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Early Modern India

The Marathas: Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj - An Analysis

by Ambareesh Phadanvis, 4 April 2010


The character of Shivaji is one of the most enigmatic characters in the history of India. There are people who deify him and put him on the pedestal of a god. A few of them are on the way towards declaring him an incarnation of Lord Shiva. Many myths are now associated with him.

Many others take the view that he was a mere local Maratha chieftain who was rebelling against the Mughal empire and completely overlook the role he played in the Hindu revival in India.

Many others, who cannot comprehend the pragmatic approach of Shivaji, which was most practical given his humble beginnings, brand him as a mere plunderer and looter and equate him with ordinary dacoits. Between these two poles of emotions, Shivaji, the man, is on the verge of extinction. This is an attempt to resurrect him.

In the process of understanding Shivaji, a few events need to be understood. In the long list of those events, the first is about his grandfather, Maloji Bhonsale, and his great-grandfather Babaji Bhonsale. Documents suggest that Maloji was a Jagirdar of Pande-Pedgaon. He inherited a substantial part of his jahagir. Shahaji was born in 1602, and Maloji died in 1607 at the Battle of Indapur. Shahaji was five years old when this tragedy struck. At the time, Maloji was a Bargir serving Lakhuji Jadhav of Sindkhed Raja, a place in central Maharashtra.

Jijabai gave birth to six children. The first four did not survive. The fifth and sixth were Sambhaji and Shivaji respectively. Shivaji's own marital life was not very different from his father's. He never gave any importance to any of his queens and rarely entertained their interference in politics. He performed all the duties as a husband and kept his wives in as much comfort as possible, but not in any position of importance.

To study Shivaji, we need to view him as part of a chain of three men constituting his father Shahaji, he himself, and his son, Sambhaji. Without understanding the other two, one cannot hope to comprehend Shivaji.

Sambhaji, his son

Did Sambhaji consume alcohol? Was he charged for the rape of a woman? Was he involved in orgies with women? Can his behaviour with Soyarabai, Moropanta, and Annaji Datto, be justified? All these questions are difficult to answer and are muddled in dubious and mutually contradictory claims. Anyway, personal qualities are not of any use when determining the greatness of an individual in politics.

Shivaji arrived at the conclusion that the Maratha state would have to fight a decisive war with Mughals, somewhere in 1660-1664. He knew that the Shaista Khan campaign was just a beginning. The Mughals had been deploying their armies along the frontiers of the Maratha kingdom in Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Madhya-Pradesh since 1679. The news that Aurangzeb himself was coming to invade the Deccan reached Maharashtra in January 1680, just two or three months before the death of Shivaji. By that time, the Mughals had already deployed 150,000 to 200,000 men. The clashes began in the very week that Shivaji died. Moropant Pingle (the Peshwa), Hambirrao Mohite (the chief of armed forces), and Annaji Datto (head of the finance department) were preparing to face this impending invasion. Since 1678, Shivaji had been continuously purchasing weapons and firearms, and was upgrading his armies, his forts and his navy in anticipation of this final showdown.

This much-anticipated invasion started in 1681 with 250,000 men, a new king, and the opponent, Aurangzeb himself, with all the might of the Mughal empire behind him. In spite of this, continuous warfare from 1681 to 1685 resulted in the retreat of the Mughals from Maratha territory and a redeployment of troops against Adilshah and Kutubshah. All the capabilities of Sambhaji in his territorial administration, his strategic understanding, his ability to boost the morale of troops, and his ability to make the right moves were at stake and were thoroughly tested and sharpened. Shivaji never had to face such an enemy in his entire lifetime like Sambhaji. This feat demands immense patience and will power. Therefore, given the fight which Sambhaji put up, should we give weight to adjectives such as frivolous, incapable, impatient, and all the other jargon used by Marathi chroniclers, or should we instead give weight to the adjectives used by the Dutch and English, who describe him as a patient and stubborn warrior? The decision is an individual choice.

The personal character of Sambhaji was not that bad either, as compared to that portrayed by some Bakhars. Many a Maratha sardar was mildly addicted to alcohol, hemp, opium, etc. Rajaram, the second son of Shivaji, was highly addicted to opium.

Aurangzeb himself was addicted to alcohol until his death. However, that never interfered with politics. Aurangzeb captured and brutally murdered Sambhaji in 1689. By that time, the result of warfare was as follows: Sambhaji had conquered three quarters of the Portuguese colonial possessions in Goa and assimilated them into the Maratha state. The area of territory in Karnataka which was under Maratha rule doubled. The Maratha army itself doubled in number and became better equipped. Five or six forts in Maharashtra were lost, but three or four new ones were gained; and Aurangabad, Burhanpur, and Goa were plundered. Dhanaji Jadhav illusively kept the Mughal army, 75,000 strong, away from Maharashtra, confining it to Gujarat. Therefore, we can see Shivaji's understanding of politics inherited in Sambhaji.

Shahaji, his father

Shahaji was a sardar in the Nizamshah's court at Ahmednagar. Nizamshah willingly sacrificed Lakhuji Jadhav for Shahaji. Yet, Shahaji went to the Adilshah in 1624. Despite valiantly fighting for Adilshah for two years, he returned to Nizamshah in 1626. He again changed loyalties and became a Mughal sardar in 1630. Yet again, after valiantly fighting for the Mughals, he returned to Nizamshah in 1632. Throughout all these transitions, he maintained his Jagir in Pune at his discretion. He maintained an army which was loyal to him and him alone, irrespective of the power he was serving. He initiated the policy of uniting the Deccan against the North Indian Mughals. Many notable people like Khavaskhan, Kutubshah, Madanna and Akanna of Golconda, and Murar Jagdev supported this united Deccan policy which Shahaji initiated. Shivaji had repeatedly pronounced this policy. Sambhaji considered himself to be a patron of Adilshah and Kutubshah.

