Review of Shivaji: India’s Great Warrior King: Individual against empire

A new Shivaji biography takes a fresh look at the movement he launched to dislodge the Mughals

October 14, 2022 09:01 am | Updated October 15, 2022 01:06 pm IST

Men take out a rally on motorcycles on the birth anniversary of Maratha king Shivaji in Nashik, Maharashtra.

Men take out a rally on motorcycles on the birth anniversary of Maratha king Shivaji in Nashik, Maharashtra. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

All political parties, at least in Maharashtra, compete with each other to claim Shivaji’s legacy.

All political parties, at least in Maharashtra, compete with each other to claim Shivaji’s legacy.

Vaibhav Purandare is neither a formal historian nor an academic scholar. He is a journalist who has dared to take up controversial historical figures to write books and throw new light on. What is particularly adventurous is that he is neither intimidated nor inhibited by the current vicious and polarised political atmosphere. His book, Shivaji: India’s Great Warrior King displays his courage and conviction.

It is not easy to write a political and military biography of Shivaji and his strategic understanding of the complex world around him. There are literally hundreds of Shivaji biographies, in Marathi, English, and even in French and Portuguese. There are plays, films, folk theatre and inspirational poetry based on this charismatic character. Thousands of memorials and statues of the warrior king have been erected, not only in Maharashtra but all over India and some even abroad.

Then there are a number of fables and fantasies woven around him. And of course, all political parties, at least in Maharashtra, compete with each other to claim his legacy.

Indian academics, historians and the media are aware of the riotous controversy over James Laine’s Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India. The book is virtually banned and the author is prohibited from visiting India. It is quite often that conflicts erupt over some or other history books, particularly those related to Maratha history or Shivaji. A sentence here or an anecdote somewhere, a word in context or an episode in the narrative can put the author and publisher in trouble.

Skirting the landmines

Purandare is aware of the landmines, and he does a remarkable job of skirting them. The author divides the political and strategic legacy of Shivaji into three stages. After all, Shivaji had a short life of just 50 years (1630-1680). The first stage is up to 1656. During this time, he was emerging as a militant rebel with a superb understanding of the terrain — and tyranny — of Mughal rule. Describing the second phase as a “dramatic decade” that lasts from 1656-1666, Purandare writes a fascinating account which includes Shivaji’s arrest and sensational escape from Aurangzeb’s jail.

By then, the 36-year-old Shivaji had realised that he would have to create an autonomous regime, and the ideas of guerilla warfare and a people-centric (Rayat) government were forming in his head. The third and final stage, says Purandare, from 1666 to 1680, was of consolidation and expansion. It is not as if he had to confront only the rule of Aurangzeb and his henchmen in the north and south. Shivaji had to face a number of Maratha (Hindu) schemers and small-time chieftains. In fact, even when he was betrayed by some of his so-called trusted colleagues, he was helped by small but loyal Muslim power-holders in the region.

It is essential to note that after Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, the Mughal Empire began to implode and disintegrate. But that process had a lot to do with the role Shivaji had played (in his last two decades in particular). His son, Sambhaji, not only carried further the proud legacy of his father, he did not let Aurangzeb succeed anywhere in the Deccan, even as he was tortured and killed. Indeed, the Maratha Empire, as it is known, would not have come about without the courage, tenacity and grit of Shivaji, and his vision was vigorously pursued by Sambhaji — who faced slander and defamatory accusations after his death at the age of 32. But in the last six decades, historians have “rehabilitated” Sambhaji.

Purandare does not deal with the overall Mughal rule of over 200 years that managed to establish and bring Aurangzeb to power, and who was confronted by Shivaji. The Aurangzeb-Shivaji relationship, if it can be called as such, is at once dialectic and symbiotic.

Aurangzeb does not represent the entire formidable legacy of Mughal rule. From Babar to Aurangzeb, the Mughals held sway over the political, administrative, cultural, architectural and religious imprint of the subcontinent, and its reign was not always brutal.

Liberal values

Akbar, for instance, was not only a modern (in the 16th century context) and benign ruler, but was also a firm believer in liberal values of that time. He even tried to transcend fundamentalist notions of Islam and create a new working faith — Din-I-Ilahi, a syncretic religion.

Akbar’s idea was to combine Islamic tenets with Hinduism and to some aspects of Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Jainism. In those days (or even today) it was a revolutionary idea. The point is not whether the idea succeeded, but that all the Mughal rulers were not aggressive religious fanatics.

Therefore, Aurangzeb is neither a natural successor nor a representative of Mughal rule, of Muslims or even of Islam, as is currently believed and propagated. Puranadare should have stressed that though Shivaji fought the rule of Aurangzeb, he did not subscribe to the philosophy of Hindutva, as is being attributed to him today. Just as Akbar did not follow fundamentalist Islam and had even challenged clerics in his day.

Be that as it may, this book, deeply researched and elegantly written, is an important contribution to the literature on Shivaji and the rise of the Maratha empire.

Shivaji: India’s Great Warrior King; Vaibhav Purandare, Juggernaut, ₹799.

The writer is a veteran Editor of Marathi and English dailies, a Padmashree and currently a Rajya Sabha Member.

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