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Brahmanical and Bahujan traditions in Maharashtra

Veer Bharat Talwar, while underlining the distinguishing characteristics of the renaissance movement in Maharashtra, contends that it had three distinct streams. All the three were linked in one way or the other with the saint-poet tradition. While two of them drew sustenance from the Bhagwat Dharma, one was inspired by Phule and rejected Brahmanism outright  

Continuity in Maharashtrian renaissance movement

The kind of continuity that marks the history of Maharashtrian renaissance movement is missing elsewhere in India. During the British rule, the renaissance movement here was, on the one hand, influenced by Western thinking and, on the other hand, connected with its past, ie the saint-poet movement of the medieval era, before going on to be associated with the national Independence movement.

In Marathi, the word “Sudharnaa” is used for renaissance. It refers to the fact that the movement aimed at “correcting” religion and society. The saint-poet movement, which lasted from the 13th to the 18th centuries, is also called “Sudharnaa”. It was a socio-religious movement that stretched from the 13th to the 19th century, barring the latter half of the Peshwa rule, when Brahmanism assumed a firm grip on society and casteism was harshly enforced. Till the 18th century, the saints led the movement and in the 19th century, middle-class intellectuals, armed with Western education, took over its leadership. This continuity was not only in terms of nomenclature but also in terms of the objectives and the orientation of the movement. At its centre was the question of caste discrimination and Maharashtrian identity. The Maharashtrian renaissance movement’s association with the different nationalist political streams that emerged subsequently was in the sense that the questions and inclinations, mainly pertaining to a movement, that the 19th-century renaissance revolved around continued to be relevant in the 20th-century political streams.

Even in the changed political context, the Bhagwat Dharma and the Maharashtra Dharma continued to be sources of inspiration. They were perceptible in the politics of Tilak and other Maharashtrian nationalists. Even today, they are a part of the social common sense of Maharashtra. There is no other state in the country where we can find such continuity. Bengal is one exception, but there too, the continuity was only partial. The national movement that emerged in Bengal towards the end of the 19th century had some tenuous links with the renaissance movement led by the Brahmo Samaj but it was completely divorced from Bengal’s past – from the movement of its Bhakti saints. In Bengal, the Brahmo Samajis had regard for all religions and their saints, and would invoke Vaishnav religion and Chaitanya. But that was it. When Keshavchandra was drawn to the mysterious powers of Kali Ma in the last years of his life under the influence of Ramkrishna Paramhans, ordinary Brahmo Samajis dismissed it as a digression from the values of renaissance and criticized him. Much later, in the 20th century, Baul songs had a deep impact on Rabindranath Tagore. He found the humanistic ideology of the Bauls very useful in countering the Hindu-Muslim communal divide. Yet, the Bengali renaissance never drew on the movement of the Bengali saint poets of the 15th and the 16th centuries in a way that Maharashtrian renaissance did. The Bengali educated class, which owed its emergence in the 19th century to the English language, Western education and the influence of the colonial rule, had no respect for its medieval heritage. For them, the period before the colonial era was a dark age of Muslim atrocities. The same was true of the Hindi-speaking Awadh and the Northwestern Province in whose western parts the Arya Samaj, which was leading the renaissance movement, was dead set against the ideology of the saint poets. Arya Samaj founder Dayanand Saraswati’s Satyarth Prakash has harsh words to say about saints like Kabir and Nanak and suggests that Tulsi’s Ramcharitmanas should have no place in academic curricula. Though the influence of English language and Western education in the Hindi-speaking provinces was far less compared with Bengal, yet, for historical reasons, all major Hindi writers, including Bhartendu and Shivprasad, considered the pre-colonial era as a dark age, marked by atrocities at the hands of the Muslim rulers. Notwithstanding the isolated and superficial claims of the Bhakti movement having influenced renaissance in Hindi states, key elements of Bhakti literature, especially from the writings of Kabir and other Nirgun saints, such as making the Dalits conscious of their status as human beings and invoking their self-pride and opposition to caste-based discrimination, pollution by touch, social inequality, Brahmanism and rituals, find no echo in the writings of Bhartendu and other contemporary writers.

In Gujarat, the situation was a little different from Bengal, Maharashtra and the Hindi-speaking states. In his book Classical Poets of Gujarat and their Influence on Society and Morals, Govardhanram Tripathi, a leading 19th-century reformist of Gujarat, makes a critical evaluation of the Gujarati Bhakti poetry of 15th-18th centuries. Govardhanram particularly focuses on three Gujarati poets of the 17th century – Aakho, Premanand and Shamal. He praises them not for what they had to say about the caste system and social inequality, but for their emphasis on the commonalities between the devout of different religions. He argues that what the three poets say about retrograde socio-religious customs, including patriarchal values, and the way Shamal’s women characters revolt against society for the sake of their love, shows that they were modernists. He contends that modernism, for which we praise the British, was very much evident in the writings of these 17th-century poets. In that sense, wasn’t society as developed in the 17th century as in the 19th century? Despite showering fulsome praise on the Bhakti poets, he sees no continuity or relationship between the Bhakti movement of the 17th century and the Gujarati renaissance of the 19th century. In fact, he complains that instead of drawing inspiration from the saint poets of the 17th century, the Hindu reformists, in order to be seen as modern, look towards the British. He finds them divorced from and unaware of their heritage. In Maharashtra, the situation was just the opposite. There, all the renaissance leaders seem to be consciously invoking the heritage of the saint poets and trying to appropriate them.

Charles Herman Heimsath, who had done a scholarly, balanced study of the reform movements in various provinces of India, while discussing the impact of saint poets on the 19th-century renaissance, rightly remarks that, in Bengal, the 19th-century renaissance had no links with the saint poets. But what is surprising is that he fails to find this link even in Maharashtra. It seems that not only did he ignore the facts but his insight also failed him. That is why his famous book Indian Nationalism and Hindu Social Reform (Princeton University Press, 1964) does not mention this important characteristic of the Maharashtrian renaissance.

Three characteristic features of the heritage of saints that the 19th-century Maharashtrian reformers linked themselves with deserve mention. They are Bhagwat Dharma, Maharashtrian identity and Maharashtrian dharma. A brief discussion on the three would be in order.

For some specific reasons, the Bhakti movement, which began in Maharashtra with the Mahanubhav sect of Sant Chakradhar, could not gain much currency. The Bhagwat Dharma of the Varkaris proved much more effective and became popular. Since the 5th century, the Varkaris have worshipped Vithoba or Vithal and performed the annual pilgrimage to the deity’s abode at Pandharpur near Nashik. With Jnandev of the Nath sect becoming its adherent in the 13th century, the tradition became stronger. Jnandev or Dnyaneshwar wrote a commentary on Srimad Bhagwad Gita that was titled Bhavartha Deepika and became famous by the name Dnyaneshwari. The Bhagwat Dharma propounded in it became a synonym for the Bhakti movement of Maharashtra. Barring Ramdas, all the other saint poets like Namdev, Eknath and Tukaram, propagated this Bhagwat Dharma. The Bhagwat Dharma respected Vedic traditions and had no issues with the Varnashram Dharma dictating social relations. But it did not give any importance to caste as far as religion and devotion were concerned. It tried to unify people of all the Varnas and castes through the common thread of devotion to Vithal and gave even the lowliest of the low the confidence that they can attain spiritual growth through moral conduct and devotion. The proponents of Bhagwat Dharma said that for devotees, caste, clan, family and status were of no relevance; what mattered were purity of heart and depth of devotion. God does not see what his devotee’s caste is; he only sees whether the devotee is pure and honest. If the Varkari sect had Brahmin saints like Dnyaneshwar and Eknath, it also had saints from lower castes like Namdev Darji, Tukaram Kunbi, Chokhamela Mahar and Gora Kumhar. All these saints respected one another. The Varkari sect also had women saints like Bahinabai and Muslim saints like Sheikh Mohammed. The sect, thus, gave a new identity to people in religion and spiritualism – an identity that had nothing to do with their caste or varna. G.B. Sardar, a scholar of Marathi saint literature, thus wrote that Varkari sect propagated “spiritual humanism”. Besides devotion to Vithal, the Varkari sect also tried to unite Maharashtrians through the Marathi language. They wrote their entire literature in Marathi and encouraged Maharashtrians to take pride in their language and their land. The movement of the saint poets thus made all the Marathi-speakers conscious of their cultural unity and see themselves as a nation. This Maharashtrian identity formed the backdrop to the emergence of the Maratha Empire, of which Shivaji became the biggest symbol.

