Shivaji was born in 1628 and passed away in 1680 at the relatively young age of 52. He spent his entire life in the shadow of the greatest Mughal conqueror of Hindustan, namely Aurangzeb. As much as we malign Aurangzeb, there is no erasing the fact that he ruled over the largest empire ever seen in India and no other Indian king or emperor including Samrat Ashok ruled over a larger area than Aurangzeb.
Aurangzeb was the Shehan Shah (king of kings) and this was the greeting with which Guru Gobind Singh addressed him in his letter in the Zafarnama, which forms part of the “Dusam Granth”. Shivaji also as Gobind Singh lived at a time when Aurangzeb was at his peak and the fact is that even after Shivaji’s death in 1680, Aurangzeb lived for another 27 years before he breathed his last from him in 1707.
Shivaji ruled compared to Aurangzeb a small area and one has to accept the fact that compared to Aurangzeb Shivaji was a small time ruler. Much of Shivaji’s building took place after Independence and now he too is connected as part of the freedom movement. However, many Western historians who have chronicled Shivaji’s life have come to the conclusion that he was a small-time chieftain in the Mughal Raj. Now we can try to do some digging and strip the rhetoric and legend from the stark facts of history to see where Shivaji fits into the pantheon of great kings and soldiers like Chengiz Khan, Ghazni, Alexander and Robert Clive.
Shivaji’s contribution as a soldier
Many romantics in Mahrashtra and the fringe areas around this state speak glowingly of Shivaji and his “victory” over the Mughals. But the fact is that outside of these areas no one seems to know about Shivaji as he was a local influence. When I was assigned to the Eastern Air Command Headquarters, I was surprised that people in the East had never heard of Shivaji, but they had heard of Robert Clive and Ghazni. For the reader to draw his own conclusions from him, many myths abound in Mahrashtra and one of them repeated by many scholars is that Shivaji decisively defeated Aurangzeb and his army. Many learned people in Pune informed me about it.
The facts are however different. British historians who have loved India like Cunningham have opined that Shivaji was effective only in a few districts around Pune, particularly the Western Ghat area and Aurangzeb treated him more like a petty boss and bandit, because if he had the opportunity plundered the royal treasury. . Shivaji thus had limited control over the land ruled by Aurangzeb. He never had a large standing army and, except for a pitched battle with Mughal forces commanded by Raj Jai Singh, the C in C of the Mughal army, he never ventured to fight another battle. In this particular battle known as the Battle of Chakan which was fought in 1660, the Maratha army under the command of Shivaji was defeated.
Talking about another pitched battle it is the Battle of Purandar which was fought in 1665 between the Mahratha army under the command of Shivaji and the Mughal army sent by Aurangzeb. The commander of the Mughal army was again Raja Jai Singh and he was assisted by General Dilir Khan. The battle is significant as after the death of the Maratha general Murar Baji Prabhu on June 2, 1665, the Mughal steamer won a victory. Shivaj was defeated and handed over 23 strong from him.
Shivaji, however, did win a few battles, but they were mostly small matters and he won when most of the Mughal army had withdrawn. But he was a brave man, but bravery does not bring victory, but tactics and support. The fact is that many Maratha warriors had sided with the Mughals and Shivaji was fighting a battle with one arm tied behind his back. He therefore could not sustain an open battle or an invasion like the great conquerors of history like Alexander the Great, Chegiz Khan or Mahmud of Ghazni.
Shivaji resorted to guerrilla tactics and in this he was very successful. But the writings of Che Guevera and Mao Tse Tung, who are the masters of guerrilla tactics theory, teach us that guerrilla warfare can harass and provoke, but guerrilla warfare alone can never win. At some point, guerrilla warfare has to become conventional warfare, and only then will victory come. Mao turned his guerrilla warfare after the Long March and the end of World War II into a conventional war against Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist Forces and won. So did Ho Chi Minh, who also turned guerrilla warfare into conventional warfare in Vietnam in the late stage and invaded the South. Garibaldi from Italy is also an example.
Shivaji was a highly successful guerrilla war captain, but he was unable to turn his brand of warfare into conventional warfare and defeat Aurangzeb. This was his fallacy and weakness, and the result was that he remained a prick in Aurangzeb’s vast empire that stretched from Afghanistan to Bengal and the deep south. It was only after Aurangzeb’s death and Baji Rao’s arrival on the scene, that the Maratha empire began to take shape. But again it was a short term rule as the Maratha empire was decimated in 1761 at the third battle of Panipat and also crushed by the Duke of Wellesley.
Coming to Shivaji, one must give him credit for raising the banner of revolt against the great Aurangzeb, who was in fact an intolerant ruler. He destroyed Hindu temples and was a pious man. His world of India was seen through Islamic eyes, but that does not detract from his ability as a great conqueror.
The fact is that especially when the Mughal army marched against Shivaji in force, they always won the jousting. In 1679 the famous battle of Bhupal Garh took place. The Mughal army surrounded the Bhupalgarh fort and Shivaji was defeated.
This is all very sad reading, but as a soldier I am dispassionate and not swayed by rhetoric. Just before his death, Shivaji and the Mughals fought their last battle. it was the battle of Sangamner in 1679. This battle took place after Shivaji was returning from a sack of Jalna. The battle lasted for 3 days and ended when the Maratha General Sidhoji Nimbalkar was killed and 2000 soldiers. It was a crushing defeat. Shivaji fled the battlefield with 500 soldiers. The curtain fell on Shivaji when he expired the next year (1680).
Shivai was undoubtedly a great and brave man, but in contrast to the great captains of military history, it must be concluded that Shivaji was not in the same group.
Before making a judgment about Shivaji, one must remember the socio-economic situation of India at that time. The fact is that the Hindus were a defeated lot and there was rampant caste discrimination. In addition to this, diseases like sati, child marriage, and strange beliefs held sway. The golden age of the Gupta and Muraya Empire was long gone and a new and alien belief had taken hold of the soul of India.
This was a time for someone to stand up and carry the Hindu flag. This is also the period when the Hindus did not have a leader or hero worth emulating or cheering for. Shivaji appeared on the scene and awakened the spirits of the Hindus and for that he must get full marks. There is no doubt that his place among the great soldiers and conquerors is not there, but he kept the Hindu flag alive with his bravery and example. Challenging the Shehan Shah, Aurangzeb himself, the most powerful of the Mughal emperors, was no feat. However, Shivaji took up the sword against him. He could not succeed, it is a fact, but he woke up the Hindus and showed that with the will, anything is possible.
After Shivaji’s and Aurangzeb’s death, Shivaji’s legacy was carried on by others and a Maratha empire was established. The roots of this lie in Shivaji’s uncompromising campaign. For the Mughals, Shivaji’s defeats in hindsight were a Pyrrhic victory, for after Aurangzeb, the Mughal empire went into decline.
At the same time, we must evaluate Shivaji as a soldier in world history. The biggest contribution from him is not that he won or lost, but the opportunity to show Hindus and the world that they could fight too. But to characterize him as a great conqueror is a misnomer.