Those Reading Caste Conflict In Chhatrapati Shivaji's Coronation Have Got It Completely Wrong, Again

by Aneesh Gokhale - Dec 21, 2021 08:02 PM +05:30 IST
Those Reading Caste Conflict In Chhatrapati Shivaji's Coronation Have Got It Completely Wrong, Again Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj
  • Chhatrapati Shivaji's coronation wasn't merely about a king ascending to throne. It represented the return of a Hindu state in its territories.

    This was the foundation on which rested the future Maratha Empire.

The coronation of Chhatrapati Shivaji was an event of enormous magnitude, something that ought to be marked as a turning point in the nation’s history.

Maharashtra before Chhatrapati Shivaji and the Bhakti movement

In order to understand Chhatrapati Shivaji’s achievements, it is necessary to know the milieu into which he was born. At the time of his birth, there had been no Hindu power in the Sahyadris for the past three hundred years!

The Yadavs of Deogiri had ceased being a political power by 1316 AD. The Vijayanagar kingdom of the south and the short-lived rule of Hemchandra Vikramaditya to the north were becoming distant memories. In every direction you looked, the land was being ruled by Turks, Persians, Afghans and Uzbeks. The courtly language everywhere was Persian, the law given on the basis of the Quran and Hadiths.

Chhatrapati Shivaji pushed against and overcame inertia of three centuries, and having done so, marked the occasion with a Hindu coronation ceremony.

Bhakti movement

Says Justice Ranade in his book “Rise of the Maratha Power”

“The close connection between the religious and political upheaval in Maharashtra is a fact of such importance, that to those who, without the help of this clue have tried to follow the winding course of the growth of Maratha power, the purely political becomes either a puzzle or dwindles down into a story of adventures, without any abiding moral interest. Both European and Native writers have done scant justice to this double character of the movement, and this dissociation of the history of the spiritual emancipation of the national mind accounts for much of the prejudice which still surrounds the study of Maratha struggle for national independence.”

The Bhakti movement is believed to have started in Tamil Nadu, and some scholars believe it had an almost simultaneous start in Vrindavan to the north. Particularly in Maharashtra, the Bhakti movement ran parallel to the eclipse of the Hindu power and the rise of the Deccan sultanates.

This was the most trying time for the people, who, having lost the state patronage of their religion, now turned to simple bhakti as propounded by the likes of Sant Dyaneshwar, Eknath, Namdev, Tukaram and others. They played a stellar role in preventing wholesale conversions.

The great historian Kashinath Rajwade sums up their contribution –

“At a time when the open display of the Hindu religion was obliterated, the Bhakti movement through its simplicity of worship, bhajans and kirtans kept the masses within the Hindu fold. Thus, their contribution to our country is priceless.” (Maharashtrachi Shivkalin Samajrachna)

It was an era marked with temple destructions, forced conversions and the like. Without true political power in their hands, life was difficult for the Hindus. Alas, but what could be done than to chant the name of Hari and hope for the best?

Says Sant Namdev, a Bhakti saint who lived between 1270 and 1350.

कलीचीये अंती होणार कलंकी | मारील म्लेंच्छ की घोड्यावरी | |

फिरून धर्माची उभारील गुढी | कृत युग प्रौढी करी तोची | |

तोवरी साधन हरिनाम किरतन | संताची सांगा नामा म्हणे | |

Kalki shall herald the end of kalyug. Riding a steed, he shall slay the mlecchas. Once again, the gudhi (flag) of dharma shall rise. Till then, we shall seek solace in Hari naam.

I am not suggesting that Chhatrapati Shivaji was the Kalki avatar. The abhang is a good window into the situation people found themselves in.

From this absolute abyss, to reach a place where the people saw someone crowned as the Sinhasanadeeshwar, according to Hindu rituals, was nothing short of a miracle.

I will not go into how Chhatrapati Shivaji built his swarajya from scratch. Much has been written and is widely available for anyone wishing to know. The episodes of Afzal Khan, the escape from Panhala, the martyrdom of Baji Prabhu followed by the attack on Shaiste Khan - are all stuff of legend. We shall directly move to the coronation ceremony.

The Coronation Ceremony – Necessity and Importance

“The coronation of Chhatrapati Shivaji has shown, that the tree of Hinduism is not really dead, but like the Akshaya Vat tree of Allahabad, it can spring forth new leaves and raise its head in the skies once again.”
JN Sarkar

There were certain markers that the Mughal and other Muslim rulers adopted for displaying their rule and sovereignty. One of them was quite common – the right to mint coins. The other was the right to read the Khutbah or Friday sermon in their name.