Sant Ramdas was not a Varkari. Yet, in his book Daasbodh, he propagated Maharashtra Dharma, as distinct from Bhagwat Dharma. In a letter, he advised Shivaji’s son Sambhaji to tread in his father’s footsteps. “Unite all the Maharashtrians,” he wrote (p-78, Rise of Maratha Power, Ranade, University of Bombay, 1961). Different scholars have different takes on what Ramdas exactly meant by Maharashtra Dharma. But what is clear is that Maharashtra Dharma was not Hindu religion only. It was a religion to be followed by the Maharashtrians. Ramdas was also a devout Hindu but he did not consider the spiritual practices of Bhagwat Dharma to be adequate. He emphasized the need for fulfilling one’s worldly duties, too. He urged the people to carry out their familial, social and political responsibilities. Ramdas believed in the superiority of the Brahmins and in the Varnashram dharma. Ram, wielding a bow and arrow, was his hero. He asked the people to become strong and establish their rule for the protection of their religion. He called for the establishment of mutts at different places and uniting the Brahmins. While the Bhagwat Dharma of the Varkaris influenced the masses in general, including the Shudras, Ramdas mainly held sway over the Brahmins and the tiny upper class.

The Maharashtrian renaissance was closely connected with the movement of the Marathi saints and their Bhagwat and Maharashtra dharmas. Despite being influenced by the values of Western education and European Enlightenment, the Maharashtrian reformers never let go of their past. There has not been a single social reformer who has not referred to the movement of the Marathi saint poets and uniquely interpreted their teachings. They saw their reform movement as a continuation of the movement of the saint poets. The reformists of the Prarthana Samaj, while propounding their principles, always linked them with the religious teachings of the saints. For instance, Ranade was so deeply influenced by the liberal values propagated by the saints that he described the Prarthana Samaj movement as a form of Bhagwat Dharma and its humble progeny (The Prarthana Samaj and its Critique in Western India: History, Society, and Culture; Itihas Shikshak Mahamandal, Kolhapur; 1997; p 55). Ranade said that the Bhagwat Dharma movement was as great a religious reform movement as the European Reformation. On the other hand, Raja Ram Mohan Roy never referred to the Bhakti movement of Bengal and believed that the movement led by his Brahmo Samaj was comparable with a reformation. R.G. Bhandarkar, another leader of the Prarthana Samaj, in his book Vaishanivism, Shaivism and Minor Religious Systems, which is considered an authoritative text on India’s religious history, has dwelt on the key teachings of saints like Namdev and Tukaram. While elaborating on the values and principles of the Prarthana Samaj, he linked them with the liberal and reasoned practices of different religions and Tukaram’s teachings ( “Ramkrishna Gopal Bhandarkar and the Academic Renaissance in Maharashtra” in R.N. Dandekar in N.K. Wagle, ed, Writers, Editors and Reformers of Maharashtra, Manohar, Delhi, 1999, p 130).

During the course of the Maharashtrian renaissance in the 19th century, the writings of many Varkari saints were republished. Balshastri Jambhekar, the first proponent of Maharashtrian renaissance, who laid the foundations of Marathi journalism by launching the magazine Darpan, republished Dnyaneshwari in 1845. Around the same time, Tukaramatya Padwal of Paramhans Sabha, the first organization to propagate the idea of renaissance, laboriously collected all the writings of Tukaram and after editing, published them as Tukaram Gatha. Nowhere else in India were the writings of saint poets compiled, edited and published by the reformers to aid the renaissance movement. Ramdas’ Daasbodh and Mahipati’s compilation of the biographies of Marathi saints were also republished.

Ramdas’ ‘Daasbodh’

Maharashtrian reformers had a liberal attitude towards politics, religion and society. They drew strength from the liberal values of the Bhagwat Dharma. They were liberal nationalists. Unity among the people is mandatory for any kind of nationalism to thrive. The Maharashtrian identity, which was born out of the efforts by Varkari saints to unite all the Maharashtrians using the common thread of Bhagwat dharma, was very valuable for the 19th-century nationalists. They were modernists and were receptive to the modern values of Western education and European Enlightenment. But opposition to casteist discrimination had to be the first and the foremost value of any home-grown modernism. The 19th-century nationalists had inherited this value from the Bhagwat dharma of the saints. Most of the reformers of the Prarthana Samaj were Brahmins. They were opposed to the caste system but lacked the courage to break its shackles. Moreover, the forces that supported the caste system were quite strong. Given these circumstances, they refrained from declaring that annihilation of caste system was their objective. Instead, they took a somewhat lenient view of it. The liberal attitude of the Bhagwat Dharma towards the caste system did attract these reformers. According to Ranade, the Bhakti movement in Maharashtra, which lasted 500 years, was propagated by more than 50 saints, of whom half were Brahmins and the rest, non-Brahmins. Brahmin saints like Dnyaneshwar and Eknath did not consider the caste system as sacrosanct and had sympathy for its Dalit-Shudra victims. Chokhamela, a saint from the Mahar caste, gave a touching expression to the agony of the victims of socio-religious oppression. But while doing so, the Dalit saints had a dilemma. They were torn between the old values that ordained slavery for them, and the new spiritual freedom. That is why their expressions were somewhat subdued and apologetic. Hence, the Ambedkarites have taken a dislike to them. The “indigenous modernism” of the saints found its most explicit expression in the writings of Shudra saint Tukaram, who aggressively assailed the caste system and the arrogance of Brahmins born out of their supposed superiority.

Mahadev Govind Ranade (1842-1902): Social reformer and a liberal interpreter of the Bhagwat Dharma

The fact that Tukaram was the biggest influence on the 19th-century Marathi reformers, especially those who were opposed to casteist discrimination, can hardly be ignored. Tukaram hailed from a village called Dehu, near Pune, and his surname was ‘More’. Sadanand More, one his many descendants who had settled in Dehu and the adjoining villages, wrote an essay on the impact of Tukaram on modern reformists (Impact of Tukaram on Modern Maharashtra in Western India: History and Society, Kolhapur, 1997). He writes that Dadoba Pandurang Tarphadkar, who was the first important reformist of Maharashtra and a follower of Balshastri Jambhekar, had founded Paramhans Sabha and Manavdharma Sabha in Bombay and Gujarat respectively, much before the Prarthana Samaj came into being. Dadoba came from a Varkari family and the name of Paramhans Sabha, established in 1984, was taken from an “abhang” (devotional poetry sung in praise of Vithal) – “Paramhans taari jane sahja varma, tethe yati kula dharma naahi”. Tukaram describes a person who has risen above caste discrimination and family traditions, a Paramhans. Only those who believed in breaking the chains of caste could become a member of Dadoba’s Paramhans Sabha. Needless to say, in this sense, Paramhans Sabha showed much more courage than the Prarthana Samaj.

Dadoba was so deeply influenced by Tukaram that he wrote many of his poems along the lines of Tukaram’s abhangs. These renaissance reformists were the first in modern Maharashtra to write abhangs. Like the Derozians of Bengal, the members of the Paramhans Sabha too ate rotis prepared by Dalits and pavroti bought from Portuguese bakers. The only difference was that while the Derozians did this in the open, in the markets, the followers of Paramhans Sabha did it in their secret meetings. In Bengal, when the news of these kinds of activities reached the Bhadralok (gentlefolk), the Derozians had to face the ire of their families and some were turned out from their homes. But in Maharashtra, when secret meetings of the Paramhans Sabha no longer remained a secret, the Sabha itself had to be disbanded. The opposition of Derozians to casteist restrictions was fiercer than of the Maharashtrian reformers because Bengal was more tolerant of such audacities than Maharashtra. Some of the former members of the Paramhans Sabha, which was dissolved in 1849, formed a new organization inspired by the lecture of Keshavchandra Sen in Bombay in 1866. It was called Prarthana Samaj and a substantial chunk of its members were graduates of Elphinstone College. The new organization was much less enthusiastic about breaking the boundaries of caste. Accommodation had replaced aggression.

