Volume V, Issue 1 -- February, 2004
James Laine’s Controversial Book
Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India
(New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 2003)
Bhalchandrarao C. Patvardhan & Amodini Bagwe
Please note that the views expressed herein are those of the authors and not of the complete review.
For more information, please also see in this issue of the crQ:
- James Laine’s Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India and the attack on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute: Background - Chronology - Reactions
- Attacking Myths and Institutions: James Laine’s Shivaji and BORI
- the Editors, the complete review
While condemning the attacks on the BORI Archives in Pune and on Prof. Bahulkar in the strongest possible terms, we wish to share our views about Laine's casual scholarship on Shivaji as presented in his latest book.
Some of his remarks suggest willful, calculated sensationalism than honest scholarship. Despite his apology issued last month after the OUP quietly withdrew the book from the Indian market (LINK), which he has practically withdrawn as of now (LINK), there are many issues that need both examination and comment. As Laine himself admits in the book, he has cavalierly presented gossip and innuendo without an iota of documentary substantiation, and then on that basis, proceeded to construct his flawed argument. Naturally, we must question his motives in undertaking such an exercise. This is important since next to nothing has appeared in the media by way of comment on the actual contents of the book.
It must be asserted that at no time in history has India been Islamic. Indeed, how could it have been so, when it has always had a majority of non-Muslims in its population ? True, following the waves of Islamic invasions that began in right earnest around the 12th century CE, certain parts of the country did have Muslim rulers who imposed Islamic law on the entire populace they governed, but that does not make India Islamic, since a non-Muslim majority continued to follow their own religious tenets, come what may.
As for Hindu regimes, unlike Christian or Islamic ones, the king could have no religion according to time-honoured mores. As an individual, like any one of his subjects, he was free to profess and practise his version of any one of myriad indigenous doctrines that together constitute Hinduism; but as king, he necessarily had to be secular, regarding all forms of religious expression with due impartiality. Even a cursory study of Indian history clearly shows how indigenous States encouraged even antipodal doctrines to flourish. Therefore, with no king (including Shivaji) who was Hindu, and an India that was never Islamic, the astonishing title -- ‘Hindu King in Islamic India’ -- leaves one wondering about the extent of Laine’s understanding of the subject he addresses with such authority !
Moreover, Laine himself must be aware that various Muslim dynasties in India, whether Mughal, Bahamani, Adilshahi, Nizamshahi, or many of the fragmented Sultanates, were then ruled by alien invaders from Central and Middle Eastern Asia, analogous to Islamic invasions of Europe. A major portion of the invading armies constituted mercenaries with extra-territorial loyalties, including Mongols, Turks, Arabs, Persians, Afghans, and Siddis from Ethiopia. Viewing the book title from this perspective, the effort seems to be more of a hasty hatchet job with questionable historical validity, seeking to cash in on the post-9/11 global upsurge of interest in Islam.
Coming to the most incendiary part of the book, leading to the recent turmoil in Maharashtra, Laine reports outright hearsay on p.93: "Maharashtrians tell jokes naughtily suggesting that his guardian Dadaji Konddev was his biological father" ! The reader may well wonder whether such seemingly casual inclusion of injurious gossip related to one's chief protagonist is a convention in serious cross-cultural scholarship ! As a matter of fact, love and adoration of Shivaji is the bottomline truth in the state, and we have never come across such a motivated rumour until Laine’s book was published ! Outsiders fail to understand that while Shivaji’s rugged forts stand testimony to his great heroism in an all-too-brief tenure of forty years as a warrior and strategist of epic proportions, it is upon the very hearts and minds of the common populace that these nearly four centuries old magical legends are etched to eternity: a testimony to the greatness of a culture that has survived untold depredations and chicanery. In fact, this is what makes the "Shivaji story" immune to fabrication to suit contemporary designs of a handful of elite scholars and their political instigators.
From the scholarly perspective, the wholly unsubstantiated insinuation that Shahaji was not Shivaji’s "biological father" is implausible, incredible and outrageous ! Unlike lax norms of familial or marital propriety that characterize ‘civilized’ Western societies, loose speculation about someone’s ancestry is a very serious matter indeed even in contemporary Indian ethos, not to speak of conditions almost four centuries ago. At that time, societal sanctions were immensely more rigid and the consequences of their transgression, all too tragic. A scandalous event like that implied by Laine would scarcely escape immediate detection, judgment and censure. Anybody indulging in such conduct would have courted severe social stigma, especially someone like Jijabai who both hailed from and was married into aristocracy. The progeny of an allegedly adulterous relationship would never be accepted as king by a tradition-bound people who looked up to the monarch as an incarnation of Divinity !
