Remembering Vishvanath Kashinath Rajwade: The Maharashtra Historian Extraordinaire

The first part of a series profiling the iconic scholar of Maharashtra history, Vishvanath Kashinath Rajwade whose service to scholarship and learning is a universe by itself.
Remembering Vishvanath Kashinath Rajwade: The Maharashtra Historian Extraordinaire

WE HAVE ALMOST A DAILY ACCOUNT of the degeneration of Maharashtra in our own time: the latest being the arrest of a sitting minister not to mention the vice-ridden life of something called Aryan Khan. The descent has been as swift as it is appalling.

In fact, it is shocking how much the descent has actually been normalized when we contrast it with the conditions that prevailed in the state just eighty years ago. Or roughly, four generations ago.

The Maratha, Marathi and Hindu pride upon which Bal Thackeray founded his political empire has now been mortgaged by his son at the feet of an ailing Italian lady.

Cultured Pride

If Bal Thackeray’s Maharashtrian pride was of a virulent and violent sort, there was an infinitely more refined and cultured pride that coursed in that geography exactly one generation prior to him. It was built with the bricks of deep study, the virtue of purpose, and pure living. All of these were the defining traits of the modern Indian Renaissance that had swept India’s sacred geography of the era.

One of its most distinguished exponents in Maharashtra was the iconic Vishvanath Kashinath Rajwade, or Vishubhau, the scholar who wrote a new grammar of and inaugurated a new epoch of writing the history of the state. Singlehandedly. From the scratch.

In fact, as we shall see, there was a need for the emergence of Rajwade and he more than filled it.

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The condition of historical research about Maharashtra in Maharashtra until he arrived on the scene was pathetic to say the least. By the time he left, he had definitively altered its direction by his direct recourse to the real and faithful material of history: original letters, documents, and genealogies written by the historical personages themselves. He unearthed piles of official and bureaucratic notes written by ministers, and officers when the events occurred. The stunning fact is that these documents were widely available even before he was born but for some reason, nobody seemed to have cared to look into them. For more than three decades and till the very end of his illustrious life, Vishubhau kept collecting these real materials of the true history of Maharashtra at immense personal sacrifice.

The epithet, Itihasacharya of Maharashtra was an adornment whose value he embellished.

Early Years

VISHVANATH KASHINATH RAJWADE was born on July 12, 1864 (some accounts give his birth date as June 24, 1863). He received his high-school education partly at home and partly in the schools of Baba Gokhale, Natu, Beaumont and Bhave at Pune. He passed his matriculation in 1882, aged eighteen. He enrolled at the Elphinstone college but later shifted to the Deccan college, where he studied from 1884 to 1890. He took up several optional subjects, but ultimately passed his B. A. majoring in History.

During his college days, he devoted as much time to strenuous physical exercises as he did to studies and built up a powerful physique by going to the gym, rowing, swimming, and talking long walks. College was also where he found his true calling: of dedicating his life to writing an authentic history of Maharashtra. This is how prepared himself for it: apart from studying the prescribed syllabus, he burned the proverbial midnight oil and taught himself Botany and Psychology, and mastered foreign languages like French and Persian. The result was nothing short of miraculous.

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In 1888, two years before his graduation, Rajwade commenced work on his life’s sacred Vrata with single-minded grit. However, initial progress was slow and halting because he had to earn a livelihood. His family married him off immediately after graduation. Rajwade took a teaching job for three years and then resigned to start a monthly magazine titled Bhashantar (Translation) with the support of some close friends. Among others, he published Marathi translations of Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s works, selections from Gibbon’s history volumes on Rome, Montesquieu’s Espirit de laws and selections from the lore of Adi Sankara.

Two tragedies struck him in quick succession.

Vittal Press, which published his Bhashantar translations was consumed by an accidental fire and he lost the entire collection of both his published and unpublished manuscripts. If that was not enough, it reduced him overnight to penury.

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The second was the tragic death of his wife, from which he never recovered. But unlike the weasel males of our own time who take to drink and drugs, Vishubhau took the true royal road: he embraced the spirit of a renunciate akin to that other titan of Indian scholarship, Prof. M. Hiriyanna, and dedicated himself to the history of Maharashtra with a purity of purpose that can only be called divine.

Marathyanchya Itihasachi Sadhane

The result showed in 1898 when he published the first volume of his magnum opus: Marathyanchya Itihasachi Sadhane or Sources of the History of Maharashtra. It was a coup of sorts and an instant success. For the first time, Rajwade opened the eyes both of the scholarly world and the general public to the appalling distortions and one-sided historical accounts of that crucial event of Maratha history: the third battle of Panipat. Rajwade’s criticism in that volume stung because its truth was based on a thorough examination of the minutest details including letters, correspondences and other primary sources. There was the Maratha, or the real side of this story and this proud Maharashtrian was determined to tell it. Over his long, productive and distinguished lifespan, Rajwade published a whopping twenty-two volumes of Marathyanchya Itihasachi Sadhane, with a detailed scholarly preface for each volume. We shall examine some details in the next part of this series.

