Hinduism is composed of a caste, jati, system and class, varna, system (Rodrigues 132). According to Hindu myth, the four main varnas, compromising the brahmin or “priestly” class, the ksatriya or “warrior” class, the vaisya or “commoners” class, and the sudra or “servant” class (Rodrigues 146), originated from the body parts of a mythical deity, Purusa (Macdonell 240). The Brahmins were and continue to be regarded as the purest class in Hindu society, originating from the head of Purusa. The Ksatriya class is said to originate from the torso and arms of Purusa as they are expected to protect people and bear arms. Thirdly, members belonging to Vaisya originated from his legs and lower body. They are responsible for tending to land or cattle and trading goods or money. The Sudra class originated from Purusa’s feet as they were the most impure members of society. Jati means “birth group” and provided Hindus with a more explicit rank or status in society (Macdonell 238). One’s jati refers to their occupation and dictates their dietary habits, ritual allowances, and interactions with members of other castes (Macdonell 231). Members or groups within a caste claim varna status and these claims are dependent upon their states of ritual purity (Rodrigues 83).
Upward mobility and social reform was extremely rare in Hinduism. The caste and class system was very rigid, and ritual purity in pre-colonial India was held in the highest regards. However, one group that achieved upward mobility in the varna system was the people of the Maratha jati. Originally, members of the commoners or servant classes, they were eligible to achieve Ksatriya or warrior status through their military efforts against the Mughal Empire in the late 17th centuries under the rule of the rebellion Shivaji (Deshpande 6).
The Maratha jati was a military caste situated in southern India. The majority of the group was mainly derived from kunbis origin; a “tribe” or caste that was and continues to be generally associated with the Sudra varna as “peasant cultivators” of the Western region in Maharashtra (Russell 199). The two other “tribes” that constituted the Maratha caste included the dhangar or “shepard” and the coala or “cow-herder” (Russell 201) both of which also claimed Sudra status.
It is also likely that the Maratha caste is derived from a military origin from various castes throughout Marathashtra. Many of the chief families claim to have rajput origin, a warrior caste located in Northern India. Their name is derived from the word rajaputra meaning “son of gods” (Russell 199). Shivaji, a noble ruler of the Maratha caste in, also claimed rajputs origin as he was the ideal Hindu ruler (Gordon 1). Born somewhere between the years of 1627-1630 C.E. (Abbott 159), Shivaji, has become a glorified icon in Hinduism. He was a Hindu king who instituted the Maratha kingdom and revived the Hindu religion in India (Laine 302). Shivaji has become popular through the stories and myths about his ability to lead a Maratha uprising and establish a Maratha kingdom in the midst of the era of the Mughal Empire. Thus, the Marathas were agents of the Mughal Empire’s ultimate defeat towards the end of the century.
The military engagement between the Mughal and Maratha Kingdoms began with a feud between the Maratha warrior Shiavji and the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and ended with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 along with the fall of his empire (Pearson 221). Their feud was instigated long before the decline of the Mughal kingdom when Aurangzeb constantly invaded the northern Pune district in Marathashtra (Gordon 59). His father, Shahji, gave Shivaji his first position in his career as a jagirdar, owner or lord of a feudal land grant (Laine 302). Shahji was among the army at Bijapur, a region of Muslim power, and became a successful solider under the direction of many Muslim rulers, including Adil Shah (Laine 302). When Shahji died, he sent his son to Pune where he learned to become a central political and military figure, establishing control over much of Maharashtra (Laine 303).
The revival of Hinduism and the start of the social mobility for the Marathas began when Shivaji proclaimed himself as a member of the Ksatriya class. His Vedic coronation in 1674 (Laine 303) was protested by many Maharashtrian Brahmins as they questioned the legitimacy of his lineage in the Hindu culture (Deshpande 6). Despite his grandfather’s, father’s, and half-brother’s Muslim sponsorship, Shivaji became invested in identifying as a Hindu, and later became known for his role as a “defender of dharma” (Laine 306).
Once Shivaji grew older, he became the primary candidate for coordinating the Maratha-Mughal war. The Mughals had captured many of the Maratha forts during their crusade of Maharashtra and, after a period of peace, Shivaji launched several successful attacks in order to retrieve the lost forts (Gordon 79). The most renowned legend of the great Hindu ruler, however, was when he confronted Afzal Khan. Afzal Khan was a Bijapur general for the Muslims who was sent to defeat the Maratha uprising in which Shivaji was credited (Laine 306). They had negotiated a meeting but whilst on his journey to meet Shivaji, Afzal Khan harassed many communities along the way and destroyed idols and buildings, including the temple of the goddess Bhavani (Laine 306). Upon arrival, Afzal Khan attempted to murder Shivaji but was unsuccessful. Instead, Shivaji slew his opponent using a sword given to him by the allied goddess (Bendrey 1143). That sword, to this day, is in an unknown location. Other accounts of the story say that it was a prejudiced attack, stating that Shivaji had prepared for the murder of his opponent, arriving to their arranged meeting with weapons while Afzal Khan did not (Beveridge 184). In either case, it seems safe to say that neither challenger arrived without the idea of defeating the other.