Shahaji appointed Dadoji Kondadev as his chief administrator of the Pune Jagir. He himself was administrating his Jagir in Bangalore, Karnataka. It was part of his vision that he distributed his property between two sons in 1636. The Karnataka Jagir was for the elder son, Sambhaji, and the Pune Jagir for his younger son, Shivaji. He made the Adilshah appoint Dadoji Kondadev as subhedar of Pune and gave him control of some army units (about 5,000 strong), fifteen to twenty forts, and an entire administrative personnel in the form of a Peshwa, an accountant and others. Shivaji took his oath on Rohireshwar to establish a Hindavi Swarajya in the presence of Dadoji. The first letter bearing the official seal of Shivaji is dated 28 January 1646. It is difficult to comprehend that the young Shivaji, who was a teenager of fifteen years, had this great blueprint for establishing a Hindu Swaraj along with seals and official letterheads in his mind. One has to accept the vision and power of Shahaji which was guiding him, correcting him and shaping him.

Shahaji was carving a kingdom of his own in Karnataka. He was doing exactly the same thing through Shivaji in Maharashtra as well. At both places, the administrators, Shahaji in Bangalore and Shivaji in Pune, were calling themselves raja, were holding courts, and issuing letters bearing official seals in Sanskrit. The Adilshah was weary of this and in 1648 two independent projects were undertaken by him in order to eliminate these two growing kingdoms in his territory.

Shivaji defeated Adilshah's general, Fateh Khan, in Pune, Maharashtra. At the same time, his elder brother Sambhaji defeated Adilshah's other general Farhad Khan in Bangalore. The modus operandi of Maratha troops on both the frontiers is similar, again reinstating the guiding vision of Shahaji. The subsequent treaty which was signed between two Bhonsale brothers and Adilshah to rescue Shahaji, who was held captive by Adilshah, marks the first Mughal-Maratha contact. In 1648-1649, Adilshah captured Shahaji in order to blackmail his two sons into ceding the territory conquered by them and accept Adilshah's supremacy. Shivaji wrote a series of letters to Dara Shikoh (subhedar of the Deccan), pledging to be subservient to the Mughals. The Mughals recognised Shivaji as a Mughal sardar and pressurised Adilshah to release Shahaji. In return, Shivaji ceded Simhagad, while Sambhaji ceded Bangalore city and Fort Kandarpi in Karnataka.

We can see the coherency in the actions of Shivaji and Sambhaji. The men assisting both the brothers were loyal to Shahaji and were trained under him. Even though Shivaji was the administrative head of the Pune Jagir, many people appealed to Shahaji against Shivaji's decisions up to 1655. Up to this point, Shahaji's word was considered final in all important matters. Until this point, Shivaji was not at all free to make his own decisions. There was a higher power which was controlling his activities. Gradually, after 1655, this interference steadily diminished, and Shivaji started emerging as a more and more independent person.

Therefore, if we see these three men as part of a single link, Shahaji, Shivaji and his son Sambhaji, all the actions of Shivaji start making sense. In this way, we are better able to grasp the greatness of the man, Shivaji.

Shivaji had himself crowned as a Kshatriya (warrior) king in 1674. Shahaji initiated this policy. The Ghorpade clan of Marathas considered themselves to be descendents of the Sisodiya Rajputs. Shahaji attested his claim on the share in Ghorpade's property from Adilshah long before 1640. In reality, there is no connection whatsoever between the Sisodiya Rajputs and the Bhonsale clan. Nevertheless, Maloji started calling himself Srimant Maloji Raje after becoming a bargir. Shahaji legalised this claim of being a Rajput from Adilshah. This was of great help to Shivaji at the time of his coronation in 1674. It is interesting to see that even after crowning himself as a Hindu emperor, Shivaji continued writing letters to Aurangzeb, referring him as emperor of India, and stating that he was a mere servant of the Great Aurangzeb. We can see the basic pragmatic mindset of Shivaji which was fuelled by the great dream of establishing a Hindu self-ruling state.

Jaavli - a turning point

Jaavli's conquest is of prime importance in order to be able to grasp Shivaji's vision. This region was so difficult to conquer that Malik Kafur, who defeated the Seuna Yadav dynasty of Devgiri in the thirteenth century, lost 3,000 men in the attempt. Mahmud Gavan too was defeated while attempting to conquer this region. It was one of the most isolated regions in all of India, and it remained aloof from Muslim dominance throughout history.

Shivaji maintained an amicable relationship with Chandrarao More of Jaavli. 'Chandra Rao' was a title given to the ruler of Jaavli. The real name was Daulat Rao More. After death of Daulat Rao, Shivaji made Yashwantrao the ruler of Jaavli. These events are from 1647, when Shivaji was seventeen. Here again we see the vision of his father at work. Later, in 1649, Afzal Khan was appointed subhedar of the Vai region, in order to mitigate the growing influence of Shivaji in Jaavli. Mohammad Adilshah was ill; Afzal Khan was busy in the Karnataka expedition. Taking advantage of this situation, Shivaji attacked Jaavli in 1656 and conquered it in one stroke. Yashwantrao fled to Raigad, which Shivaji subsequently captured after three months. Yashwantrao was captured and sentenced to death for his activities against the Maratha state and Shivaji proclaimed the assimilation of Jaavli into his kingdom. Strategically, this valley is of immense importance as it oversees the routes into Konkan and Goa.

