Shivaji: Beyond the Legend

The following post was inspired by the news last week that the government of Maharasthra is planning to build a huge statue of Shivaji off the coast of Bombay (that's right, I said Bombay), on the scale of the American statue of liberty. The statue will be built off-shore, on an artificial island constructed especially for the purpose.

I'm not actually opposed to the idea of the statue -- as far as I'm concerned, it's all part of the great, entertaining tamasha of modern Bombay -- though obviously I think there could be some other figures from Indian culture and history who might also be worth considering (how about a 300 foot bust of a glowering Amitabh Bachchan, for instance?). But reading the news did make me curious to know some things about the historical Shivaji that go beyond the hagiographical myths and legends one sees on Wikipedia, so I went to the library and looked at a book I had been meaning to look at for a couple of years, James Laine's Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (Oxford, 2003).

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In 2004, James Laine became a target of the Hindu right after the publication of his book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, but as is often the case the people burning down libraries, and destroying priceless works of India's cultural heritage, clearly did not read the book. If one actually reads Laine's work, one finds that Laine is quite careful not to frontally challenge the myth of Chatrapati Shivaji, the 17th century Maratha warrior. Indeed, there is much there that actually supports the pride that many Maharasthrians feel about Shivaji.

The conclusions Laine comes to after surveying the evidence on Shivaji were surprising to me. Though I obviously came to the book looking for objectivity as an antidote to the bloated mythology loudly propagated by the Shiv Sena, I presumed that "objectivity" and "secularism" would be more or less synonymous. The reality may be somewhat more complex in Shivaji’s case. Though he’s clearly not quite what his partisans believe he was, Shivaji’s story remains inspiring and heroic even after some scholarly scrutiny. And though he was more secular than many Hindu chauvinists will admit, Shivaji certainly did pointedly assert his identity as a Hindu and promote symbolic elements of Hindu religion and culture against the increasingly intolerant imposition of Islam during the Mughal empire under Aurangzeb and the final years of the Bijapur Sultanate (see Adil Shah).

Here is how Laine describes his project near the beginning of the book:

The task I have set myself is not that of providing a more accurate account of Shivaji’s life by stripping away the legends attributed to him by worshipful myth makers or misguided ideologues, but rather to be a disturber of the tranquility with which synthetic accounts of Shivaji’s life are accepted, mindful that the recording and retaining of any memory of Shivaji is interested knowledge. . . . In the modern popular imagination, many of [the different strands of the Shivaji story] are woven together and reproduced in both bland textbooks and dramatic popular accounts as though the simple facts can be taken for granted. In other words, the dominance of a certain grand narrative of Shivaji’s life is so powerful that the particular concerns of its many authors have been largely erased. (8)

The scholarly debunker is sometimes a powerful ally in ascertaining the often complex and nuanced truth behind historical legends, but in this book Laine doesn’t see confrontational debunking as his primary task. Rather, he wants to get back to the fundamentals of the Shivaji story (i.e., what can be objectively known based on primary historical sources), before following the path of the revisionist, nationalist, patriotic remaking of that story through the 19th and 20th centuries.

Laine starts by looking directly at the 17th century sources (in Sanskrit and Marathi) written by those who were close to Shivaji himself.

The primary texts he works with were written in Marathi and Sanskrit, both of which are languages in which Laine is proficient. Afzal Khan Vadh (“The Killing of Afzal Khan”) is a series of Marathi heroic ballads, authored by a poet alternately known as Agrindas or Ajnandas in 1659 (while Shivaji was still alive). Two other primary sources cited by Laine are written in Sanskrit, by Brahmin authors who were commissioned directly by Shivaji himself: the Sivabharata (or Shivabharata), an epic poem written by Kavindra Paramananda in 1674 (at the time of Shivaji’s coronation as "Chatrapati" – Lord of the Umbrella/Umbralla-Lord), and the Srisivaprabhuce, a historical chronicle written by Krishnaji Anant Sabhasad, in 1697.

