Keshav Sitaram Thackeray, the father of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, was among the prominent figures in the Samyukta Maharashtra movement in the 1950s that pushed for the formation of the state of Maharashtra. But he had already emerged as an influential public figure three decades before, especially after he started a periodical called Prabodhan (Awakening) in 1921.

This year marks the centenary year of this magazine, which played a crucial role in shaping the world of non-Brahmin Marathi writing between the two world wars. In the 19th-century, public discouse in Marathi was dominated by Brahmins. Early in the next century, the emergence of Thackeray and a few other non-Brahmin voices helped reshape the idea of the “public” in the region.

In his publication Prabodhan, Keshav “Prabodhankar” Thackeray’s presented a version of Hindutva based on an intense aversion for the socio-cultural dominance of Brahmins. He played a key role in expanding to semi-urban and rural areas of Maharashtra the “Non-Brahmin movement” that had been started by Jyotiba Phule in 1873. Thackeray was attracted to the reformer’s writings and the core principle of Phule’s Satyashodhak Samaj organisation to work for the social upliftment of members of the lowest castes.

At the same time, Thackeray specifically aimed to spread the ideals of “Kshatriyahood”, or pride in being a member of the warrior caste, among young Marathas. Using the historical tensions between Brahmins and Kshatriyas as a reference point and noting that the former had belittled the socio-political contributions of the latter, Thackeray underscored the need for Marathas to assert their public presence.

In contrast to his contemporary VD Savarkar who believed all those who did not see Hindustan either as their Fatherland or Holyland were foreigners, Thackeray’s Hindutva identified the prime enemy as being from within Hindu society. This enemy was bhikshukshahi or the “Brahmanical priesthood”. He put the onus on fighting social vices on Bahujans. In this sense, Thackeray’s Hindutva can be construed to be “Bahujan Hindutva”.

Thackeray’s magazine came to play a crucial role in contributing to the rise of Hindutva in the early part of the 20th century. It is in this context that it is useful to trace his intellectual trajectory before he launched Prabodhan.

Thackeray’s early political and cultural journey is mapped out in his autobiography, Mājhī Jēvangāthā or The Story of My Life (1973).

The cover of Mājhī Jēvangāthā. Credit: Somaiya Publications

His most profound influence came from a man named Gajanan Bhaskar Vaidya, who had from the early 1910s had started becoming a prominent face of Hindu reformism. He had gained popularity for his research on Hindu rituals and for conducting marriage rituals based on the Vedas.

In 1917, Vaidya formed the Hindu Missionary Society in Mumbai’s Girgaon neighbourhood, which in the early decades of the 20th century, Girgaon had a sizeable presence of Christian missionaries. For instance, on the Palava Road in the neighbourhood, there was a free public library run by Christian missionaries that drew many Hindu readers

Vaidya started a periodical called Hindu Missionary, aiming to halt potential conversions to Christianity. Vaidya exhorted youngsters to strive to realising the pristine past of the Aryavarta, a land marked by reverence for the Vedas.

Thackeray developed a great admiration for Vaidya’s work and described him as the first great Hindu missionary of mass significance of his times.

Anxiety about social decline

Thackeray shared Vaidya’s concern about the decline of the “Hindu samaaj” as a cohesive community. Both Vaidya and Thackeray had been born into the Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu community. One of Thackeray’s aims was to create public respect for Kshatriyas and to highlight the Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu community’s contributions to Maratha history.

In a speech in 1918 at Mumbai’s Hira Baug to inaugurate the Hindu Missionary Society, Vaidya had laid out the principles of his new missionary society.“If you genuinely believe in the principles of Hindutva, come, come behind me,” he exhorted his audience. “ I am opening the doors of Hindutva wide open to everyone. All human beings of the universe must embrace this Dharma. We stand firm in embracing them into our dharmic fold. What do you say? Who gave me this right? God has given me this right! The Vedic dharma of Hindus must become the dharma of the world. This is the supreme order of the God.”

Vaidya’s worldview had a profound impact on Thackeray. This can mostly be discerned by the elements Thackeray espoused as his guiding principles in his first editorial for his magazine Prabodhan in 1921.

But even before he started Prabodhan, Thackeray took up the cause of consolidating Hindu society by organising public lectures on the Hindu Missionary Society’s work in educational institutions like the Victoria School and the Dadar High School in Mumbai.

Both Vaidya and Thackeray were invested in the idea of how Brahmin priesthood in particular was responsible for the decline of Hindu unity and how radical “reform” was needed to confront their purported social superiority. However, both concurred that the Vedas must be accorded the utmost reverence.

Both men also gravitated toward the Arya Samaj call to “go back to the Vedas”.

Back to the Vedas

Thackeray volunteered to spread the message of the Hindu Missionary Society’ across Maharashtra. With Vaidya’s approval, Thackeray travelled to Varhad, Nagpur, Jalgaon, Chalisgaon, Bhusavala and other places to spread the word. He distributed pamphlets about the Society’s work and made public speeches based on Vaidya’s teachings. He used the gramophone to attract to a wider audience during his travels.

In his autobiography, Thackeray shared a description of one of his public gatherings in Akola in 1919 that had been organised by a group of lawyers. Thackeray noted that the event was packed to its capacity. Moreover, he took pride in having attracted a sizeable presence of women too.

