Ram Shastri Prabhune was the Chief Justice (Mukhya Nyayadhish) in the apex court of the Maratha Empire in the latter half of the 18th century, during the heyday of that empire. He is best remembered for having passed strictures against the sitting Peshwa of the time for instigating murder. Ram Shastri's integrity in public affairs is regarded as a model for all times.
Apart from being born in a small town called Mahuli near Satara, little is known about the childhood or early life of Ram Shastri Prabhune. References to him are available only after he entered the service of the Peshwas.
Ram Shastri held office under the Peshwas during the latter part of the 18th century. Known for his honesty and integrity, he even declined a royal gift made to his wife. He turned down the offer of an official mansion and continued to live in his humble ancestral home in the Brahmin quarter of Poona city on his modest income. It is said that his wife sold milk from their two cows and a buffalo in order to supplement his monthly income. This Brahminical frugality complemented his wide and eclectic scholarship: he was renowned for his knowledge of law (including British law), philosophy, and the theories of statecraft and political science. He was proficient in the Sanskrit, Marathi, Hindi, Urdu and English languages. As a young Brahmin student of Advaita vedanta, he had studied the Vedas, Upanishads and Puranas and was so well-versed in the Hindu scriptures, that he was considered as an authority in Pune in those times. He once debated for five days with Shri Varadendra Teertha, pontiff of the Madhva sect. After the debate, as a mark of respect and tribute to the scholarship of the pontiff he gave up his house and the structure is surviving to this day as the Shri Varadendra Swamy Mutt on Laxmi Road in Pune. To this theological scholarship, he added in later life, a reading of the Quran and the Bible.
Strictures against the Peshwa
Ram Shastri's most famous act of passing the death sentence on the ruling Peshwa of the time, Raghunath Rao for the murder of his own nephew, Peshwa Narayan Rao. In 1772, Peshwa [Madhavrao I] died, leaving his brother Narayan Rao, a minor, as heir. Madhavrao's paternal uncle, Peshwa Raghunath Rao, was appointed regent in the minority of his nephew. The following year, an act infamous in the history of the Maratha Empire was perpetrated when the young boy was murdered, at the behest either of the Regent or of his wife Anandibai, by Raghunath Rao's guardsmen. On the quiet winter night of 17 December 1772, the assassins entered his private quarters at Shaniwarwada in Pune; the boy-Peshwa ran for safety to the apartments of his uncle and aunt, knowing little about the true origin of the plot. These guardsmen then committed the murder in the very presence of Raghunath Rao and Anandibai.
Narayan Rao's wife delivered a son shortly after the death of her husband. However, the office of Peshwa was, at least nominally, an administrative office in the gift of the Chhatrapati of Satara. Raghunath Rao secured the office for himself. Nana Phadnavis and Ram Shastri brought into light the cause of Narayanrao's death. The ascent of Raghunath Rao did not prevent Ram Shastri from passing the most severe strictures against him in his judgment of the case. Raghunath Rao at first denied his role in the plot, and later pleaded the welfare of the state as his main motivation; the upright judge would not relent or even consider a plea for leniency. The law, he declared, was above the individual. Naturally, Ram Shastri's verdict was not honoured in what was essentially a political matter during a particularly fluid period in Maratha history (However, Raghunathrao was overthrown and Narayanrao's infant Sawai Madhavrao was appointed as the Peshwa in 1774). The fact that Ram Shastri was a Brahmin, and that he enjoyed an unparalleled reputation in the affairs of the state, precluded any harm being inflicted on him by a vengeful Raghunath Rao. However, he was clearly persona non grata at the court of the usurper. Rather than remain a puppet chief justice, Ram Shastri, who had always maintained a frugal lifestyle, relinquished his office and privileges and left Pune.
In Popular culture
In 1944, the movie Ram Shastri, with screenplay by K.B. Dhawle, was produced by Prabhat Film Company.