Afzal Khan

This is one of the most dramatic moments in Shivaji's life, one which gave him pan-Indian fame. Shivaji began his work in 1645. He defeated Adilshah in 1648 and after the treaty, Afzal Khan was appointed subhedar of Vai in 1649. Shivaji conquered Jaavli in 1656 nevertheless. Given this background, Afzal was marching to destroy Shivaji. There is an added perspective to this relation as well.

Shivaji's elder brother, Sambhaji, was killed in battle due to the treachery of Afzal Khan in the early 1650s. Shivaji had pledged to kill Afzal Khan in vengeance. Therefore, there was a personal touch to this struggle as well.

Afzal Khan was aware of Shivaji's valour and courage; his record of deceit, his pledge to kill him for settling the score. Afzal himself was valiant and master of all deceitful tactics. He had a record of being ever alert. Yet, it is an enigmatic choice to make on his part to leave his army behind and meet Shivaji alone. Certain Persian documents suggest an explanation, stating that it was Jijabai, Shivaji's mother, who guaranteed the safety of Afzal Khan. It was a notion which involved his mother heavily influencing Shivaji.

No one knows exactly what happened in that meeting. Shivaji had planned this strike for almost four or five months. Afzal was just an opening move in his campaign. It was Shivaji's plan to kill Afzal and establish terror in the mind of Adilshah. Many Marathi records state that it was Afzal who struck first. However, this is not definitive, looking at the depth of planning by Shivaji which preceded it. It was in his plans to finish off Afzal Khan. Therefore, who struck first is a matter of speculation, given Afzal's infamous and felonious record of deceit. Shivaji had planned his entire expedition taking death of Afzal for granted.

Afzal wanted to avoid Jaavli, but Shivaji's moves forced him to enter the difficult terrain. In May-June 1659, Adilshah issued orders to all the local zamindars to help Afzal. However, most of the deshmukhs in the region backed Shivaji. The main collaborator of this alliance was Kanhoji Jedhe, a special man of Shahaji's. Therefore, here again we see the influence of Shahaji working in favour of Shivaji. That the local Zamindars preferred to fight for Shivaji and refused to cooperate with Adilshah is itself testimony to this fact. Shivaji's stature had not grown so much yet that he was able to influence the decision of the masses. The basic outline of Shivaji's strategy was:

  • To Kill Afzal Khan at Pratapgarh in the meeting OR in the battle which would follow.

  • Achieve the destruction of his army stationed at the base of Pratapgarh by means of the armies of Silibkar and Bandal.

  • The destruction of Afzal's troops on the Jaavli-Vai road by Netaji Palkar.

  • The destruction of Afzal's armies in the Ghats by Moropanta Pingle.

  • Subsequent hot pursuit of the fleeing Adilshahi forces.

  • To capture Panhalgadh and Kolhapur and Konkan, and invade the territory in Karnataka up to Bijapur as soon as possible.

This entire strategy was planned for three-four months. This was a huge campaign. Shivaji was not a fool to waste all this planning. As discussed, Shivaji had planned the killing of Afzal. Who struck first in that meeting is speculative. Nevertheless, looking at this holistic planning, I think it did not matter to Shivaji whether Afzal struck first or not. Afzal was infamous for many such deceitful killings in his life. Therefore, given his past record, it is not saying too much to assume that Afzal struck first. However, nothing definitive is known about it. The weapon used by Shivaji, according to Marathi resources, was the tiger claw and a curved dagger, the bichwa. It is possible that even a sword was used.

Dutch reports state that while Shivaji was advancing towards Bijapur after Afzal's defeat, his father Shahaji also was simultaneously approaching Bijapur with a huge army. Therefore, we can see the plan on a grand scale. However, somewhere, something went wrong. Shivaji's forces came as close as twenty-five kilometres to Bijapur and waited for three days. Shahaji's forces from Karnataka reached there five days late and returned from a distance of thirty-two kilometres. [It is said that] certain Persian documents support this Dutch claim. So it seems that one of the most delicately planned campaigns was not completed to its fullest. This is last reference of Shahaji in Shivaji's political life. Hereafter, Shivaji grew without the support of or in the shadow of his father. Adilshah sent Rustum-e-jaman to destroy Shivaji. However, for the first time, Shivaji entered into a classical head-on cavalry charge, and completely out manoeuvred and defeated the Adilshahi forces which were 10,000 strong. Shivaji had 5,000 horses at his command.

The escape from Panhala

Shivaji is one of the most enigmatic persons and kings in Hindu history. His friends could not understand him. His enemies also could not understand him. The only person in those times who could understand Shivaji was Aurangzeb. It was the vision of Aurangzeb when he predicted the danger which Shivaji could present as early as 1646, when he was governor of the Deccan in his first term.

During his second term as governor of the Deccan, Shivaji plundered Mughal territory of Junnar and Bhivandi in the early 1650s. These forays of Shivaji coincided with Shahjahan's ill-health. So Aurangzeb had to return to the north to participate in the battle of succession with his brother, Dara. Nevertheless, he warned Adilshah and Kutubshah about the looming danger which Shivaji posed. Shivaji again entered into a treaty with the Mughals in June 1659, in order to take care of the impending invasion by Afzal. At the same time, Shaista Khan, maternal uncle of Aurangzeb, was appointed governor of the Deccan. By that time, in late 1659, Siddhi Jauhar, the commander of Adilshah's last attempt to control Shivaji, had cornered Shivaji in Panhalgadh. Taking advantage of this, Shaista Khan invaded the Maratha state, occupied Pune, and besieged the ground fort of Chakan.

