Disclaimer : This post has not been written by me. It is reproduction of an essay authored by historian Narhar Kurundkar. It is one of the best analysis of Chhatrapati Shivaji , and originally intended as the Preface to Shrimaan Yogi.
The greatness of Shivaji and his limitations must be understood clearly. It is a fact that he doesn’t have the background of the 17th Century Renaissance enjoyed by any European Ruler. He alone has the broad religious background of the Varakari Movement (which traces its roots to Dnyaneshwar), a Hindu movement. This makes him different from the likes of Cromwell and Napoleon. He was not democratic. Indeed, he entertained no thoughts of mass education or liberation of women or removal of casteism or, for that matter, setting up printing presses (though a section of historians actually believes it strongly that Shivaji had a keen interest in printing presses). He had no thoughts of approving widow marriages or terminating the system of childhood marriages. Indeed, had somebody come up with so heretic an opinion, he would have certainly chopped off his arms and legs. He always went to the Dutch or the British for firearms. A thought of producing it himself didn’t occur to him. Who were these Europeans? And for what purpose had they arrived in India? He could not have had much clue to it. By that time Galileo had invented telescope, Columbus had discovered America and Magellan had completed the first cruise round the globe. And the illustrious Chhatrapati was unaware of these events. Like every great person, Shivaji was a product of his time. To what extent he understood the prevalent current of Time and how far he managed to go ahead of his time will ultimately gauge his greatness.
Five years back, a South Indian author of little fame had written an article in an issue of Hindu. I haven’t studied a better article explaining the greatness of Shivaji. It was titled “How Small Shivaji Was?” Says the author, “Shivaji is the Deity of Maharashtrians. They would not have an iota of reservation in putting him above God. To say that in the entire five thousand years of the history of human civilisation, no other King can hold candle to Shivaji would seem an understatement to them.I do not intend to join this approbatory gang. Rather than evaluating his greatness as a human being, I wish to examine how small he really was.
The first fact to strike is that he created a kingdom. There must have been over 500 Dynasties in India. Each had a founder. One among them was Shivaji. The rest had an opportunity to do so because of the reigning confusion. Vassals of a weak king would declare independence with the central power helpless to prevent it. A powerful general used to dethrone a weak king and raise his own kingdom. This had been the fashion in which a new Power was established. The new king inherited the existing Army and the bureaucratic structure automatically. In Shivaji, we have the one who had to raise everything from nothing, who didn’t have the benefit of a ready strong army; who, on trying to establish himself, had to face the might of Great Powers; who had the neighbouring Bijapur and Golkonda powers still on the rise and the Moghul Empire at its zenith. Shivaji was eating away that Bijapur Empire which had usurped more than half of Nijamshahi and was on its way to consume almost all of Karnataka. Here is somebody who, from the start, never had the might to defeat his rivals in a face-to-face battle, who saw the efforts of 20 years go down the drain in a matter of 4 months; but still fought on to create an empire with 29 years of constant struggle and enterprise. It would be easy to see how small he was once we find which founder to compare to in the annals of Indian history, on this issue.
A Hindu Power has certain distinguishing traits. It is not as if they do not emerge victorious in a war. Victories – there have been many. But their victory does not destroy their opponent. The latter’s territory doesn’t diminish, his might is not erased. The victor’s territory doesn’t expand. Even though victorious, he becomes weaker and stays so. In short, it is plain that they faced total destruction in defeat and weakening in victory. A new chapter in Hindu history is begun with Shivaji wherein battles are won to expand the empire while strength and will power is preserved in a defeat. Secondly, the Hindu Rulers used to be astonishingly ignorant of the border situation. Their enemy would catch them unawares, often marching in over 200 miles in their territory and only then would they wake up to the situation. Whatever may be the outcome of the battle, only theirs would be the land to be defiled. The arrival of Shivaji radically changes this and heralds the beginning of an era of staying alert before a war and unexpected raids on the enemy. Thirdly, the Hindu kings habitually placed blind faith in their adversaries. This saga terminates with Shivaji performing the treacherous tricks. It was the turn of the opponents to get stunned. In the ranks of Hindu kings, the search still going on for somebody to compare with Shivaji on this point.