It must be asserted that Shahaji, who is superciliously alluded to by Laine as an "absentee father", was forced to lodge his expecting wife and yet-to-be-born child in the safe haven of the Shivneri fort because of untold political uncertainty prevailing around the time Shivaji was born -- and not, it must be mentioned, on account of any estrangement between husband and wife. (Laine is in grave error when he attempts to rewrite one of the most significant chapters in Indian history, essaying an inappropriate imposition of a contemporary Western paradigm upon the medieval Indian scenario).
Shahaji, who was practically ruling the Nizamshahi as Regent on behalf of the minor Murtaza Nizamshah, was actively engaged in fending off threats from both Shah Jehan and Adilshah, being constantly on the run as a direct result. He was accompanied by his first son, Sambhaji, who was killed at a young age in the Battle of Kanakgiri. After the dissolution of the Nizamshahi in 1636, Shahaji’s subsequent service in the Adilshahi took him to Bangalore, but he continued holding and administering his old land titles in the Pune region through his trusted Brahmin aide, Dadoji Konddev. Obviously, Shahaji was unable to cover all the distance to Pune on a regular basis in those uncertain times and the additional responsibility of bringing up the young Shivaji devolved upon Dadoji. Shahaji took another wife in Bangalore, as was customary in those days. From this second marriage, he sired Vyankoji, the founder of the Thanjavur Bhosale dynasty, distinguished by its patronage of both Tamil and Marathi culture and arts. Shahajiraje thus bequeathed to India two distinct dynasties of visionary rulers. All these facts are well documented and should suffice to prevent irresponsible speculation on account of his absence from the Pune region.
On page 91, Laine asks with an unnecessary soupçon of dramatization,Can one imagine a narrative of Shivaji’s life in which, for example: Shivaji had an unhappy family life ? Shivaji had a harem ? Shivaji was uninterested in the religion of bhakti saints ? Shivaji’s personal ambition was to build a kingdom, not liberate a nation ? Shivaji lived in a cosmopolitan Islamicate world and did little to change that fact ?Had Laine really read and gleaned anything from the references listed at the end of the book, such perturbing questions would not have arisen. For instance, it was practically de rigeur for men of status in Shivaji’s time to have more than one wife. To go even further back in history, let us recall that Lord Rama’s father too had several queens. The custom had nothing whatsoever to do with practices prevailing in a "cosmopolitan Islamicate world". However, isn’t having several legally wedded wives very different from keeping a harem, which latter may even include several official and unofficial concubines ? Surely, Laine appreciates the essential difference !
Also, as revealed by numerous treasured documents of the era, including correspondence between Ramdas and Shivaji, the latter was spiritually surrendered to the former, of which fact Laine feigns such complete ignorance ! With adequate answers to each one of Laine's questions easily obtainable in his references, is his pretence indicative of a deeper, sinister motive to compromise, restrain and perhaps even destroy the extraordinary reverence in which Shivaji is held ?
For a presumably accomplished scholar (LINK), who has spent several decades in close contact with Maharashtra, it is amazing -- even distressing -- that Laine has understood almost nothing about the veneration Shivaji commands in ‘native’ consciousness. In that sense, his scholarship may well have been wasted ! For him to say now that he had "foolishly misread the situation in India and figured the book would receive scholarly criticism, not censorship and condemnation" is appalling, at the very least. You can hardly foolishly misread a situation that has existed for nearly four centuries, the study of which is the declared intention of your scholarship, not to mention the "love of the Shivaji story" you avowedly evince !
A similar exercise, as confessed by Laine in the case of a Jesus Christ or a Thomas Jefferson (LINK), is entirely incapable of provoking as vehement a reaction because these exalted personages do not command the kind of supreme reverence in their specific locales that Shivaji does in his.
No doubt Laine is aware how Christ’s popularity in the West has been steadily on the decline, what with Church attendances falling alarmingly, and the paucity of preachers needing imports from ‘third world’ countries to supplant the dwindling numbers of octogenarian White clergymen ! This observation is further supported by demographic statistics indicating the exponential growth of the followers of alternative philosophies, which cannot be attributed to new immigrants alone.
