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Exposing a Maharashtra legend
Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India
by James W Laine

Reviewed by Piyush Mathur

As a matter of grave regret and plain annoyance, I must prelude my review of James W Laine's scintillating book in Indian regional history with a mention of the ugly physical violence that followed the book's release in India in December 2003 and January 2004. What would have ordinarily been but one critical landmark in academic historiography, Laine's book - really only its title, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India - received significant media attention in India as well-orchestrated mobs in Pune, Maharashtra, blackened the face of a Sanskrit scholar who helped Laine in his research and they ransacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Laine's self-confessed "scholarly home" in India (p vii).

While Shiv Sena, the well-known Hindu right organization, led the attack on the Sanskrit scholar, the assault on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute was the handiwork of an erstwhile obscure group called the Sambhaji Brigade. The latter attack resulted in the destruction of many original and rare manuscripts, artifacts, objects and invaluable out-of-print books. On the whole, the attacks prompted a national outcry from the elite section of the Indian intelligentsia; by contrast, the government of Maharashtra, ruled by an alliance of the Congress Party and the Nationalist Congress Party, launched criminal proceedings against Laine and his publishers on January 9, 2004.

The government's charge against Laine and the Oxford University Press was quite in line with independent India's general intolerance of non-conformist scholarship; it was also in line with India's long-standing suspicion of irreverent foreign interpreters of Indian history and culture. Accusing Laine, an American citizen, of hurting public sentiments and instigating riots, the government banned the book on January 13, 2004 - even though, anticipating disturbance on the basis of prior feedback, the Oxford University Press had already withdrawn it from the Indian market on November 21, 2003.

Whatever caused the provocation? The default response to the question of why some people may have reacted violently to a publication is to find the cause in the publication. That line of response needs to be rejected simply because it lays the blame erroneously on the publication rather than on the violent, whose relationship to critical thinking, reading and scholarship is often tenuous, if at all present.

In the case of this so-called Laine controversy, the problem goes way beyond the literacy levels of the attackers - and right up to a myopic state that has routinely created purist superhuman icons out of historical figures for the sake of particular populist ends. In the process, the state, in deference to the radical end of the citizenry, has produced a socio-political culture accommodative of violent public displays of disregard for scholarly plain-speak about those icons.

The icon under consideration is Shivaji, a man who ruled parts of the present Indian states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Gujarat through the 17th century. In contemporary India, Shivaji is regarded as a major regional hero who rebelled against the Mughals - and has thus become a key cultural idol in the chauvinistic repertoire of contemporary Hindu nationalism (typically advertised as Indian nationalism). Within Maharashtra, Shivaji is easily the most powerful mortal ever born - is a demigod - for reasons of caste, religion, region and culture. On the whole, Shivaji is a heroic legend within modern India's identity politics - and it is this realization that serves as the point of departure for Laine's history.

Identity politics
Thorough in research and crisp in writing, Laine's history is above all smart - and it thus beautifully transcends the typical academic history book as well as biography. And so - by way of this detour - it stands to reason why the book would appear at all on the public radarscope. Insofar Laine raises fundamental questions about a range of identities - religious, linguistic, economic, caste, moral, regional, national and political - relevant to contemporary Maharashtra, India and Hindus, his account has aspired and managed to be unsettling overall.

Laine wonders: "How have Maharashtrian Hindus constructed a narrative of Shivaji's life that is consistent with the narrative they construct of their own identities as Hindus, as Maharashtrians, and as Indians?" (p 8) The book is a detailed genealogical exploration of - and response to - the above query: it traces the constructions of various regional and other identities around the figure and the legend of Shivaji through history. An important component of this exploration is a consistent counter-focus on how Shivaji and associated historical personalities themselves related to and used the complex of identities that was historically available to them.

Clearly, Laine's prime commitment is not to an objective end-point as regards Shivaji's identity; quite to the contrary, he is committed to a searching skepticism of any fixed or objective identity-claims - and to their thorough historical and contextual illumination. This de-mystification and de-naturalization of the legend of Shivaji centrally involves an expose of the dominant cultural, ideological and political values and objectives that have underpinned its growth over the centuries and to the present.