However, Shivaji escaped from Panhalgadh to Vishalgadh in July 1660, due to the valiant efforts of his 600 men, most of whom died in order to keep Shivaji safe. The hero of the battle was Bajiprabhu Deshpande, who is immortalised for his sacrifice in the pass of Pavan Khind. Figuratively, the Battle of Pavan Khind can be compared with the Battle of Thermopylae which was fought in 480 BC. Three hundred Spartans and 900 assorted Greeks under the command of the Spartan king, Leonidas, defended the pass for three days against a large Persian army under Xerxes.

Coincidently, Bajiprabhu also had 300 men to defend the pass against 10,000 of the Adilshahi forces. The Battle of Pavan Khind is an excellent example of the superior use of terrain to benefit a small but disciplined army. They held on until the signal that Shivaji was safe had arrived. All of them were slain thereafter.

Shaista Khan

This is yet another example of Shivaji's cunningness. Shivaji had defeated a few of Shaista Khan's generals, namely, Kartalab Khan and Namdar Khan. However, the pinnacle was the surprise attack on Shaista Khan in the Mughal stronghold, in his bedroom! Shivaji chose the month of Ramadan to attack Shaista Khan. Shaista Khan was staying at Lal Mahal, which was childhood home of Shivaji. Therefore, he knew everything there was to know about the place. Less than a hundred men, led by Shivaji, attacked this palace, which was surrounded by a Mughal army as strong as 150,000 men in pitch darkness on the seventh night of Ramadan.

It was a total frenzy. In the darkness, Shivaji and his men were killing anybody who came in their way. About fifty Mughal soldiers, six elite women, six common women, many eunuchs, Shaista Khan's son, his son-in-law, some of his wives, and daughters-in-laws were killed in this attack. Shaista Khan was attacked in his bedroom and lost three of his fingers. He escaped, however.

Shaista Khan was attacked again in April 1663. He stayed in Pune for six months and tried to whitewash his failure but to no avail. In December, Aurangzeb transferred Shaista Khan to Dhaka as governor of Bengal.

Shaistekhan and Surat

It is possible to astound the world around you by doing something extraordinary. All magicians do this. However, that was not the business of Shivaji. In the period in which the world was astounded by Shivaji, he retained his poise and did something extraordinary which was used to gave him lasting success. After the defeat of Afzal Khan, he went on to conquer the Konkan, South Maharashtra and forayed northwards as far as Bijapur. After attacking Shaista Khan, he retook the lost Konkan.

It was his political understanding which he used to attain lasting success by a swift campaign followed by a stunner. Shaista Khan tried to contain Shivaji for six months, but to no avail. Aurangzeb had no issue with surprises, but what next? This was his realistic question. Shaista Khan left for Bengal in December 1663, and in January 1664, Shivaji plundered Surat. If the Afzal episode gave Shivaji a pan-Indian popularity, this task of looting Surat made him an international celebrity who was discussed in all the Muslim world and a substantial part of the Christian world too. With this act he formally declared war on Aurangzeb.

Mirza Raja Jaisingh

Most of the contemporary chroniclers have taken for granted the soft corner for Shivaji in Mirza Jaisingh's heart. There are about 26 letters available which suggest that Jaisingh was one of the most trusted generals of Aurangzeb. After defeating Shivaji, it was Jaisingh's suggestion that Shivaji be called to Delhi. Aurangzeb accepted it. It was Jaisingh's suggestion that Shivaji be kept under house arrest. Aurangzeb accepted it. It was Jaisingh's suggestion again that he must not be harmed, for any injury to his health may end up with a rebellion by the recently subdued Marathas. It was Jaisingh's reasoning that Shivaji be kept captive in Delhi in order to blackmail the Marathas, but must not be harmed. Aurangzeb accepted this suggestion too. Later, he has publicly admitted the folly of accepting this particular suggestion of Jaisingh's.

Aurangzeb was in favour of killing off Shivaji. Jaisingh shows a complex mixture of emotions when it comes to Shivaji and Sambhaji. He was seeing a Hindu state coming into existence in spite of all the odds. Nevertheless, he was a faithful servant of Aurangzeb. It was not very sensitive of Jaisingh to keep the nine-year-old Sambhaji as a captive in his camp until all the terms of the Maratha-Mughal treaty were implemented. As a politician, Jaisingh was brutal and ruthless. However, he had an emotional side as well.

It is documented that both Shivaji and Mirza Jaisingh had deployed mercenary assassins to finish off each other. However, both failed. The clauses of the treaty were also quite harsh on the part of Marathas. Shivaji had to cede 23 forts and region giving revenue of 400,000 rupees to the Mughals. Shivaji was left with twelve forts and a region of 100,000 rupees. Shivaji had to accept the supremacy of Aurangzeb and forced to serve Aurangzeb as an ordinary jagirdar. Shivaji and the Marathas were practically finished, thanks to the shrewd politics of Jaisingh and Aurangzeb.

