Much of the intellectual discourse catapulted by Hindu historians have painted Shivaji as the original father of Hindu Nationalism, for obvious reasons. Chhatrapati Shivaji asserted the Hindu identity in the mainstream of medieval Indian polity by his establishment of the ‘Hindavi Swarajya’ as an indigenous challenge to external aggression. Today, while there are many upholders to the legacy of the Great Maratha, an unconsented heir to his throne in the form of his elder son, Sambhaji remains one-of-a-kind personalities in the annals of history. In this essay, we explore the story of Sambhaji’s life and his Hindutva through his correspondence with the people of his time.
Born as an unpredictable child with his own whims in the family of Bhonsales, Sambhaji always had his own ways of doing things. In 1680, Shivaji Maharaj had left the Swarajya throne without naming his heir, upon his death. Sambhaji, who was kept confined at the Panhala fort owing to his past shenanigans, managed to crown himself as the next Chhatrapati at Raigad on January 10, 1681. The path to his elevation as a king was however laced with the designs of Soyrabai, the most powerful among Shivaji’s queens, who projected her son Rajaram as the fitting candidate. While Sambhaji managed to outthrow Soyrabai and her son from political relevance quite swiftly, it was for him to win the trust of the court veterans who were miffed with him, much owed to his open idiosyncracies.
Sambhaji’s accession to the throne was anything but a peaceful transition of power in Maratha politics. An array of ministers sympathetic to Soyrabai’s cause were arrested – including Janardanpant Hanmante, Kanhoji Bhandwalkar the famed Peshwa Moropant Pingle alongside Pant Sachiv Annaji Datto whose houses were attacked by Sambhaji’s comrades. Historians have also suggested Rani Soyrabai’s sudden death in the circumstances due to suspected poisoning by Sambhaji’s contrivances.
Samrath Ramdas’ advice to the young Chhatrapati
The cruelties that had marked Sambhaji’s seizure of power had disturbed the ailing Samarth Ramdas who wrote a letter to Sambhaji reminding him of his father’s greatness. Swami Ramdas, a revered saint from the bhakti tradition reminds Sambhaji of his duties as a king and responsibilities towards his subjects. “Remember your father, Shivaji, and compare your actions with his. Do not think of yourselves too highly and learn from him how to live always.” The saint reminds him that while Sambhaji should give up on violence and anger, he should forgive old employees who did so much for the Swarajya and make them work under his wishes.
Furthermore, Swami Ramdas advises Sambhaji of the continued civilizational battle which is to be fought against the Mlecchas (Islamic Invaders) while keeping the flame of Dharma alive. He writes, “बहुत लोक मेळवावे| एक विचारे भरावे| कष्टे करोनी घसरावे| म्लेंच्छांवरी (Gather many people and instil inside them the idea of Swarajya. Prepare yourselves and fall upon the Mlecchas with vengeance).”
Highlighting the cause of Dharma, Ramdas writes, “धर्मासाठी झुंजावे|झुंझोनी अवघ्यासी मारावे || मारिता मारिता घ्यावे|राज्य आपुले (Fight for Dharma, if needed, kill people for achieving the same. Keep striving for it and while you kill, establish your rule).” Ramdas’ advice to impressionable Sambhaji was to remain for a lifetime, after which his transition into serious manhood is clearly visible.
Correspondences with the neighbouring states
When Sambhaji’s succession happened in the Deccan, Rajputana was grappled with a great offensive by Aurangazeb who had decided to take upon the princes’ growing ambition for autonomy. Shivaji Maharaj had expressed his displeasure against Aurangazeb’s targeting of Hindu kings in an open letter before his death. Aurangzeb had ordered his son, Akbar – II to launch an attack against the Rajputs to suppress their growing influence in Delhi affairs. Akbar however proposed that the war should be closed diplomatically on honourable terms. Rattled by his stance, Aurangzeb launched an attack on his own son, following which Akbar along with local Rajput leader Durgadas Rathore flew to Deccan asking Sambhaji for shelter.