As for Jefferson, in an exercise very reminiscent of the present one, his greatness as a rationalist, especially his radically piercing views on Christianity and its Church, (for example: "The Christian God is a being of terrific character -- cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust."), was sought by disadvantaged parties to be compromised by the exposition of some tenuous incident in the statesman’s life. But it is necessary to ascertain whether such detractors, who authored the "widely varying accounts" about Jefferson and Christ that Laine claims to have "seen", could be considered persons of established scholarly reputation. Since serious scholars would hardly ever countenance rumour or gossip as evidence, it was more than likely that such criticism was penned by critics who had no compunctions about relying on tittle-tattle to score a point.
Because Laine has indirectly questioned Shivaji’s paternity without a shred of documentary evidence, he sadly gets categorized in the latter class and his claim to a "love for the Shivaji story" falls to pieces ! Incidentally, there are certain to be "other ways of reading the historical evidence", but only if historical evidence, and not malicious fabrication, is offered in the first place.
Laine ought to have grasped the reality that there just can be no comparison between Shivaji and the likes of Christ and Jefferson from the Indian, especially Maharashtrian, point of view ! The learned author, in spite of his protracted contact with the region since 1977, failed to realise that the "Shivaji story", as narrated in every Maharashtrian home, has far more significance and enjoys immensely greater credibility than all history taught in academia. And, by his own admission, was it not the development of this "Shivaji story" that he had set out to study ? Moreover, the growth in recent years of a strong and eminently justifiable public perception that a vast majority of academics have been indulging in wanton politicization of scholarship at the expense of truth bolsters this awareness.
Furthermore, Shivaji is not merely a "Maharashtrian" hero, as Laine not so subtly avers in his facetious apology. Shivaji was the first Indian leader in relatively recent history to contemplate political self-determination and successfully put it into practice at a time when all others were blissfully unaware of both the existence and possibility of such a thing ! This visionary quality elevates Shivaji to a pioneering ‘national’ stature, head and shoulders above all his peers and contemporaries. His exploits had obviously become the stuff of legends in the course of his lifetime. Bhooshan, hailing from the environs of the Mughal capital wrote epic poetry about him, while Chhatrasal who traveled from Bundelkhand to seek employment with him was bade to return to his territories and there establish his own independence. The slant in Laine’s apology to localize and thus limit Shivaji’s influence is not as innocuous as it appears, and is not likely to be overlooked by discerning readers !
Indeed, since it takes the ‘authority’ of a White man to convince us of the greatness of things indigenous, it would be pertinent to quote historian Bamber Gascoigne:"He (Shivaji) taught the modern Hindus to rise to the full stature of their growth. So, when viewed with hindsight through twentieth century glasses, Aurangzeb on the one side and Shivaji on the other come to be seen as key figures in the development of India. What Shivaji began Gandhi could complete …… and what Aurangzeb stood for would lead to the establishment of the separate state of Pakistan." (The Great Moghuls, London: Constable), (emphasis ours).It is sad to see how all the years Laine spent in India were so utterly in vain, if he has failed to note and appreciate this, the most distinguishing and vital aspect of the "Shivaji story" !
There seems to be more to the book than mere scholarship. One is reminded of what Thomas Paine wrote, in a slightly different context perhaps, in the opening lines of his The Rights of Man about Edmund Burke’s unwarranted interest in French affairs. It amply illustrates a tendency to dabble that Laine evidently shares with Burke:"Among the incivilities by which nations or individuals provoke and irritate each other, Mr. Burke’s pamphlet on the French Revolution is an extraordinary instance. Neither the people of France, nor the National Assembly, were troubling themselves about the affairs of England, or the English Parliament; and why Mr. Burke should commence an unprovoked attack upon them, both in Parliament and in public, is a conduct that cannot be pardoned on the score of manners, nor justified on that of policy." (London: J.M.Dent, 1993, p. 7).With suitable substitutions, the sentiments expressed by Paine could apply rather well to Laine’s avoidable blundering foray into Indian culture and history. If, "as an American and a Christian", Laine had, for instance, devoted more time to finding out why enthusiasm for Christ is petering out so rapidly in his home country, he might have been spared the pain of living through "the saddest day" in his career ! But, prudent apprehension of censorship by the Moral Majority and cessation of grants by funding bodies might perhaps have served as an important deterrent in the case of similar misadventures closer home !