The revival

Shivaji laid low for three years after his escape from Agra. Meanwhile, he implemented various land reforms in his territories. Shivaji and his minister, Annaji Datto, were the main pioneers of the land reforms which were introduced. He started the practice of giving regular wages to soldiers. From 1669 onwards, he unleashed himself on Mughal and Adilshahi territory in Maharashtra. His revival was further instigated by the growing fanaticism of Aurangzeb which was evidenced in his destruction of Hindu temples such as Kashi Vishweshwar and Mathura, and countless, others along with the imposition of the Jiziya Tax on non-Muslims.

Shivaji not only regained his lost territory but also conquered new lands.

The expansion of the Maratha state was the same at sea as it was on land. The entirety of western Maharashtra, parts of southern Gujarat, and all of northern Karnataka were brought under Maratha domination. Land reforms were introduced which immensely increased Shivaji's popularity amongst the masses. At the time of his coronation in 1674, his influence was substantial enough for others in India to recognise him as a formidable power. Most especially, his rebellion against Aurangzeb made him a hero amongst the new generation of Hindus.


In 1674, Shivaji successfully proved his Kshatriya descent using the documents which his father had already attested through the Adilshahi government. He performed all sorts of rituals, the thread ceremony, and marrying his own wives again. This was a time in which religion was very much a powerful influence.

According to Hindu theology, a coronation or rajya-abhishek is a holy ceremony of immense socio-political importance. With the king being an incarnation of Vishnu, his land was his wife, and all his subjects were his children. An authorised or crowned king was an incarnation of Vishnu himself.

By Shivaji's time, the mentality of a common Hindu in India was that the ruler was always a Muslim. In addition, the ruler of Delhi was considered to be the emperor of India. At its zenith, the rulers of the Bahamani kingdom considered themselves to be the viziers of the Delhi sultanate, which ruler in turn considered himself to be the subordinate of the caliph. Since the rulers were Muslims, Indian Muslim emperors usually portrayed India as a part of the Islamic caliphate. Allah-ud-din Khilji had his rule attested by the ruler of Iran. Aurangzeb had his rule over India attested by the caliph of the Ottoman empire in Turkey. Even Adilshahi, Kutubshahi, considered the ruler of Delhi to be the emperor of India.

Coronation of Shivaji
Shown here is a scene from the coronation of Shivaji, clearly a highly important and colourful affair for the Marathas

There were many Rajput Hindu kings before Shivaji. However, none had himself crowned according to Vedic tradition. Even the mighty Hindu Vijaynagar empire did not have a king who was crowned according to Vedic tradition. This very ancient ritual of rajya-abhishek had disappeared from India after AD 1000. People knew of this ritual only from stories in the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Gagabhat resurrected this ritual again after studying Vedic literature and it was he who crowned Shivaji. This was a revolutionary event, considering the rigid religious society which existed at the time. On one hand, Shivaji was relating himself with Rama, Yudhishthira and Vikramaditya. On other hand, he was appealing to the emotions of all Hindus in India, stating that they had a formal Hindu empire in the country, one which was fighting for the cause of all Hindus. According to the Hindu Puranas, the lineage of Kshatriya kings was lost in Kaliyuga. By performing this ritual, Shivaji was symbolically stating that Kaliyuga was over and Satya Yuga had begun. He was making a statement that a new age had begun.

Conquest of the south

He undertook the conquest of the south in 1677 and carved out a Maratha empire in Southern Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This was the pinnacle of his tactical, strategic, diplomatic and military achievements.

In doing so, he entered into a strategic alliance with Kutubshah. He also persuaded Adilshah of the importance of a united Deccan front against the impending Mughal invasion, a vision which was long propounded by his father, Shahaji.


Shivaji's last days were marred by internal conflicts between his council of ministers and his son. The head of the army, Hambir Rao Mohite, backed Sambhaji, while the other ministers backed his wife Soyarabai's claim that Rajaram be named as Shivaji's successor. Moreover, at this very time, Shivaji was not well, suffering from 'bloody flukes', and Mughal armies were gathering on the borders. He died on 3 April 1680.

His cremation was not carried out on all its proper decorum because the Maratha-Mughal clashes began that very week. Later, Sambhaji performed all the rituals with funeral games lasting for twelve days.

Shivaji and his naval forts
Shivaji oversees the building of his naval forts, as Maratha power expanded from its relatively humble beginnings under this active king

Shivaji and his navy

Shivaji started building his own naval forces from 1656, well before he killed Afzal Khan. This explains the canvas of his vision.

Maratha-Portuguese relations were always strained, and the decision to build a navy was essentially to contain European forces. The Portuguese authorities issued orders to be wary of the Maratha navy from 1659. After the great Ramraja Chola of the eleventh century, no Indian dynasty gave importance to a navy. As a result, the Vijaynagar empire, the Adilshah, the Kutubshah, the Nizamshah, and the Mughals all saw a steady increase in Portuguese influence. Despite this, none of them treated the navy as essential component of their armed forces.

The construction of naval forts such as Sindhu-durga in 1664, Vijay-durag, and Khanderi-Underi, and Shivaji's naval conquest of Basnoor and Gokarna in 1665 are of immense importance while trying to grasp the personality of this man. The Portuguese had issued the Inquisition in Goa and were forcibly converting Hindus to Christianity, well before Shivaji's birth. He defeated the Portuguese for the first time in 1667, and Sambhaji and later the Peshwas continuously furthered his anti- Portuguese policy. The reasons for this policy were not only political, but theological too.

Elsewhere in India, the English were not a considerable force at this time.

