As we saw, Aurangzeb had to spend almost half of his reign fighting the Marathas. He thought they were a danger to his empire. They did not like outsiders to rule over their country and the way Aurangzeb treated Hindus made the Marathas even greater enemies of the Mughals. When the Mughal Empire broke up, the Maratha horsemen conquered nearly the whole of northern India. They went right up to Bengal, and to Delhi and even north into Punjab. For over a hundred years they were the most powerful force in India until the British became masters of the country.
How did the people of Maharashtra become so powerful? That is an interesting story. You have heard of Kabir, Nanak and the religion of Bhakti. The Bhaktas of Maharashtra did much to bind the Marathas together.
One of them was called Jnaneswar. He did not like the Brahmins to feel that only they had a right to be near God; that only those who understood Sanskrit could read the holy books. So he wrote the Gita in the language that the ordinary people spoke. The Brahmins were very angry with him. They thought that he had taken away something of the sacredness of the Gita. A strange story is told in Maharashtra about him. Once he made a buffalo recite the Vedas. The foolish Brahmins understood at last what he was trying to show them. It was wrong to think something holy could be spoilt simply because it was recited by those who were not Brahmins. Did they not see that even an animal could remember God!
Another great saint of Maharashtra was Tukaram. He was born in the family of a farmer. Even as a boy he spent long hours worshipping God. He was generous and kind and was always giving away everything he owned. He was so gentle that even birds and animals were not afraid of him. Later in life Tukaram gave himself up entirely to prayer. He called to the lowest and humblest of his people to join him in the adoration of his deity Vithoba or Panduranga. The Brahmins did not approve of this, and they were often very cruel to Tukaram. Once he was dragged through a hedge of thorns. Another time, the hymns he had written were thrown into the river. But soon the songs of Tukaram became popular and began to be sung throughout Maharashtra. These songs are called abhangas. Abhanga means something, which can never be broken.
Ramdas was another important Bhakta saint of Maharashtra. He lived about the same time as Tukaram.
For twelve years, he wandered all over the country. Like Shankaracharya, nearly a thousand years before, he set up a number of maths, and temples dedicated to Hanuman. He was a Bhakta of Rama, but he worshipped Hanuman because Hanuman had served Rama as an ideal Bhakta should. Hanuman had also been strong, and strength was just what Maharashtra needed.
Ramdas spent another twelve years in prayer and kirtan. The bhajans he wrote are still sung in Maharashtra.
An amusing story is told about him. When he was getting married he suddenly got up and left the pandal because one of the words the priest spoke during the ceremony was savadhanam, which means 'beware'.
Jnaneswar, Tukaram, Ramdas and other Bhaktas woke Maharashtra from a long sleep of hundreds of years. All that the sturdy Marathas needed now was a leader. Such a leader was Shivaji.