Shivaji, the Maratha warrior king, who established a modern and powerful Hindu kingdom in south-western India from 1642-1680, is undoubtedly the greatest Indian of the modern era. To understand Shivaji’s importance in Indian history, especially his role in rekindling the spirit of Indian nationhood, one must recognise that his empire was built against impossible odds.

India in the 17th century was hurtling toward catastrophe. The Hindus, who comprised the vast majority of the country, were hopelessly divided, leading a disenfranchised and moribund existence under Muslim rule. The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had launched a war against Hindus by destroying their temples and re-imposing the hated jaziya, a punitive and offensive tax which every Hindu had to pay or convert to Islam. Before him, his father Shah Jahan (the builder of the Taj Mahal) and grandfather Jehangir had banned the construction of new Hindu temples.

While Europe was beginning to crawl out of poverty, plagues and backward dogma, India was going in the reverse direction. Since the destruction of the leading universities of Nalanda and Taxila by Muslim invaders, not one new university had been built. Furthermore, a new threat was emerging in the form of European nations like Portugal, France, Britain and Holland who, under the pretext of trade, were looking for opportunities to colonise India.

Uniting a listless nation

Other great liberators like Italy’s Garibaldi and America’s George Washington had two things in their favour—they had only one enemy and their people were solidly behind them. Shivaji had to reckon with the mighty Mughal-Rajput army of Aurangzeb, the powerful sultanate army of Bijapur, the Pathans, the fierce Abyssinians of Janjira on the west coast, the fanatic Portuguese and the wily English. His own people, the Marathas, were serving as soldiers and chiefs in Muslim kingdoms and lacked any nationalistic spirit.

Shivaji got his inspiration from the Mahabharata saying, “One thousand horsemen of one mind are enough to conquer the whole world.” Barely 15 years old, he formed a tightly knit group of Mawala and Konkani boys and captured some forts of the sultan. The amazing thing is the Mawalas and Konkanis were physically much smaller than the Pathans, Moghuls and the African Muslims, and yet they prevailed in battle after battle.

Starting with guerrilla raids, soon the Marathas were engaging in pitched battles with the powerful and well trained Mughal armies comprising Mughals, Rajputs and Pathans. Shivaji defeated them all and also beat the Portuguese and the English on the high seas. Incredibly, he never lost a single battle, a fact unparalleled in the history of the world.

First Indian navy of the modern era

The Mughals and the Bijapuris had seriously undermined India's security by ceding control of the seas to the Europeans. The country's considerable sea trade was thus a hostage to these naval powers. Shivaji was the first Indian ruler in the modern era to understand the importance of the navy.

Though most Marathas were not natural seamen, the Kolis and Bhandaris of the west coast were good sailors and were tough and well built. Shivaji built hundreds of ships, large and small, in the creeks of Kalyan, Pen and Panvel. These fleets manned by Kolis, Bhandaris and Muslims successfully battled the British, Portuguese, Dutch and Abyssinian fleets.

Historian Jadunath Sarkar writes, “Shivaji proved by his example that the Hindus can defeat enemies, conduct their own defence, maintain navies and ocean-trading fleets of their own, and conduct naval battles on equal terms with foreigners. He taught the modern Hindus to rise to the full stature of their own growth."

Handling the European Threat

Shivaji was farsighted in his dealings with the Europeans. More than any other ruler, he knew of their unfair trade practices, their bribe taking and giving, their religious fanaticism, and their dabbling in Indian politics with an eye on dominions. But because the Mughals and the southern sultantes posed the bigger threat, he initially avoided confrontation. Also, the Europeans owned powerful cannons and matchlocks, which would have been deadly if transferred to his enemies. So while he was in favour of meeting the Europeans as far west as possible, he knew the time to deal with them was after ending the land wars.

However, he meted out exemplary punishment when required. In June 1661, Shivaji’s soldiers plundered Rajapur and captured several Englishmen. This was payback for the English aid to Bijapur.