The first surprise is that there’s little reason to doubt the best-known aspects of the Shivaji legend: the three works are surprisingly consistent with one another, especially regarding Shivaji’s childhood and upbringing, his emergence as a warrior with the killing of Afzal Khan, the punishment of Shaista Khan, the escape from Aurangzeb’s court at Agra, and the conquest of Simhagad in 1670. The most significant “humanizing” point Laine makes (and this is also one of the major sources of controversy) is his suggestion, late in his book, that Shivaji’s parents seem to have been estranged from one another –- Shivaji was brought up by his mother in one principality, while his father was a soldier for another, rival kingdom, who left before Shivaji was born. (Later hagiography would smooth over this aspect of the history, suggesting that Shivaji’s father sent him and his mother to Pune as part of a great plan.) The point of raising this is not to "take Shivaji down a notch" or find shame or scandal in the story. Rather, from my point of view at least, humanizing Shivaji in this way gives us a certain (modern) psychological explanation for why Shivaji was so driven as an adult: he had something to prove.

The second surprise for me is Laine’s acknowledgment that all the evidence supports the idea that Shivaji was assertive about Hindu religion and culture. It’s still wrong to use him symbolically as some kind of nationalist Hindu "freedom-fighter," who devoted his life to killing mleccha invaders (for Laine, it’s more correct to say that Shivaji was a kingdom-builder). But it’s also not accurate to say that religion is somehow completely irrelevant to his story. This comes out first with reference to Shivaji’s coronation in 1674:

One important moment for the construction of an official biography was surely the grand event of Shivaji’s coronation. For the last decade of his life, he was relatively free of Mughal pressure, and in 1674, was enthroned chatrapati of an independent Hindu kingdom in an orthodox lustration ceremony (abhisheka). The ceremony, which had fallen out of use in Islamicate India, was seen as a revival of royal Hindu traditions. In other words, there is clear evidence that at the end of his career Shivaji began to think in new ways about his exercise of military and political power, ways that drew upon ancient symbols of Hindu kingship. He called upon a prominent pundit from Benares, Gaga Bhatta, to establish his genealogy and claim of true kshatriya status before investing him with the sacred thread, performing an orthodox wedding, and then a royal lustration ceremony of enthronement. At this time, Shivaji lavished great wealth on all the Brahmins who were gathered to confer legitimacy, and he employed two poets to write laudatory epic poems about him. On was Paramananda, whom we have mentioned as the author of the Sanskrit Sivabharata, a text that is clearly composed for the coronation though never finished . . . The second was Kavi Bhusan, who wrote the Sivarajabhusan in the Braj dialect of Hindi. (30)

And Laine expands upon the implications of his interpretation of the coronation a few pages later:

Shivaji himself, growing up in Pune, at that time a remote and insignifican town far away from the Bijapuri court, was unlike his father and grandfather in being not only less content to be in vassalage to a Muslim sultan but also concerned to extend the scope of Hindu culture. Moreover, he dealt with sultans who adopted a more rigorous religious policy than their predecessors. I would argue that his elaborate Sanskritic coronation, his choice of Sanskrit rather than Persian titles for his ministers, and his patronage of Brahmin pundits . . . are all signs that he wished to extend the boundaries in which his religion reigned, not so much geographically as socially and politically. These may have been gestures of legitimation, but he could very well have chosen better-known Persianate ways of achieving the same end.

In other words, Shivaji was raised at some distance from what Laine is describing as the "Islamicate" culture dominant in north and central India in the 17th century. He also clearly went out of his way to assert Hindu/Sanskritic symbols during his rule, when that was not the norm, even for other Hindu kings of the time.