"The question of the inclusion of Shivaji in a narrative of Maharashtrian, Hindu and Indian identity first involves the interrogation of these categories, which are too often assumed to be primordial, objective, and thus obvious," Laine declares. He goes on to ask: "But if Shivaji [were] a Maharashtrian, a Hindu, and an Indian, in what sense did he accept membership in these clubs? In what sense is it anachronistic to ascribe to him such memberships, and in what sense not? How have the processes that came to produce modern Maharashtrian, Hindu, and Indian identities come to color the accepted biographies of Shivaji?" (p 9)

Laine deems exploring the above curiosities "to be the burden of this entire book" (p 9). The discourse on Shivaji, he avers, "begins with early accounts of Shivaji's life in the late 17th century, takes interesting turns a century later, when the warrior's story is closely linked to that of the region's saints, and finally comes to the late 19th and 20th centuries, when the Hindu king is portrayed as a liberationist, an egalitarian social reformer, as well as a nationalist." (p 8)

As part of his critical exposition of that discourse, Laine promises to provide: "an examination of the narrative of the Shivaji legend, how this story has become unified and coherent" (p 5); a report on "the 17th century texts that give us clues to the legend's genesis as the story of a martial or epic hero" (p 5); a probe into how the legend of Shivaji is "embellished by 18th-century tales of [his] relationship with the well-known saints of his time" (p 5); an account of "the wedding of Shivaji's legend to the history of nationalism, first in opposing British colonialism and then as a story of regional and Indian identity" (ps 5-6); and "an examination of the 'cracks' in the narrative, places where one might challenge the ideology that the narrative assumes". (p 6) In the book, Laine makes good on each one of his promises and he rounds off his delivery with a much-needed epilogue on the construction of Hindu and Muslim identities in Maharashtra. Most readers are likely to find the chapter called "Cracks in the Narrative" the most interesting.

Critical highlights
There is practically nothing in the book that could be considered superfluous - a compliment to Laine's superior writing skills; for the facility of the reader, however, I wish to point out the book's highlights.

In relation to the martial dimension of the Shivaji legend, Laine provides a pertinent historical and cultural scrutiny of Shivaji's killing of Afzal Khan (1659), the raid on Shaista Khan (1663), the escape from Agra (1666), and the conquest of Simhagad (1670). Also included are critical analyses of Shivaji's coronation (1674), the Karnataka campaign, family relations (especially with parents and sons), and death - and reflections on the accounts authored by Paramananda and Kavi Bhushan, the two poets appointed by Shivaji to write laudatory epics about him.

Laine's exposition of the spiritualization of the Shivaji legend through 1780-1810 includes a critique of Mahipati's account and highly calibrated reflections on Gaga Bhatt, Ramdas, Udebhan and Goddess Bhavani.

As far as the nationalistic politicization of Shivaji is concerned, Laine delves into the historical accounts of Shivaji written through 1869-2001 (ending with brief insightful comments on accounts that have lately popped up on the Internet). Prominent historians and/or intellectuals that receive Laine's scholarly attention here are as follows: Jotirao Phule, Rosalind O'Hanlon, Grand Duff, K A Keluskar, Lokmanya Tilak, Justice M G Ranade, Sir Jadunath Sarkar, G S Sardesai, and Babasaheb Purandare.

Laine successfully brings to light the peculiar contingencies of the above and other authors - as well as the peculiarities of their effects on the grand narrative of Shivaji. On the whole, he relentlessly exposes the deficiencies and interest of historiographies of all hues devoted to Shivaji - beginning from the oldest extant hagiographies to the British interventions and all the way to Hindu nationalistic, purportedly secularist, and politically corrected accounts of our day and age.

What we get in return is a nuanced contextualist account of Shivaji and a careful portrayal of the complex social identities around his time as well as the times to which those trends in historiography and literary creation belong. In the process, Laine addresses a number of logical errors and misconceptions that have pervaded Maharashtra's and India's popular imagination and scholarship related to Shivaji and social, especially religious, identities generally.

