Was Shivaji an incarnation of god? A large number of people believe this to be true. Some call him Shiva’s incarnation; others, an incarnation of Vishnu. It does not take long in our country for humans to become gods. We even have a term for it. Dev manoos – godlike person.

We treat anyone who is great in any respect, including those who do the people’s welfare, as god. Is this an instance of the simple faith in god or is it the cunning of some people who have malicious intent?

Did Shivaji’s contemporaries turn him into an avatar, an incarnation? We cannot be sure. But we do know that they attributed miraculous powers to him, such as flight and invisibility. Of course these are false. Shivaji would have benefited from these rumours, since they would have increased his followers’ loyalty. But there is a difference between the calculated promotion of ignorance and history.

Shivaji was a human being. He was a good and great man. Shivaji had intelligence and foresight, he was a pragmatic man of morals. He was a brave and great warrior. But he was human. He was not a god. He was not an avatar.

What are the consequences of turning Shivaji into a god? If he is made into a god, then we get away from our responsibility to emulate him. If someone says, “Behave like Shivaji: don’t trouble the ryots; don’t touch the stem of ryot’s crops; don’t shield the rapists; love your religion, but do not hate the religion of others,” then here comes the reply – how can we compare ourselves with Shivaji? He was god’s avatar – we are only human. How can we hope to behave like him? We will behave the way we can.

As Shivaji is only a god, it is enough to worship his image once a year, to only celebrate his birth anniversary, collect donations in his name, spend some of it on some programme and gobble the rest, actually to spend very little and misappropriate most of it, arrange processions, apply tilak to our foreheads – this is all. One calls oneself a Shivabhakta, and hopes to garner influence. However one does not feel obliged to follow Shivaji’s example.

Shivaji came to ryots’ help. Do these hypocrite bhaktas help the ryots? Actually they make use of Shivaji’s name to threaten people. Shivaji’s portrait and his flag are raised aloft on illicit distilleries, gambling dens and such similar activities. This is a misuse of Shivaji. We must understand who Shivaji was and put a stop to this misuse. We must understand who Shivaji was so that we can distinguish between his true followers and the hypocrites.

Shivaji and the Bhawani Sword

Did Shivaji succeed because he wielded the Bhavani talwar, a sword blessed by goddess Bhavani? A Chief Minister of Maharashtra tried to become popular in recent years by his quest to retrieve the sword from the Royal Collection in London.

Researchers have shown that the Bhavani talwar was made in Portugal, where the techniques to forge swords from various metals was very advanced. The Portuguese brought this sword to Goa, from where it went to Sawants, and then to Shivaji. Mother Bhavani did not play a role in the forging of the sword. In Satara, there is a sword in a museum that some say was used by Shivaji. There is an ongoing dispute as to whether this is the Bhavani talwar. On that sword, there is an inscription in Portuguese. Anyone can see that.

Those who use the people’s ignorance and their faith to push their own agenda are not prepared to let people know the truth. It is not possible to understand the real Shivaji and Mother Bhawani by shouting Jai-Shivaji and Jai-Bhawani every morning and evening.


If Shivaji were to appear today

Shivaji’s life and legacy have been distorted for a very long time. The distortion continues with renewed vigour.

Shivaji despised feudal rights, and refused to dole out privy privileges. Today’s Shivabhaktas create newer and newer privileges for the rich. They tell the modern princes and feudal prodigals to do whatever they want in their dominions. Loot the ryots! Drink and amuse yourselves! What we need from you is to support us so that we can run the “government.” Then, we can also loot the ryots.

It is true that there are no principalities of the old type today, but new principalities have emerged and grow in strength and number. Sugar barons are the new princes in one set of districts. Government departments and state power have also been turned into fiefs, passed on from generation to generation.

Democracy calls for the decentralisation of power. But decentralisation does not mean that power be inherited within a set of families. These new feudal lords exploit and oppress the ryots more than they did at Shivaji’s times. If a ryot dares to go against the interests of a sugar baron, he is finished. He does not get any loan, does not get fertilisers, his sugarcane is kept drying in the field. He eats dust within two years; others look at him, learn a “proper lesson” and refrain from daring the baron. The baron becomes invincible.

Don’t these new barons and princes cast their evil eye on innocent daughters of the ryot? Don’t rapes take place? Hasn’t the ryot been emaciated in serving and entertaining these modern princes in Shivaji’s Maharashtra where the ryots’ Raja had always insisted that not a single stem of ryot’s crop would be harmed in his state?

All this happens shouting Shivaji Maharaj ki Jai (“Hail Shivaji”). Is it not a shame? What if Shivaji himself was present to see all this? What would he do? Of course he is not present. He can’t be present. But don’t we have his teachings with us? The true way of remembering Shivaji is to abolish these new princes.

Today Hindu-Muslim riots are taking place in Shivaji’s name. We must tell these religious fanatics that Shivaji himself was not fanatic. He had faith in the Hindu religion; but he did not hate Islam. He believed in god but he was not superstitious.