Attempt of an analysis

It can be observed that among his contemporaries, hardly anyone could grasp his vision. Shivaji always tried to befriend the Hindu sardars. However, he could not garner support from the people of his contemporary generation. All his contemporary Hindu big shots were serving Islamic empires and fighting against his kingdom. They were seeing a Hindu kingdom coming into existence. However, they had nothing to offer except jealousy.

The new generation, however, was heavily influenced by his work and his ideology. The proof for this statement is that Aurangzeb could not defeat the Marathas in spite of twenty-seven long years of warfare. Repeatedly, he entered into treaties with the Mughals, the Adilshah, the Kutubshah, and the Portuguese. However, he was never the first to breach the treaty with either Adilshah or Kutubshah. His policy towards the Mughals and Portuguese was always that of an adversary. He did not harm the English and French and remained neutral towards them.

His policy towards Adilshah and Kutubshah was that of potential strategic partners. Adilshah never accepted an alliance of Marathas completely and chose a suicidal path. Kutubshah did and put up a united front against the Mughal onslaught. Chhatrasaal Bundela was one of the many young men who were inspired by Shivaji. He went on to liberate his own homeland, Bundelkhand from the Mughals. The Sikhs were influenced by the Maratha upheaval. Guru Gobindsinghji came to the Deccan in order to try and establish contact with the Marathas but Aurangzeb gruesomely killed him in Nanded. It is unfortunate that a Maratha-Sikh relationship could not develop.

Shivaji on campaign
Shivaji is shown in this painting on campaign with members of his personal guard, all of whom would have been veteran warriors

Personal traits

He was known to be very vigilant in regard to the honour of women; even Persian documents praise him for this quality.

His personal character was very clean, quite anomalous with respect to his contemporaries. It is a well-documented fact that he was tolerant towards the practitioners of all religions and never indulged himself in any of the heinous deeds which the marauding Muslim and Christian forces had inflicted upon India. It is proven by Shejvalkar that although Shivaji was courageous, he did not use the horse as his frequent mode of transportation. Usually, he used a palanquin. Seven-eighths of his life he spent on forts. The modus operandi of Shivaji and subsequent Marathas involved the thorough initial planning of the campaign, accepting no more risks than were necessary, and as far as possible, rarely indulging in personal adventures.

It is important to understand the limitations of Shivaji and to certain extent, subsequent Marathas. In the seventeenth century, European rulers had the Renaissance as their ideological backbone. Shivaji did not have such an ideological pool from which to derive inspiration.

The Bhakti movement was one of the probable sources which might have influenced Shivaji in his formative years. This differentiates Shivaji from Cromwell and Napoleon. He was not a hedonist, nor a socialist. He never thought of educating the downtrodden castes and reforming Hindu society, eliminating the caste system. He never indulged in a literacy campaign and neither did he establish the printing press. He always purchased firearms from the English or the Dutch. It does not seem that Shivaji cared for the whereabouts of white Europeans. Before his birth, Galileo had invented the telescope, Columbus had discovered America, Magellan had circumnavigated the globe, Isaac Newton was his contemporary. Like all great men, Shivaji was a product of his own time. His greatness lies in his understanding his contemporary period with all its subtle undercurrents.

How small Shivaji was

The first fact to strike one is that he created a kingdom. There must have been over five hundred dynasties in Indian history. Each had a founder. One among them was Shivaji. The rest had an opportunity to do so because of reigning confusion.

Vassals of a weak king would declare independence with the central power helpless to prevent it. A powerful general used to dethrone a weak king and raise his own kingdom. This had been the usual way of establishing a new dynasty. The new king inherited the existing army and the bureaucratic structure automatically. In Shivaji's case, however, we find that he had to raise everything from scratch. He did not have the benefit of a ready-made strong army, and upon trying to establish himself, had to face the might of great powers, with the neighbouring Bijapur and Golconda powers still on the rise and the Mughal empire at its zenith. Shivaji was carving a niche out of the Bijapur empire which had assimilated more than half of the Nijamshahi and was on its way to conquering the entirety of Karnataka. Here is somebody who, from the start, never had the might to defeat his rivals in a face-to-face battle, who saw the efforts of twenty years go down the drain in a matter of four months; but still fought on to create an empire with twenty-nine years of constant struggle and enterprise.

It would be easy to see how small he was once we find which founder to compare him to on this issue in the annals of Indian history. A typical Hindu power had certain distinguishing traits. It is not that they did not emerge victorious in war. Of victories there have been many. However, such victories did not defeat the adversary completely. The latter's territory did not diminish, nor his might atrophy. The victory rarely resulted in the expansion of Hindu territory. Even though victorious in the past, Hindus would become weaker and remain so. In short, it is plain that they faced total destruction in the case of a defeat and high attrition in the case of a Pyrrhic victory.

A new chapter in Hindu history begins with Shivaji wherein battles are won to expand the borders while strength and will power is preserved in a defeat. Secondly, the Hindu rulers used to be astonishingly ignorant of the happenings in neighbouring kingdoms. Their enemy would catch them unawares, often intruding considerably into their territory and only then would they wake up to face the situation. Whatever the outcome of the battle, it was their land which was defiled. The arrival of Shivaji radically changes this scenario and heralds the beginning of an era of staying alert before a war and unexpected raids against the enemy.

