For about three hundred and fifty years before Shivaji, Maharashtra was not a free state. A large portion of it was under the rule of the Nizamshah of Ahmednagar and the Adilshah of Bijapur. These two had divided Maharashtra among themselves. Their officers rules Maharashtra on their behalf.
Adilshah and Nizamshah, were very narrow in their outlook and oppressed the people over whom they ruled. They were also sworn enemies of each other. They constantly fought each other and as a result the people of Maharashtra suffered untold hardships.
There was hunger everywhere and the people were starving. People were not free to celebrate festivals and worship their Gods openly. Life was not safe at all and injustice prevailed everywhere.
In Maharashtra, there were also many Deshmukhs and Deshpandes who owned Jagirs. They cared only about their jagirs and were least concerned about their country. This constant fighting amongst themselves also caused great misery to the people. There was misrule everywhere. The people of Maharashtra were tired of this oppression and were living in very unhappy times.
From INDIA Since 1526 by V.D. Mahajan
It is true that Shivaji contributed a lot towards the rise and growth of Maratha power in India, but it is equally true that at the time he appeared on the scene, the ground had already been prepared for him.
According to Dr. Ishwari Prasad, "But Shivaji's rise to power cannot be treated as an isolated phenomenon in Maratha history. It was as much the result of his personal daring and heroism as of the peculiar geographical situation of the Deccan country and unifying religious influences that were animating the people with new hopes and aspirations in the 15th and 16th centuries."
Physical features of Maharashtra.
The physical features of the Maratha country developed certain peculiar qualities among the Marathas which distinguished them from the rest of the people of India. The mountainous territory gave security to the Marathas from the outside invaders. It also made them hardy soldiers who were not afraid of difficulties and hardships. The scarcity of rains in Maharashtra and the difficulties of finding livelihood developed among the Marathas a spirit of self-reliance and hard work. Without these qualities, they would have faced death from starvation. Their hardy character stood them in good stead when they were pitted against the Mughals.
While the Marathas could be seen galloping in their small narrow paths in search of their enemies without the least feeling of any inconvenience or hardship, the Mughal soldiers found their life miserable. The mountainous country made it possible for the Marathas to adopt successfully the guerilla tactics. The broken ranges of hills provided the Marathas "ready-made and easily defendable rock forts."
"The people were taught to regard the forts as their mother as indeed it was, for thither the inhabitants of the surrounding villages resorted in time of invasions with their flocks and herds and treasure, and in time of peace they afforded a living by supplying the garrisons with provisions and fodder." According to J.N. Sarkar, nature developed in the Marathas "Self-reliance, courage, perseverance, a stern simplicity, a rough straight-forwardness, a sense of social equality and consequently pride in the dignity of man as man." There were no social distinctions among the people and Maratha women added to the strength and patriotism of men.
According to Elphinstone, "They (the Marathas) are all active, laborious, hardy and persevering. If they have none of the pride and dignity of the Rajputs, they have none of their indolence or want of worldly wisdom. A Rajput warrior as long as he does not dishonour his race, seems almost indifferent to the result of any contest he is engaged in. A Maratha thinks of nothing but the result, and cares little for the means, if he can attain his object. For this purpose, he will strain his wits, renounce his pleasures and hazard his person; but has not a conception of sacrificing his life, or even his interest for a point of honour. This difference of sentiment affects the outward appearance of the two nations; there is something noble in the carriage of the ordinary Rajput, and something vulgar in that of the most distinguished Maratha.The Rajput is the most worthy antagonist - the Maratha the most formidable enemy; for he will not fail in boldness and enterprise when they are indispensible, and will always support them or supply their place, by stratagem, activity and perseverance. All this applies chiefly to the soldiery to whom more bad qualities might fairly be ascribed. The mere husbandmen are sober, frugal and industrious, and though they have a dash of national cunning, are neither turbulent nor insincere."