The Evils of Caste


We reproduce below excerpts from the work of one of the oldest authorities on the Marathas, historian Jadunath Sarkar. In two books on the issue, the historian has dealt with the ticklish issue of caste which affected Shivaji’s acceptance as a formal ruler.

A deep study of Maratha society, indeed of society throughout India, reveals some facts which it is considered patriotism to ignore. We realise that the greatest obstacles to Shivaji’s success were not Mughals or Adil Shahis, Siddis or Feringis, but his own countrymen. First, we cannot be blind to the truth that the dominant factor in Indian life — even today, no less than in the seventeenth century — is caste, and neither religion nor country. By caste must not be understood the four broad divisions of the Hindus which exist only in the textbooks and the airy philosophical generalisations delivered from platforms. The caste that really counts, the division that is a living force, is the sub–division and sub–sub–division into innumerable small groups called shakhas or branches (more correctly twigs or I should say, leaves, they are so many!) into which each caste is split up and within which alone marrying and giving in marriage, eating and drinking together take place…
And each of these smallest sub–divisions of the Brahman caste is separated from the other sub–divisions as completely as it is from an altogether different caste like the Vaishya or Shudra, e.g., the Kanyakubja and Sarayupari Brahmans of northern India, the Konkanastha and Deshastha of Maharashtra.
Personal Jealousy Hindering Shivaji

Shivaji was not contented with all his conquests of territory and vaults full of looted treasure, so long as he was not recognised as a Kshatriya entitled to wear the sacred thread and to have the Vedic hymns chanted at his domestic rites. The Brahmans alone could give him such recognition, and though they swallowed the sacred thread they boggled at the Vedokta! The result was a rupture… Whichever side had the rights of the case, one thing is certain, namely, that this internally torn community had not the sine qua non of a nation. 
Nor did Maharashtra acquire that sine qua non ever after. The Peshwas were Brahmans from Konkan, and the Brahmans of the upland (Desh) despised them as less pure in blood. The result was that the state policy of Maharashtra under the Peshwas, instead of being directed to national ends, was now degraded into upholding the prestige of one family or social sub–division.

Shivaji had, besides, almost to the end of his days, to struggle against the jealousy, scorn, indifference and even opposition of certain Maratha families, his equals in caste sub-division and once in fortune and social position, whom he had now outdistanced. The Bhonsle Savants of Vadi, the Jadavs of Sindhkhed, the Mores of Javli, and (to a lesser extent) the Nimbalkars, despised and kept aloof from the upstart grandson of that Maloji whom some old men still living remembered to have seen tilling his fields like a Kunbi! Shivaji’s own brother Vyankoji fought against him during the Mughal invasion of Bijapur in 1666.

Shivaji’s religious toleration and equal treatment of all subjects
He stands on a lofty pedestal in the hall of the worthies of history, not because he was a Hindu champion, but because he was an ideal householder, an ideal king, and an unrivalled nation-builder. He was devoted to his mother, loving to his children, true to his wives, and scrupulously pure in his relations with other women. Even the most beautiful female captive of war was addressed by him as his mother. Free from all vices and indolence in his private life, he displayed the highest genius as a king and as an organizer. In that age of religious bigotry, he followed a policy of the most liberal toleration for all creeds.

The letter which he wrote to Aurangzeb, protesting against the imposition of the poll–tax on the Hindus, is a masterpiece of clear logic, calm persuasion, and political wisdom. Though he was himself a devout Hindu, he could recognise true sanctity in a Musalman, and therefore he endowed a Muhammadan holy man named Baba Yaqut with land and money and installed him at Keleshi. All creeds had equal opportunities in his service and he employed a Muslim secretary named Qazi Haidar, who, after Shivaji’s death, went over to Delhi and rose to be chief justice of the Mughal Empire.

There were many Muhammadan captains in Shivaji’s army and his chief admiral was an Abyssinian named Siddi Misri. His Maratha soldiers had strict orders not to molest any woman or rob any Muhammadan saint’s tomb or hermitage. Copies of the Quran which were seized in the course of their campaigns were ordered to be carefully preserved and then handed over respectfully to some Muhammadan.”
(From Jadunath Sarkar’s book, ‘House of Shivaji’).

The Coronation of Shivaji And After (1674-1676)

Why Shivaji wanted to be crowned

Shivaji and his ministers had long felt the practical disadvantages of his not being a crowned king. True, he had conquered many lands and gathered much wealth: he had a strong army and navy and exercised powers of life and death over men, like an independent sovereign. But theoretically his position was that of a subject; to the Mughal Emperor, he was a mere zamindar. He could not claim equality of political status with any king.

Then again, so long as he was a mere private subject, he could not, with all his real power, claim the loyalty and devotion of the people over whom he ruled. His promises could not have the sanctity and continuity of the public engagements of the head of a State. He could sign no treaty, grant no land with legal validity and an assurance of permanence. The territories conquered by his sword could not become his lawful property, however undisturbed his possession over them might be in practice. The people living under his sway or serving under his banners could not renounce their allegiance to the former sovereign of the land, nor be sure that they were exempt from the charge of treason for their obedience to him. The permanence of his political creation required that it should be validated as the act of a sovereign.

Shivaji recognized by Gaga Bhatta as a Kshatriya
But there was one curious hindrance to the realization of this ideal. According to the ancient Hindu scriptures, only a member of the Kshatriya caste can be legally crowned as king and claim the homage of Hindu subjects. The Bhonsles were popularly known to be neither Kshatriyas, nor of any other twice-born caste, but mere tillers of the soil, as Shivaji’s great–grandfather was still remembered to have been. How could an upstart sprung from such a Shudra (plebeian) stock aspire to the rights and honours due to a Kshatriya? The Brahmans of all parts of India would attend and bless the coronation of Shivaji, only if he could be authoritatively declared a Kshatriya.

It was, therefore, necessary first to secure the support of a pandit, whose reputation for scholarship would silence all opposition to the views he might propound. Such a man was found in Vishweshwar, nicknamed Gaga Bhatta, of Benares, the greatest Sanskrit theologian and controversialist then alive, a master of the four Vedas, the six philosophies, and all the scriptures of the Hindus, and popularly known as the Brahma–deva and Vyas of the age. 

After holding out for some time, he became compliant, accepted the Bhonsle pedigree as fabricated by the clever secretary Balaji Avji and other agents of Shiva, and declared that Rajah was a Kshatriya of the purest breed, descended in unbroken line from the Maharanas of Udaipur, the sole representatives of the solar line of the mythical hero-god Ramchandra. His audacious but courtierly ethnological theory was rewarded with a huge fee, and he was entreated to visit Maharashtra and officiate as high priest at the coronation of Shiva. He agreed, and on his arrival was welcomed like a crowned head, Shiva and all his officers advancing many miles from Satara to receive him on the way.

(From ‘Shivaji And His Times’ by Jadunath Sarkar).
(Archived from the October 2001 issue of Communalism Combat)



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