Another great story of Shivaji is told through the Maratha defense against the Mughal invasion at the fort of Simhagad in 1670 (Laine 307). Here, the Marathas under Shivaji’s reign were able to gain control over the fort. In contrast with the Mughal captain Udebhan, who is often portrayed with demonic characteristics of cruelty and lust, Shivaji is portrayed as an “epic hero.” Some, even suggest he is an incarnation of Rama himself (Laine 307), though it does not seem to be widely accepted. He is more often equated with Arjuna or even Bhima (Laine 307), both characters in the Mahabharata epic.
Following Shivaji’s death in 1680 (Pearson 226), Sambhaji took over the Maratha’s military. During his reign, the Mughals were able to conquer the kingdom of Golconda in 1687, an overdue goal Aurangzeb had set for himself (Richards 241). A long battle ensued between the Mughal and Maratha empires at Hyderabad Karnatik, as the Marathas attacked the capital in Kancipuram (Richards 24). However, the Marathas were driven out of Karnatik two months later. Up until 1690, both the Mughal and Maratha forces suffered military setbacks, and both were equally ineffective at striking against each other during this time. Shambhaji was captured and killed by the Mughals around 1689, leaving his brother, Rajaram, in control (Richards 244). However, the Mughal Empire regained full control over Hyderabad Karnatik, forcing the Marathas to rethink their strategy.
By 1692, Karnatik became the centre of military affairs between the two enemies (Richards 247). The siege of Jinji, a previously Maratha territory, took several years resulting in major losses for the Mughal army (Richards 2). During the intervals of Maratha raids, Aurangzeb’s generals collected whatever revenue they could find since the war was of his main concern (Richards 250). The Marathas, between the years of 1704 to 1707, were ruthless in their warfare against the Mughals as some of their greatest battles and victories occurred during this time (Richards 252). These crusades also concluded the twenty-one year struggle between the two empires. Aurangzeb, unable to defeat the Marathas armies with brawn instead resorted to bribery, paying his enemies in rupees and jagir (Richards 252-253), or land revenue (Pearson 221). The Mughal armies soon grew weak as the empire was unable to support their military due to loss of land and money. As a result of this financial deprivation, Mughal military performance continued to decline which lead to the fall of the Mughal empire and the rise of the Maratha kingdom in Maharashtra in 1707 (Pearson 221).
The Marathas caste, formerly situated under the Sudras varna, came to claim Ksatriya status due to a series of events encompassing Shivaji’s coronation and their military persistence against the Mughal Kingdom in the late 17th century. In present day, Maratha caste members live in deprivation, and some even in poverty, yet they continue to claim aristocratic status (Russell 205). Along with those who claim kunbis origin, the Marathas remain tied to the Ksatriya varna, (Deshpande 5), but they do not possess the resources or methods to conserve it easily. Some have trouble electing peace over warfare and instead produce a shallow and external façade of extravagance and glamour under their upper-class status (Russell 205-206). The Maratha caste prospered during their two to three centuries of constant warfare against Aurangzeb and the Mughal Empire (Russell 205-206). During this time they succeeded in becoming an extremely wealthy and powerful caste – a trademark of their name that Maratha members continue to identify with today.
References and Further Recommended Readings:
Abbott, Justin (1930) “The 300th Anniversary of the Birth of the Maratha King Shivaji.” Journal of the Oriental American Society, Vol. 50: 159-163.
Bendrey, V. S. (1938) “The Bhavani Sword of Shivaji the Great.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 86, No. 4482: 1142-1144.
Beveridge, H. (1917) Review of Shivajī the Marātha; His Life and Times by H. J. Rawlinson. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 183–185.
Deshpande, Prachi (2003) Caste as Maratha: Social Categories, Colonial Policy and Identity in Early Twentieth Century Maharashtra. Colorado: Colorado State University.
Gatson, Anne-Marie (2003) “Dance and Hinduism: A personal exploration.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 75-86.
Gordon, Stewart (1993) The New Cambridge History of India: The Marathas 1600-1818. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Laine, James (1999) “The dharma of Islam and the din of Hinduism: Hindus and Muslims in the age of Sivaji.” International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3: 299-318.
Macdonell, A.A. (1914) “The Early History of Caste.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 19, No. 2: 230-244.
Pearson, M. N. (1976) “Shivaji and the Decline of the Mughal Empire.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2: 221-235.
Richards, J. F. (1975) “The Hyderabad Karnatik, 1687-1707.” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2: 241-260.
Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2003) “Divine times: Goddess worship in Banaras.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 131-145.
Russell, Robert Vane (1916) The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces in India. London: Macmillan and Co.
Sax, William (2003) “A Himalayan exorcism.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 146-157.
Class/Caste System in India
Maharashtra during the late 17th Century
Article written by: Lauryn Zerr (April 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.