History: Fact or Fiction?

The original post appeared in February, 2005 here.
Upon hearing people's comments, I felt a need to add a new section which has been appended below.

History: Fact or Fiction?
A few months ago, I read the controversial book by James Laine - Shivaji, Hindu King in Islamic India. A few weeks ago, I was reminded of this post, long overdue, upon reading Joe Rothstein's column in the NYT on controversial scholar - Wendy Doniger (Link to abstract).
I had wanted read the book for a couple of reasons. It is a short book (around hundred pages) but became rather controversial. It resulted in an attack on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) by the Sambhaji brigade. Why protest months after the book was published? After the attack the book was banned by the NCP government. We love to ban books thinking it will also ban debate. Just because it was banned, doesn't mean that the book was good. So, I wanted to read it and find out for myself if there were any inconsistencies. Also, coming from Pune, the heart of Shivaji's story and having heard every legend since childhood, I wanted a fresh perspective on the old story.

Deconstructing the story
The book is quite outstanding and should be read by every Punekar. Unfortunately, it is not available anywhere except on amazon.com. It shattered many of my long held beliefs, most which I had not critically examined. Principally, I was impressed with the way he structured the book. He deconstructs the story of Shivaji in different eras and contexts. Then he shows how that the legend of Shivaji got embellished by each successive generation and got twisted to serve the purposes of each writer. It is quite unsettling and startling, because Laine shows the chinks in the narrative with a host of references and quite compelling arguments.
Ramdas was Shivaji's spiritual guru - is something that we all accept. There are too many inconsistencies to support this fact. There is no doubt that Shivaji was a just ruler, but to claim that he was some sort of Hindu champion who stood up to Islamic rulers is more work of history writers than Shivaji himself. I also liked the way he talks about the mix of Islamic customs and Hindu customs and life in the court. How Muslim kings had Hindu vassals and interconnections between them.
He also comments on the writing of history that is responsible for distortion and misleading people. James Laine begins the book by mentioning the Maharashtra State 4th Standard textbook called Shivchhatrapati which I studied and relished when I was in the 4th Standard. He points out how the writers had literally put words in Shivaji's mouth in the textbook. He also comments on Babasaheb Purandare and calls him not a historian but, ' ... the principal purveyor of the Shivaji story in recent times ...'.

The Infamous line
On p.93:
"Maharashtrians tell jokes naughtily suggesting that his guardian Dadaji Konddev was his biological father".
The above line that cast aspersions on Shivaji's lineage is completely unsubstantiated. In all my years, I never heard anything close to that. What happened to Laine to write a line like that? Given the extensive references and bibliography he used to support his other claims, why would he make such a loose comment? It completely baffles me.

The Debate
There was an extensive debate on the Complete Review which makes very interesting reading. The accusations and counter accusations. Some of the arguments by Bhalchandrarao C. Patvardhan & Amodini Bagwe are valid but their ire against the entire book, its title and the author are either unsubstantiated, faith-based and some of them are quite ridiculous.

Rewriting history
Never mind who is right, I do feel that we need to be more open and should welcome reinterpretation of our history and culture. Coming back to Wendy Doniger, a Euro-centric view is not balanced by an Indo-centric view. The aim should be to find the truth. Why are we afraid to dust out all the embellishments, shatter myths and question dogmas, either Western or Indian ones? It is not pleasant to have your pet theories dismissed but we must not be blind to evidence. Perhaps not for his scholarship, but at least for his attempt to enquire, James Laine needs to be commended.
We, in India seem to love the apotheosis of great men. Never mind the message that Gandhi or Shivaji had to give, we simply want to worship them as idols. We forget their human fallibility. It is human fallibility that makes them great men. Then somebody subverts/interprets the message for some political advantage and we have results like these monkeys of the Sambhaji brigade who don't care to know what exactly they are fighting for as long as they are fighting for something.

Beyond mere faith
I am happy to note that all Punekars condemned that violent attack at the BORI by the Sambhaji Brigade. Yet, I feel the content and idea of the book has not been adequately talked about. I see a tendency in Indians to simply have blind faith and a certain unwillingness to re-examine long held beliefs and prejudices. To avoid further controversy and in fear of violence, many Indian scholars who contributed to the book have now disassociated themselves from the work. This is quite a shame. I feel that apart from the unfortunate paragraph, the book was a serious and an honest attempt by James Laine to re-examine: Shivaji, his legacy, and also demonstrate how the hero and achievements has been trivialized by political parties to further their own selfish jingoistic aims. However, I don't want to foist my personal views and I leave it you, the discerning reader to judge the merit of Shivaji:Hindu King in Islamic India . It is quite a shame that the book is still banned in India. The chief purpose of the book has been subverted by controversy, violence and political games in place of - civilized intellectual debate.


Shaunak said...

Hi Hirak.

A group of friends and I have this blog going called 'The Reading Room' at http://reading-room.blogspot.com
It is about book reviews. Each one of us reviews whatever books (s)he's read in a casual and informal way. It's been pretty successful (people who never touched a book are begging us to lend them our books) in its first week of existence.

To the point.
Would you mind posting this review on our blog? We're mostly from Pune and have heard of this book and the controversy it generated. It would make a good discussion point.

Additionally, I'd like to invite you to contribute to The Reading Room regularly (as per your convenience).
Please email me at shaunak.sa 'at' gmail.com.


satish said...

Legends are built around ALL great men/women. Legends abound about Gandhi, Shivaji, Christ and so on.
The fact remains that Shivaji was a great man. The contoversry about his lineage etc cannot lessen his accomplishments. He was a man of remarkable miltary genius (he recognised the need to have a strong navy to counter the British and Portugese)and vision. He was not against Islam, he fought against the tryanny of Aurangzeb