The new Mughal emperor would visit the mosque on the closest Friday after his coronation. Here, the Imam would invoke Allah, the Prophet Mohammed, the first four Caliphs (Rashidun Caliphate) and the newly minted emperor – thus announcing his accession to everyone.

This same announcement was made in every principal mosque across the empire, including in mosques under the Mughal emperor’s Muslim and Hindu vassal states. Any challenge to this rule was considered an open rebellion.

The durbar or court was the place where, based on the Quran and Hadiths and advice from the muhtasaibs (religious leaders), the Muslim leaders would formulate and pass laws binding on large populations. It was, for example, through this system that the jaziya laws of Aurangzeb were passed.

Whatever their merits, this style of governance was not in consonance with the dharmashastras or Hindu canonical law. It was closer to Sharia. Only in the remote villages and inaccessible mountain tracts did the rules of the old Patils and Deshmukhs remained.

By winning unquestioned supremacy over a large tract from Nashik to Kolhapur, Chhatrapati Shivaji was in a position to create a truly Hindu court. He commanded armies of many thousands, and his rule extended over several lakh people. So why couldn’t he simply begin dishing out laws and rules as he saw fit?

Chhatrapati Shivaji was acutely aware that it would be a gross injustice to provide his people with a poor copy of the Mughal court. He understood sovereignty and swarajya very well, and hence everything was to be done according to the Hindu dharmashastras.

The scriptures were clear that only an “Abhishikta Raja” had the right to govern. The rajabhishek or coronation ceremony is essentially the process to make Chhatrapati Shivaji an Abhishikta Raja. Through this ceremony, Shivaji Maharaj was raised to the status of Vishnu and Indra and thus, considered a representative of the Gods.

Just like we pour panchamrut over murtis and perform their abhishek, so was the case with the Rajabhishek.

Says VS Bendrey –

“Such a panchamrut bath is permissible under the Dharma Shastras for the Gods and Goddesses and by giving this bath to Shivaji with the appropriate Vedic Mantras, he was elevated to the higher level to become a representative of Indra and Vishnu.” (Coronation of Chhatrapati Shivaji)

Thus, by doing so, Chhatrapati Shivaji represented a clear break from the contemporary Mughal and Sultanate traditions. The entire ceremony, lasting over several days, is provided in Pandit Gagabhatt’s – Shiv Rajyabhishek Prayogah.

It had various Hindu rituals as part of the coronation ceremony, including the Ishanyayagya, Grahayagya, Nakshatra Yagya and several others. Being associated with Indra, Chhatrapati Shivaji also ascended a throne made from the branches of the Umber tree to signify he was sitting on Indra’s throne as his representative.

The reason for this ceremony being, that merely as a Kshatriya he held no temporal authority over his fellow Kshatriyas and the Brahmins. The coronation ceremony solved this by elevating his status as representative of Vishnu. Indeed, he carried an idol of Vishnu during the coronation ceremony. Chhatrapati Shivaji now had the right to make laws for and punish everyone irrespective of caste and creed.

Offerings were made to the family deity – Bhavani of Tuljapur as also Ganesh. Water from the sacred rivers was poured on Chhatrapati Shivaji, and he was also anointed with the earth brought from important teerth sthals. Thus, we can see that the coronation brought out our civilisational unity.

It was a long ceremony lasting six days, culminating in Chhatrapati Shivaji ascending the golden sinhasan at dawn on Jyeshtha Shuddha Trayodashi, corresponding to 6 June 1674. In doing so, he acquired a status higher than all the assembled people, including his fellow Kshatriyas and Brahmins.

Gagabhatt, Marathi Brahmins and Opposition to the Coronation –

There is a canard that has been spread that Brahmins in Maharashtra were opposed to the coronation ceremony, and a north Indian Brahmin, namely Gagabhatt of Banaras, had to be specially imported for the ceremony. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Gagabhatt, although a resident of Kashi, was a Marathi Brahmin himself with his native place near Paithan. His family deity was the goddess at Kolhapur!