But even in Prarthana Samaj, Tukaram was still the biggest influence from among the Varkari saints, and its members held Professor Alexander Grant in great regard. Bombay University was established when Grant was Bombay Presidency’s director of education. A follower of Aristotelian philosophy, Grant was also influenced by the teachings of Tukaram – so much so that he wrote to the Governor General, seeking publication by the government of a new, more accurate and authoritative edition of Tukaramgatha. With the help of a generous government grant, a new edition of Tukaramgatha was published. Edited by Vishnu Parshuram Pandit and Shankar Pandurang – both members of the Prarthana Samaj – the book is considered as important a milestone in the history of Marathi literature as the publication of an authoritative edition of the Mahabharata by the Bhandarkar Research Institute in the 20th century. According to More, Prarthana Sabha reformists, including Justice Ranande, R.G. Bhandarkar, N.G. Chandavarkar, B.A. Modak and others not only drew inspiration from Tukaram but also tried to lead their life in accordance with Tukaram’s abhangs. For them, Tukaram was the friend, philosopher and guide. Ranade and Chandravarkar delivered many lectures on Tukaram’s abhangs while Bhandarkar, Modak and Vithal Ramji Shinde performed kirtans on the abhangs. These reformers described themselves as modern followers of Tukaram and named their religion “Nav Bhagwat Dharma” (More, p 120). These reformists put the saints on a par with the Western thinkers, who were a rage in the renaissance period. For instance, Ranade did not approve of the new generation of reformists, represented by Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, making a beeline for English philosophers John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer and propounding their own version of Bhagwat Dharma, which was an amalgam of the philosophies of Aristotle and Tukaram. They pitted their philosophy, which sought full realization of the potential of life, against the Epicurean philosophy of the new generation (ibid).

More writes that Marathi reformers spread the message of Tukaram outside today’s Maharashtra, influencing Bengal’s Brahmo Samaj. Satyendranath Thakur translated Tukaram’s abhangs into Bengali and also wrote his biography. Another Brahmo Samaji, Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, wrote a play on the life of Tukaram. The abhangs of Tukaram were also translated into Gujarati and in the 20th century,ended up leaving its imprint on Gandhiji’s thinking. Tukaram’s writings influenced modern Marathi literature, including many modern Marathi litterateurs of the 19th and 20th centuries such as Keshavsut, Balkavi, Gavkari and B.S. Mardekar. Towards the end of the 20th century, Dilip Chitre translated Tukaram’s poems into English, thus earning him a place in world literature. He also wrote about the Tukaram-centred principles of literary criticism (ibid, p 125).

Kashinath Rajwade, a staunch supporter of brahmanical, cow-protection traditions

It was not that only the liberal Brahmin reformers of the Prarthana Samaj attached significance to the movement of the saints. Their opponents – the traditionalist Brahmins and the non-Brahmin reformists – also gave an equal importance to it. It was almost mandatory for every ideology that emerged in the 19th-century Maharashtra to interpret the saint movement and its Bhagwat Dharma. An association with the saint tradition was necessary to win acceptability in Maharashtrian society. Of course, they also critiqued the tradition and presented their own interpretation of it to challenge that of their rivals. For instance, in the 19th century, the traditionalist Brahmins disputed the interpretation of the liberal Brahmins of the Prarthana Samaj and brought to the fore another aspect of the saint movement. The stream of traditionalist Brahmin reformers began with Chiplunkar and its most powerful and famous votary was Vishwanath Kashinath Rajwade. He rejected the praises heaped on Varkari saints like Dnyaneshwar, Namdev and Tukaram by the reformists of the Prarthana Samaj and strongly disputed their appreciation of the Bhagwat Dharma. He instead projected Swami Ramdas, a Bhakti saint of the 17th century. Assailing Ranande and others, Rajwade accused the Varkari saints of turning the people weak, idle and fatalist. Later, he changed his view somewhat and gave the Varkari saints some credit for protecting the Hindu religion. But he stuck to his charge that the Varkari saints left everything to Vithoba and freed themselves from all responsibilities. Rajwade asserted that the Varkari saints were one-sided and that they spread anarchy in society by undermining the superiority of the Brahmins. In contrast, Rajwade said, Ramdas paid equal attention to all sections of society and counselled people to work diligently and ensure that the social system works smoothly and properly. Dwelling on the differences between the Varkari saints and Ramdas, he wrote: “Ramdas was the first Marathi writer to dwell on the elements of history. Eknath, Tukaram and other saints like them were oriented only to devotion and morality. There is no doubt that the saints who emphasized devotion and morality have also done a great service to Maharashtra but they could never realize the importance of thinking in national and political terms. This is the key difference between Ramdas and his predecessor saints. The latter were saints of one country, Ramdas was a universal saint. Another difference is that the earlier saints seemed to have vowed to put Brahmins in the dock. Their writings and arguments diminished the importance of Brahmins in Maharashtrian society, which was based on Chaturyavarna system. There is nothing wrong in pointing out the frailties and shortcomings of one’s own people but those pointing fingers also have the responsibility of showing the right path and proving its rightness by their conduct. Neglect of this responsibility, while pointing out defects, led to disillusionment among and humiliation of certain sections and that translated into anarchy. The signs of disintegration of society could be seen all over. This was the sequel to the bias of the saints, which was countered by the universalism of Ramdas.” (Rajwade Lekh Sangrah, ed Tarktirth Lakhsman Shastri Joshi, Sahitya Akademi, Delhi, 2000, p 291)

Rajwade argues that the speciality of Ramdas was that he not only pointed out the societal defects but also had compassion for all the Varnas and showed them the right path. Rajwade believed that the Varna system was indispensable for maintaining a balance in society. He even felt that the European scholars could opt for the Varnashram Dharma for solving the problems of their society.

“Chaturyavarna system has been the binding force of our society for thousands of years. It is difficult to predict for how many centuries it will continue to be a part of our societal norms. That’s why we should accept Chaturyavarna in its totality, and the well-wishers of the country should identify its shortcomings and suggest the ways and means of removing them. In view of the resentment in and the “socialistic” leanings of European society, the farsighted among the European scholars feel that at some time or other, they will have to take refuge in the Chaturyavarna system. In these circumstances, dismantling an institution that has been working well and creating resentment won’t serve national interest. It was with this background that Ramdas propounded his teachings” (ibid, p 291).

The way non-Brahmin reformists assessed the role of Bhagwat Dharma, Varkari saints and Ramdas, was quite distinct from the diagrammatically opposite interpretations of the liberal Brahmin reformists of the Prarthana Samaj on the one hand and the traditionalist Brahmins on the other hand. Jotirao Govindrao Phule was a leading light of the comity of non-Brahmin reformists. Phule was an ardent critic of the liberal reformists of the Prarthana Samaj and a staunch opponent of the traditionalist Brahmins. He was critical of the saints’ movement. He viewed the generosity of the Brahmin saints of the Varkari sect towards Dalit-Shudras with grave suspicion. He was of the view that the Varkari saints were, in fact, patronizing the Vedic religion that approves of the Varna system, on the pretext of Bhagwat Dharma. Phule felt that the Varkari Brahmin saints’ endeavour to accord a place to the Dalit-Shudras in the realms of religion and devotion (while continuing with the Varnashram Dharma in other sectors of life) was born out of their fear of Islam, and not of their generosity. In Phule’s view, Bhagwat Dharma was a charade – a veneer to mask anti-Islamic sentiment. He wanted to know why the Brahmin saints remembered Dalits and Shudras only after Islam began spreading in the country and why not before it. Phule writes that after the advent of Muslim rule in the country, “the shrewd Mukundraj, Dnyaneshwar, Ramdas and other cunning Brahmins expounded on the sermons given by the charlatan Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagwad Gita – an imaginary text full of fallacious arguments – and wrote many hypocritical books like Viveksindhu, Dnyaneshwari, Daasbodh and others in the Prakrit language. They managed to trap even Shivaji, who was an illiterate man but a great warrior, and set him on the Muslims. The Muslims could never see how devious the Brahmins were. If it were not so, why did the cunning Brahmin Mukundraj start taking pity on the Shudras and the Ati-Shudras only when the country was in a phase of transition, after the arrival of the Muslims in the country, and why did he write Mukundsindhu at that point in time? Behind it … was the fear that the unlettered Shudras and Ati-Shudras would adopt Islam and that would mean humiliation for the self-serving religion of the crafty Brahmins” (Phule Rachnavali, Volume 2, ed L.G. Meshram; Vimal Kirti; Radhakrishna Prakashan, Delhi, 1996, p 137).

