Who Was Shivaji?


“A lot has been written about Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj… In spite of this, one cannot say for sure that the image of Shivaji and his times emerging from this and as embedded in popular imagination is consistent with the historical truth.”

These are the words of Govind Pansare, a senior leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and public intellectual from Kolhapur, Maharashtra, who was shot on February 16, 2015 and passed away four days later. This book is an English version of Pansare’s Shivaji Kon Hota? (1988), translated from Marathi by Uday Narkar (translator, professor, television producer and activist from Kolhapur), and published by the Pune-based group Lokayat, Pune, and Socialist Party (India).

The book attempts to clear several ‘misconceptions’ about the 17th century Maratha king’s legacy – that he was a protector of the Hindu religion, hated Muslims, and discriminated on the basis of caste. Pansare writes that contemporary perceptions of Shivaji obscure his ‘uniqueness’ as a king who reined in the feudal authority of the land-owning Kulkarnis, Patils, Deshmukhs and Jagirdars over the exploited peasants or ryots.

Shivaji abolished the old fiefs, got rid of oppressive tax systems enforced upon the peasants, implemented reforms to limit the rampant oppression and exploitation of women, and severely punished those who went against his established rules. He was a Hindu king, but “…his pride in his religion was not based on the hatred for other religions… Even in medieval times his faith in his religion was rational.”

This five-chapter book was originally published in 1988, and has since been translated into several languages, including Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada and Urdu.

Chapter 1: Shivaji – King with a Difference

Shivaji did not inherit ‘an already established throne’ but ‘founded a new state’, and was crowned as ‘Chhatrapati’ or emperor in 1674 in Raigad after decades of acquiring land and wealth through military conquests. In contrast, his contemporaries were mainly hereditary kings who did nothing to build an empire. Pansare writes, “You do not need to do anything to inherit a legacy. There is nothing admirable about it.”

And Shivaji was different from them in other crucial ways too – under his rule, the ryots, the common people, believed that he had undertaken their mission, their cause. The people believed that Shivaji’s state was their own land too.

In that era, kings usually did not interfere when feudatories exploited, looted and tortured ryots. But during Shivaji’s reign, a link between the peasants and the king was established. He enquired after them and used his power to help them.

Pansare also draws a comparison between Shivaji’s kingdom and the contemporary state. “Today's democratic state has emerged out of people and it is increasingly becoming alienated from them,” he writes. “This is not to say that feudalism in Shivaji's time was more progressive than our contemporary democracy… feudalism is useless for us, and also whatever democracy we have in the present form is of little use to common people.”

Chapter 2: The King with Affection for his Ryots

Shivaji came to govern Pune province (his father and grandfather were chieftains of the province), which was on the border of the Mughal empire and had been invaded by various rulers. He revitalised agriculture in the province – awarded lands to those who resettled there, encouraged ryots to till by supplying seeds and implements, kept the rent and taxes for cultivated land low, abolished the practice of collecting taxes “as per the collector’s whims and fancies,” and exempted peasants from paying rent during droughts.

Shivaji’s attitude towards women was also noteworthy, Pansare states. He did not overlook the crimes those with power committed against poor women. “Shivaji warned his generals and soldiers that no women, whether Hindu or Muslim, should be harmed in battles,” he writes.

Further, he changed the language of administration from Persian to Marathi so that the common people could understand it.

Chapter 3: Religious – but not a Bigot

Shivaji was Hindu by birth and practice. However, he was a tolerant leader and it was a rule in his kingdom that his soldiers were to not harm mosques, holy books or women. Many Muslims worked in his army and administration, and several held high posts with substantive responsibilities. “If he found a volume of Quran he would show respect to it and hand it over to his Muslim servant,” notes Pansare.

Shivaji did fight with the Mughals, but he also waged war against Maratha rulers. “Not loyalty to religion, but loyalty to the state, to a master was more important,” Pansare writes.

Chapter 4: Shivaji - Brahmins - 96 Great Families - Kulwadis - Shudras

Brahmins from Maharashtra had opposed Shivaji's anointment as king. According to the system of Chaturvarnya, only Brahmins and Kshatriyas had the right to become kings. Pansare writes that no Brahmin from Maharashtra agreed to perform the rituals for Shivaji’s anointment. All Brahmins were not opposed to him; rather, the Hindu religion, as practiced then, did not allow a Shudra to be king.  Shivaji was a Bhonsle and the Brahmins considered him as belonging to a ‘Shudra or low caste’.

Even the ‘96 Great Families’ – Maratha noblemen who regarded themselves as Kshatriyas – were not initially ready to accept him as king.

Although it is difficult to ascertain his lineage and caste, most of those who supported Shivaji’s work were poor peasants from lower castes. Jotirao Phule (eminent social reformer from Maharashtra, born in 1827) had referred to Shivaji as ‘Kulwadi Bhushan’ – ‘jewel in the crown of peasants’ – in one of his ballads.

Chapter 5: Distortion of History – Why?

Pansare discusses the consequences of turning Shivaji – who he considers a great, intelligent, brave and pragmatic ruler – into a ‘god’. He observes that those who hail Shivaji in contemporary times don’t do so for the principles that he stood for and for his work, and writes: “Those who use people’s ignorance and their faith as their capital for various gains are not prepared to let people know the truth.”


Govind Pansare; translated from Marathi by Uday Narkar


Lokayat, Pune; Socialist Party (India)