Furthermore, he had already been once in the Konkan to solve some religious dispute pertaining to the Shenvi caste and had visited Chhatrapati Shivaji. In Maharashtra, there did not remain a single soul who had seen or knew how to conduct a Aindreya Rajabhishek ceremony. Hence, the responsibility fell on Gagabhatt, a Marathi Brahmin from Banaras. A little bit of trivia here -

Gagabhatt’s ancestor Nagabhatt consecrated the Kashi Vishwanath temple built by Todarmal during the reign of Akbar. This same temple was destroyed by Aurangzeb five years prior to Gagabhatt’s coronation of Chhatrapati Shivaji.

There is no record of any Brahmin having refuted Shivaji Maharaj’s right to a coronation. There is some opposition recorded in the form of Nishchalpuri Swamy, but this pertained to rites being carried out in the Vedic manner as against Tantrik rites. It doesn’t amount to opposing the coronation itself.

The rajabhishek gave him the backing of dharmashastras to wield the authority he already possessed in practice. Similar to how the Constitution of India provides authority to a public figure such as the Prime Minister.

He did not need a coronation ceremony if the whole idea was to make a Kshatriya out of a Shudra. Why a rajabhishek was needed has been discussed.

As to whether Chhatrapati Shivaji was Kshatriya, we need to consider the following statements:

1. The Bhosales are listed among the 96 Maratha clans.

2. A work by Jayram Pindye titled Radhamadhav Vilas Champu mentions Shivaji Maharaj’s elder brother as “Kshatriya Gotra".

Those Reading Caste Conflict In Chhatrapati Shivaji's Coronation Have Got It Completely Wrong, Again

The work was compiled between 1653 and 1658, 16 years before the coronation.

3. Shahaji Raje, Chhatrapati Shivaji’s father, is quoted as having said, “we are Rajputs by caste.”

Here, this could mean Rajput from Rajasthan or merely reiterating his Kshatriya origins.

Indeed, whatever caste Chhatrapati Shivaji belonged to, it doesn’t matter, and it does not diminish his achievements. But, by saying something incorrect, we go down the path of obfuscation and miss out on the big picture.

Ashtapradhan Mandal, Seals, Coins and Language –

Shivaji’s greatness is marked by not only establishing Hindavi swarajya but doing away with patently foreign influences such as the heavy usage of Persian and the undue importance given to foreign-born Muslim mansabdars.

Chhatrapati Shivaji, as mentioned earlier, fully understood the meaning of swarajya. He soon after coronation composed a cabinet of eight ministers or ashtapradhan mandal, something mentioned in the Sukraneeti. The number eight is auspicious in Hinduism, there being eight guardian deities for the eight directions. He ensured that the old Persian terms were done away with and replaced with Sanskrit terms.

More importantly, Chhatrapati Shivaji instituted the rank of Panditrao, a rank meant to deal almost exclusively with matters pertaining to the Hindu religion, including that of reconversions. The Panditrao was entrusted with the protection and promotion of Hindu culture.

Under the orders of the Chhatrapati himself, he would bestow grants on temples and give charities. Every year he would test the knowledge of learned men and grant them gifts. Chhatrapati Shivaji fully understood the importance of the Panditrao and employed him at a high salary of 10,000 hon a year, or 40,000 rupees. The Muslim courts had their Mutasaibs. By instituting the rank of Panditrao, Chhatrapati Shivaji had given Hindu administration its due.

The great king instituted the making of a rajvyavharkosh. One Raghunathpant Hanmante was entrusted with the task of weeding out Persian words from the Marathi language and proving suitable Sanskrit replacements. The effect of this exercise is visible to the present day. Like-wise, his seal was in Sanskrit and in the Devanagri script.

Apart from this, two important changes were brought about by him as a newly crowned Chhatrapati:

1. Minting of coins called Shivrai with the words Shri Raja Shiv and Chhatrapati being imprinted on them.

2. Starting a new regnal era – the Shiv Shak from the date of coronation. This calendar was in use till the beginning of the nineteenth century. While the Vikram samvat and Shalivahan saka era survived mostly for religious dates and schedules, the Mughal and other courts used the Hijri calendar for their communication. Now there was an option.

(Interesting to note that India adopted the calendar based on the Saka era as a national calendar in 1957.)

Chhatrapati Shivaji, through his coronation, represented the turning of the wheel in the opposite direction. This was the foundation on which rested the future Maratha Empire.

Aneesh Gokhale is the author of ‘Sahyadris to Hindukush’, and 'Battles of the Maratha Empire'.
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