Thirdly, the Hindu kings habitually placed blind faith in their adversaries. This saga terminates with Shivaji performing his treacherous tricks. It was the turn of the opponents to be stunned. In the ranks of Hindu kings, the search is still going on to find somebody to compare to Shivaji on this point. His lifestyle was not simple. Having adopted a choice, rich lifestyle, he was not lavish. He was gracious to other religions. On that account, he may be compared with Ashoka, Harsha, Vikramaditya, and Akbar. However, all of these possessed great harems. Akbar had the Meenabazaar, Ashoka had the Tishyarakshita. Shivaji had not given free reign to his lust. Kings, both Hindu and Muslim, had an overflowing, ever youthful desire for women. That was lacking in Shivaji. He had neither the money to spend on sculptures, paintings, music, poetry or monuments nor the inclination. He did not possess the classical appreciation needed to spend over twenty crores (one crore equals ten million) to build a Taj Mahal as famine was claiming hundreds of thousands of lives; nor was he pious enough to erect temple after temple while the British were systematically consuming India.

He was a sinner; he was a practical man like the rest of us. Khafi Khan says he went to Hell. He would not have enjoyed the company of the brave warriors who preferred gallant death to the preservation of their land. It would have ill suited him to live with the noble kings who would rather indulge in rituals such as Yadnya than expand the army. For Heaven is full of such personalities.

Akbar adopted a generous attitude towards Hindus and has been praised for that. However, it is an elementary rule that a stable government is impossible without having a contented majority. Akbar was courteous to them who, as a community, were raising his kingdom and stabilising it for him. The Hindus he treated well formed the majority in his empire and were enriching his treasury through their taxes. The Hindus had no history of invasions. They had not destroyed mosques. They never indulged in genocides against Muslims. They had not defiled Muslim women nor were they proselytes, as compared to Abrahmic fanatics found in both Muslim and Christian faiths. These were the people Akbar was generous to.

On the contrary; Muslims were a minority community in Shivaji's empire. They were not the mainstay of his taxes. They were not chalking out a kingdom for him. Besides, there was the danger of an invasion and Aurangzeb was imposing Jiziya Tax on Hindus. Yet, he treated Muslims well. That was not out of fear but because of his inborn generosity. Shivaji's expertise as a general is, of course, undisputed. However, besides that, he was also an excellent governor. He believed that the welfare of subjects was the responsibility of a ruler. Even though he fought so many battles, he never burdened his subjects with extra taxes. Even the expenditure for his coronation was covered by a tax on the collectors.

In a letter he challenges, "It is true that I've deceived many of my enemies. Can you show an instance where I deceived a friend?" This challenge remains unanswered.

He funded establishment of new villages, set up tax systems on the farms, used the forts to store the farm produce, gave loans to farmers for the purchase of seeds, oxen, etc, built new forts, had the language standardised to facilitate intra-government communication, had astrology revived and revised, and encouraged the conversion of people from Islam to Hinduism. He was not a mere warrior.

Moreover, he believed that charity begins at home. His brother-in-law, Bajaji Nimbalkar, was forcibly converted to Islam. He called for a religious council and had him reconverted to Hinduism. He reconverted many people who had been forcibly converted to Islam or Christianity. Even after conversion, when nobody was ready to make a marital alliance with Bajaji's son, Mahadaji, Shivaji gave his own daughter to Bajaji's son in marriage, and set an example in society.

Secondly, and most important of all, to protect his kingdom, his subjects fought for over 27 years. After Shivaji's demise, they fought under Sambhaji. After Aurangzeb killed Sambhaji, they still fought for over nineteen years. In this continued struggle, a minimum of 500,000 Mughals died (Jadunath Sarkar's estimate). Over 200,000 Marathas died. Still in 1707, over 100,000 Marathas were fighting. They did not have a distinguished leader to look to for inspiration. There was no guarantee of regular payment. Still, they kept on fighting.

In these 27 years, Aurangzeb did not suffer a defeat. That was because the Marathas simply lacked the force necessary to defeat so vast an army. Jadunath says, "Alamgir won battle after battle. Nevertheless, after spending tens of millions of rupees, he accomplished nothing, apart from weakening his 'All India Empire' and hurrying on his own death. He could not defeat the Marathas". When the Peshawai ended (in 1818), there was an air of satisfaction that a government of law would replace a disorderly government. Sweets were distributed when the British won Bengal at the Battle of Plassey (in 1757). Where ordinary man fights, armies can do nothing. In the long history of India, Kalinga fought against Ashoka. After Kalinga, Maharashtra fought with Mughals from a grass-roots level. The greatness of Shivaji lies here in his ability to influence generations to fight for a cause. Why was Shivaji successful in making the common man identify with his kingdom? The first reason is his invention of new hit and run tactics. He showed people that they could fight the Mughals and win. The insistence was always on survival and the maximum attrition of the enemy in his territory, along with a successful retreat. He gave his men the confidence to believe that if they fight this way, they would not only outlast the Mughals, but also defeat them.

He moved aside traditional notions of chivalry and valour on the battlefield, for which the Rajputs were famous. Instead, he focused on perseverance, attrition, survival at all costs, a series of tactical retreats and then finishing off the foe. His land reforms were revolutionary which further brought his subjects emotionally closer to him. He took care of their material needs, which is of the utmost importance. He also started the system of paying wages in his army.

The third reason is the Hindu ethos and hatred towards Muslim supremacy which was prevalent in the masses. In this light, the above facts demonstrate the excellence of Shivaji as the founder of a dynasty, one which ended the political supremacy of Islam in India.


