Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj died on 3 April 1680, but even today, he continues to be celebrated as Maharashtra’s tallest icon — literally, with plans for a Rs 3,000-crore statue, 212 metres high in the Arabian Sea off Mumbai’s coast. In Maharashtra, parks, monuments, Mumbai’s airport and even a political party bear his name.
The warrior king is known for establishing the Maratha empire, which lasted for close to two centuries. At its peak, the empire extended from Attock, which today lies in Pakistan, to Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. The credit goes largely to Shivaji’s passion and vision, and his brilliance as a warrior, leader of armies, and diplomat who could form crucial alliances.
Today, Shivaji is known as the iconic leader who established Hindu rule in the Deccan by defeating the Mughals. Many have championed him as an “important part of Hindu nationalist ideology”, but the truth is that his relationship with Islam and Muslims is not so black and white.
What historians say
The earliest use of the term Hindu can be traced back to a letter, allegedly from Shivaji to Dadaji Naras Prabhu Deshpande of Rohidkhore on 17 April 1645 where he wished for Hindavi Swarajya. While the authenticity of the letter is contested, the interpretations of the term are also varied. Scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith translates it to “Indian independence from foreign rule” and historian Pagadi views it as “Indian rule”. However, religious studies scholar William Jackson takes it a step further, stating it means the “self-rule of Hindu people”.
Author and historian Manu S. Pillai, in his book Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji, delves into the Maratha king’s familial and ancestral relation with Muslims and the changes this led to in his courtroom and style of diplomacy.
He writes: “Shivaji’s father, for one, was named to honour a Muslim saint called Shah Sharif – while Shahji bore the first part of the pir’s name, his brother took the second and was called Sharifji. His grandfather, Maloji, was not only a loyal officer of the Nizam Shahs of Ahmadnagar, but his samadhi is, evidently, ‘a completely Islamicate’ structure that still stands in Ellora. In the Sivabharathi, when praise is heaped on Maloji, it is in words that confirm his loyalty to his Muslim sovereign: ‘Whatever enemies did arise [to oppose] the Nizam Shah, mighty Maloji opposed them.’ Shivaji’s mother’s family too, similarly, had pledged affiliation to the Mughals years before and had no qualms serving a Muslim emperor. And to top it all, Shivaji himself, when he was in his twenties, had Muslim Pathans in his armies, also employing qazis to administer Islamic justice within his dominions.”
On the other hand, some of the measures the warrior emperor took during his rule would lead one to the belief that his reign was filled with hatred for Muslims. Reworking court culture “derived from classical Hindu texts”, replacing Persian with Sanskrit as the language of diplomacy and appealing to Maratha families for allegiance to “fulfill the desire of creating a Hindavi kingdom” are some such steps. But Pillai argues that “All this was certainly a rejection of an existing system of power built on Islamic ideals, but it does not appear to be a mark of hatred for that religion itself.”
Pillai notes that it was Shivaji’s immense drive to become a powerful presence in Deccan politics that pushed him to take such steps. He also believes this drive was accompanied by the ruler’s empathy for the poor who had been suffering for years in “endless wars due to the Mughal invasion, reducing the region to unprecedented desperation”.
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