Phule wrote the Brahmins spread anti-Muslim sentiment in the county. The Brahmin saints, “through their books, misled the farmers to such an extent that they started hating Muslims and looking down upon Islam and the Quran” (ibid).

Phule thus changed the entire orientation of the discourse on the saints’ movement. He pulled the rug from under the feet of the “liberal” Brahmin reformers. Phule’s analysis was pointed and logical, given the social status of the Shudras and the Dalits. It was clear that the wider Maharashtrian society would be better off battling the Varnashram Dharma propounded by the Brahmins, rather than the Muslim rulers.

Just as Phule didn’t see any difference between the liberal Brahmins of the Prarthana Samaj and their opponents – the traditionalist Brahmins – he also did not see any difference between their ideals – Dhyaneshwar and Ramdas, respectively. For him, all of them were the birds of the same feather. In Phule’s view, Swami Ramdas tried to push Shivaji’s army into a never-ending battle with the Muslims, with the prime objective of protecting Brahmanism and perpetuating the domination of the Brahmins. Phule was forthright about the ideal of the traditionalist Brahmins. “Ramdas was a cunning Aryan Brahmin, who, taking advantage of the Shudra king Shivaji’s illiteracy, trapped him through sycophancy” (ibid, volume 2, p 99).

In fact, Phule had no regard for any of the Brahmin saints and the only saint in the 500-year-long saints’ movement he revered was Sant Tukaram – the most respected and popular saint among the Marathi-speakers. Tukaram was a saint of the toiler Shudras and the Dalits. His abhangs were written in a language that the farmers could understand and many of them have assumed the form of idioms and proverbs. Phule believed that Tukaram was the only saint who showed the Dalit-Shudras the way to break free from the spiritual and ritualistic web woven by the Brahmins. If there was any saint who was a real well-wisher of Shivaji, it was Tukaram. Phule writes: “A sadhu called Tukaram was born into a peasant family. Fearing that he would free the farmers from the stranglehold of the Brahmins, Ramdas Swami, a staunch Vendanti, decided to mislead the unlettered Shivaji with the aid of the master swindler Gangabhatt. They did not allow the ignorant Shivaji and the irreproachable Tukaram to develop harmonious relations.” (ibid, volume 2, p 303)

A reference to Tukaramatya Padwal, a member of the Paramhans Sabha and a friend of Phule, would be indispensible to understanding Tukaram’s significance for Phule. Sadanand More refers to Padwal’s book Jatibhed Viveksara, written under the penname “A Hindu”. The book had created a stir among the Maharashtrian elite. More writes that Phule himself used to sell the book in Pune. In the book, Padwal presents a detailed critique of the caste system and seems to be greatly influenced by Tukaram. Padwal quotes excerpts assailing the caste system from the Marathi translation of Buddhist writer Asvaghosa’s book Vajrasuchi. The book contains a scathing critique of the caste system and was translated from Sanskrit into Marathi at Tukaram’s instance by his Brahmin disciple Bahinabai. When Padwal travelled to Tukaram’s village Dehu to dig out his works, he discovered that many of his writings were ignored by Varkari and other saint traditions because they censured the beliefs and the conduct of the Brahmins.” (More, p 117)

It may be mentioned here that most of the followers of Phule had a Varkari background and came from areas where Tukaram was a formidable influence. More claims that despite being critical of the Varkari sect, Phule took forward the issues raised by the Varkaris. While making this claim, More, however, does not pay enough attention to the difference between Phule’s interpretations and perspective and that of the Varkaris. Though the liberal and mostly people-oriented outlook of the Varkari saints in the matter of devotion did not exactly match Phule’s views, they came close. That is why the phraseology and imagery of Phule’s language bears great similarity to those of the Varkaris. More writes that when Phule, unhappy with the ways of the Prarthana Samaj, formed the Satyashodhak Samaj, one of his prime associates was Krishnarao Bhalekar, a Varkari, who used Dindi (a traditional march of the Varkaris to Pandharpur while singing abhangs) to promote the Satyashodhak Samaj. His son Mukundrao Patil, who was the publisher of Satyashodhak Samaj’s organ Deenmitra, was also an ardent admirer of Tukaram; interestingly, he believed that the Satyashodhak Samaj were the real followers of the Bhagwat Dharma and not the Varkaris (ibid, p 189).

The race among the leaders of the Maharashtrian renaissance to link themselves with the Bhagwat Dharma of the saints’ movement was also replicated vis-à-vis the Maharashtra Dharma. The term “Maharashtra Dharma” was first used during the saints’ movement by Samarth Ramdas, who, in a letter to Shivaji’s son Sambhaji (1657-1689), called upon him to follow the Maharashtra Dharma. He did not ask him to promote Vedic, Puranic or Sanatan Dharma. What he meant by Maharashtra Dharma is not clear. The representatives of all the three key streams of thinking in 19th-century Maharashtra interpreted it in their own ways to back their sociopolitical ideologies. Though devoid of a clear definition, the concept of Maharashtra Dharma continues to be part of the politics of Maharashtra. It was discussed most earnestly during the 19th-century renaissance and no stream of nationalist politics in the region could justify its existence without associating itself in some way or the other with Maharashtra Dharma. Rajendra Vora observes in one of his articles that despite the differences between the various streams of nationalist movement in Maharashtra, they were unanimous on the issue of Maharashtra Dharma (Maharashtra Dharma and the Nationalist Movement in Maharashtra in Writers, Editors and Reformers, ed N.K. Wagle, Manohar, Delhi, 1999, p 24). Vora’s analysis is superficial in the sense that he ignores the subtle but important differences of opinion between them or has underplayed their significance. For instance, Vora had grossly downplayed the differences in the thinking of Ranade, Tilak and Rajwade.

It appears that, basically, Maharashtra Dharma is about establishing an independent state (Swarajya) of Maharashtrians for the protection of religion (Hindu religion) and about the national obligations related to it. This concept found its first manifestation in the Maratha state founded by Shivaji. In the 19th and the 20th centuries, different sociopolitical groups interpreted it in their own ways – expanding, limiting or distorting it. With reference to the 19th-century renaissance and nationalism, the first to interpret this concept was Ranade in his book Rise of Maratha Power. While discussing the saints’ movement, he described the principal features of Maharashtra Dharma in the following words: “It gave us a literature of considerable value in the vernacular language of the country. It modified the strictness of the old spirit of caste exclusiveness. It raised the Shudra classes to a position of spiritual power and social importance, almost equal to that of the Brahmans. It gave sanctity to the family relations, and raised the status of woman. It made the nation more humane, at the same time more prone to hold together by mutual toleration. It suggested and partly carried out a plan of reconciliation with the Manomedans. It subordinated the importance of rites and ceremonies, and of pilgrimages and fasts, and of learning and contemplation, to the higher excellence of worship by means of love and faith. It checked the excesses of polytheism. It tended in all these ways to raise the nation generally to a higher level of capacity both of thought and action and prepared it, in a way no other nation in India was prepared, to take the lead in re-establishing a united native power in the place of foreign domination. These appear to us to be the principal features of the religion of Maharashtra, which Saint Ramdas had in view when he advised Shivaji’s son to follow in his father’s footsteps, and propagate this faith, at once tolerant and catholic, deeply spiritual and yet not iconoclastic.” (Ranade, Rise of Maratha Power, Bombay University, Bombay, 1961, p 92)

Ranade’s above interpretation gives the impression that the Maharashtra Dharma was an ideal modern national movement. But this interpretation suffers from a serious flaw. Not all of the “principal features of the religion of Maharashtra” described by him can be ascribed to Maharashtra Dharma. Ranade has made no distinction between the Bhagwat Dharma of Varkari saints and the Maharashtra Dharma of Ramdas and has mixed the features of both. That is the reason the editors of Rise of Maratha Power, in their introduction to the book, say that Ranade’s interpretation is not loyal to the facts (ibid, p 6).

