There is a special selective process that History makes use of while commemorating its characters. Filtering across several centuries and regions, there are some moments, personalities and objects that stand out as the heroes of history writing. One of the best examples of this process of historical filtering is that offered by the image of Chhatrapati Shivaji. Hailed as an icon of not just nationalist aspirations, but also as the voice of the non-Brahmin movement in India, as the face of a valiant Hindu past and as an ideal representation of social reform in the country. Shivaji is all of this and a lot more. To the average Indian, Shivaji has over the years come to represent everything that is glorious and fearless about his past.
The favouritism offered to Shivaji has several reasonings. The popularisation of the Maratha icon started off in late 19th and early 20th century, at a time when the nationalist uprising against British authority had started consolidating. The establishment of the Maratha empire in opposition to foreign Mughal rule was seen as the perfect historical moment to be upheld in front of the British as representing the traditions of an ideal India. Located much further away in the past than the more recent Peshwa rule that had been broken apart by the British, Shivaji served as the ideal representation of Indian and often Hindu pride. The non-Brahmin identity of Shivaji was also something that was seen as a perfect attribute by those involved in movements against upper caste domination of the time.
As the country celebrates the birth anniversary of Shivaji on Sunday, we would like to reflect upon the many faces of the legendary Maratha character that has given impetus to a just identity formation among several different groups in India.
Shivaji as the icon of nationalist uprising
When one talks about the role of Shivaji in the nationalist uprising of modern India, the first name that comes to mind is that of Bal Gangadhar Tilak. The uniqueness of Tilak’s way of popularising Shivaji lay in the fact that he was the first to make Shivaji appealing to not just the elite and educated, but also to everyone else. Unlike most others who restricted the imagery of Shivaji to print media, Tilak took him to the streets by means of festivals and public meetings. The first Shivaji festival organised by Tilak took place on April 15, 1896, accompanied by readings of Hindu religious texts, traditional music and dance in front of huge portraits of Shivaji. Commemorating Shivaji, Tilak is said to have written the following on this day:
It has been a matter of constant and painful surprise [to us] as to why we, the people of Maharashtra did sleep so soundly, so long. Should we not have to hang down our heads if we are asked by a foreigner how we have till this day forgotten the event of which we should always be thinking, which we should never forget even in our dreams?…The people of no other country would have forgotten the great man who laid the foundation of our empire, who upheld our respect as Hindus and who gave a particular direction to our religion.
Further, Tilak did not just restrict the imagery of Shivaji to Maharashtra. During the Swadeshi movement in Bengal, Tilak represented Shivaji as an ideal hero who valiantly fought against tyranny. Tilak’s invocation of Shivaji also successfully created the moment when all the princes of states like Baroda and Sangli joined in the national movement.
Shivaji as a Hindutva icon
By the beginning of 20th century, revolutionary terrorism had become a significant part of the nationalist uprising. V D Savarkar was foremost among those who had a radical understanding of the national movement. Savarkar’s idea of nationalist awakening, however, also contained within it the theory of Hindutva which he often represented by invoking the imagery of Shivaji, who he believes laid the foundation of a Hindu empire at the cost of the foreigners Muslims. However, in Savarkar’s portrayal of Shivaji’s valour, he gives the credit to Samarth Ramdas, a 17th century Brahmin saint. Shivaji was a devotee of Ramdas. In Savarkar’s writings therefore, Shivaji was not just a great ruler, but also his greatness was a result of his Hindutva inclination which is how he visualised India to be.
Shivaji as the voice of non-Brahmins
The late 19th century in British Indian was as much a time of social reform as that of nationalist awakening. Jyoti Rao Phule, the reputed social activist in Western India at this time was aggressively involved in movements for the uplift of non-Brahmins and lower castes. Phule upheld the image of Shivaji in a way that would induce self respect among the non-Brahmins. The means he used for popularising Shivaji was the povada (a traditional Marathi ballad), written in simple, non-Sanskritised Marathi for the non-Brahmins to understand. The povada on Shivaji begins by saying that it would be useful for the Kunbis, Malis, Mahars and ruined Kshatriyas.
Phule diminished the role of the Brahmanical elements in Shivaji’s life and credited his own personal values of valour and strength as the reasons behind his success. On the contrary, Phule blamed the Brahmin forces as responsible for the martial race of Maharashtra. Phule’s work on Shivaji went on to inspire several other leaders of the non-Brahmin movement in India.
Shivaji as the modern, liberal Indian
By the late 19th century a class of Indians had grown up who had been educated with a West European education system. Having imbibed western humanitarian values, these were Indians who used those same values of liberty and equality to stand up against the British. M G Ranade was one such individual who led several social reform movements in Maharashtra, invoking values of a strong, ethical personality. Ranade too frequently referred to the iconography of Shivaji to spread his message. He wrote the following about Shivaji:
“He was a man whose strength lay in his realising in his person the best aspirations of the age. Such men are not born without long preparation or out of their time or in a country where the popular mind has not been educated to appreciate and support them”
Unlike Phule, Ranade stressed on Shivaji’s devotion to Brahmanism to show that a strong administration is one in which exists a firm collaboration between the political and the religious.
What else is making news:
Today, Shivaji is often commemorated as Marathi pride and representation of Hindu valour. However, what we need to learn from the history of Shivaji is how a single historical character can uphold so many different causes and provide a shared identity to millions of different groups of people.