Laine continues:

This is to say that Shivaji was not only discontended with the idea of being Islamic, he was discontented with even being Islamicate, that is, he read his religion not as a strict constructionist or in purely theological or essentialist ways, but saw religion as broadly diffuse throughout culture. We might say that he saw ‘religion’ as dharma. Thus, although Richard Eaton has emphasized the new Islamic rigorism in the Adil Shahi regime after 1656, a rigorism that parallels the later policies of Aurangzeb (Eaton 1978), I would say that Shivaji was similarly disposed to see Hindu and Muslim subcultures —- not just theologies -- as distinct. There would be constraints on Shivaji’s religious agenda, as there were for Aurangzeb of course, and there were ways in which Shivaji was not wholly consistent in his Hindu policy. For example, he wore Persian royal dress and used words such as faqir and salaam quite unself-consciously, as well s being qt times quite willing to accept vassalage to the Adil Shah or Mughal emperor. But I would have to disagree with Stewart Gordon, who has written: ‘Shivaji was not attempting to construct a universal Hindu rule. Over and over, he espoused tolerance and syncretism. He even called on Aurangzeb to act like Akbar in according respect to Hindu believes and places. Shivaji had no difficulty in allying with Muslim states which surrounded him… even against Hindu powers" (Gordon 1993). I do not think I am disputing the evidence Gordon adduces, but my interpretation depends on how one uses the word ‘Hindu.’ (39)

This is a more complicated set of academic arguments, relating to how one interprets the idea of "religion" in an earlier historic moment, outside of Abrahamic norms. Putting it quite simply: to see Hindu religion as "diffuse throughout culture" doesn’t necessarily weaken it; rather, it was one of the ways Shivaji could find a new way of asserting it against the dominant powers of the time.

Secondly, Laine is arguing that though it’s wrong to read Shivaji as a kind of proto-communalist, it’s also a mistake to see him as someone who primarily espoused "tolerance and syncretism." He was actually somewhere in between.


Zaphod Boozlebrox said...

Hello Amardeep

Your post is well-written, but much as I am disposed to liking it, I cannot help thinking that Chhatrapati Shivaji deserves a more careful study than a referal to Laine's work alone.

On the factual counts I have not much explanation to offer, as they are out there in the open; but there certainly might be revelations in store for you in form of smaller details, incidents and their resulting interpretations, which may cause you to reconsider your deductions, or your judgment of Laine's work.

his elaborate Sanskritic coronation, his choice of Sanskrit rather than Persian titles for his ministers, and his patronage of Brahmin pundits . . . are all signs that he wished to extend the boundaries in which his religion reigned, not so much geographically as socially and politically.

I would like to assert here that in the 17th century, religion and polity were not just interlinked, but also identical (though not linked like the Vatican was to the Christian kingdoms). There were no secular kingdoms, to the extent that religion was not just political identity itself, but political and military agenda too! In such a situation, establishing an independent political identity demanded the adoption of the idea of a 'Hindu' kingdom. It had far less to do with the 'reign of a religion', and had everything to do with social and political aims. Coming to think of it, Shivaji's kingdom set an unusual precedent in having an official policy of tolerance, set down with an iron hand by the ruler himself.

The coronation according to Vedic rituals had again, a political aim. After centuries of having no rightful sovereign, having his kshatriya lineage proved and having himself coronated according to Vedic rituals was an effort to establish his sovereignty and the right of accession of his descendants. Hence, that he went out of his way to assert Hindu/Sanskritic symbols during his rule, when that was not the norm, even for other Hindu kings of the time, was more because most other Hindu Kingdoms (most notably the Rajputs) had no identity independent of the Islamic/Mughal rule.

I find certain claims by Laine to be ridiculous. For instance, he writes "there were ways in which Shivaji was not wholly consistent in his Hindu policy...wore Persian royal dress and used words such as faqir and salaam quite unself-consciously". Here, he fails to understand that there was no 'Hindu policy' to speak of, and that the usage of Persian (or Hindustani) words in Marathi was only an influence of a dominant language of the time (as English is to most other languages now), and that.

