The Marathas Part 5 The Evolution of the Hindu Resurgence

Orange, NSW, 16 June 2021

The ancient Vedic Hindu culture continued to expand across the sub-continent till about 1000 A.D. Written records of dynasties that ruled the ‘known’ parts of the Indian sub-continent can be traced back to the Matsyapurana, which states that the Shishunaga dynasty ruled from about 640 B.C. and was followed by the Nandas and the Mauryas. [For greater details of these dynasties, refer From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History Volume I: Prehistory to the fall of the Mauryas]

In the Defence of Arthashastra and its Influence

During the reign of Chandragupta Maurya, his principal advisor Vishnu Gupta Kautilya, also referred to as Chanakya in some narratives, wrote the treatise called ‘Arthashastra’, the Science of Statecraft. The tome contained rules and regulations that governed all aspects of administering a country—how to lay down taxes and methods of their collection, revenue management, the penal code and their implementation, irrigation, cultivation—the myriad other aspects that combine to create an ethical and welfare-oriented governance of a kingdom. The book also dealt with the defence of the country, grand strategy, organisation of the military forces and even prescribed tactics for their employment. The most important section of the volume is the one dealing with inter-state relations based on the fundamental premise that a state of permanent peace between neighbouring countries is unattainable. It therefore flows that the immediate neighbour would normally be the primary adversary of a nation. The reason for this animosity, which could wax and wane dependent on several internal and external factors, could itself be varied and even amorphous in nature, such as economic rivalry, religious antagonism or political hostility.

In later years, the Arthashastra gained some notoriety since Kautilya had obliquely stated that moral scruples should not be a consideration in the practice of statecraft. He went on to state that duplicity and intrigue could be condoned if resorting to these activities directly led to the material benefit of the state. Both these injunctions had always been practised and Kautilya was only stating the obvious. Kautilya, and his treatise, have been maligned, mainly by European critics of his work, for emphasising the need to keep the good of the country as the ultimate goal always and every time. The hypocrisy of this criticism becomes clear as the same principles, when espoused as a Western concept finds ready and universal acceptance as the essence of statecraft. Kautilya advocated that all available resources of a nation should be oriented to achieving national objectives. Through the ages, this has remained the fundamental and unalterable truth in the practice of statecraft. Diluting the interests of the country would be a disloyal act. Unfortunately, for being bold enough to state the obvious, Kautilya has been accused of advising the practice of crooked diplomacy. The question looms large, is there something called ‘truthful’ diplomacy? Kautilya has been maligned by later-day chroniclers, both Muslim and European, with a view to making ‘Hindu’ diplomacy and statecraft seem crafty and dishonest. There has been a concerted effort to create the impression that Hindu kings and chiefs were always duplicitous in their dealings since they followed the Arthashastra.

In the recent few decades, Arthashastra handed down through generations, is gradually being accorded the status that it deserves and is being seen as an infallible treatise on governing and protecting a kingdom. Till the start of the Islamic invasions into the sub-continent, rural life built around the villages was peaceful and conducted at a sedate pace. While the early empires lasted, the kings exercised unlimited power and even claimed divine right to rule, and the God-given permission to rule as he pleased. However, Kautilya cautioned that the king was expected to be truthful and fair, although there was an underlying acceptance of the fact that unfair means could be used in extremis, when the welfare of the subjects was in the balance.

Arrival of Islam

With the dissolution of the great Mauryan Empire, smaller kingdoms ruled by weak kings and petty chieftains came into being and assumed greater importance in the broader geo-political structure of the sub-continent. They paid tribute to the more powerful kingdoms, under whose vassalage they normally functioned but only when they had to, or were forced to do so. This gradual disintegration of empires set in motion two powerful forces that would alter the socio-religious structure of the region. One, the rule of law that had been the basis for stability, enforced by the greater empires, vanished and was replaced by the law of the jungle – ‘the survival of the fittest’. Two, for more than a thousand years the Hindu religion had flourished, being an undeniable force of stability in the deeply religious society, attempting to unite all people on principles of truth and virtue. The two factors, the dilution of the rule of law and religion as the basis for stability, were not compatible and therein lay the challenge facing the sub-continental society, one exploited by the oncoming invaders to the hilt.  

Until about 1000 A.D. there were no major invasions into the core of the sub-continent. True, the Hunas (Huns) had come in the 6th century but were very rapidly thrown back; the Arabs conquered Sind in the 8th century, but it was a minor frontier episode that did not have any lasting impact on the rest if the broader sub-continent. In 1000 A.D. and thereafter, Mahmud of Ghazni a Muslim Turk, invaded the sub-continent. He repeatedly mounted pillaging raids deep into the Indian sub-continent, with superior cavalry and better armed soldiers. His success was built on what would today be called ‘Total War’, a concept that was new to the soldiers of the Hindu kingdoms of India. The Hindu forces fought according to certain laid down laws of war, whereas the invading Muslim armies did not adhere to any laws of decency or accepted conduct of war.