Misconceptions addressed
Laine debunks the liberal secularist idea that there was complete harmony and amicability between Hindus and Muslims during the 17th century and/or thereafter - such that the specificity of their separate identities did not matter. Contrarily, Laine points out "that although being a Hindu or Muslim in the 17th or 18th century did not mean membership in the religion of Hinduism or Islam in quite the same sense it means today, it did mean something. The precise meaning of Hindu and Muslim identity varied from person to person and depended on that person's social location, specific experience, and personal, political, and economic interests." (pp 103-104)

Laine further points out: "By and large, Muslims were different in their beliefs and practices but not inexpressibly alien. Moreover, Muslims [of the 17th century Maharashtra] were not a uniform group ... they were Afghans and Ethiopians, Persian-speaking nobles, and lowborn Marathi speakers, Shi'ites and Sunnis. They were soldiers in the mutually hostile armies of the Adil Shah, the Nizam Shah, and the Mughal emperor, of the Abyssinian Siddis and of Shivaji himself." (pp 42-43).

As such, Laine also rejects any clear hostility between Muslims and Hindus, deeming it "a gross misrepresentation" to suggest that Shivaji led "a band of united Hindu liberationists against a united Islamic oppressor" (p 43). Contrarily: "There were many local powers, and local leaders carefully calculated their own interests, casting their lot with whatever empire offered them the most wealth and security and upward mobility ... Shivaji himself began as a nominal servant of the Adil Shah, and later agreed to an alliance with Jai Singh and to fight as a Mughal general. Even Shivaji's son calculated his best interests, and served briefly in alliance with Dilir Khan, a prominent Mughal general. This tendency continued into the 18th century, when the system of alliance became, if anything, even more complex. But in the 17th century, it is clear that religious identity was not a major factor in determining how Maratha nobles forged military and political alliances." (p 43)

Nevertheless, Laine argues that at the conscious level of individual choice, Shivaji was an assertive Hindu within a cosmopolitan Islamicate India of the 17th century: "Given the world into which he was born, it is not surprising that Shivaji would participate in many aspects of Islamicate culture, donning Persian dress, offering salaam, patronizing the shrines of Sufi pirs, even fighting in one of Aurangzeb's armies. In this he followed ways of life similar to those of his grandfather, father, sons and grandsons. And yet we suspect that his agenda was something different, and that he did stand apart. There were constraints on how independent he could be, but it does seem that when he could, he attempted to rule as an independent Hindu monarch, to be a patron of his religious traditions, and to challenge the hegemony of the Islamicate world around him." (pp 43-44)

Laine's pertinent conclusion is that the fluidity of the religious categories - Hindu/Hinduism and Muslim/Islam - "did not diminish their usefulness, nor make the enterprise of constructing religious identity any less real." (p 103) "What makes the understanding of this separation a matter of subtlety," he observes - citing prominent examples - "is the fact that on the one hand, elite Hindus were able to participate in the Islamicate world of 17th-century Deccan politics, while on the other hand, elite Muslims often accommodated themselves to Hindu social structures ... The boundaries were not so blurred, however, that either Hindus or Muslims would see the issue of conversion to Islam as inconsequential, and symbolic markers of difference and boundary maintenance were often clearly different social locations, with different interests, found it to their advantage to define their religious allegiances in different ways." (pp 36-37)

In addition to religion, Laine addresses the categories of Maharashtra, Marathi and India - highlighting their fluidity and anachronistic application in modern times; he also sets straight the record of associated misconceptions related to sects, caste and other contextual affiliations. He reminds us, for instance, that the state of Maharashtra, which has claimed Shivaji as its prime symbol, "has had clear boundaries only since 1960". (p 9)

As far as the state's identity as a linguistic unit of Marathi speakers is concerned "linguistic diversity persisted [in the region] until the 20th century, and the frontiers between languages were often very hazy". (p 10) Moreover, "the earliest ballad composed to celebrate the deeds of Shivaji is ... written in a Marathi so Persianized that virtually no modern Maharashtrian can read it with ease". (p 10) Laine also notes "by the 17th century, Marathi speakers did have something of a cultural tradition to which they collectively belonged, but the degree to which that was a primary marker of identity is difficult to assess" (p 10). The Marathi language became standardized only in the 20th century owing to "published dictionaries and the technologies of mass communication". (p 10)