As much as the audience seemed to have been enthralled by both his oratory and by listening to the prospective virtues of a “refined” Hindu dharma, Thackeray’s message was also leveraged by the photographs he displayed of recently converted Hindus. He attempted to persuade his audence to discern for themselves the visual transformation of those who had converted to the Hindu fold from Christianity. The photographs also attempted to provide a more comprehensible message to those in the audience who would not read.

The Arya soul

Thackeray’s notion of Hindutva was directly inspired by Vaidya’s teachings. For Vaidya, both Muslims and Christians in India had a common cultural soul – the “Arya” soul. Even though members of these two communities now subscribed to different religions, their past was a part of the Hindu-Arya fold. This made them a natural part of the Hindu Dharma.

This idea of Hindutva differed significantly from the one championed by Savarkar and by the Hindu Mahasabha initiatives like shuddhi and sanghatan (purification and organisation). Unlike the Mahasabha, which was concerned more with the possibility of conversion, Vaidya’s language hints at him simply wanting to include Christians and Muslims into the Hindu fold. Before the Mahasbha began to discuss conversions in 1923, Vaidya in a quasi-spiritual sense, spoke about the common Arya blood flowing through the veins of both Christians and Muslims.

Thackeray’s Hindutva saw Muslims as erstwhile Hindus and laid emphasis on bringing them back to the Hindu fold. Furthermore, instead of spewing venom about their historical antecedents, as was increasingly becoming the social theme among Hindu commentators and historians of this period, Thackeray expressed appreciation for their zeal in protecting their own community.

Lauding the Prophet

Pointing to the lack of diplomacy skills among Hindus, Thackeray exhorted Hindus – particularly Kshatriyas – to take lessons from what he calls Islamic attributes of lokasangraha (community building) and vyavahār chāturya (societal acumen). These, along with the farsightedness and visionary outlook of Prophet Mohammad himself, were the essential attributes that the ailing Hindu society should inculcate, he said.

He lauded the Prophet for being both a peace merchant and an ace warrior. Thackeray also waxed eloquent about Islam’s contributions to various fields and disciplines, like sciences and commerce.

Having said that, Thackeray maintained his deep admiration for what he called the “Sanatan Vedic Hindu Dharma”. For Thackeray, Hindu dharma was a minefield and all other religions are its enlightened jewels. This intimate albeit asymmetrical relationship with other religions is one reason Thackeray retained his antipathy for bhakti sages in particular. He believed that they had failed to contribute significantly to the specific cause of Maharashtra dharma because of their detached lifestyles, coupled with their placid peace wisdom and thereby the abstract universalism of goodness to all humanity

At the same time, his peculiar idea of Hindutva differed on the level of semantics with the Hindu Mahasabha. For instance, Vaidya’s all-encompassing approach, seconded by Thackeray, meant that he derided the use of the word “shuddhi” as that had a patronising connotation. Instead, he widely deployed the term “upanayana”, he thread ceremony that young Brahmins undergo, which kept the superior social status of the incoming Hindus intact. The usage of the term upanayan perhaps also allows Vaidya to make the conversion more seamless and organic.

Thackeray’s interactions with Vaidya since the first half of 1910 and his consistent engagement with the Missionary Society’s work from 1917 to 1924 significantly shaped how he perceived his own role in shaping the political and social consciousness of non-brahmins.

Core principles

Amidst this, Thackeray started Prabodhan. In the first issue on October 16, 1921, he laid out the publication’s core principles. Vaidya’s influence on Thackeray was clear as he addressed the perceived moral degeneracy of Hindu society over the years.

“Today’s circumstances are so fragile that Hindus in order to live peacefully have to resist the onslaught of outside forces,” he wrote. “The situation is such that Hindu morals have found itself hopelessly entangled in world politics. The present conditions demand us to obliterate our social differences by inculcating a sense of brotherhood…[We] should be prepared to preserve our Hindutva, our Atma Rajya. With this unity and lofty ideals of Hindu community, we must keep this heart of Hindi Rashtra beating with aplomb.”

This primary motive for starting a new periodical is another indication of Thackeray’s uneasy quest to juxtapose his concern to protect the “glorious history” of the Kshatriyas with his involvement and support for the Non-Brahmin movement on the other.

Throughout his public life in the interwar period, Thackeray sought to reconcile the particularism and thereby the exclusivist concern for Kshatriya glory and the universal, inclusive messaging of the Non-Brahmin movement. Broadly, these contradictions mirror the glaring dissonances and overlaps of the Non-Brahmin movement of this period.

Recently, the stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra interviewed the senior Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut. But before talking about Bal Thackeray and his legacy, Raut highlighted the influence his father had in the rise of the Shiv Sena. Raut hinted at the senior Thackeray being known as a social reformer and as an intensely anti-Brahmanical figure. Perhaps there is also a need to add Keshav Thackeray’s conception of alternative Hindutva in that list.

As the Shiv Sena party in the coalition government in Maharashta treads a fine line between their majoritarian past and a precarious democratic alliance in the present, they should perhaps go back to the original Thackeray to ponder over how to pragmatically channelise dissonances..

Surajkumar Thube is a DPhil student at the Faculty of History, University of Oxford.

The author would like to thank Professor Shailendra Bhandare for his inputs.