Why did Ranade indulge in this mishmash?

The liberal nationalism of Ranade had a natural and obvious link to the liberal values of Varkari saints and he could not have ignored them. At the same time, he could not have sidestepped the Maharashtra Dharma, so eloquently propounded by Ramdas, especially since it was the soul of the Maratha state and Maratha nationalism. Ranade believed that nationalist consciousness had risen among the Maharashtrians in the 17th century, much before the British rule began. According to him, this nationalist consciousness, which led to the rise of the Maratha Swarajya, was rooted in the Bhagwat Dharma of the saints. Ranade thus saw a clear link between the saints’ movement and the Maratha Swarajya and between Bhagwat Dharma and Maharashtra Dharma. Like all Maharashtrians, Ranade was proud of the Maratha state established by Shivaji and very exultantly discussed the possibility of the Marathas capturing the throne in Delhi. Naturally, Ranade could not have brushed Maharashtra Dharma aside.

But Maharashtra Dharma was not only about Maratha rule. As propounded by Ramdas, it also emphasized strict observance of the Varnashram Dharma in devotion and other aspects of life and on reposing faith in the leadership of the Brahmins. The Maratha satraps of the 17th century had by and large imbibed this idea of Maharashtra Dharma. This understanding of Maharashtra Dharma was not compatible with the liberal Bhagwat Dharma propagated by the Varkari saints. Ramdas’ Maharashtra Dharma required its adherents to be the protectors of the cow and the Brahmins. These postulations of Maharashtra Dharma were contrary to Ranade’s liberal values. It was impossible for the liberal Brahmin reformists like Ranade to reconcile the contradictions of Bhagwat Dharma and Maharashtra Dharma. Hence, the best course for Ranade was to ignore these aspects of Maharashtra Dharma and simply not mention them. G.B. Sardar has taken note of the fact that Ranade did not dwell on the contradictions between Bhagwat Dharma and Maharashtra Dharma. Yet, when Sardar writes that “Ranade successfully reconciled the differences between Bhagwat Dharma and Maharashtra Dharma” (Sangh Vangmay, p 1), it sends out the message that the attempt was successful. A leftist writer like G.B. Sarkar describes the two as mutually contradictory in some places in his book and as complementary in other places. This inconsistency is evident throughout his book. The examples of Ranade and G.B. Sardar show that the reformists – right from the liberal Brahmins of the 19th century to the leftist Brahmin writers of the second half of the 20th century – while imbibing the idea of Western nationalism through Western education, felt pride in associating themselves with the traditional Maharashtrian nationalist stream.

Trying to reconcile the Bhagwat Dharma and the Maharashtra Dharma – even going against the facts – may have been a either a compulsion or a conscious objective of the liberal Brahmin reformists. Be that it may, their opponents, the traditionalist Brahmins, neither were under compulsion to do so nor was it their objective. And so they didn’t dither in portraying Bhagwat Dharma and Maharashtra Dharma as two opposite poles and posed the question, Bhagwat Dharma or Maharashtra Dharma? One of the leading lights of this stream, Vishwanath Kashinath Rajwade, in the fourth volume of his work on the history of Marathas, analyzes Maharashtra Dharma by juxtaposing it against Ramdas’ Daasbodh. The differences and the contradictions between his analysis and that of Ranade in Rise of Maratha Power are quite apparent. Rajwade has drawn up the historical background in which Ramdas called for propagating Maharashtra Dharma. “At that time, most parts of Maharashtra were in the thrall of mleccha culture. Given this situation, Ramdas gave a clarion call to the Hindus to lay down their lives for the protection of their religion, ‘to shoo away the dogs and establish Swarajya’.” Hence when Ranade was advocating Hindu-Muslim intercourse, describing it as one of the features of Maharashtra Dharma, he was doing so owing to the demands of the 19th-century liberal nationalism. It had nothing to do with the Maharashtra Dharma as propounded by Ramdas.

Rajwade unambiguously declares “establishment of Hindu religion, protection of cows and Brahmins, establishment of Swarajya and Maratha unity and leadership” as the “key components of Maharashtra Dharma”, which, according to him, inspired Shivaji and other Maratha rulers (Rajwade Lekh Sangrah, p 206). The different nationalist streams of the 19th century did not limit Ramdas’ exposition of Maharashtra Dharma only to Shivaji’s rule, but applied it to the expansion of the Maratha rule – the entire history of the Maratha’s state’s transformation into the Maratha Empire, which even Ramdas probably could never have imagined. This is true of the militant nationalist stream represented by Rajwade among others. Rajwade presents Maharashtra Dharma as a well-delineated political agenda and goes on to show how it was implemented year by year. According to him, around 1770 AD, Maharashtra Dharma was almost completely established in Maharashtra because “Swarajya was in place and the meekness of the cow, the Brahmins and the Hindu religion had ended forever” (ibid, p 208). But even then, Maharashtra Dharma had been established only in Maharashtra and the people elsewhere were yet to be strong enough to protect their religion and establish Swarajya. Hence, the Marathas had to venture out of Maharashtra. “They vowed to free India from Muslim rule, bring it under their control, protect Hindu religion, cow and the Brahmins.” (ibid, p 209) Hence, according to Rajwade, Marathas conquering areas outside of Maharashtra and establishing their rule was nothing but propagation of the Maharashtra Dharma. To prove his point, Rajwade claims that the treaties which the Marathas signed with the vanquished rulers duly provided for the “protection of religion, cow, Brahmins and Swarajya”. These battles and the consequent expansion of the Maratha Empire led to the “spread of the Maharashtra Dharma from 1646 to 1796, with different castes leading the Marathas in this endeavour” (ibid, p 206).

According to Rajwade, Shivaji, Rajaram, Shahu and Balaji Vishwanath were the four great personalities who founded Maratha Swarajya and expanded the Maratha Empire. Thus, Hindu Pad Padshahi (Hindu Empire) came into being, which he also describes as Brahmin Pad Padshahi (Brahmin Empire), as it had taken shape under the leadership of Peshwa Balaji Bajirao – “Brahmin Pad Padshahi is, in fact, Hindu Pad Padshahi” (ibid, p 206). To show that the Maharashtra Dharma – as propounded by Ramdas – was duly in place in the country, Rajwade describes Kunbi Marathas as the Kshatriyas referred to by Ramdas. He also describes Maratha rule as Bhonsle Kul Padshahi and Bhatt Kul Padshahi, as it was established under the leadership of the Bhonsle Marathas and the Bhatt Brahmin Peshwas. While there are many features of the Maharashtra Dharma – as interpreted by Rajwade – including its objective of establishing Hindu Swarajya and Varnashram Dharma throughout India – two of them are worth a mention. With obvious pride, Rajwade argues that Ramdas was not the advocate of a tolerant Hindu religion, which the Varkari saints were so fond of. Ramdas sang paeans to the victorious Hindu religion, the followers of which would be warriors fighting to take over India. The other feature is that the defence would not be enough to establish such a Hindu Swarajya. Aggression would be an inalienable part of the strategy for its establishment. Ramdas said that protecting one’s religion does not only involve laying down one’s life but also taking the life of others.

Dharma satheen maravein. Maroni avdhyansi maravein
Maritam maritam dhanvein. Rajya aapule

[One should court death for the sake of religion (but) while dying one should kill (the enemies) and by thus killing them, one should win back one’s kingdom]

Ramdas’ Maharashtra Dharma presents an aggressive Hindu as the ideal. While analyzing the history of Maharashtra from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th, Rajwade seeks to promote the image of an aggressive Hindu. This was more appealing to the young Marathis of the time than the liberal nationalism of Ranade. It was this image that inspired Vasudev Balwant Phadke, Chapekar brothers and Veer Savarkar to join the national movement. Subsequently, Savarkar emerged as a theoretician of this ideology and wrote books titled Hindu Pad Padshahi and Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History. These books sought to take forward the Maharashtra Dharma, as propounded by Ramdas, in the context of the nationalist movement. Describing the Maratha history as Hindu Pad Padshahi, Savarkar only repeats what Rajwade said about Ramdas’ teachings – that the Maharashtrians did not fight for their homes, their lands or their fields; they fought for the establishment of religion in India and that their guiding principle was not defence but aggression (Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, Rajdhani Granthagar, Delhi, 1971, p 409-15). To implement his views, Savarkar founded an organization called Abhinav Bharat in 1904.

