(See also: Shivaji and the Politics of History)

Shivaji Bhonsle, venerated in Maharashtra as the father of “the Maratha nation”, was born in 1627 into a family of Maratha bureaucrats. His father, Shahji, was the jagirdar of the Sultan of Ahmadnagar in Pune, but he shifted his allegiance to the Sultan of Bijapur; Shivaji’s mother, Jiji Bai, was devoted to her son, particularly after her husband took a second wife. This was not the only time that Shahji shifted his loyalties: when the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan decided to lead his forces into the Deccan, Shahji decided to accept the offer of a mansabdari from Shah Jahan. However, upon the emperor’s retreat in 1632, Shahji decided to accept once again the suzerainty of the Sultan of Ahmadnagar. However, the Sultan of Ahmadnagar was taken captive by the Mughal army in 1633, and though Shahji struggled valiantly to retain his political independence, he succumbed to the combined forces of the Mughal Emperor and the Sultan of Bijapur who had signed an accord between themselves in 1636. Shahji surrendered, was expelled from Pune, and retreated to Bijapur.

Shivaji, though his father was exiled from Pune, was raised in the city that was to become the capital not only of Maratha power, but the seat, as it were, of real and imagined Hindu martial traditions. (Much later, it is in Pune that armed resistance to the British led to a campaign of terror and assassination, and it is from Pune that Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, emerged to press forth the case for a masculine Indian nation-state.) Some historians have argued that Shivaji grew up with a hatred for Islam, but there is little in the historical record that directly substantiates any such reading. For a good many years, Shivaji and his band of Marathas, who can with some justice be claimed as having originated the idea of guerrilla warfare in India, plundered the countryside, and Shivaji came to acquire a formidable reputation as a warrior. But Shivaji’s main interest lay in subduing Bijapur, and the opportunity presented itself when the Sultan, Muhammad Adil Shah, died in November 1656. Muhammad Adil Shah’s successor, Ali Adil Shah, sent his general, Afzal Khan, at the head of an army of 10,000 troops to surround and subdue Shivaji in his fortress, Pratapgarh.

The most celebrated act of Shivaji’s life, if historians are to be believed, is his killing of Afzal Khan in 1659. According to the most commonly accepted narrative of events, Afzal Khan agreed to meet Shivaji in person to accept his surrender. It is suggested that Afzal Khan had treacherous designs upon Shivaji, but evidently he received a fatal dose of his own medicine before he could murder Shivaji. The Maratha leader carried a small dagger in one hand, and a tiger’s claw in the other, but these little weapons were concealed by the long sleeves of the loose-fitting clothes he wore. As the two men hugged each other, Afzal Khan nearly stuck a dagger at Shivaji’s side, but the Maratha passed his arm around the Khan’s waist and, to quote from the admiring biography by the Bengali historian Jadunath Sarkar, “tore his bowels open with a blow of steel claws”. It is a chilling fact that this episode, in which neither Afzal Khan nor Shivaji appear to have shown much honor, should have been described, amidst the euphoria of the celebrations in 1974-75 to mark the 300th anniversary of the coronation of Shivaji, as the “most glorious event in the history of the Marathas.” (See R. V. Herwadkar, “Historicity of Shivaji-Afzal Khan Confrontation”, in B. K. Apte, ed., Chhatrapati Shivaji: Coronation Tercentenary Commemmoration Volume (Bombay: University of Bombay, 1974-75.)

As is purported to be quite common with ‘Oriental armies’, Afzal Khan’s entire force is described as having become panic-stricken at the death of their commander, and Shivaji was left victorious. His triumph over Afzal Khan is often said to mark the birth of Maratha power. In 1664, Shivaji dared even to plunder Surat, a trading town with rich mercantile traditions and immensely wealthy merchants, but this invoked the fury of Aurangzeb, who sent his general Jai Singh to deal with this irritant. The Mughal commander Jai Singh used a variety of diplomatic and military measures to ease the path to his victory. It is said that Shivaji was visited in his dreams by the goddess Bhavani, who reportedly advised him that he could not triumph if he raised his hand against another Hindu prince, but this reading may be no more than an attempt to assuage the pride of the admirers of Shivaji bothered by Shivaji’s capitulation to Aurangzeb. Though Shivaji himself was incorporated into the Mughal system, becoming in John Richards’ words a “vassal” of the Emperor, it was his son, Shambhaji, who was rendered into a mansabdar of 5,000. Shivaji’ hagiographers at this point pause to reflect on their hero’s daring escape from the court of Aurangzeb in 1666. Though Shivaji had, by 1670, recaptured many of the fortresses he had previously surrendered to Aurangzeb, the hagiographers do not always mention the fact that he continued to petition the Mughal emperor to be entitled a “Raja”. This petition was granted in 1668.

Shivaji’s coronation in 1674 as Chhatrapati, or “Lord of the Universe”, constitutes the next pivotal chapter in his biography. It was in part to mark his independence from the Mughals, and to repudiate his formal relation to them of a feudatory, that Shivaji had himself crowned, but the very gesture of defiance points to the fact that he recognized the overwhelming power of the Mughals. Moreover, as a Shudra or low-caste person, Shivaji had perforce to enact some ceremony by means of which he could be raised to the status of a kshatriya or traditional ruler. To this end, he enlisted the services of Gagga Bhatta, a famous Brahmin from Benares, who did the Brahminical thing in falsely certifying that Shivaji’s ancestors were kshatriyas descended from the solar dynasty of Mewar. 11,000 Brahmins are reported to have chanted the Vedas, and another 50,000 men are said to have been present at the investiture ceremony, which concluded with chants of, “Shivaji Maharaj-ki-jai!”

The greater majority of the historians of previous generations and other scholars who have written on Shivaji have supposed that his battles with Aurangzeb, as well as his coronation, cannot be read as other than clear signs of his unrelenting hatred for Muslims and his desire to be considered a great Hindu monarch. But it is not at all transparent, as some recent work suggests, that his conflicts with Aurangzeb should be read through the lens of a communalist-minded history, where all conflicts are construed as the inevitable battle between Islam and Hinduism. It is precisely to thwart the communalist interpretations of Shivaji that Nehru made the pointed remark, in his Discovery of India, that “Shivaji, though he fought Aurangzeb, freely employed Muslims” (p. 272). The first Pathan unit joined Shivaji’s forces in 1658, and one of his trusted commanders who was present at Shivaji’s encounter with Afzal Khan was a Muslim, Didi Ibrahim. There is nothing to suggest that the animosity between the Shia rulers of Bijapur and the Sunni Mughal Emperors was of a different order than the conflict between the Hindu Shivaji and Aurangzeb, who were locked in battle over political power and economic resources. It is also a telling fact that, after the coronation, Shivaji struck a military alliance with the Muslim leader Abul Hasan, the Qutb Shah Sultan, and together they waged a campaign against Shivaji’s own half-brother, Vyankoji Bhonsle. Shivaji died in 1680.

[For a lengthier consideration of points raised in the last paragraph, see the companion piece, Shivaji and the Politics of History.]

Further Reading:

Gordon, Stewart. The Marathas: 1600-1818. The New Cambridge History of India II.4. New York, Cambridge University: 1993.

Richards, John F. The Mughal Empire. The New Cambridge History of India, I:5. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.