It is the "Shivaji story" that transcends every conceivable faction of Maharashtrian society and has always served as an efficacious uniting factor, the demolition of which can be perceived to serve powerful interests in present times. India in general and its Maharashtrian Hindu population in particular have traditionally been ultra-soft targets for a sundry assortment of deluded Indophiles anyway, and the once-correct belief that one can get away with almost murder has motivated several similar ‘research’ exercises in the past.
Constituents of the more impulsive but perhaps less sophisticated majority in Maharashtra are more likely than not to smell in Laine’s dissertation the same intellectual chicanery attempted through the purchase by British colonial masters (for a princely sum of £ 3000, paid in easy installments, may it be noted !) of Friedrich Max Muller’s erudition a century ago with the studied intention of demoralizing a whole nation by denigration of its antiquity, pre-eminence, culture, religion and history. It might be perceived by the populace that one of its greatest cultural heroes is being put under an iniquitous microscope with precisely that same objective. Such heinous strategies may have worked beautifully under colonial rule, but are less than likely to work now -- a reality Laine appears to have dangerously overlooked. A significantly large proportion of the Indian polity has begun ‘thinking independently’, albeit to the detriment of brokers of international geopolitical stakes. In this sense, the book might well qualify as yet another attempt at fragmentation of the steadily developing strength of a society that is waking up to a realization of the many historical frauds perpetrated on itself for centuries.
If, unfortunately, promoting social discord was indeed a purpose of the book, the attempt may have partially succeeded with what happened at the Bhandarkar Institute; the first salvo has been fired by pitting Maratha (whom Laine gratuitously refers to as being from Shivaji’s own community) against Brahmin. Unless we desire lumpen elements to take undue advantage of the fallout of the regrettable BORI incident, concerted and well informed public opinion needs to be nurtured to arrest and neutralize machinations of a wildly proliferating class of pliable political paid pipers and their cohorts in an amenable media ! Because Laine has blatantly used, in the matter of Shivaji’s parentage at least, sources that cannot pass the test of reliability even by a long shot, it is necessary for scholars to scrutinize the entire work for its truthfulness, especially the development of communalised identities upon which he dwells at great length. All frivolous ‘scholarship’ needs to be unequivocally discredited and disowned by intellectuals in the interests of veracity and probity in academia.
While undeniably condemning the attack on the Bhandarkar Institute archives with the plea that the guilty should not go unpunished, should we not also examine the role of the so-called 'thinkers' who might perhaps unwittingly have assisted if not actually set up Laine's mischief in the first place ? Laine mentions in his Acknowledgments (p. viii) that his "scholarly home has been the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune" where he "profited from advice and assistance". Once the BORI administration realised the explosive nature of the book's contents, and how they were sitting on a time bomb for all these months, it might have been appropriate for them to issue a strong public denial and condemnation of the author, in no uncertain terms, for his highly objectionable effort to convert innuendo and gossip into a matter of documentary record.
It is up to Laine to inform his readers as to how and where he dug up this disgusting rumour casting aspersions upon the character of Shivaji’s mother, herself a figure of great veneration to all. She was a single mother of great character and substance, the very fountainhead of inspiration for Shivaji’s life’s work.
Needless to state, all this only applies if the real intention behind the book was more than what Laine declares. But from even its very title, the book comes through more like an exercise in skullduggery, which is unfortunate !
If scholarly research funded through institutional grants is undertaken with the altruistic aim of benefiting humanity, one wonders how the present book can achieve that end! Scholars ought not to forget that all institutions supporting them are rooted in their particular indigenous ethos to which they must be accountable, especially when the results are sought to be commercially exploited through book sales.
The body fabric of a resurgent India, and particularly that of a progressive state like Maharashtra, can well do without such vicious ‘scholarship’. We hope saner counsel will prevail in the currently disturbed scenario, as a fitting tribute to its chief architect, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.
- Bhalchandrarao C. Patvardhan & Amodini Bagwe
Note: an earlier version of this text was also posted at Hindu Vivek Kendra.
About the authors:Bhalchandrarao C. Patvardhan is a metallurgist and chartered engineer; he can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amodini Bagwe is a research scholar and student of Yoga.
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