Mahmud of Ghazni destroyed numerous temples, including the great shrines in Mathura and Somnath, burned and looted all cities and towns that he came across, killed an unknown number of people, captured thousands of men and women, and sold them as slaves after forcibly converting them to Islam. Women of the cities, towns and villages were routinely raped and forced into temporary marriages—barbarous behaviour that defies description.

The unfortunate part of this ordeal was that as soon as the invasions stopped, the Hindus went back their old ways, putting behind the horrible truth of the invasions and the depredations of the Muslim army, as if they were a bad dream. The repeated invasions and the inability of the local chiefs and princes to oppose them with any kind of chance at victory did not however, cause the minor Hindu kings to introspect on the challenge they faced. The debacle of the earlier raids did not create awareness or understanding that unity between the eternally warring kingdoms would be the best way to address this issue of Muslim invasions. They presumed that the Ghazni raids were a one-of-a-kind and that all would now be well, now that they had stopped. There was no attempt at creating a united front, a confederacy, to counter future contingencies; there was no appreciation of the fast-approaching danger to the entire sub-continent. The mayhem of raping and converting, torture and floggings, although witnessed first-hand, was considered a ‘one-off’ and their long-term impact on the society did not fully seep into the collective conscience of the Hindu population. Mahmud’s raids were the harbingers of a bloody era—although the Hindus of the Indian sub-continent did not realise it at that time and were oblivious of the oncoming torrent of trouble.

After repeated and ruthless pillaging raids, the Turks eventually established the Delhi Sultanate, a sort of confederacy confined to North India with an informally accepted ruling hierarchy. Delhi became the capital of the northern part of the sub-continent and by the end of the 12th century that region had felt the impact of Islam on all aspects and spheres of life. About two centuries later the Delhi sultans were replaced by the Mughals. However, a majority of India continued to be directly ruled by Hindu kings and chiefs, although there was no doubt that Islam had come to stay in the sub-continent. The Muslim rulers also faced the same challenges that their Hindu counterparts did, with the socio-economic structure remaining unaltered.

There was a fundamental difference in the manner in which the two religions viewed each other and interacted with the other. There is no doubt that the Hindus considered Islam an evil. However, they also realised that they would have to put up with this strange religion in pursuance of their ancient teaching and practice of tolerance towards all other forms of worship. Accordingly, there was a reluctant, if indifferent, acceptance of the new religion and its strange practices. Muslims on the other hand had never heard of tolerance of another form of worship since their religion had always taught them to be ruthless against all non-believers. Therefore, the Hindu acceptance of different forms of worship was considered a weakness by the hard-core Muslims. This was the fundamental difference in attitude between the two religions.

The Deccan Plateau and South India

For almost three hundred years after Mahmud of Ghazni’s initial foray into North India, the Deccan and the region further south remained unaffected by the Islamic invasions. This idyllic situation was shattered in 1294, when Ala ud-Din Khilji, the nephew of the Delhi sultan of the same family, stormed across the Deccan, initially attacking Devagiri then ruled by Ramdev Rao, looting, killing and committing untold atrocities. 18 years later, Devagiri fell to Muslim forces and was renamed Daulatabad.

Around the same time, the foundations of the Vijayanagara Empire, which would become one of the most powerful Hindu kingdoms of all times, were also being laid in South India. Unfortunately, like in North India, the southern Hindu kingdoms were disunited, and internecine wars were rife. These kingdoms had no understanding of the kind of adversary that they would face very soon, even after the Khilji-raid had provided a foretaste of the impact of a Muslim attack on a kingdom or city. Although Vijayanagara was being built-up, the Hindu religion and associated culture had fallen into a stupor and was moribund with internal lethargy.

Adi Shankara in the 8th century and Namdev in the 14th century tried to provide an open corpus of the philosophical doctrine of Hinduism in their individual attempts to revitalise the age-old religion and the culture that flowed from it, both of which were under virulent attack by late 13th century. From about the middle of the 14th century, for nearly two centuries, the Bahmani sultans ruled the Deccan, initially from Gulbarga and later from Bidar. These sultans were relatively benign and generally non-interfering in the religious matters of the Hindus. There was little, if any, persecution of their Hindu subjects, who were in the majority. They had learned from the experience of their erstwhile masters, the Delhi sultans, that the only way to rule a Hindu majority kingdom as a Muslim state was to scrupulously avoid interference in the religious matters of the Hindus.

