her son the ten year old Rajaram. Sambhaji had no compunctions about killing Soyarabai and several important Maratha supporters. Sambhaji however ruled for just nine years and the budding Maratha Empire passed into the hands of their prime ministers the Brahmin Peshwas who moved the capital from Raigadh, near Mahableshwar, to Satara although Poona remained their most important town. Many Brahmin priests and scribes were now patronized who, while glorifying Shivaji’s memory, began to alter and brahminise the eventful records of his life:

• The legends about Shivaji were now made to resemble the mythical heroes like Ram and Krishna. In Parmananda’s popular Sivabharata the poet even alludes to his conception through a visit to his mother Jijabai by the god Vishnu.

• In the 17th century there was no homogenous religion of the Hindus who subscribed to numerous gods and deities. The word Hindu was widely used to describe all the Indian native farmers, artisans, traders and others and did not exactly connote religion. Few Hindus knew about the ancient treasures of Hindu philosophy at this time. Aurangzeb’s eclectic elder brother Dara Shikoh only secured copies of the Upanishads and Bhagavat Gita around 1650 from secret Brahmin troves and had them translated into Persian after which they became more widely known. The Brahmins now sought to define a unified religion of the Hindus as opposed to a unified Islam.

• The early accounts of Shivaji’s escape from Agra record that he donned the robes of a sadhu and went to Benares before quickly returning to his kingdom. In the brahminised later accounts he reverentially travels to many other the holy places like Hardwar, Prayag, Ayodhya and Gaya as well.

• The killing of Afzal khan was glorified as a fight between good and evil as in the example of Rama fighting Ravana and the battle becomes a narrative of a growing Hindu identity in opposition to oppressive Islam. Afzal Khan was portrayed as the stereotyped evil Muslim who kills cows, destroys temples and disrespects Brahmins and Hindu deities. Shaista Khan and other opponents were also portrayed to be decadent voluptuaries.

• Brahmin scribes like Mahapati and Chitnis begin to now spread the idea that Shivaji was an ardent devotee of Rama, Vishnu and Marut (Hanuman) and was a vegetarian according to a new devotional cult of Vithoba of Pandharpur. Many saints never known in earlier texts began to now be associated with Shivaji.

• The Muslim opponents were no longer described as Mughals, Adil Shahis, Qutb Shahis or Siddis but are simply bundled together as Pathans suggesting that there was a monolithic Islam opposed to a monolithic Hinduism.

The 19th century was marked by the arrival of the British who installed a puppet raja at Satara in 1818 and assumed sovereign control in 1848. Grant Duff who had been, for many years, the resident at Satara wrote his `History of the Marathas’ that, among other things, portrayed Shivaji as a plunderer and freebooter. It was to stir some succeeding writers to emulate his thoughts though most Maharashtrians condemned it and began to call Shivaji `Father of the Nation’. This resulted in the story of Shivaji being interpreted as a Hindu, and later an Indian, rebellion against foreigners whether Turk of Christian.

Liberal British education however resulted in an internal rebellion with Jyotirao Phule and some other socialist writers attacking the Brahmin domination of religion and customs during the earlier century. He rejoiced in Shivaji’s low caste origins claiming that he was descended from India’s original warriors who had been suppressed turn by turn by Aryan (Brahmin), Turk and European usurpers. He claimed that all Shudra and groups labeled by Brahmins as low caste were really members of a great pre Aryan nobility.
Gangadhar Tilak, a champion for Indian independence, sought to vigorously reject all British efforts to intrude into Hindu life. He started the Ganesh Chaturti festival in 1903 to compete with the Muslim Muharram processions. It was hugely successful quickly making a minor elephant headed deity Ganesh a popular icon in every Indian home. He was not however so successful when he organized Shivaji festivals in 1896 and 1897 though, with the support of Ranade, it did result in Shivaji’s neglected tomb in Raigad getting renovated. These festivals were seen as being both anti - Muslim and anti - British and Tilak was twice imprisoned for sedition.

The theme with many variations was then taken up by Annie Besant, Gokhale, Lajpat Rai and others who also sought inspiration from Mazzini and Garibaldi in Italy. There was now a babble of voices of many writers and thinkers notably Tagore, Rajwade, Mandal and others who in different ways used the icon of Shivaji to promote their views on Indian nationalism and a Maharashtrian sub - nationalism. Veer Savarkar’s book `Hindutva’ written when he was jailed in the Andamans was to now add a virulent note to the debate. Enormous elaboration of the themes in numerous books, novels, plays and later on cassettes, films, calendars and TV glorified the themes to very wide audiences.

Many inconvenient facts were however suppressed. Few know that Shivaji had seven wives or that he had an unhappy family life. There is little evidence that he was interested in religion or was a follower of Bhakti saints nor any evidence that he was hostile to Muslims even if he had fought against many Muslim political enemies. He was clearly determined to build his own kingdom but the idea of creating a Hindu or Maratha nation does not seem to have been his mission.

Over the centuries, several hundred writers manipulated the traditions associated with the heroic Shivaji to illuminate their own points of view. The historic non Brahmin military hero became, turn by turn, a virtuous spiritual model according to Brahmin standards, an enemy of Islam, a ruthless freebooter according to the British, a low caste hero among socialist thinkers and then the maker of a Maharashtrian and later a pan Indian identity. Each political agenda developed their own virtual scriptures and generated heated anger against anyone who dared to blaspheme their strongly held beliefs.

Laine’s book was released in late 2003. In January 2004 agitators were outraged that the book had dared to say that there had been some speculation and naughty jokes over the years suggesting that Dadoji Konddev may have been Shivaji’s biological father. They vandalized the prestigious Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune and roughed up some of their scholars and forced the state government to ban the book.

Globalisation today poses a new threat to Maratha identity with many national, let alone regional, identities being erased by a rapidly growing global vision. As in the case of the USA, unions of neighboring nations like the European Union, ASEAN, UAE, CIS, etc., are slowly supplanting the individualities of their member states. Television, cinema, internet and other media targeted at mass audiences are rapidly swamping local traditions and regional languages are dying all over the world gradually making English the preferred language for universal communication. Today the rabidly Maratha political party the Shiv Sena is facing an internal crisis. Their own children are willing to learn Hindi as it is the national language, they want to learn English to further their career prospects but do not want to be burdened with having to also study Marathi.

The story of Shivaji is the tale of a great hero but it is very sad that the annals of this audacious soldier have been manipulated by sectarian champions over the centuries to serve so many different political agendas. All the champions wanted to believe that the story of Shivaji was immutable and unchanging and their beliefs became almost as rigid as religious dogma. But when we see the versions of all the champions we can see how much the facts of Shivaji’s life were altered over time.

Apr 19, 2017

Murad Ali Baig may be contacted at

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