Shivaji fits in all the criteria of Chanakya's ideal king. Considering the prevalent socio-political scenario, it is fallacious to try and fit Shivaji into classical Kshatriya values of chivalry and nobility. Shivaji was religious; but he was not a fanatic. Although ruthless and stubborn, he was neither cruel nor a sadist. He was courageous, yet not impulsive. He was practical; but was not without ambition. He was a dreamer who dreamt lofty aims and had the firm capacity to convert them into reality.

Epilogue on coronation controversy

Controversy unfortunately exists regarding the coronation of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.

The controversy has been fuelled and used to create the famous Brahmin-Maratha dispute in Maharashtra. This author strongly opposes such mischief mongers, believing that both these communities are pillars of Maharashtrian society and need to move ahead hand in hand.

While criticising any historical personality, I think, we must think from the reference frame existing during that time. Trying to apply present values and understanding of ethics to the people of the past is a great fallacy and nothing is more misleading and specious than this.

The controversy arose due to the following reasons:

Firstly, according to Hindu theology, in kali-yuga, there are only two varnas; Brahmins and Shudras. There are no Kshtriyas and Vaishyas. The opposition of Brahmins in recognising Shivaji as a Kshatriya has its roots in this deep-rooted belief. Shivaji proved his descent by tracing his lineage to the Sisodiya Rajputs of Rajasthan. In fact, this was done by Shahaji himself in the 1630s.

The second issue was that many Brahmins in the past, such as Krishnaji Bhaskar, emissary of Afzal Khan, were killed by Shivaji himself. It is a well known fact that Brahma-Hatya (the act of murdering a Brahmin) is one of the biggest of the sins to be described in Hindu theology. No one was supposed to kill a Brahmin. Since Shivaji had killed Brahmins, according to theology, it was a crime with no Prayashchitta (repentance ritual). But Gaga Bhat, being an authority on Vedic literature, argued that there were some repentance rituals which were described in scriptures which could wash away the sin of a man who had to kill a Brahmin in extreme situations. Also, he reasoned that since those Brahmins who were killed by Shivaji were not practicing Brahmins, but were just Brahmins by birth, it is possible to hold a repentance ritual for the killings of Brahmins in such cases.

Thirdly, for being a Kshatriya or Brahmin or Vaishya, one has to be a Dwija (twice born). According to Hindu theology, man comes to birth on the second instance when he has performed the thread ceremony or Upanayan Sanskar. After that ceremony, man enters Brahmacharya-Ashram. After this stage, he can marry and enter Grihastha-Ashram. Shivaji was already married to eight ladies. So he entered Grihastha-Ashram without going through Brahmacharya-Ashram and this was an immoral act according to the scriptures. This was a technical fault. So the thread ceremony was performed on Shivaji and he formally became a Brahmachāri. Then he remarried his wives again and formally became a Grihastha. Now he was eligible to be crowned king. After he became a crowned (or anointed) king, he was conferred the authority or the Raja-Danda to punish Brahmin culprits to death as well. No sin whatsoever, as an anointed king is considered to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu himself. Shivaji performed all these ceremonies and rituals of repentance and others elaborately. There were too many rituals to perform, with the result that it was a bit of a costly affair. He recovered the money by looting the Mughal treasury soon after the coronation.

He also levied a surcharge on the feudal lords. He did not levy a single penny of extra tax on the common man. Today, we may laugh at this ritualistic society. But at that time, it was the norm of society. Shivaji himself abided by it. Hindu society had become too rigid and ritualistic. And don't forget, this was a revolutionary thing happening. It was something which was unheard of in real life. It was heard of only in myths and tales. It takes time for a rigid society to accept this kind of change. But the work of Shivaji and the authority of Gaga Bhat were in favour of this very aberrant ceremony. Hence it was materialised. We should not forget the ritualistic society which existed then, and was at its lowest ebb due to Islamic supremacy.

The Maratha movement was a part of the overall Hindu revival. Everybody in this world is motivated by selfish reasons. But, along with the ambition to establish an empire, their ambition was also to end the socio-political Islamic supremacy in India. Although they lasted for just 170 years, from 1645-1818, they succeeded in loosening and throwing off the shackles of Islamic supremacy to a very large extent. Sikhs, Ahoms, Jats, later Rajputs, Bundelas and many others were also an important part of this overall Hindu revival.

People from different states refuse to acknowledge this fact. It is a pity that many people from other states feel that the Mughals were much closer to them than the Marathas. This is partly because of certain ill deeds by the Marathas themselves. The contribution of the Marathas towards a nationalistic Hindu revival was rarely understood in medieval days. And it is misunderstood in this era by many people of other states. I think we need to polish and present our image in history with vehemence so that we can give our ancestors due credit.



I wish to thank Shri Ambareesh Phadnavis, who painstakingly translated and compiled this article, originally written by Shri Narahar Kurundkar, as a preface for Shriman Yogi.

Main Sources

Bakhar, Sabhasad

Desai, Ranjit - Shriman Yogi (the article itself is crudely based on the preface of the novel Shriman Yogi by Shri Ranjit Desai. This preface is written by Shri Narahar Kurundkar).

Duff, Grant - History of India

Kurundkar, Narahar

Purandare, B M - Raja Shiva Chhatrapati

Rajwade, V K - Selected works

Sardesai - Riyasat

Sarkar, Jadunath - Shivaji and his Times

Savarkar, V D - Hindu Pad Paatshahi

Savarkar, V D - Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History


Smith, Vincent - Works



Images and text copyright © Ambareesh Phadanvis. An original feature for the History Files.