The Bahmani sultanate disintegrated under the unsustainable weight of the differences between the Afghan and Central Asian immigrant Muslims and the locally converted ‘Deccani’ Muslims. The former considered themselves more ‘pure’ and ‘true’ Muslims as opposed to the Indian converts who were accused of carrying with them old Hindu customs. An inherent distrust in anything of Hindu origin continued to colour the external view and internal perceptions of the Afghan and Central Asian Muslims. This was surprising since they had arrived in India, and the Deccan, purely for loot and subsequently for conquest—their invasion had nothing to do with religious matters. By the time of the collapse of the Bahmani sultanate, the schism between Hindus and Muslims in the Deccan had reached unbridgeable proportions. The Bahmani kingdom splintered into five Shahi kingdoms. By the late–16th century, these five had been reduced to three, with the Imad Shahis of Berar becoming extinct in 1573 and the Barid Shahis of Bidar collapsing in 1592.

In the south, Bijapur and Vijayanagara held sway as the two major kingdoms of the region. North India was ruled by the Mughals. The Mughal Empire, created collectively by the first three rulers of the dynasty—Babur, Humayun and Akbar—was functioning on an administrative structure, revenue system and the mansabdari military system, which were underpinned by a policy of religious tolerance and a consciously maintained, complete absence of Muslim bigotry. Jahangir, succeeding Akbar left the systems unaltered and therefore the empire continued to tread a path of stability, but the precariousness of the situation was gradually becoming apparent. By the time Shah Jahan came to power, the administrative system that had not been altered to cater for the changing circumstances and the greatly enhanced territorial holdings of the still growing empire, became corrupt and inefficient. The declining efficacy of the administrative machinery and Shah Jahan’s religious bigotry started to have visible adverse effects on the well-being of the empire. While the outwardly visible shell of the Mughal Empire continued to give the appearance of spectacular glory and strength, the insides were being rapidly excavated, leaving a weak structure behind.

With Shah Jahan’s bigoted religious policies being enforced, the Rajputs, Marathas, Jats and the Sikhs went into open revolt, rapidly organising themselves to oppose Islamic oppression. By the end of Shah Jahan’s reign, Mughal administration and revenue collection processes had become synonymous with corruption, in the minds of the common people. Between the early arrival of the Muslims into the sub-continent and the decline of Mughal power in the 17th century, communications had improved considerably. These improvements made the generally oppressed, but majority, Hindu population aware of events taking place in faraway places much faster, leading to an urge for them to organise themselves to oppose the Muslim onslaught on their religion, culture and way of life. These aspirations were supported by Hindu kings, even in situations where they only held vassal status to either the Mughals or the Shahi kings. The Hindus collectively began to think back about their old independent kingdoms, the benevolent rule of their Hindu kings and the freedoms they had enjoyed, the past glories of their religion, culture and traditions that were now being abused. Widespread frustration was apparent within the Hindu population across the entire sub-continent. It was in the Deccan that this resentment took on concrete form for the first time in the sub-continent.

The Rising Resentment to Muslim Rule

The difficult terrain that had to be traversed to enter the Deccan Plateau from North India had kept the Southern Peninsula isolated till about mid-14th century. There were few raids made for plunder and these commanders were content to return to the safety of their own territories at the end of their raid. These incursions could not be classified as invasions, which came a bit later. Unfortunately, even after Muslim invasions, with the accompanying depredations and destructive anti-Hindu activities, became part of the routine life in the Deccan and the arrival of the Europeans on the West Coast of the Peninsula, the minor, but semi-autonomous, Hindu princes and chiefs continued to be pre-occupied in their own internal squabbles, bent on settling personal feuds. The importance and need to create a united confederacy to oppose the invasions, which by now clearly had a religious bias, never occurred to these petty-minded rulers. There is no doubt that the Muslim rulers also had their own internecine conflicts. However, when it came to facing the Hindus, they always put forward a united front—invariably raising the bogey of ‘Islam in danger’ to close the ranks and call all Muslims to arms in a united manner. The Hindus had never needed such rallying cries and therefore continued to be disunited.

For nearly five centuries, starting around 1200 A.D. two distinct societies developed side-by-side in the Deccan and some parts of South India. One was the aggressive Muslim society, which continually wanted to expand, both territorially and spiritually in spreading their religious faith. Two, the tolerant Hindu society, subscribing to its ancient and basic concept of wishing every living thing well, which under the belligerent pressure from the Muslims, supported by the rulers, withdrew into its own religious shell and hid behind its caste prejudices to avoid confrontation. The poorer sections of Hindus knew that they only had to convert to Islam to improve their material status, since they would be granted land and some wealth on becoming Muslims. Further, they would also be free of the state-sanctioned religious oppression of Hindus. Therefore, it is a surprising fact that the Hindus continued to preserve and guard their way of life, often under great pressure and discomfort to themselves. Willing conversions were few and undertaken only under dire circumstances.