But neither Phadke nor Savarkar was the real leader of the national movement in Maharashtra. Its real leader was Balgangadhar Tilak, who, as a prominent Congressman, left his imprint on the entire country. Tilak was also influenced and impressed by Ramdas’ Maharashtra Dharma, though he never went to the extent that Savarkar and Rajwade did. In relative terms, he was a liberal. That was not without reason. Tilak was not a leader of Maharashtra alone. He was a leader of entire India. He had to build a popular movement, the success of which depended on the unity of all religions and Varnas. Though Tilak had faith in the Varnashram Dharma, he did not insist on it. Neither did he whip up anti-Muslim sentiments. In his Gita Rahasya, he praises the Bhagwat Dharma of the Varkari saints for not differentiating between the devotees on the basis of caste and for opening the doors of religious devotion to all. Tilak was influenced by Maharashtra Dharma but in a subtle, liberal way.

Tilak’s political philosophy was based on Gita Rahasya. Maharashtra has a long tradition – dating back to the 13th century – of writing commentaries on the Gita. Dnyaneshwar, Eknath and Ramdas – all formulated their principles on the basis of their interpretation of the Gita. Continuing with this tradition of the Maharashtrian saints, Tilak also interpreted the Gita and sought to seek its sanction for the basic principles of his political philosophy that was crafted in the context of the anti-colonial national movement.

In his Gita Rahasya, Tilak makes it clear at the very outset that the word Karma in the Gita does not refer to rituals or to the Karma as described in the Shrutis and the Smritis. Clearly, Karma can be social or political. He says that due to the influence of Bhagwat Dharma, prevalent in the ancient times, among the four key components of the Gita’s message, namely Gyana (wisdom), Karma (action), Bhakti (devotion) and Vairagya (detachment or renunciation), Karma was relegated to the background while Bhakti gained prominence. Later, under the impact of Buddhism and Jainism, Vairagya was considered the most important message for centuries. In these circumstances, Tilak says, it was imperative to rediscover the central message of the Gita. According to Tilak, the Gita exhorts humans to strike a balance between Gyan, Karma, Vairagya and Bhakti and to do the proper Karma. This can be called Karmayogashastra. In the 11th and the 12th chapters of Gita Rahasya, quoting Samarth Ramdas, Tilak asks the fundamental question: Should a person, who has discovered the truth of this world, indulge in worldly actions? Answering the question, Tilak writes that Gita emphasizes Karma.

If an ascetic, a wise man, does “Nishkam Karma” (action performed without any expectation of results or fruits), it will not become the cause of his bondage but will do good to the world. In this context, Tilak has repeatedly used the word “Loksangrah” (welfare of the world). He says that wise men do Karma for Loksangrah. According to him, the Gita says that the conscience and the objective of the doer is the touchstone to decide a Karma’s propriety or otherwise. Morality is not about the outward nature of a work but is a function of the conscience and the objective of the doer. That is why a person who has attained supreme knowledge and whose conscience is pure can never perform an inappropriate or a sinful act (Srimad Bhagwad Gita Rahasya, Volume 1; translator Bhalchandra Sitaram Shukhantkar; Low Price Publications, Delhi, 2002, p 533). That’s not all. Without waiting for attainment of supreme knowledge, one should perform all Karma selflessly, because it purifies one’s conscience and thereby enables one to reach the highest ideal. Tilak also writes that till there are unrighteous men in society, the righteous will need to punish them. Killing those indulging in wrong or unrighteous acts does not violate the principle of non-violence, just as punishing someone for a wrongful act does not violate the principle of the saints of considering everyone like oneself (p 548, ibid). Quoting Ramdas, Tilak writes that there is nothing unjust in punishing the wicked and nothing wrong in doing wrong to one who does wrong to others (ibid, p 552).

These constructs of Tilak, based on his interpretation of the Gita and distilled from the teachings of the saints, were part of his political philosophy, which he intended to use to build a powerful national movement against the injustice and the oppression of the British rule. His constructs were aimed at affording moral and philosophical support and sanction to those who, motivated by patriotism and for attaining the lofty objective of Swarajya, were ready to lay down their lives or take the lives of others. They lent sanctity and legitimacy to the struggle against the foreign government – even if that struggle was violent or revengeful. Tilak might have contextualized these constructs in the national movement against colonialism that surfaced in the 20th century but his constructs were rooted in the movement of the Marathi saints. The Maharashtra Dharma could well have been the foundation of these constructs though Tilak himself did not venture as far as the Maharashtra Dharma allowed or mandated him to. In fact, these constructs are traceable to Varkari saint Eknath, who predated Ramdas and his Maharashtra Dharma. An example is the concept of Loksangrah. It may be Eknath who used this word for the first time in Marathi in his book Eknathi Bhagwat.

Uddhwa tujhe jhen aacharan, tochi updesh jan,

Yalgeen vairagya bhaktigyan, swadharmacharna sandu na ko

Tribhuvanamanjhi savrtha, uddhava maz nahin kartavyata

Tohi bhi loksangraharth, hoy vartala nijdharni.

(Quoted on p 95, Santwadmayachi Samajik Phalshruti, fifth edition, 24, Lokvangmay Griha, Mumbai)

In this verse, Krishna tells his companion Uddhava that though there is no compulsion for him to do Karma in any of the three worlds he still does Karma for this world. He says enriching this world while remaining true to Gyan, Vairagya and Bhakti is Loksangrah.

Not only in terms of his time but also beliefs, Eknath fell somewhere between Dnyaneshwar and Ramdas. The historical context of the man himself is thus noteworthy. During Eknath’s lifetime (1533-1599), Maharashtra had begun to come the pressure of Islamic rule and the Bahmani Sultanate. One manifestation of this was the growing use of the Persian language. It was against this backdrop that Tulsidas and Eknath – who were contemporary saint poets – turned towards Ram. For them, Lord Ram was a symbol of resistance – a hero who slew demonic enemies. It is not just a coincidence that while writing about Tulsidas, Ramchandra Shukla, the tallest Hindi literary critic, uses one word repeatedly – “Loksangrah”. Ramchandra Shukla, like Ramdas, laid great emphasis on the duty of the Kshatriyas and was the first Hindi critic to view the writings of the saint poets as a reaction to the Muslim rule. Interestingly, among the leaders of the anti-British political movement, Shukla’s favourite was Tilak.

G.B. Sardar says that the beginnings of many characteristic features of Ramdas’ era were visible in Eknath’s times. Eknath’s writings are centred on these features, which made Ramdas’ task easier. For instance, Eknath talked about Vyavhardharma (worldly duties) and about having a regard for the traditions, and he praised the Brahmins, but they were not central to his philosophy. However, they occupy centre stage in Ramdas’ writings. Tilak’s concept of Loksangrah can be traced back to Eknath, who categorically says that the saints and the wise men should also work for the welfare of the people. Eknath portrays Ram as an example of the perfect man, who did not immerse himself solely in spiritual bliss. He also performed his worldly duties (G.B. Sardar, Saint Poets of Maharashtra: Their Impact on Society, Orient Longman, 1969, p 91). Eknath also said that worldly tasks done selflessly with a pure heart fall in the category of spirituality (ibid, p 92). Ramdas incorporated these views of Eknath in his concept of Vyavhardharma, ie a person’s duties towards his family, society and state. It is thus clear that Tilak’s political philosophy sprang from the movement of the Marathi saints, especially the writings of Eknath and Ramdas.

Balgangadhar Tilak (1865-1920), who linked nationalism with protection of cow and the Brahmins

Tilak gave the philosophy of Maharashtra Dharma a political shape – something which Ranade could not do. One important contribution of Tilak to the national movement in Maharashtra was linking the modern nationalist movement with Shivaji – the embodiment of Maharashtra Dharma. In 1895, Tilak launched a campaign through his newspaper Kesari for building a memorial to Shivaji and, in 1896, began organizing Shivaji Mahotsava, turning Shivaji into the most important inspirational figure of the modern nationalist movement in Maharashtra. Only a person who knows how proud Maharashtrians are of Shivaji and the concept of Maratha Swarajya can understand how Shivaji inspired the freedom fighters of Maharashtra.

