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What’s the point of celebrating Shiv Jayanti?

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Two decades ago, the government of Maharashtra decided that the Shiv Jayanti i.e. the birth celebration of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj will be celebrated on 19th February every year, that is his birth date as per the Gregorian calendar. It was changed from the earlier practice of celebrating it on Falgun Kr’shna 3, the birth tithi as per the Indian lunisolar calendar. Two decades is a long period creating a gap of nearly a generation. Since Shiv Jayanti is a public holiday in Maharashtra, people will remember it by the Gregorian day, especially those who came to the age of being a working generation in last couple of decades or so.

It seems a small change on the face of it. Even a convenient one that the event exactly falls on the same date every year. Isn’t it convenient to arrange your work calendar after all in work days and holidays? What exactly is the loss that someone may want to crib about? There is indeed a loss. A loss that is much deeper than the mere convenience we might derive from the current arrangement. The loss is civilizational and cultural, and its depth can be fathomed through the simple question, ‘what is the point of celebrating Shiv Jayanti?’

The answer of this title question takes us back to who Shivaji Maharaj was and what is the unique historical importance of his life work. The beginning of Islamic invasion from middle eastern caliphates dates back to seventh century CE. The period since the first conquest till the beginning of the 17th century is filled with endless battles of Indian kings resisting the spread of the waves of middle eastern Islamic rulers and their theocratic governments. The political map of India was largely occupied by these forces by the beginning of 17th century and Mughals were comfortably established on the throne of Delhi. In south, the Bahamani Sultanates had dethroned Vijayanagar kings and last reigning Hindu kings were confined to southernmost end of India. This is the background that Shivaji Maharaj faced when he took up the mammoth task of establishing the ‘Hindavi Svarajya’. He not just established a small size kingdom, those existed in many even then. He laid the founding stone of an empire that had a large impact on Indian history in coming centuries.

But greatness of Shivaji Maharaj does not end at the assessment that he founded a kingdom that went on to become a large empire. It is the principles, policies and methods that he employed that not only had a temporal practical relevance in gaining political independence, but also had a fundamental philosophical relevance to the concepts of nationhood and independence. And these are the principles and concepts that are relevant even for today’s India, and possibly also for the India of coming centuries. We need to look at more recent history of India under British rule and the concept of colonization to fully understand the importance of the work of Shivaji Maharaj.

One of the primary mistakes that Indian society made when they subjugated themselves to the foreign rule of Britishers was that they took it as a political slavery. But British had a very different worldview than the native Indians. Indians then had no concept of civilizational conflict and the mindset of colonization. They probably could not fathom that Britishers not only sought the political sovereignty over the land but also considered themselves responsible for the upliftment of ignorant natives, which they called ‘White man’s burden’. This was their approach not only in India but wherever they went around the globe. Britishers sought to convert an Indian (or for that matter a native of anywhere) into a brown Englishman. They employed their entire machinery of state, military, education and religious orders into this work. It must be accepted that they succeeded in this task to a considerable extent. If we see around today’s India, we note that we are quite westernized in our mindset, so much so that we need a separate discipline of decolonization studies to understand the extent to which this poison has spread through our society.

The concept of colonization was not so structured, intentional and theoretically developed in the era of Shivaji Maharaj. But the influence of continued subjugation to middle eastern rulers was pretty visible. Shivaji Maharaj took active steps to stop this de-Indianization of Indian masses. Let’s see three specific examples of the actions of Shivaji Maharaj that made his rule radically different from the previous Islamic rulers and had signs of decolonization efforts. The first example is of the slave trade. Both the Islamic rulers of middle east and northern Africa as well as the Christian kingdoms of Europe indulged into the trade of human slaves that involved men and women from the nations that they ruled. India had come to the receiving end of this inhumanly trade activity that was rampant then. Shivaji Maharaj put an active stop to this practice. His influence was so strong that the human trafficking was stopped not only within his kingdom that was relatively much smaller, but nearly the entire coast of India. Ports being blocked, India’s participation in the barbaric slave trade nearly died. It must be noted that the colonial powers had continued to indulge into the slave trade in other parts of the world nearly till the beginning of of the twentieth century.

The second example is of Rajyavyavahara Kosha or a glossary of technical terms to be used for administration. This Kosha was in Sanskrut. Conscious efforts were made to reduce the usage of Farsi and Arabic languages from administrative documents and replace it with Sanskrut words. Many of the words that we use today were brought in vogue by this Kosha, such as Pradhan Mantri, Senapati, Nyayadhish and Sachiv. Historians have noted that the usage of Marathi/Sanskrut words in official letters was around 14% at the time of Shivaji Maharaj’s birth. It became around 63% at his death and went on to become 93% at later times when Maratha empire was at its peak. It is well accepted now that the languages carry cultural underpinnings and exact translations of many words carrying specific connotations is not always possible. Thus creation and usage of the Kosha is not merely limited to the creation of a dictionary. It is equivalent of recognizing that the Indian people have an expression that is unique and it must be provided a channel.

The third example is that of the creation of Shiva Shaka. Though the process of making an Indian calendar is standard, there are various starting years that are considered in different parts of the India. Therefore although the date will be the same, the year count is different in different systems. Two most prominent year counting systems are Vikrama Samvat and Shalivahan Shaka, followed in northern and southern India respectively. There are numerous others, each typically started by a king that has achieved a monumental feet of that times. Shivaji Maharaj had rightly judged the importance of his coronation and started a year count with this event, called Shiva Shaka.

All three examples I have given point to a specific trait that Shivaji Maharaj showed in each of his moves and actions. He did not intend to form another kingdom. He did not wish just to be an independent ruler of some piece of land. He wanted to build an empire that is homogeneously aligned with the ethos of this culture. His was a kingdom that spoke in the same voice of a common Indian and was rooted in same beliefs, traditions and customs that were dear to him. His was the kingdom that people could relate to, and took as its Dharma to protect the people. The principle is best celebrated in his seal which claims that ‘Mudra Bhadray Rajate’. In present parlance, he was king with a heavy program of decolonization.

This unique stature of Shivaji Maharaj was well recognized in the freedom struggle against British where two of the most famous poets of India, Rabindranath Tagore and Subramanyam Bharati wrote poetry in honour of Shivaji Maharaj. It was felt by all leaders alike that Shivaji Maharaj was the epitome of the freedom struggle, not only political, but social, cultural and in every other aspect. His actions defined, in present times, what exactly the Indian nation is. Mahatma Fule started Shiva Jayanti Utsav in 1870 that spread later across the country. The Shiva jayanti that was celebrated then was Falgun Kr’shna 3. So there is a history of more than a century to the celebrations by Indian calendar. And this exact principle is thrown away when we celebrate it by its Gregorian calendar date. So we commemorate the great king, but deny that we will carry this baton ahead. We are saying that we love to be in the slavery and though Shivaji Maharaj took great efforts to uplift this society, we love being under subjugation. We have no aspiration to have the freedom of expression of our opinions in our own language.

This is not the true spirit of celebrating Shiv Jayanti. The true spirit will be to celebrate it as a festival of independent, confident society, rooted firmly in its glorious past and embracing the modern world not blindly, but on its own terms and to its own benefit. Its celebration is not a matter of mere convenience, but of great pride. Shiv Jayanti is not 19th February as the government wants us to observe, but Falgun Kr’shna 3 as the society wants to celebrate.

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