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Sadashiv Rao Bhau : Understanding the Character who led the third battle of Panipat

  • INDOLOGY
  • Anhad Jakhmola | Team PresentMirror Indology | Updated: Jan. 20, 2021, 11:49 a.m.




The 260th anniversary of the third battle of Panipat reminded us of the great battle where the Maratha army faced the Afghans under Ahmad Shah Abdali. Sadashiv Rao was chosen to halt the Afgan rising. Moreover, his uncompromising stance against people like Surajmal and even Abdali is seen as a critical point of strategic failure. Let’s dwell into some Truth.


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Abdali had come after muslim rulers requested him to end the dominance of the Maratha samrajya. They knew that the Marathas were weakened and had a turbulent situation within their empire politically. Sadashiv Rao was chosen to face over other commanders which is now considered an important reason for the loss, as he was inexperienced in the northern terrain.

The Marathas marched and due to tactics of pursuit by the Afghans, they made their camp at Panipat. For a fortnight, they starved without any food as their supplies were shut by them. The battle, started with the Marathas having lesser soldiers than the Afghans but with brilliant tactics to have an upper hand until Vishwasrao, the next Peshwa got shot and died. Fear crippled the Marathas and Holkar allegedly left the battlefield with his troops.

A handful of Marathas remained and Sadashiv, leading them decided to fight it out and eventually died against a vastly outnumbered army of the Afghans. Abdali, surprised and fascinated by the bravery of Bhau, wrote letters to Balaji Baji Rao and others, and never returned to Bharat again. Therefore, while this battle had been lost by the Marathas, the Afghans never dared to enter the subcontinent in respect of the valour shown by the Marathas.

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Image File: Excerpt from the letter written by Abdali to Peshwa, Source : New History of Marathas

That, was in brief, the battle. The article is however interested in the aspects people often look into.

Sadashiv Rao was one of the best generals of the Maratha army. Granted the Marathas had many capable ones and people would accuse him completely for the loss of this battle. It's not surprising that the Peshwa chose him over others. Especially Holkar who had earlier lost to Abdali before. Inexperience of terrain can be a plausible reason but so were other generals in the army. One can always dilly-dally over the extent of Bhau's diplomacy, which would make him listen to his advisors but this is honestly, how battles have been.

While we happily browbeat the failure of Sadashiv Rao, let's not forget the Maratha Empire had a debt and their coffers were almost empty. Their subordinate states were not paying their levy on time. When the Peshwa had searched at the responsibility of any commander to lead in the battle, most commanders backed off. Sadashiv Rao faced innumerable odds in economical and insubordination. Yet, his values and belief made him go and face an army of one of the strongest men in South Asia. It's foolish to imagine that Bhau would have been optimistic in this. Yes, he would have expected more cooperation from other Hindu states like the Muslim states gave their support to Abdali. However, it didn't matter eventually as he stayed till the end of his life to fight the Afghan army.

Sadashiv Rao is often vilified with his inability to stich an alliance with Surajmal. What people forget is Surajmal's request to rule Delhi, considered to be the capital of the Bharatiya state. It is the failure of both historical figures to think ahead and come together against Abdali. Moreover, it would be a problem for the Maratha samrajya to parley and let an important strategic area be given to an independent kingdom. The Jats, ultimately suffered because of this and Surajmal died while fighting the rejuvenated Muslim army under Abdali's sovereignty. Mathura and the area near Yamuna saw massacres of Hindus.

Poor strategy can be said with regard to the Maratha army but they were not the full army of the empire. More than half of the army was in the South, managing affairs and Abdali was an old player in this game of geopolitics with religion. Nevertheless, Sadashiv Rao went without any regard of his life and fought like a true Kshatriya, who was doing his Dharmic duty. The Afghans stopped all routes of help from the Sikhs but the Marathas didn't let that hamper them in the beginning of the war.

During the war, Sadashiv Rao, got on what they had decided to, to stop the army of Abdali to enter Bharat. Even when Holkar deserted them allegedly, in a situation like this, when your brain is in a frenzy and more than half of your army is retreating, your brain would push you to escape and survive. Sadashiv Rao and his band of people did the opposite, because they knew they were there to make a point. They knew most of the subcontinent would read about this battle. Sometimes it's not the victory of the battle which shows the valor or the heroism of the figure. Sometimes it's his actions in desperate times that define him for generations to come. We have read something similar for Hector of Troy and Leonidas of Sparta against the Persians. It makes perfect sense to look at this as the ultimate sacrifice of the Marathas against their civilisational and religious enemies.

Finally, this war brought the reality to the Maratha Empire. Their objective was aided with the rebellion in Kabul against Abdali. Mahadji Scindia and Nana Fadnavis took the Maratha Empire to new heights and more secure and stable heights. They remained the most powerful empire until the British came and fought the war with them.

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To say that this battle did not inspire the events would be a disgrace because people looked up to Sadashiv Bhau and admired his unflinching loyalty to the land and to the Dharma. Moreover, the movie made by Gowarikar, though fallacy in script, sent a point of emotion and pride with the Maratha way of life and valour.

Hence, shifting away from popular notions, this is for us, a moment of pride to see the extent of focus and loyalty towards the land and it's religion. It sends an important message across. " Value Loyalty above everything else."

" जो रक्त है तन में बहता
वो हमसे है ये कहता
सम्मान के बदले जान भी दें
तो नही है घाटा रे

युग युग की जंजीरों को हमने ही काटा रे
बोल उठा ये जग सारा जय मर्द मराठा रे "

Jai Bhawani, Jai Shivaji 🙏🏿

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