In the May of 1981, stationed at the banks of Narmada, Akbar writes a letter to Sambhaji that should single-handedly settle the recent debate on the character of Aurangzeb. He writes,
“Since his coming to the throne, my father Emperor Aurangzeb has formed the deliberate resolution of putting down the Hindus. This is the sole cause of his war against the Rajputs. While in the eyes of God all men are His equal children and deserve impartial protection from their ruler, I became convinced that by such extreme measures, my father would lose his hold on the country and decided to oppose him in this disastrous move. I am, therefore, coming to you as a friend, as your kingdom is out of the Emperor’s reach. The valiant Durgädäs Räthod accompanies me. Please do not entertain any false suspicions about my intentions. If by the grace of God I succeed in my endeavour to depose my father, I shall remain only the nominal master and shall let you exercise all the power. We shall fully cooperate in putting down the Emperor.”
Akbar – II, the rebellious son of Aurangzeb who was one of the most powerful emperors of his times was furthering his hand for an alliance with 22-year-old Sambhaji who had just crowned himself amidst family infighting. The letter is reflective not only of Aurangzeb’s role in history as a religious zealot but also talks much about Sambhaji, whom Akbar saw as a potential ally in ousting his mightful father.
The second letter follows the story when Aurangzeb dispatched Krishna Singh, the only son of Ram Singh of Jaipur (Amber) to keep a watch on the Maratha tactics and his fled son Akbar in the Deccan. Failing upon his duty, Aurangzeb ordered the execution of Krishna Singh which had left his father Ram Singh perplexed. At this juncture, Sambhaji wrote a letter to Ram Singh in Sanskrit discussing the possibility of a pan-Indian Hindu alliance against Aurangzeb.
Chh Sambhaji’s Sanskrit letter to Ram Singh, ‘The yavan demon (Aurangzeb) feels the Hindus are weak. We will fight the demon with all our might. Its time to imprison this demon. If you muster courage, whats not possible. I’m surprised to see you abandon your faith & sit quietly’. pic.twitter.com/9baGPziTTL— Dr Uday S Kulkarni (@MulaMutha) March 10, 2021
The Sanskrit letter procured from the Jaipur state archives mentions Sambhaji reminding Ram Singh to take up the cause of Hindutva seriously after the gruesome tactic of Aurangzeb. It says,
“The present wicked Emperor believes that we Hindus have all become effeminate and tint we have lost all regard for our religion. Such an attitude on the part of the Emperor we cannot any longer endure. We cannot put up with anything derogatory to our character as soldiers (Kshatriyas). The Vedas and the codes enjoin certain injunctions of religion…which we cannot allow to be trampled underfoot, nor can we neglect our own duty as kings to our subjects. We are prepared to sacrifice everything, our treasure, our land, our forts, in waging war against this satanic Emperor.”
Sambhaji here can be seen elaborating with Ram Singh over his duty as a Hindu ruler to form a collective challenge against Aurangzeb. While he admires Ram Singh’s valour and his zeal for religion, Sambhaji has highlighted him to be on the right side of history, the side of Dharma.
Sambhaji’s resolution for Dharma
Upon Samarth Ramdas’ enlightenment after ascending the Swarajya throne, Sambhaji made a formal grant of ten thousand Hons every year to his family Goddess Bhavani. The Grant is written in a tone of thankfulness towards the Goddess and details the lives of the Bhonsale family and their connection with the temple. Written in his own handwriting, the Sanskrit letter reflects how Sambhaji’s worldview and how he saw his ancestors. In the grant, Sambhaji has referred to his grandfather Shahaji as ‘Haindav-Dharma-Jeernoddharaka’ – the one who has restored Dharma. On Shivaji, Sambhaji unapologetically bestows the titles of ‘Mleccha-kshaya-dixita’ – the one who has mastered the killing of Islamic invaders and ‘Gau-brahman-pratipalaka’ (The protector of cows and Brahmins).