I believe that the 'existence of Hindu and Muslim subcultures' as you call it, is a modern phenomenon, invented after we came to think of religions as opposing ideologies withing the same social framework, as opposed to different and distinct cultures in conflict in Shivaji's time. I think an understanding this demarcation in the right light was essential for Shivaji to carve out a 'Hindu' kingdom with a separate identity from the 'Islamic rule', and yet pursue a tolerant policy towards a sizable population of muslim subjects. It is difficult to explain, and I am not sure I have explained this point very well, but I think I have made a point.

Dr. Manoshi Bhattacharya said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chinmay 'भारद्वाज' said...

Let’s start the comment with getting certain facts correct.
James Lain’s book indeed is pro-Shivaji contrary to what the attackers of Bhandarkar Institute asserted. But these attackers weren’t Hindu Right as you have asserted in your post.
The so called Hindu Right (I don't know how you define that but I assume you go by definition of Indian Media or moronic Rajdeep Sardesai bull crap) didn't attack James Laine book. The attacks were highly political and done by obscure organization called Sambhaji Brigade. No one knows what happened to that organization after they attacked Bhandarkar Institute. The organization was supported by Sharad Pawar and Co. Who I believe is definitely not Hindu Right.

Now coming back to your blog - it's wrong to write about such a great figure simply by reading one book.
The point Laine made about estrangement between Shahaji and Jijabai (Shivaji’s parents) ain’t new. The point had been made early too. All though, it’s for sure that Shahaji sent Shivaji to Deccan with a great plan. Shahaji Bhosale was banned from entering in Deccan by both Mughals and Adil Shahi (he was employed by later Sultanate). Just before Shivaji’s birth Shahaji worked incessantly to establish his own empire by propping then defunct and dying Nizamshahi. He was unsuccessful and was banished from Deccan.

As I said earlier in my comment that the attacks on Bhandarkar institute and controversy surrounding Lain’s book was highly political. It’s absolutely wrong to brand anything and anyone you see as Hindu Right.

And Yes, Shivaji was a nationalistic Hindu freedom fighter. There is not counter argument to that. As much as you would like to apply your wacko-weird pinko-secularist logic to it, the fact that Shivaji fought for Hinduism and for Bharat-bhoomi is unequivocally stands corrected.

I would suggest you to read books by Jadunath Sarkar. He wrote in English. The books "Shivaji and his times" & "The House of Shivaji" would give you better picture. It's sad that current generation of Indians see Shivaji Maharaj only as Maratha warrior. He wasn't. He had balls to fight against Mughal tyrants who were outsiders and hell bent on destroying Hindu religion and culture, and he did that successfully.

Unknown said...

Hi Amardeep,

Is there anything you dont write about. Well crafted blog. Am impressed and will return. Good luck.

Unknown said...

I'm a student of History and I started reading this article for some extra opinion on Shivaji's polity. Having read Stewart Gordon too, I would say that both Laine and Gordon appreciate the fact that Shivaji was certainly a pathbreaker in respect to his adoption of Sanskritic and Rajput rituals for the coronation. It was not just unheard of in Islamic India, but also in early-medieval and predominantly Hindu era. That might be because Gagabhat dug up rituals from the texts to particularly suit Shivaji's case. As to his creation of a special genealogy for Shivaji's family originating to some Rajput clans who had moved to Maharashtra, this was a basically popular means of legitimation. Most early medieval kings got genealogies prepared to certain family deities in order to get legitimacy in the eyes of the public. So I would personally admit that Shivaji certainly had some political precedents.What he added to this was a military genius and a lot of courage, and that is what clasiifies him as a hero, not the idea that he was a "Hindu" hero. You don't need to be a Hindu or a Muslim or for that matter a Christian to be called a hero...

What does scare me though, as a historian, is the fact that scholars are criticised without even honouring them with one reading of their books! Give us a chance please to speak...we live in a democracy after all!

Shreya Goswami

Ravi Kiran said...

Why would Shivaji, a sudra claim a khsatriya lineage? Is it because the brahmins did not agree to coronate him because according to the brahmanical social order he did not have the right credentials - that he was not from the kshatriya caste? Therefore he had to bribe/link himself into some obscure kshatriya lineage with the help of brahmins?