Caste away

Ambarish Satwik | Updated on January 22, 2018

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How brahmins used Shivaji Bhonsale to call themselves the masters of every ruler’s destiny

Rudra and I finished the martial epic Shivaji – the Great Maratha (3-in-1, Amar Chitra Katha), in two-and-a-half hours on the day BM Purandare, at the age of 93, was awarded the Maharashtra Bhushan for taking the history of Shivaji Bhonsale to the masses.

Like any eight-year-old, my son particularly enjoyed the part where Shivaji claws out Afzal Khan’s gizzards, bringing on the ectoplasmic holler bubble ‘ Ya Allah’. This is followed by swift decapitation by one of Shivaji’s deputies as the wounded Khan staggers out. The cinematic white heat of Pratap Mulick’s illustrations from the Amar Chitra Katha of my childhood was still there but now it seemed more like a syncopated Ravi Varma rendition of a Rip Kirby comic strip. I remembered my grandfather telling me that the killing of Adil Shah’s general, Afzal Khan, had inspired the first known ballad of Marathi literature. The other early source for this is the Shivabharata, a worshipful account of Shivaji’s life, composed by his court poet Paramanand (1674), which, in Cantos 17-21, gives an account of the slaying. In it, this is Shivaji reflecting on his opponent, the desecrator of the shrine of Tuljapur:

This dark soul / Kills cows everyday/ And desires to overturn / The holy law completely!

Mother Earth is surely supported by dharma

She is, in turn, held up by the Gods,

And the Gods are supported by brahmans.

Therefore are these brahmans

The root of all people,

And should zealously and always be

Protected and given worship.

Taking birth in age after age

Verily, do I protect

Gods, brahmans and cows

(Translation by Bahulkar and Laine, 2001)

Kshatriyakulawatamsa (ornament of the Kshatriyas) Shriraja Shivachhatrapati (the great King Shiva, Lord of the Umbrella) was how Shivaji Bhonsale would sign off on his official letters, post coronation. Purandare, in his writings, introduced the handle Gobrahmanpratipalaka (protector of cows and brahmins) into that appellation cluster. And that raised more Bahujan and Marxist hackles than he could shake a stick at.

Balwant Moreshwar Purandare is a deshastha brahman who calls himself Shiv Shahir (Shivaji’s bard). He has been writing on Shivaji for nearly 70 years and it wouldn’t be impolitic to say that (on account of the enormous popularity of his novels and plays), his rendering of Shivaji’s life and times has led to the making of popular Maratha historical memory and is taken as the general truth about Shivaji’s history. Sambhaji Brigade (SB), the fanatical anti-brahmin outfit that calls itself a social organisation, in the run-up to the award, led violent protests against the decision to honour Purandare. The brigade, in 2004, had vandalised the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune in the wake of protests against James Laine’s book on Shivaji. SB’s agitator-in-chief, Shrimant Kokate has been going around for a few years now addressing large rallies across Maharashtra saying Purandare was the real James Laine, as all innuendos and references about Shivaji’s ‘guardian’ Dadoji Konddeo being his biological father come from Purandare. He ends these speeches by exhorting the government to publicly hang Purandare and other brahmin historians, or else they would happily do it themselves.

So what is the charge against Purandare? According to Kokate et al, there are 17 paragraphs in Purandare’s book Raja Shivachhatrapati which are ‘objectionable and utterly defamatory to Shivaji’s life’ and as a starting point they want these expunged. Now, Kokate, verily, looks the part of the lumpen demagogue and isn’t the sort of bloke you’d expect to invoke and quote Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony in primetime television debates. But that’s exactly what he does in engaging with his opponents. On more than one occasion I have seen news anchors being stung into silence by the force of Kokate’s rhetorical flourish.

The most exceptionable part (according to Kokate) from Purandare’s texts is on the brahmin character Dadoji Konddeo. He was an employee of Shivaji’s father Shahji, a sort of manager-cum- subadar, appointed to administer Shahji’s jagir in Pune pargana, of which only a small portion was assigned to the fledgling Shivaji. All we have on the man in terms of material historical evidence are four executive documents suggesting that Shivaji held him in great respect and ratified whatever had been decreed by Konddeo. Yet, Purandare’s prose gives Konddeo more than a walk-on part. He is shown as Shivaji’s intellectual guru-preceptor and caretaker, who fills in as a sustained locum for his absentee father. By extension, it is insinuated that Konddeo might have also been a connubial locum for Shahji as regards Jijabai. Purandare writes (and this is abhorrent to the SB) that the gotra of Konddeo and Shivaji was the same. Kokate alleges a brahmin conspiracy, the conscious foregrounding of an invented brahminical influence on the juvenile Shivaji; the iteration, in the absence of any historical evidence, that Shivaji’s administrative tutoring could have happened only at the hands of a brahmin. It is the displacement of the real, subaltern memory of Shivaji Bhonsale with an engineered, ‘official’ memory. Which allows Konddeo to be carried into textbooks for children as Shivaji’s guru, and the setting up of a tableau of statues in Lal Mahal, Pune, showing Konddeo, Jijabai and Shivaji as one happy family.

Purandare does for Konddeo what his predecessor Mahadev Govind Ranade did for the brahmin saint Ramdas — the same gerrymandering of the narrative to make Ramdas Shivaji’s spiritual advisor. Ramdas, now, is inseparably yoked to the social memory of Shivaji and his project of swarajya (this, when all historical evidence on the matter suggests that they first met in 1672, when swarajya had been, in a way, already installed). He’s on calendars, as the chief force of Maratha freedom, showing the way to the obedient Shivaji, asking him to propagate the dharma of Maharashtra. The dharma being a clump of brahminical values and prescriptive behaviour. According to Kokate, the only utility of Shivaji to brahmins is to create and advance the trope that no matter how prodigious and/or proficient the ruler, brahmins superintended social and political destinies.

Why is it, asks Kokate, that even today the name Shivaji is commonplace amongst Dhangars, Mahars, Khatiks, Malis, but one doesn’t come across a single Shivaji Kulkarni/ Deshpande/ Paranjpe/Joshi?

So, is Kokate a rabble-rouser or the true ideological descendant of Jyotirao Phule? Well, Phule was considered a rabble-rouser in 1869 when he wrote his ‘socially disintegrative’ ballad on Shivaji. In it Shivaji was a Kunbi, a peasant-warrior whom the brahmins refused to coronate.

There isn’t any ‘historical evidence’ for Phule’s autonomous retelling either. What is certain is that Shivaji needed brahmins to be a Chhatrapati (the umbrella a sign of royalty and divinity). In desperation, he had to get a manufactured Sisodiya lineage from Mewar and a bhade-ka-brahmin, Gagabhatt, from Kashi, to officiate at his coronation when all others refused. That his principal seal was in Sanskrit and not in Modhi-Marathi. That his prime minister was a brahmin. And his only official biography was in Sanskrit, written by Paramanand, a brahmin.

What is also known is that the only battle-wound Shivaji received in his life was a gash on the forehead in the scrimmage with Afzal Khan. From Khan’s deputy Krishnaji Bhaskar Kulkarni, a brahmin.

(Ambarish Satwik is a Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer)

Published on September 25, 2015

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