These apart, he wrote a biography of Shahaji titled Radha Madhav Vilas Champu, a collection of historical prefaces titled Aitihasik Prastavana, a three-volume history anthology titled Rajwade Lekhsangraha, and Bharatiya Vivah Sansthecha Itihas (The history of Indian Matrimony).

In 1910, he founded the iconic Bharat Itihas Sanshodhak Mandal at Pune and donated all his writings to the institution. It would lock horns infrequently with Jadunath Sarkar, but that is a story for another day. Thanks Vishubhau’s sturdy foundations, the Bharat Itihas Sanshodhak Mandal eventually shored up an astounding 1500,000 historical papers and 30,000 manuscripts mostly in Marathi, Modi, Persian, Portuguese and English. This apart, it has preserved over 4,000 coins, 1,000 paintings and scores of sculptures and inscriptions in its museum. The Mandal’s library contains a treasure of over 27,000 books and is one of the definitive sources for any researcher pursuing the history of Maharashtra, the Marathi culture and literature, and vital aspects of the last stages of the Mughal Empire and the British rule of India.

One man seeded all of this.

Sources of Inspiration

Equal in importance to Rajwade’s phenomenally prolific literary output was the source of his inspiration. He has recorded on occasion that he developed the historical spirit from the following sources:

1. Nibandhamala or essays

2. Kavyetihas-Sangrahas or traditional Marathi and Sanskrit poetry and historical accounts

3. Navanit or anthologies and genealogies

As he began devouring these source works, a whole new world opened before him. He says how the traditional Nibandhas “saved me from from falling into the pernicious habit of writing and conversing in English.” The Kavyas and Itihasas “gave me a true perception of my Motherland, Bharat.” Finally, the Navanitas “instilled within me a love and pride towards Marathi literature.”

The Courageous Path of Cultural Self-Confidence

This choice of writing exclusively in Marathi also proved detrimental to Rajwade because it constrained the reach of his work and obscured his fame and acclaim as a world-class scholar of history. But then, he chose cultural pride over fame and declared his cultural self-confidence in so many words:

if European scholars and historians are truthfully interested in the pursuit of knowledge, they will learn Marathi and read my books.

This is the other notable facet of Rajwade’s work: an ardent love of the Marathi language, bordering almost on obsession. He was convinced that foreign rule was the main reason for the decay of Marathi and wrote:

Marathi is today the language of a conquered people which is why it is neglected so thoroughly. Had it been the language of a ruling and independent nation, it would have been carefully studied even by Westerners and the fame of Marathi writers would have spread on the continent of Europe.

In a more explicit essay on the glorious legacy of the Marathi language and literature, this is what he wrote:

The refined Marathi in which the literature of the past seven or eight centuries is written has become the object of love equally to all the Marathas inhabiting the various districts of Maharashtra and the various (Indian) states such as Baroda, Indore, Gwalior, Bundelkhand, Tanjore, Gooty, Bellary and others. T here is no wonder that the cultured language in which gifted writers like Mukundraj, Dnyaneshwar, Suryajyotishi, Ekanath, Tukaram, Ramdas, Moropant, and Chiplunkar wrote their works, should be respected alike by people of all districts and of all communities. A provincial language is coextensive with the boundaries of the province and the communal dialect with the community, but the literary language used in writing and speech is meant for the entire Maharashtra. Small peculiarities of provincial minor dialects and the puerile corruptions met with in communal brogue, pale into insignificance in the royal court of the literary language and the only one pure mother tongue of the Marathas becomes the object of pride, wonder and spontaneous affection to all the people in the country. The pride which the Marathas feel for their language is not vain. No language in the world can equal Marathi in respect of abundance of its vocabulary. Moreover, the fact that many gifted and great writers have clothed their sublime, grave, romantic and charming thoughts in this language has only led to the gradual growth of affection, in ever increasing measure in the people of Maharashtra for this language.

Alongside his history researches, Rajwade devoted substantial energy to rouse and reawaken the Marathi people to their own heritage, which had flourished so spectacularly even a century ago. He delivered speeches and lectures and wrote prolifically with a resolute intent of educating Maharashtrians in Marathi grammar, literature, language, and its relationship with Sanskrit grammar. But then, Rajwade was not alone in taking such fierce pride in his home state and its culture. It was the spirit of the era. In his neighbouring Karnataka and Andhra, a similar cultural and literary renaissance had just acquired wings. Stalwarts like B.M. Srikantaiah, A.R. Krishna Sastri, DVG, Govinda Pai, and T.S. Venkannayya were fast emerging as colossuses. And faraway Bengal had already taken rapid cultural strides. Needless, Rajwade was the Maharashtrian equivalent of this extraordinary phenomenon. In fact, his linguistic pride was entirely justified because it stemmed from refinement, culture, knowledge and scholarship, and not fanaticism.

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In the next part of this series, we will examine some contours of his monumental service to the cause of the history of Maharashtra, which is an entire universe by itself.

To be continued

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