How Bhagavad Gita guided nationalist movement and shaped modern Indian political thought

This year we will be celebrating ‘Gita Jayanti’ on 3 December. This is the day of advent of the Srimad Bhagavad Gita when Sri Krishna gave this knowledge to Arjun on the battlefield of Kurukshetra (that now falls in the state of Haryana).

It is unfortunate that the role played by the Bhagavad Gita in inspiring the freedom struggle of Bharat and its impact on the evolution of the Bharatiya thought process in 20th and 21st centuries has hardly been discussed in our textbooks as well as the public discourse. This was due to the domination of colonial and Marxist schools of historians in Indian academia. These two schools painted the Bhagavad Gita merely as a religious text.

The fact of the matter is that the Bhagavad Gita has been the most revolutionary text that led to a national renaissance in Bharat.

Before we go further, first let us have a look at some of the basic details of the Bhagavad Gita.

Brief Facts about Srimad Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita literally means the song of the Supreme God. It is the most widely known Vedic literature in the world. It has 18 chapters and 700 verses (shlokas) in Sanskrit. It is considered to be the essence of all Vedic knowledge. There have been innumerable commentaries on this text. The two most important commentaries in the first half of 20th century that galvanised the Bharatiya society came from Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Sri Aurobindo. Both the commentaries had a profound impact in shaping the direction of our nation. Hence, they need to be looked at very closely especially in contemporary context if one wants to understand the destiny of our nation.

Tilak and Bhagavad Gita

Prior to Tilak’s entrance on the political stage in the second half of the 19th century, the Bharatiya national leadership was more of a polite debating club. It was deeply embedded in the British parliamentary model in a Western ideological framework. The biggest challenge for Tilak was to counter the influence of Western ideology as he had realised that its influence won’t let the freedom struggle go too far.

“To combat the hold of Western ideologies on Indian thinking, it was necessary for Tilak to find somewhere in widely accepted Hindu thought a philosophy of Activism which would bring Hinduism ‘out of books and caves’ and replace European ideas as the basis of social action in India. He sought to stir the Indian intelligentsia, and through them the Indian masses to restive action against the government. The one scripture which he found eminently suited to this role was the Bhagavad-Gita,” wrote Professor D Mackenzie Brown in ‘The Philosophy of Bal Gangadhar Tilak: Karma vs. Jnana in the Gita Rahasya’ (The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 17, No. 2 (Feb., 1958), pp. 197-206).

The challenge that Tilak faced was to take it out of the realm of orthodox interpretation and position it as a dynamic text for the masses that should directly trigger the nationalistic fervour. He found a solution to this challenge by writing ‘Gita-Rahasya’, a commentary on Bhagavad-Gita. Tilak wrote this while being incarcerated in Mandalay Prison in Burma.

According to Professor Brown, “In the (Gita-)Rahasya , the Lokmanya proves two contentions: first, that the Gita advocates primarily a philosophy of action rather than renunciation or devotion; secondly, the social or political action is the duty of all citizens when the nation is threatened by internal decay or external oppression.”

The impact of ‘Gita-Rahasya’ on the nationalist movement in Bharat was phenomenal in terms of shaping the modern Indian social and political thought of the non-left sections especially the nationalists. The legacy was carried forward in the post-Independence era by parties like Bharatiya Jana Sangh and later by Bharatiya Janata Party and it gets amply reflected in the actions of the Narendra Modi government.

Aurobindo and Bhagavad Gita

Aurobindo propounded the concept of ‘spiritual nationalism’ through his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita.

In his monthly journal Arya, Aurobindo published his essays on the Bhagavad Gita in two series — from August 1916 to July 1918, and from August 1918 to July 1920. He published 48 essays. Later they were revised and published in the form of a book. In 1950 both these series were published in one volume.

Nagappa Gowda says in The Bhagavadgita in the Nationalist Discourse (Oxford University Press;2011), “Aurobindo felt that the Bhagavad Gita could easily lend itself for the justification of violence in the national struggle for freedom. Unlike other interpreters of the Gita, Aurobindo felt that nationalism was not a mere political programme but a religion, an avatar that had come from God. Aurobindo argued that its text expounded a single universal truth while borrowing from certain philosophical systems. He considered all the contemporary interpretations of the Gita that immediately preceded him as Karmayogic interpretations and appeared to want to reproduce the Orientalist image of India as primarily a spiritual realm.”

‘These essays on the Gita are perhaps the most systematic expression of the central themes of Aurobindo’s philosophy. Like many nationalist writers of his time, Aurobindo also drew upon the Gita extensively to formulate his own concepts and institutions. For example, his concepts of the motherland and nationalism are deeply influenced by the famous couplets of the Gita regarding the descent of God on earth to awaken spiritual consciousness, and the necessity of conquering everything that comes in the way of spiritual evolution. He felt that nationalism was not a mere political programme but a religion, an avatar that had come from God. It could not be crushed since it was immortal. British rule in India was thoroughly atheistic, materialistic, and utilitarian, having had no moorings of spiritualism at all.

In other words, the overthrow of the British would lead to the retrieval of the spiritual essence of India. Nationalism, therefore, is not only a socio-economic emancipation but also a spiritual one. Aurobindo thought that India’s spiritual rejuvenation would infuse such a spirit in the entire world.’

This concept not only became one of the guiding forces of the nationalist movement prior to 1947 but it provided an ideological roadmap to organisations like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) who have been working at the grassroots level for the transformation of Bharatiya society and nation for more than 97-years now.

The manifestation of the impact of Aurobindo’s ‘spiritual nationalism’ can be seen in the recent revival of spiritual centres of Hindus such as Varanasi, Kedarnath, Ujjain, Ayodhya, etc, by the Modi government. Those who criticise these moves as a gimmick to garner some more Hindu votes miss the larger point that the Modi government is committed to the philosophy of ‘spiritual nationalism.’ And this has found a strong resonance across the nation.


Tilak and Aurobindo’s commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita are the definitive guides to understand the present mood of the nation as well as the fundamental socio- cultural and political changes that we have been witnessing since Narendra Modi took over as the Prime Minister in 2014. In light of these facts the role of Bhagavad Gita in Bharat’s national discourse during the British era and in the post-Independence era must be relooked at as it has proved to be the guiding spirit of the nation. Merely positioning it as a Hindu religious text would be a grave injustice to the spirit of the Bhagavad Gita, which primarily is the spirit of our nation.

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