Late Historian Ninad Bedekar has noted that intricacies like the way Sambhaji Maharaj looks upon his ancestors tell us a lot about what legacy he is willing to put himself in. Sambhaji’s associations with Kaviraj Bhushan, the court poet who mastered the Braj Bhasha cultivated his interest in learning many languages – he could manage Marathi, Sanskrit, Hindi, Persian and English all his own. It is known that Sambhaji used to decode the designs of the English stationed in Bombay, and used to personally write to them in their own language. His mastery over Sanskrit is reflected in many ways, but majorly through his verses in Budhbhushanam, his treatise on strategic affairs.
His portfolio of literature includes the works of Nakhshikhant, Nayikabheda and Sathatak written by him in Braj Bhasha. Inspired by his wife Yesubai, he wrote the fiction Nakhshikha, set in the backdrop of Shringarpur.
The eternal sacrifice
The advances of Sambhaji in giving a tough fight against the Portuguese and the Siddis of Janjira was also one of the reasons why The Mughal Emperor arrived in the Deccan. Aurangzeb had cherished a far-fetched dream of capturing the whole of Hindustan and bringing it under the Mughal realm. Upon his arrival in the 1680s, The Nizamshahi followed by the Adilshahi and Qutubshahi fell into a domino effect. It was only the Marathas who were to stand the test of time trapping Aurangzeb in Deccan, who never returned to Delhi until his death in 1707.
In February 1689, Sambhaji alongside Kavi Kalash, the poet were captured by Qutubshahi commander Sheikh Nizam and his son Iklas Khan who were now serving the Mughals at Sangameshwar. The capture of Sambhaji brought much joy to Aurangzeb, who ordered their captivity in Tulapur. Sambhaji, who was Chattrapati of the Hindavi Swarajya was publicly ridiculed upon his capture by the Mughals. Sambhaji and Kavi Kalash were paraded while dressed as clowns and bells tied to their necks mounted on camels. From their camp, they were brought to Aurangzeb’s Darbar with people lined up to see their King stripped of his pride.
The Next day, Aurangzeb made an offer to Sambhaji on his life with the condition to release all his forts and treasury to the emperor. Vehemently, Sambhaji struck the offer and abused Aurangzeb and the Prophet, ‘giving vent to his long pent up sentiments against the Muslim faith,’ Historian G S Sardesai writes. By now, Aurangzeb was rattled to hear the response of his biggest enemy and maintained that he had gone beyond doubt for pardon. What followed was Sambhaji and Kavi Kalash’s prolonged assassination in the jail at Tulapur.
At the outset, Sambhaji’s eyes were taken out while Kalash’s tongue was slit. tortured followed upon Sambhaji every day while his nails were taken out one by one every passing day. While Aurangazeb tried to lure Sambhaji for forgiveness against his demands, Sambhaji was determined enough not to budge. A fortnight later, after bearing the brunt of the tortures, Sambhaji was cut to death on the Amavasya of Phalgun, the last month of the Hindu calendar. While he was partially alive, his limbs were extracted while the flesh was fed to stray dogs. The slain heads of Sambhaji and Kalasha were later exhibited as symbols of Aurangzeb’s triumph over Hindavi Swarajya.
Chhatrapati Sambhaji paid the ultimate prize of his life for upholding his Dharma. Aurangzeb’s brutality knew no boundaries, the genocidal warmonger that he was. The later Marathas including Sambhaji’s wife Yesubai, his half-brother Rajaram and later his wife Tarabai held the bastion of Swarajya in the Deccan in its weakest times. While the Mughal Emperor thought of eliminating the Maratha might after Sambhaji’s death, it only grew into a vast empire in the next century, under the leadership of the Peshwas. Dharma triumphed over Aurangzeb’s Jehad in Sambhaji’s sacrifice.