Gandhiji, who was influenced by Gujarati Vaishnav saints and thus was closer to the values propagated by liberal Varkari saints like Dnyaneshwar, could never become as popular as Tilak in Maharashtra’s nationalist politics. While Tilak favoured punishing the wicked, Gandhiji believed that none has the right to decide who deserves to be punished. Gandhiji’s non-violence does not find an echo in Maharashtra Dharma. Tilak’s friends and followers like N.C. Kelkar were opposed to Gandhiji’s leadership of the national movement and accorded greater importance to the nationalist leaders of Maharashtra. They wanted to project Shivaji as the symbol of the Indian national movement. And lest we forget, Nathuram Godse, a follower of Savarkar, murdered Mahatma Gandhi. Maharashtra Dharma was so deeply rooted in the history and political traditions of Maharashtra that it became a synonym for Maharashtrian nationalism. Ignoring it was impossible even for the Gandhians of Maharashtra. That is why when Vinoba Bhave, a young admirer of Gandhiji, launched his first Marathi newspaper in 1923, he named it Maharashtra Dharma.

How the non-Brahmin stream of Maharashtra renaissance linked up with Maharashtra Dharma

Apart from the Brahmin Peshwas, Shivaji inducted members of many other castes – Prabhu Kayastha, Kunbi, Ramoshi, Mahar and Matang, among others – into his administrative machinery and Shivaji himself was a Kunbi, considered Shudras by the Chitpavan Brahmins. The non-Brahmin castes thus considered Shivaji’s rule as their own and were immensely proud of it. This pride was a function of their share in the administration. For instance, Kunbi Maratha Sardars and Kayastha army officers, along with the Brahmins, occupied the top positions. Hence, they were most proud of Shivaji’s rule. Dalits and backward Shudra castes came next, both in the terms of their position in the administration and their pride. The non-Brahmin movement was thus somewhat fractured, though all attempts were made to mobilize the non-Brahmin castes using radical ideology. Phule did not refer to the Maharashtra Dharma of Ramdas but proudly proclaimed that the rule of Shivaji – who embodied Maharashtra Dharma – was the rule of the Shudras and described Shivaji as “Kunbi Kulbhushan” (pride of the Kunbis).

Phule described Shivaji as “Kunbi Kulbhushan”. This nomenclature was deliberate. He wanted to sabotage efforts by Brahmins to concoct a family tree to declare that Shivaji was a Brahmin. Unlike Tilak and other Brahmin leaders, Phule did not accord Shivaji the status of a demigod. For him, Shivaji was a jewel of the Kunbi caste and a person close to his heart, though not above critical evaluation. The biggest question before Phule was how to free Shivaji – the biggest symbol of Maharashtra Dharma – from the clutches of the Brahmins. To that end, he came up with three constructs. The first, emphasizing the peripheral role of Muslims – if not ignoring their presence altogether – in 17th-century Maharashtra. Portraying Muslims as inconsequential meant underplaying their so-called role in destroying the Hindu religion – something that the Brahmins would moan about. This formulation of Phule was of fundamental importance. It altered the perspective on that era. He sought to establish that the basic conflict was not between the Hindus and the Muslims but between the brahmanical system and the vast non-Brahmin populace (mainly Dalits and backward Shudras). This was closer to the truth. A handful of Brahmins, representing the ruling classes, were trying to portray their conflict with the Muslims as the most important conflict of society and brush under the carpet, their own conflict with thousands of non-Brahmin castes, especially the Dalits and the Shudras. Next, Phule sought to dispel the much-publicized connection of Shivaji’s Maratha state with Brahmins, which was based on the twin planks of a Brahmin, Ramdas, being Shivaji’s guru and of the key role of Ramdas’ teachings in the building of the Maratha state. Rajwada was also one of the propagators of this view. Phule rubbished the idea that Ramdas was Shivaji’s guru. In any case, this was always a grey area. There is no historical evidence to prove that Ramdas was Shivaji’s guru or his advisor. Going a step further, Phule proposed that the role of Ramdas and other Brahmin ministers in Shivaji’s court was not as important as was claimed. According to Phule, these Brahmins were not gurus but “gurughantals” (crafty or cunning persons), who did more harm than good to Shivaji. These devious Brahmins captured all the top positions in the administration of the Shudra and illiterate king Shivaji and used state power to strengthen the domination of the Brahmins. Phule thus turned the discourse on the Maratha state on its head – a discourse that was monopolized by the Brahmins, both conservative and liberal. He adopted the perspective of the Dalits and the Shudras and argued that the Brahmins captured the great Maratha state built by Shivaji – who was a gem of a person – employing their devious and shrewd ways.

The clash between the three streams, especially between the Brahmins and non-Brahmins, was a unique feature of the 19th-century Maharashtrian renaissance. The renaissance movement in no other state witnessed such a phenomenon. Bengal did witness a clash between the reformists and the traditionalists, which took the form of a struggle between the Brahmo Samaj and the Dharmasabha, but its nature was different. Not only the issues – like the custom of Sati and the rules of Brahma Vivah – were different but also the caste and ideological basis of the conflict were not as cogent as they were in Maharashtra. In Bengal, the camps of both the reformists and their opponents were backed by a host of Brahmin and non-Brahmin castes. In Maharashtra, the traditionalists and the reformists both comprised only Chitpavan Brahmins. A more important difference was with respect to the third stream involved in this struggle, the non-Brahmin movement. This stream was very weak in Bengali renaissance while in Maharashtra it was very powerful and it took on the reformist and the traditionalist Brahmins both. What was the scene in the Hindi states in the 19th century? We find that not only was the third stream missing but the first and second streams were not clearly defined either. If we accept the claim of Ramvilas Sharma that Bhartendu Mandal represented the first stream of the renaissance movement in the Hindi states then where is the second stream – the stream of its opponents? What were the issues on which there were differences and what form did the struggles take? The fact is that among the Hindu residents of Hindi-speaking states, the most important vehicle of renaissance was the Arya Samaj, which had a formidable influence in northwestern districts like Meerut, Bareilly, Bulandshahr, Saharanpur, Roorke and Shahjahanpur. Those who differed with Arya Samaj on issues like idol worship, Sanatan Dharma, Niyoy Vidhi and widow remarriage were the Hindi writers, editors and journalists of Benaras and Allahabad, who never allowed the Arya Samaj to gain a foothold in that area. The Maharashtrian renaissance had many things in common with the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj but Maharashtra Dharma, Bhagwat Dharma, caste discrimination, Varna system, Maratha nationalism, Maharashtrian identity and other similar issues were totally absent from the renaissance movement in Bengal and the Hindi states.

Sant Tukaram (1608-1650) – a saint of the Bahujan tradition

The Maharashtrian renaissance movement witnessed a clash between the Brahmin and the non-Brahmin streams and a fierce clash at that. Under the leadership of Phule, the non-Brahmin stream took on both the Brahmin reformists and traditionalists on almost every social, cultural and historical issue. They countered every contention of the Brahmins with sharp rebuttals and presented their own constructs. While Brahmins claimed that Jnandev was the writer of Dnyaneshwari, the non-Brahmins declared that Jnandev and Jnanveshwar, who wrote Dnyaneshwari, were different people. The non-Brahmins rejected outright the claim of the Brahmins that Ramdas was Shivaji’s guru and even went on to declare that Ramdas – a Brahmin – was, in fact, a spy of Aurangzeb (Ganesh Tulsiram Ambedkar, Marathi Sant Kaviyon Ki Samajik Bhumika, Panchsheel Prakashan, Jaipur, 1980, p 79). The Brahmins believed Shudra saint Tukaram had died a natural death; the non-Brahmins were sure that he was murdered. (In the 1960s, Amravati-based Sudama Savarkar wrote a book titled Tumaram: Ka Khoon Ki Vaikunthgaman, in which he tried to establish that Tukaram was murdered and also proffered evidence to back his claim). Brahmins argued that a weak army led to the downfall of the Maratha state; the non-Brahmins said that it was the devious Brahmins who brought it about.

