A historical perspective on Humour: Chatrapati Shivaji and Arjuna


On April 2, 1779, the great Maratha king Chatrapati Shivaji wrote a letter to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. A few lines, in the beginning, read as follows:

This firm and constant well-wisher Shivaji, after rendering thanks for the grace of God and the favours of the Emperor – which are clearer than the Sun -begs you to inform your Majesty that, although this well-wisher was led by his adverse Fate to come away from your august Presence without taking leave, yet he is ever ready to perform, to the fullest extent possible and proper, everything that duty as a servant and gratitude demand of him.

It has recently come to my ears that, on the ground of the war with me having exhausted your wealth and emptied your treasury, your Majesty has ordered that money under the name of jaziya should be collected from the Hindus and imperial needs supplied with it. May it please your Majesty!

This was a letter by the great Chatrapati Shivaji to Aurangzeb. It was written to the so-called Alamgir after he reinstated the jaziya tax for Hindu pilgrims. Historically, the Mughal empire used to collect tax from Hindu pilgrims who were abounded to their places of worship. This served two purposes. One, it filled Mughal coffers since the majority were Hindus. Secondly, this was a bait to attract poor Hindus into accepting Islam.

With time, the emperor Akbar revoked this law, thus adopting inclusive politics. However, three generations later, a tyrant named Aurangzeb, great-grandson of Akbar succeeded the Mughal throne. Over time, Shivaji turned out to be his arch-enemy and wars with him turned to be a costly affair. The Mughal coffers declined. Moreover, Aurangzeb was a religious bigot. Thus, in order to fill his declining coffers and make the Hindus suffer, Aurangzeb, reinstated the Jaziya Tax.

The Sarcasm

What’s noteworthy in the above letter is the amount of Sarcasm along with a great display of diplomacy by the great Shivaji. It was a source of great pain and anguish to Shivaji that Hindus were ill-treated in Aurangzeb’s kingdom. Diplomatically, he had two options viz. either a confrontational letter or a supplicant one. The former would have inflamed Aurangzeb, thus leading to more bloodshed and further torture of Hindus. Besides, the latter supplicant approach would have fallen on deaf ears.

But Chatrapati Shivaji chose the middle way wisely. The letter was diplomatic and stinging at the same time. It had the humility of a great king and mockery of a critic. He understood the fact that people like Aurangzeb can’t be handled in extreme ways, but balance and wit. This reminds me of John Lennon’s famous quote:

When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humour.

Mahatma Gandhi’s humourous side

Centuries down the line, Mahatma Gandhi used a similar attitude with the powerful British crown. He knew that with Violence, India could not challenge the powerful Imperial crown. Hence, he chose the path of Satyagraha. However, it is less known that he used Sarcasm/Humour in an equally effective manner. The following incident shows his stinging sense of humour.

It so happened that Mahatma Gandhi was invited by King George V to Buckingham palace for a cup of Tea. When he went there in his usual simple attire, a reporter asked him, “Mr. Gandhi, do you think you are properly dressed to meet the king?”

He replied, “Do not worry about my clothes. The king has enough clothes on for both of us.”

Lightheartedness in the face of death

Now, let’s go to the ancient world i.e., the times of Mahabharata. The Pandavas were living incognito in the kingdom of Matsya. Due to certain turn of events, Duryodhana anticipated Pandavas’ presence in the Virat kingdom. Hence, he planned a two-pronged attack on the Matsya kingdom. From the south, Trigarta king Susharma led an attack. The king of Matsya i.e., Virata countered Susharma along with Yudhishthira, Bheema, Nakul and Sahadeva. This deprived the city of the entire army, thus leaving the walls defenceless. Meanwhile from the north, the kuru army led by Bheeshma, Drona, Kripa, Karna, Ashwatthama, Duryodhana etc. laid a siege.

The city was left off a few soldiers and the crown prince Uttar. Of course, there was Arjuna in the form of Brihannala, a eunuch, but who would take him seriously? Thus, the responsibility of defending the city came upon the naive prince who had no experience in warfare. However, he was boasting of being equal to Arjuna. With great confidence, Uttar uttered, “I will wield the bow and drive the Kurus. But I don’t have a skilled charioteer.” Arjuna stepped up at this challenge.

With no alternative, Uttar acquiesced. It was a tense mood inside the palace. However, Arjuna was in a light mood! He made jokes with women, feigned ignorance while putting up armour, and acted horrified looking at the weapons. Please take note that he was about to enter a battle that could have been his last. Yet, his calm and playful approach to life won him the day.

Also read: When Amarendra Bahubali reminded me of Arjuna


One of the greatest gifts we can have is the ability to resort to humour in face of adversity. Better is the ability to inflict a stinging, humourous and witty wound. But humour is not only fun, it is life-altering. That which violence cannot accomplish, a hearty laugh can. After all, a joke can give you an alternate perception of life.


Prasad Kulkarni is a Data and Analytics professional. At work, he analyses historical data and ponders over historical events otherwise.

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