The following year, he captured a band of Englishmen in Surat for supplying ammunition to his enemies. In Shivaji: The Founder of Maratha Swaraj, C.V. Vaidya quotes from an interesting letter by the president of the English factory at Surat to the disconsolate prisoners: “How you came to prison you know very well. This punishment is not for your defending company’s goods. It is for your going to the siege of Panhala and firing cannon under English banner. Anybody who is strong enough would have punished you in these circumstances. Merchants have no business to sell ball and power nor fire on enemies.”

The Western powers were constantly fighting one another but they were shrewd enough to take advantage of the weaknesses of the country. Shivaji played the same game against the Europeans and took advantage of the jealousies among these powers. He would, for instance, use cannons and ammunition from the Portuguese to attack the English, and take English help to fight the Dutch. Each of these nationalities would be overjoyed when Shivaji’s armies or fleets would defeat a rival European force. Often they would pay good money to Shivaji to fight the other sides. The one common thing in their relations with Shivaji was all of them paid hefty tribute to him.

End of tyranny

Shivaji’s legacy is swaraj – the idea of nationalism that Hindus had lost centuries ago after the loss of Delhi. He laid the foundations of a strong empire which ultimately under the later Maratha rulers re-established Hindu rule over most parts of India. The Marathas became the masters of Delhi and the Mughal emperor became their protectee. Hindus were finally able to walk free in their own country after more than 400 years.

A just and equal society

The most remarkable achievement of this soldier king was the completely non-feudatory nature of his empire. Shivaji’s was the first modern Indian state that had large numbers of soldiers, commanders and military strategists from brahmin as well as other castes such as Holkars and Mahars. For the first time in the modern era, jobs were not necessarily connected to one's caste. Even women, starting with Shivaji’s mother Jijabai, showed interest in administration. Muslims were treated equitably, his chief secretary being a Muslim. Shivaji, who was deeply influenced by the ancient Hindu epics, was keen on establishing an equal opportunity society. That it worked offers hope to those wanting to kick start social engineering in India.

End of slave trade

One of the less known facts about Shivaji was his abolishment of the Christian and Muslim slave trade in areas under his control. The contemporary French spy Francois Martin correctly recorded in his memoirs that Shivaji's plan was to end injustice in his kingdom. Shivaji's proclamation to the Dutch (granted to the diplomat Herbert de Jager in 1677) abolishing the slave trade in south India reads as follows: "In the days of the Moorish government it was allowed for you to buy male slaves and female slaves here (in the Karnatak), and to transport the same, without anyone preventing that. But now you may not, as long as I am master of these lands, buy male or female slaves, nor transport them. And in case you were to do the same, and would want to bring (slaves) aboard, my men will oppose that and prevent it in all ways and also not allow that they be brought back in your house; this you must as such observe and comply with."

When news of Shivaji’s death reached Aurangzeb, the emperor was elated but then the reality sunk in, and he muttered: “He was a great captain and the only one who has had the magnanimity to raise a new kingdom, while I have been endeavouring to destroy the ancient sovereignties of this country. My armies have been employed against him for 19 years and nevertheless his state has been increasing.” Indeed, the emperor had expended his empire’s wealth and energy in his campaign against Shivaji.

Modern India’s pseudo-secularist historians and political leadership have refused to accept Shivaji's greatness. Believing that mentioning Shivaji’s name will hurt Muslim sentiment, he is rarely acknowledged for his military genius, his nation building efforts, astute diplomacy or even his administrative brilliance. In fact, Nehru and Gandhi both described the great Maratha as a misguided patriot. Incredible, coming from two men under whose watch India was partitioned.

When Shivaji started with a few good men in the 1640's, perhaps only he could have imagined that just over a hundred years later, a mighty Maratha army would plant the Hindu flag on the walls of Attock in the Afghan heartland and liberate Punjab after 800 years of Muslim rule.