These sharp dissensions on almost all issues and the bitter ideological differences were not limited to the intellectual or the educated class; they affected the socio-historical outlook of the masses, too. This was a major difference between the renaissance movements of Bengal and Maharashtra. The Bengali renaissance was, basically, a movement of the well-off, the elite, and its impact was mainly confined to Calcutta. It didn’t have roots in the history and culture of Bengal and the local historical and cultural issues were not part of its discourse. For instance, when leaders of the Bengali renaissance dwelt on the issue of Sati, they did not delve into local history as much as they talked about what the Hindu scriptures had to say on the custom. On the contrary, the leaders of Maharashtrian renaissance did not come from well-heeled families. They were middle-class, educated people and their movement was not confined to the city of Bombay. The history and culture of Maharashtra were topics of intense discussion among them. The bitter ideological struggle between the three streams of the 19th-century renaissance movement in Maharashtra was focused on the history and culture of the state, the Maratha Empire and the heritage of the saint poets. It was, in fact, a battle for protecting their class interests and establishing the hegemony of their cultural identity in the changed situation after the advent of the British rule. In other words, the different social classes and communities were battling for securing their own interests and their battleground was the history and culture of Maharashtra. Rosalind O’Hanlon has excellently portrayed the true nature of this battle in one of her essays.

O’Hanlon draws attention to the fact that towards the end of the 19th century, there was a rising tide of writings on Shivaji and other heroes of Maratha history in the Marathi language. “Powadas” (tales of valour) were the primary vehicles of this sudden spurt of interest in valiant Maratha heroes. Powadas on Shivaji were in vogue even earlier but they were oral. The written Powadas, supposedly meant for interpreting the history of the Maratha state and the life and deeds of Shivaji, were used by different social classes for projecting their own cultural identity and for challenging the claims of other classes.

Jotirao Phule (1827-1890), harbinger of Bahujan renaissance

A comparative study by O’Hanlon of three Powadas on Shivaji makes for an interesting reading. Jotirao Phule wrote the first of them in 1869. He uses the tale of the pre-Aryan Baliraja as a metaphor to come up with a very persuasive non-brahmanical interpretation of the history of Shivaji and the Maratha state. Baliraja, who predated the Aryan Varnashram system, was greatly admired by the Shudra toiler farmers. Phule says that at the time, the fields were called “kshetras” and the tillers, “Kshatriyas”. Bali’s kingdom was prosperous and his subjects were happy and contended. Then, the Aryans, disguised as Brahmin Vamana, came from the north and usurped the kingdom of Bali through deceit. The subsequent rule of the Aryans witnessed ruthless exploitation and oppression of the Shudra Kshatriyas (farmers). They were enslaved and reduced to absolute penury.

The episode of Vamana appropriating the kingdom of Raja Bali was repeated when Brahmin Peshwas usurped the kingdom of Shudra king Shivaji, who had built an empire for the welfare of the Shudras with the help of Shudra soldiers, and relegated Shudras to serfs. This Powada sought to dispel the notion that Shivaji had established his state for the protection of cows and the Brahmins. Thus, on the one hand, Phule held the Brahmins responsible for the fall of the Maratha Empire and for the sorry state of the Shudras, while, on the other hand, he presented the regimes of Baliraja and Shivaji as glorious chapters in the history of the Shudras, from which they could draw inspiration and rise to wage a battle to change their lot.

Busts of Jotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule at Phulewada, Pune

How did the Brahmins react to the publication of this Powada in 1869? O’Hanlon refers to the comment of the Chitpavan Brahmin editor of Vividh Adhyani Vistaar, a literary magazine of the time, to which Phule’s book was sent for review. The editor wrote: “We have received copy of a Powada on Chhattrapati Raja Shivaji. Someone called Jotirao Govindrao Phule is the author of this book. On reading it, we discovered that accepting it for review would mean dragging the name of the great and valiant king Shivaji through the mud and besmirching the honour and dignity of the entire Hindu race. We don’t have the address of the writer and hence are unable to send the book back.” (Rosalind O’Hanlon, ‘Maratha History as Polemic: Low Caste Ideology and Political Debate in the Late Nineteenth Century Western India’, Modern Asian Studies, 17, 1 (1983), Great Britain, p 20).

Phulewada, the place from where Jotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule led their movement

Another book on Shivaji was Rajaram Shastri Bhagwat’s Shivaji Charitra, published in 1898. Bhagwat was a professor of Sanskrit in St Xavier’s College. He was a liberal Brahmin reformer, who worked for ameliorating the condition of the Dalits and the Shudras. Besides Shivaji Charitra, he also wrote two other books on the history of Maharashtra – Maharashtra Dharma (1895) and Marathaya Sambandhi Chaar Uddhar (1895). According to O’Hanlon, Bhagwat, in his book, contends that all castes played a role in the establishment of the Maratha state and that, despite the presence of different castes, Maharashtra has always been united in the terms of religion and culture – the people here can be called Maharashtra Mandal. According to Bhagwat, the unity of Maharashtrians was the gift of Marathi saint poets who unified all Marathi-speakers and inculcated a feeling of “Maharashtrian-ness” in them. Bhagwat also accorded great importance to the Brahmin advisors of Shivaji.

The third work on Shivaji, referred to by O’Hanlon, was Shivaji Maharaj Ko Dadoji Konddev Ki Salah. Written by Eknath Annaji Joshi, a traditionalist Brahmin and the assistant headmaster of an English-medium school in Indore, the book was published in 1877. Joshi was a winner of the Dakshina Prize, too. Joshi presents Shivaji as a pan-Indian protector of Hindu religion. While Phule’s book was written in simple Marathi, popular among the peasants, Joshi’s Marathi was highly Sanskritized and his books were written in Slokas. Joshi’s Shivaji fights for the protection of the cow, Brahmins and Hinduism. Joshi refers to the ancient Hindu Ramrajya and describes it as a golden era. He holds Muslim invaders responsible for ruining India, with Shivaji coming to the fore as a saviour to protect Hindus from the oppression of the Muslim rulers. In may be mentioned here that a Brahmin of Joshi’s Ramrajya had usurped the kingdom of Phule’s Baliraja and that Baliraja is portrayed as a demon in Brahmanical scriptures. Joshi says that Shivaji was a Kshatriya – not in the mould of Phule’s farmer but in keeping with the Varnashram Dharma. According to him, Kshatriya kings conducted their affairs in consultation with the Brahmins. Interestingly, in Joshi’s book, Brahmin Dadoji advises King Shivaji to convene mega-conferences and public meetings for discussions with people from all walks of life and for mentally preparing them for big tasks. This was clearly a call for political action, which was characteristic of the post-colonial situation (Ibid).

We thus find that the three ideological streams – liberal Brahmins, conservative Brahmins and non-Brahmins – engaged in a bitter struggle in the 19th-century renaissance movement in Maharashtra. The issues revolved around the history and culture of Maharashtra. The roots of the identity of different castes and political and social groups associated with these streams were in the history of Maharashtra. The three streams were, in fact, battling for their own social and political interests. The power equations between the different caste and political groups in the present-day Maharashtra can be traced back to the movement of the saints, the Maratha Empire and the Maharashtrian renaissance.

Using the heroes of yore for waging current political battles is an old tradition in Maharashtra. The tradition is alive even today. The democratically elected, Constitutional government of Maharashtra celebrating Raja Shivaji’s birthday with great gusto, Bal Thackeray naming his outfit as Shiv Sena and his politics in the name of Marathi Manus are some examples of how that old tradition has survived the changing contexts.

(I am indebted to Maharashtrian historian Professor Ram Bapat, whose scholarship, humility and humanism is absolutely enchanting. It was during a discussion with him at his home in February 2009 that I got to see and understand the Maharashtrian renaissance in a new light. I also owe my gratitude to famous Marathi poet, critic and novelist Bhalchandra Nemade, who was my neighbour in Shimla for two years. He taught me the correct pronunciation of many Marathi names and words and helped me see many historical facts in their right contexts. He also arranged for some Marathi books and translated some portions of the books into Hindi.)   

(This article was earlier published in the October 2016 (Issue 26) of Hindi magazine Tadbhav)


(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)

Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) society, culture, literature and politics. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +917827427311, Email: info@forwardmagazine.in)

About The Author

Veer Bharat talwar

Senior Hindi critic Veer Bharat Talwar was a professor in the Centre for Indian languages, JNU. His book Rassakashi is counted among the leading treatises of Hindi criticism

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