By the time of the collapse of the Bahmani Sultanate in the mid-16 century, Muslims in the Deccan habitually behaved as if they were superior citizens, to be obeyed by the non-believers at all costs—they were born to rule. Islamic theocracy did not acknowledge any non-believer—Hindu or Christian—declaring all of them enemies of the state. The Hindus were forbidden to ride a horse, carry arms, construct any temples, or even mourn their dead too loudly; the oppressive bigotry of the Muslims, enforced through royal writ, was unbearable. The result was that in the Deccan and the Deep South, the majority Hindu population was sullen and did not trust the Muslims. The distrust was obviously mutual and therefore, there was no common meeting ground and all attempts at religious reconciliation came to naught.

Despite the land being fertile, the common Hindu, irrespective of whether under Muslim or Hindu rule, lived a miserable life of subsistence, forced to be increasingly docile in their demeanour and accepting of continually falling standards in lifestyle. The adoption of this attitude was facilitated by the classic Hindu philosophy of the perpetual cycle of life, death and rebirth to a better station in life, till the individual attains ‘moksha’, oneness with God. The docile acceptance of whatever injustice is heaped on an individual while he/she is waiting for betterment in the next life has always been the bane of the fundamental Hindu philosophy of life. At no time in the long history of the Hindu religion and way of life has this attitude been more corrosive of the greater good than during the Islamic invasion and conquest of North India initially and subsequently the Deccan Plateau and South India.

By early 17th century, the Deccan had experienced cumulative Muslim rule for about 250 years, while the Deep South continued to remain predominantly Hindu, in rule, religion and culture. In Muslim ruled areas, the Hindu resentment to oppression was expressed more in private, with a resigned acceptance of the status quo, typically characteristic of the religious Hindus. Their God had said in the Bhagavad Gita that He would be reborn in every era if ‘dharma’ was being flouted. Therefore, the Hindus waited for the arrival of the proverbial incarnation to alleviate their misery and elevate them to greater glory.

Maharashtra – The Land and the People

The Sahyadri mountain ranges, around which the land of Maharashtra is situated, directly influenced the lives and character of the people as well as the administration of both the Mughals and the Shahi kingdoms, who superficially ruled the region in the 16th century.

The entire Maharashtra is hilly, with the main mountain range running north to south and separating the ocean to the west from the mainland by a narrow strip of land called the Konkan. The Konkan is crossed by many rivers and rivulets that flow from east to west, into the Arabian Sea. Northern Konkan, Kolaba and Thana, are flat and fertile while its central and southern parts are rocky. Rainfall in the Konkan is heavy, as much as 75 inches a year and the Sahyadri guards this coastal strip well—there are very few accessible passes into the Konkan. Though the mountain ranges are not very high, varying between 2000 and 5000 feet above mean sea level, the slopes are steep, and the valleys narrow and winding. Thick jungle on the slopes and in the valleys inhibit free, easy and rapid travel. The sub-ranges of the Sahyadri tend to run north-west to south-east and most of the smaller rivers of the region follow the same direction. The plateau to the east has an average elevation of 1500 feet and receives adequate rainfall to grow sufficient food for the local population. However, consecutive failure of the monsoon invariably leads to famine in this region.

In the 16th century, the people of the Konkan faced a horde of invaders, all equally cruel and barbaric in their behaviour. The Portuguese and other European traders came from the high seas and were as ruthless in attempting religious conversion as the Muslims who came from North India, across the Vindhya Mountain ranges. The Westerners came ostensibly to trade, but in reality, their objective was to conquer and rule the rich lands of the Indian sub-continent. They were extremely cunning and possessed much better-equipped military forces as compared to those fielded by the Indian kings and chiefs. They had little trouble establishing along the coastal harbours. From their bases in the Konkan, the Westerners gradually moved east and started to take an active interest in the power politics of the Maharashtra region.

Since their land was difficult to approach and therefore unreceptive to direct control, the local Maharashtra chiefs were all semi-autonomous, owing only a sort of formalised loyalty to the ruling house. Several minor chiefs also accepted service with Muslim rulers, fighting other Muslims or even their own kith and kin on behalf of their masters. The local people, Marathas were generally haughty and carried blood feuds for successive generations. The men were adept horsemen as were a large percentage of the ladies and warfighting training was not restricted to the Kshatriyas, the warrior caste, but freely imparted to all castes. These inherently proud people essentially believed in God and could also be extremely religious, being brought up on the stories of the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Marathas were acutely aware of the atrocities being committed by the Muslims and of the generic religious oppression of the Hindus.

The wanton destruction of temples by the predatory armies of the Muslim kings and their high-handed behaviour brought the Marathas to the end of their tether, their patience and forbearance had worn thin, they had a reason to fight, given to them by the Muslims.

All they needed was a strong, visionary leader, who would lead them in battle to free their religion and the country of the foreign yoke. This too would come to pass. 


© [Sanu Kainikara] [2021]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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