As for the supposed link of Marathi to Shivaji, Laine brings to our attention the historical incubation of the language within the saint tradition of Pandharpur - to which Shivaji owed no apparent allegiance. Moreover: "Not only is the deity at Pandharpur, a town that might claim to be the religious center of Maharashtra, hailed by a Kannada name, Vithoba, but the city itself was ... probably an area where Kannada was spoken in the medieval period; Marathi gradually came to predominate in the 13th century." (p 10)

Laine further points out that Shivaji did not consider himself a Maharashtrian: Much of modern Maharashtra "remained out of his control" - and he "used the mountain forts of the Sahayadris as his base of operations" with Raigad as his capital (p 12). The epic composed in his honor past his orthodox coronation also "praises him as a Hindu king, but makes no mention of Maharashtra or Marathas as such". (p 12)

Laine's overall observation is that "[f]or 17th century or 18th century people living in the heartland of what is today Maharashtra, 'Maharshtrian' and 'Hindu' may have been meaningful markers of their identities. But using the word Hindavi to mean Indian, which connotes for us a citizen of a modern nation state, is far more problematic, and to claim Shivaji as an Indian will also lead us astray." (p 18)

The fireworks
Laine's finest, glittering contributions in the book comprise his fearless expose of the moralistic, ideological, political and even psychological concerns underpinning the standard accounts of Shivaji (especially those found in government schools textbooks) and his raising and answering of patently uncomfortable questions about the life of Shivaji. Spectacular also are the attempts at de-naturalizing Hindu values and ideals in response to contextual interpretive demands - and exposing the hypocrisies that come in the name of Hindu tolerance.

For instance - and as if benefiting from the vantage point of an original cultural outsider to India and Hinduism - Laine observes that "there is no more clearly 'Hindu' position than to exalt Akbar's policies and to patronize Muslim religious practices and persons within the context of Hindu culture". (p 39) He goes on to state: "It is perhaps not surprising that Muslims [in India] are usually not judged according to their own community's standards but are included within a Hindu cosmos, a world of Hindu values." (p 41)

Arguing that the Indian textbook portrayal of Shivaji is very selectively tailored to appeal to (the perceived preferences of) Europeans, the Indian bourgeoisie, and "modernistic" Hindus - what with the stress on Shivaji's modern navy, efficient administration, family values, obedience as a son and penchant for religious tolerance - Laine wonders: "Can one imagine a narrative of Shivaji's life in which, for example: Shivaji had an unhappy family life? Shivaji had a harem? Shivaji's personal ambition was to build a kingdom, not liberate a nation? Shivaji lived in a cosmopolitan Islamicate world and did little to change that fact?" (p 91)

Laine's research-based affirmative responses to the above queries are liable to discomfort many a Maharashtrian and Indian - thanks to the hijack of the education by a politically and religiously motivated state and the overall culture of intellectual intolerance. The problem is compounded in the case of Shivaji because of the issue of caste - Shivaji had to make serious efforts to lay claim to a so-called higher Rajput caste (while having been born a "lower caste").

Well, in addition to having an absentee father, Shivaji had a "testy relationship with his oldest son Sambhaji, who deserted his father's cause for a time and allied with the Mughals, and is primarily remembered for his affronts to the chaste virtue of Brahmin women, his drug use, and his association with Tantric priests of questionable integrity". (p 93) Shivaji most likely also had a harem - the "names of at least eight [of his] wives and concubines" occur in the historical accounts (p 93).

If that does not offend you enough, then you just might have appreciated the amount of research and intellectual investment that has gone into discovering just that and declaring it - and you may well continue to enjoy the fireworks even as Laine's legal troubles unfold in India.

Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India by James W Laine. Oxford University Press: New York, 2003. (Hard Cover). ISBN 0195141261. Price, US$35, 192 pages.

Piyush Mathur, PhD, an alumnus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Virginia Tech, US, is an independent observer of world affairs, the environment, science and technology policy, and literature.

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Oct 9, 2004
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