Shivaji was religious; but he was not a fanatic. Although iron hearted, he was not cruel. He was daring, yet not impulsive. He was practical; but not unambitious. He was a dreamer who dreamt lofty aims and had the firm capacity to convert them into reality. His lifestyle was not simple. Having adopted a choice, rich lifestyle, he was not lavish. He was gracious to other religions. On that account he may be compared to Ashoka, Harsha, Vikramaditya, Akbar. But all of these had great harems. Akbar had the Meenabazar, Ashoka had the Tishyarakshita. Shivaji had not given free reign to his lust. Kings, both Hindu and Muslim, had an overflowing, ever youthful choice taste for collection of women in their prime and diamonds. That was lacking in Shivaji. He had neither the money to spend on sculptures, paintings, music, poetry or monuments nor the inclination. He did not have the classical appreciation needed to spend over 20 crores rupees and hold deprived subjects with strokes of hunter to build a Taj Mahal even as famine was claiming over hundreds of thousands of lives; nor was he pious enough to erect temple after
temple while India was being systematically consumed by the British. He was a sinner; a practical man like the rest of us. Khafi Khan sends him to Hell. I, myself, think that Shivaji must have gone to Hell. He would not have enjoyed the company of the brave warriors who preferred gallant death to preservation of their land. It would have ill suited him to live with the noble kings who would rather indulge in rituals such as Yadnya than expand the army. For the Heaven is full of such personalities. Akbar adopted a generous attitude towards Hindus and has been praised to the skies for that. But, it is an elementary rule that a stable government is impossible if the majority of the subjects is unhappy. Akbar was courteous to them who, as a community, were raising his kingdom and stabilizing it for him. The Hindus he treated well were a majority in his empire and were enriching his treasury through their taxes. The Hindus had no history of invasions. They had not destroyed Masjids. They had not committed genocides of Muslims. They had not defiled Muslim women or imposed forced conversions. These were the people Akbar was generous to. On the contrary, Muslims were a minority community in Shivaji’ s empire. They were not the mainstay of his taxes. They were not chalking out a kingdom for him. Besides, there was a danger of an invasion and Alamgir was imposing Jiziya tax on Hindus. Yet, he treated Muslims well. That was not out of fear but because of his inborn generosity Given this background, I am ready to see Shivaji as small he really is. But who to turn to, to make him smaller? Is there any such standard?”
To round off this discussion, I should like to expand on a couple of issues left unanswered by the above article. Firstly, Shivaji’s expertise as a General is, of course, undisputed. But, besides that, he was also an excellent Governor. He believed that the welfare of the subjects was a responsibility of the ruler. Even though he fought so many battles, he never laid extra taxes on his subjects. Even the expenditure for his coronation was covered by the taxes on the collectors. In a letter he challenges, “It is true that I’ve deceived the enemy. Can you show an instance where I tricked an ally?” This challenge is unanswered. He funded establishment of new villages, set up tax systems on the farms, used the forts to store the farm produce, gave loans to farmers for the purchase of seeds, oxen etc, built new forts, had the language standardized to facilitate the intra-government communication, had the horoscope revised, encouraged purification from Islam to Hinduism. He was not a mere warrior.Secondly, and most important of all, to protect his kingdom, his subjects fought for over 27 years. After Shivaji’s death they fought under Sambhaji. After Aurangzeb killed Sambhaji, they still fought for over 19 years. In this continued struggle, a minimum of 5 lakh Moguls died (Jadunath Sarkar’s estimate). Over 2 lakh Marathas died. Still in 1707, over 1 lakh Marathas were fighting with spears. They didn’t have a distinguished leader to look up to. There was no guarantee of a regular payment. Still, they kept on fighting. In these 27 years, Aurangzeb didn’t suffer a defeat. That was because Marathas simply lacked the force necessary to defeat so vast an army. Jadunath says, “Alamgir won battle after battle. But in the end, after spending crores of rupees, he accomplished nothing apart from weakening his All India Empire and his own death. He could not defeat Marathas”. When the Peshawai ended (A.D.1818), there was an air of satisfaction that a government of law would replace a disorderly government. Sweets were distributed when the British won Bengal in Plassey (A.D.1757). In this light, the above facts demonstrate the extent to which his subjects identified themselves with Shivaji’s Nation and the excellence of Shivaji as its founder.