Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India

James W. Laine

Oxford University Press 2003
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004
In the second half of the 17th century, Shivaji rose from a minor chieftain to an independent king, founding the Maratha kingdom. In this study Laine looks not at Shivaji directly, but at the stories that have been told about him and their development over the last three and a half centuries. These have become entwined with the construction of Maharahstrian, Hindu, and Indian identities, and Laine begins with these, and with the risks of attributing anachronistic self-identifications to Shivaji.

The earliest stories of Shivaji's life, from the 17th century, present him as an epic hero. Along with stories of his birth and boyhood, key episodes include the killing of Afzal Khan, the encounter with Shaista Khan, the escape from Agra, and his coronation.

"when [Shivaji] 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. His predecessors and successors were more accommodationist, less heroic, and less well remembered. Moreover, the stories of their bravery were nowhere near as good."

In the 18th century Shivaji became linked with the saints Ramdas and Tukaram, though "stories of the saints' role in Shivaji's life have more to do with eighteenth-century concerns than with actual events from a century before". The complex intertwining of the religious and political in the present encouraged the construction of a simpler past, as "part of a general tendency to oppose a single universalistic Hinduism to a single monolithic Islam".

In the last hundred and fifty years, biographies of Shivaji have expressed "a host of different political and cultural interests". Jatirao Phule used Shivaji's story as "a way of advancing an antibrahmin reading of Maratha history", emphasising his low-caste status, but "virtually every Maharashtrian writer after Phule saw Shivaji as the father of a nation, a liberationist". K.A. Keluskar downplayed his connection with the saints and emphasized his appeal to followers of every caste, Lokmanya Tilak used him to support opposition to British rule, and M.G. Ranade wedded his story to bhakti ("devotion"). Laine also looks at the presentation of Shivaji in school texts, in the fictional works of Babasaheb Purandare, and on web sites.

Looking at "cracks in the narrative", Laine explores the things left out of traditional stories — and what these absences show about the concerns of those who produced them. Shivaji came from a "broken family", with separated parents, he probably had a harem, he showed no interest in the bhakti saints, his ambition was to build a kingdom, not liberate a nation, and he did little to change the "cosmopolitan Islamicate world" he lived in.

The Shivaji stories have played a key role in the construction of "Islam" and "Hinduism" in Maharashtra.

"The narrative of Shivaji's life, already reshaped by bhakti writers by 1800, was thoroughly overtaken by the nationalist narrative in 1900 and has been sustained as a grand narrative of Hindu nationalist identity, despite all the inner inconsistencies, anachronisms, and communalism that imaginative enterprise has entailed."

It is hard to approach Shivaji without being influenced by the political furor the book has inspired. It has been withdrawn from the Indian market and banned in Maharashtra, while a scholar was assaulted and the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune ransacked just because of mentions in Laine's acknowledgements. This thuggery is a depressing illustration of the extent of communalism in Indian politics, but also demonstrates the continuing significance of the Shivaji stories — and the need to understand their evolution and history.

Laine's openness may explain some of the animosity: his introduction, for example, explicitly states his hope to "rescue [Shivaji's] biography from the grasp of those who see India as a Hindu nation at war with its Muslim neighbors". Shivaji is undeniably a scholarly work, however, and few of Laine's critics have engaged with its actual content. Though too slender to be entirely self-contained, it includes enough background to be accessible to anyone with a basic knowledge of modern Indian history.

March 2004

External links:
- buy from or
Related reviews:
- books about India + Indian history
- more historiography
- more history
- books published by Oxford University Press
%T Shivaji
%S Hindu King in Islamic India
%A Laine, James W.
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2003
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN 0195141261
%P 127pp