Just as Hindus have rioters among them, there are rioters among Muslims as well. They too have their own religious fanatics. Some Muslims believe that they are heirs of some Shehanshah. They think that once they were the rulers of this country. They forget that even when Muslim kings were ruling all the Muslims were not eating only biryani and drinking fine liquor. The majority of Muslims were very poor.

But what about those who spilled their blood, who sacrificed their life for Swaraj? Were they not your forefathers? Who does one choose to stand with – Aurangzeb and Adil Shah or Madari Mehtar, Ibrahim Khan, Daulat Khan and Kazi Hyder? Shivaji’s Swaraj was not for Hindus alone. It was equally for the Muslims in Maharashtra.

Jai Bhavani, Jai Shivaji is used to attack both Muslims and dalits. The new followers of Shivaji oppose reservations for dalits. They conveniently forget that Shivaji had consciously enrolled dalits into service. He had given them prestige. There is a tendency to distort the legacy of heroes. It does not happen unintentionally. Some might originate in ignorance, but most of it is a product of deliberate mischief. It is done to serve some vested interests. Whatever the difference, the consequences are the same.

What have they – the powerful – done to Shivaji?

Have they made Shivaji bigger or smaller during the last fifty years? What has happened in terms of his acceptance across the regions? Has it grown or lessened? Fifty years ago his portraits used to be displayed outside Maharashtra. They were displayed in Madhya Pradesh. They were put up in Karnataka in the South. They were hung in Baroda and Gujarat. During the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement we all woke up to the Maharashtrian identity taking inspiration from Shivaji.

Of course, the movement of Samyukta Maharashtra for a linguistic Marathi state was quite justified. It was certainly justified to politically remember Shivaji as he had prepared a Rajya Bhasha Kosha. However we did not observe the limits of propriety. One of the stalwarts of the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement used to say in speeches, “Maharashtra has history whereas others have geography only!” Of course, it used to evoke a tremendous applause. This was extremism.

Shivaji is dear to Maharashtra. Just as Maharashtra has the history of Shivaji, doesn’t Karnataka have the history of Rani Channamma? Doesn’t Rajasthan have Rana Pratap’s history? Are the states of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat of recent origin?

True, a sense of propriety was lost in the heat of propaganda. Finally we succeeded in making Samyukta Maharashtra. However, we, at the same time, put Shivaji in the confines of the walls of Maharashtra. Shivaji, who was also popular outside, was made to belong to Maharashtra alone.

What is now happening in Maharashtra? The Shiv Sena was founded in the 1960s. This party invokes Shivaji’s name in whatever it does, against non-Maharashtrians or against Muslims. These forces have founded many more outfits: Hindu Ekta, Maratha Maha Sangh, Patit Pawan Sanghatana – all these chant Shivaji’s name.

Shivaji, who belonged to the whole of Maharashtra, is now made to represent the Maharashtrian Hindus alone. He is turned into a Go-Brahman Pratipalak. Maratha Maha Sangh makes him represent Marathas alone. When they opposed reservations, the slogan they raised was Shivaji Maharaj ki Jai. When dalit hamlets were attacked in Marathwada and elsewhere, again the slogan used was Jai Shivaji, Jai Bhawani.

Thus Shivaji is turned into a caste Hindu. He was brought into the fold of Brahmans, he was made to belong to 96 families, genuine or not, of Marathas. This is purely revisionist history of the elite.

Shivaji is cynically used to serve selfish interests. Something similar had happened at the time of World War II. The British wanted to enlist Indian youth to the armed services. They printed posters with Shivaji’s picture on it, calling upon “You mavlas of Shivaji! Enlist today! Shivaji was brave; you too are brave. Join the War!” Those who had forced the country into slavery used Shivaji. Now those who are hell bent upon dividing the country, those who are dividing the poor ryots on the basis of caste and religion, are again using him.

It may be their business to do this. But why should we make it our own? Why should we allow them to do so? They propound a false history. They only shout Jai. We must recount the true history, not merely shout Jai. Those who are well off in terms of power, wealth, status and knowledge do not use force alone to maintain their hegemony. They do not use only weapons, truncheons and the state. They use ideas. They use history. They encourage such ideas amongst the people; they make them digest the philosophy and the history which is useful to maintain their own superiority.

Such thought and philosophy, such false, half true and distorted history, help to maintain the status quo. Thought is a very effective weapon. It lasts a very long time. It is superior to the gun. The rulers always use this weapon against the oppressed.

Those who have something to lose – power and wealth – use all the weapons of the privileged to safeguard their authority. Those who have nothing to lose – who are dispossessed, need to sharpen the weapon of their ideology. Change is not possible without ideas, without thoughts. This is the reason why the ryots today must fathom Shivaji’s history. It should be interpreted in a meaningful way. Whatever is worthless in history must be consigned to the dustbin. Whatever is valuable must be examined properly. New progressive ideas must be added to them. Such new updated ideas must be carried over to the next stage of history.

There is a lot in Shivaji’s history, his ideas, and his practice; there is much in the inspiring forces behind his cause and achievements. All this can be extremely beneficial to today’s ryots. We must understand all this properly and take it ahead.

Excerpted with permission from Who Was Shivaji by Govind Pansare, translated by Uday Narkar, LeftWord Books.