by Vijaysekhar Chellaboina
February 19, 2022
Our university has a beautiful tradition. Many of our buildings are named after famous personalities. For example, my chamber is housed in the Sir Arthur Cotton Bhavan. General Sir Arthur Cotton was a civil engineer in British India primarily known for constructing the Godavari barrage. Our university is named after Mahatma Gandhi, and other buildings are named after Sir C. V. Raman, Sir M. Viswswaraiah, etc. And we celebrate the birthdays of these personalities by gathering at their statues in front of the respective buildings.
Today, we celebrated the 392nd birthday of Chatrapati Shivaji. None of our buildings are named after Shivaji, but one of our buildings is named after Shivaji's weapon, "Chandrahaas." Thanks to our school education, our generation remembers the names such as Chandrahaas, Chetak, Panchajanya. Each of them is associated with a hero and is as famous as its hero. The auditorium inside the Chandrahas building is named after Shivaji. There is a beautiful statue of Shivaji wielding his Chandrahaas at the entrance. As usual, we gathered near the statue and were asked to give floral tributes to Shivaji. As I was standing in front of the statue, I realized that I was never confused why Gandhi, Cotton, Raman, etc., deserved our respect. Still, I was not so sure about Shivaji. Shivaji was a ruler. Not every ruler deserves respect. Not even those who are most celebrated. Alexander the Great, for example, was a great conqueror but never had a chance to rule after conquering a vast area of land. He was undoubtedly an inspiration to generations of Greeks and other conquerors but cannot be called a good ruler. Genghis Khan, another great conqueror and possibly the ancestor of a significant population along the silk route, does not command the same respect as Alexander and probably has to do with Euro-centric sentiments. Chandragupta Mourya, Asoka Mourya, and the Gupta kings were not just conquerors but were benevolent rulers. Asoka was special; probably the only ruler who ruled through his inscriptions. Usually, most inscriptions provide transactional information, such as donations of properties. However, Asokan inscriptions were guidelines to citizens for leading a good life. Similarly, rulers such as Sri Krishna Devaraya, the great patron of Telugu literature, created stable empires. They continue to live in our memories through the monuments they built.
What about Shivaji? Like most children in India, I grew up idolizing Shivaji. The stories of his Gorilla warfare and the usage of monitor lizards (ఉడుము) in climbing rocks were intriguing, and the stories of his bold confrontation of the mighty Mughal empire is nothing but inspiring. The context was that the Mughal empire was unjust to the Hindu population through religious taxes, and Shivaji was the liberator of such injustice. He was a great hero, and if I were to participate in a fancy dress competition, it would have been Shivaji. Sword in hand, a unique headwear, and a crescent moon on his forehead are all appealing. Interestingly, neither I nor other friends ever thought of dressing as the great Mughal emperor Akbar or the poet-ruler Quli Qutub Shah of Golconda. Thanks to my progressive parents and grandparents, I grew up not knowing what religion was. Ironically, when I was nine, a teacher wanted to fill out a form on my behalf. She introduced the concepts of religion and caste to me. She inquired what my religion was, and I answered, naively, that I was an Indian. She assumed that I was acting clever, and she repeated the question in an angry tone. I hesitantly answered "Hindu," not knowing if I was right. She continued with her questions and asked what my caste was, and seeing my blank face, she rewarded my cheek with a slap. That was the only instance when a teacher was angry with me. And that evening, my parents had to give me some basic knowledge of the concept of caste and religion to survive in this divisive world. Christians and Muslims have their holy books, and depending on who we ask, Hindus regard the Vedas or the Gita as their holy book(s). In reality, most people in ancient India were illiterate and were kept away from the secrets of these sacred books. And as a descendent of such illiterate ancestors, I am never sure what my religion is.
Shivaji, the self-proclaimed protector of the Hindu faith, was indeed remarkable. However, we need to understand his greatness in the context of his times. His father was a general under a local Muslim ruler. The neighboring kingdoms were under Muslim rulers, and the Mughals ruled the Delhi sultanate. Most Muslim rulers have been in India for only a handful of generations and were still regarded as foreigners by the native Hindu rulers. The unfortunate religious difference between the rulers and their subjects resulted in the discriminatory treatment of the majority Hindu population. Let us recognize that none of this mattered to the poor and socially backward populations. The discriminatory measures were only problematic to relatively wealthy or socially upper classes. Shivaji certainly felt the need to liberate his people from Muslim rule. But, as I understand it, he was not fanatic about it. As is well known, he started his war with just a handful of young soldiers using the famous guerilla tactics. To win against his local enemies, he never shied away from taking support of the Mughals. And Mughals sent their Hindu vassal kings such as Jai Singh of Jaipur to fight against Shivaji when Shivaji finally rebelled against Mughals. To consolidate his position as a ruler, he fought against his own step-brother. There are other stories to indicate that his most trusted generals included Muslims. Shivaji's story cannot be simply described as Hindus against Muslims but a struggle to establish a rule against the existing unjust laws and taxes. He happened to be a Hindu, and his opponents were Muslims.
Shivaji, the great protector of the Hindu faith, had his share of problems with Hindu customs. When Shivaji was ready to declare himself as a king and an emperor, he chose the title Chatrapati. The local Brahmins objected to Shivaji's coronation since he was a sudra and not a Kshatriya. Shivaji had to go to lengths to find a remote lineage to Rajputs to be eligible for his coronation. Chatrapati is a Sanskrit compound word from the two words Chatra and Pati. Chatra means an umbrella, and Pati means ruler (or husband). I always found it funny that an emperor of Shivaji's stature chose a title with the word umbrella in it. I convinced myself that if someone else carries an umbrella for you, it must be a sign of great respect. I often wondered if Chatrapati is a simplification of the word Kshatriyapati. All indications are that Shivaji was a fair ruler who was kind to Hindus and Muslims. His legacy continued for a long time, and his descendants created one of the largest kingdoms of India, bigger than that of Asoka and Akbar.
Shivaji was always a hero for the Marathis. During the independence movement, Bal Gangadhar Tilak made him a national hero. The Indian freedom fighters used every marketing trick to unite the masses to overthrow colonial rule. Many local and possibly forgotten heroes were popularised for connecting with the masses. These include Alluri Sitarama Raju, Veera Pandya Kattabomman, and many more. Perhaps, Shivaji is biggest of all those.