Category Archives: 1. Bal Gangadhar Tilak

Bal Gangadhar Tilak

Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920)

Bal Gangadhar Tilak was a Hindu Indian independence activist, journalist, lawyer and social reformer. Tilak was often referred to as “The Father of Indian Unrest,” originally a derogatory term allotted to him by the British authorities, it is now considered a favorable title (Pati 52). Tilak was also given the honorary title of “Lokmanya,” meaning “accepted by the people.” Tilak greatly valued education and believed that by educating the people of India Indian independence could be achieved. [For a brief history of the Indian Independence Movement see Christopher (2002)]. Bal Gangadhar Tilak began his political career by engaging in various political debates. He eventually became the leader of the extremist wing of the Indian National Congress. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was a devout Hindu holding the distinct belief that Hinduism was the most superior religion on Earth. He believed that the Hindu religion held the key to achieving Indian Independence.

Born on July 23, 1856 in Ratnagiri, India as a Chitpawan Brahmin, Bal Gangadhar Tilak was among the first generation of Indians to receive a college education (Sharma 192). He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1876, and received a Bachelor of Law in 1880 from Deccan College (Sharma 192). Tilak was greatly influenced by his grandfather who had borne witness to some of the atrocities and achievements that occurred during the Indian Mutiny (Sharma 193). This would come to influence his political ideologies later in life.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak was instrumental in advancing the education of the people of India. Tilak said “The salvation of our motherland lay in education and only education of the people” (Sharma 193). His first educational endeavor was in 1880 as a co-founder of Poona’s New English School (Brown 1961:76). Later in 1884, Tilak, along with several of his colleagues, founded the Deccan Education Society (Brown 1961:76). The following year the Deccan Education Society established Fergusson College in Poona. Tilak’s educational activism reflected his belief that educating the masses was the only way to achieve Indian independence.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak established two newspapers, the Mahratta, published in English, and the Kesari, published in Marathi (Brown 1961:77). Both newspapers were intended to promote education among the Hindus of Western India. The newspapers were also meant to promote mass agitation among Indians, a conscious effort to mobilize Indians against British rule (Brown 1961:77). Both newspapers were widely successful and managed to gain the attention of the British authorities. This attention, coupled with Tilak’s ambition of mobilizing the people of India to fight for independence, would cause Tilak legal difficulties in the future.

One of Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s first political experiences occurred as a result of the Age of Consent Bill of 1890, which proposed raising the minimum age of cohabitation for Hindu marriages from 10 to 12 years of age (Sharma 194). Tilak did not disagree with the content of the bill, but disagreed with the British government’s ability to establish and enforce the bill. He felt that legal decisions should be made by Indians upon the attainment of Indian self government, rather than by a foreign government (Brown 1961:77). Tilak often stated “Indian social problems must be solved by Indians” (Sharma 195).

During a three year period from 1905-1908 the British government decided to divide the province of Bengal into two separate provinces, which they claimed was for the purpose of “administrative convenience” (Sharma 195). Tilak and two of his colleagues, Lala Lajpat Rai and Binpin Chandra Pal, created the Lal-Bal-Pal political regime to protest what they believed was actually an attempt to “divide and rule” by the British government (Sharma 195). The Lal-Bal-Pal regime is often considered the first instance of Indian nationalism and spurred the Swadeshi (indigenous goods) Movement (Muralidharan 12). [For more information on the economic and social impact of the Swadeshi Movement see Biswas (1995)]. Their program of “swaraj, swadeshi and national education” provided the impetus required to mobilize the people of India (Nambodiripad 4).

Tilak played a fundamental role in the Swadeshi Movement. The aim of the Swadeshi Movement was to gain swaraj or “self rule” for India through the establishment of economic self sufficiency. Tilak often stated “swaraj is my birthright; and I will have it” (Nambodiripad 3). Tilak used the movement as an opportunity to extend his political influence to both the working class and the citizens of Bombay (Pati 61).

Bal Gangadhar Tilak became a member of the Indian National Congress in 1890. In 1907 diverging opinions within the Indian National Congress had reached an apex, which resulted in the “Surat Split,” dividing members of Congress into two camps; the “moderates” and the “extremists” (Guha 115).   Tilak came to represent the extremists, and his lifelong acquaintance, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, represented the moderates. [Guha (2010) provides an account of Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s life and political career]. As leader of the extremists, Tilak’s mandate included “self government, national education, and the use of boycott” and passive resistance (Brown 1961:78). Tilak never did become president of the Indian National Congress.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak was imprisoned twice in his lifetime. The first imprisonment in 1897 was for sedition and lasted eighteen months (Guha 117). Sedition in this instance was defined as “spreading disaffection against the British Indian government” (Karve 208). In 1908 Tilak was charged with sedition for the second time (Guha 117). His actions were seen as “intensifying racial animosity between Indians and the British” (Guha 117). He served his six year sentence in Burma. The news of Tilak’s imprisonment caused outrage in Bombay where textile workers in seventy mills went on strike and ultimately shut down production (Guha 117). This provides evidence of the widespread support and popularity that Tilak had gained among the Indian working class. He was tried for sedition a third time in 1916, however he was successfully acquitted of the charges (Guha 118).

The Hindu religion was very important to Bal Gangadhar Tilak, both as his practiced religion as well as for political purposes. He believed that Hinduism, and its various sects, ought to be united in order to form one ‘mighty Hindu nation’ (Harvery 321). Tilak believed that this unity could be achieved by simply adhering to the principles outlined in traditional Hindu texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana (Harvey 321). [Chaitanya (1987) provides modern insight into the contents of the Bhagavad Gita. For insight into the Ramayana see Hindery (1976)]. He outlined his philosophy in his book titled Gita Rahasya, meaning “The Secret of the Gita,” which he wrote during his six year imprisonment in Burma (Sharma 196). The principle that Tilak emphasized the most in his book was found in the Bhagavad Gita. It was the need for activism, or action, which he felt should be applied to religion and politics. This call for action is often referred to as Karma Yoga, a principle in Brahmanic theory insisting upon the warrior’s responsibility to fight (Brown 1958:197). He also advocated the superiority of the Hindu religion over the religions of the West in Gita Rahasya (Sharma 197). Ultimately Bal Gangadhar Tilak sought the use of principles found within the Bhagavad Gita to revitalize Hinduism, replace Western philosophy, and legitimize political action (Harvey 322).

In addition to the Gita Rahasya Tilak wrote two books on Vedic Studies. This included The Orion in 1893, and The Arctic Home Of The Vedas in 1903. In both books he attempted to use science to reveal the history of Hinduism in an attempt to reconstruct Hindu history (Sharma 197). His aim was to separate Hindu tradition from the work of Western academics. The “Aryan theory of race” characterized by Tilak in these books would become of crucial importance to Hindu revitalization (Muralidharan 16).

Tilak sought to strengthen the Hindu tradition and Indian consciousness through the revival of two Hindu festivals, one dedicated to the deity Ganapati, and the other to Sivaji (Brown 1961:78). Tilak managed to transform the Ganapati celebration from a private in-the-home affair into a mass celebration. He began the Sivaji festival to celebrate the achievements and memory of the medieval warrior chief by the same name (Guha 116). He ultimately used these festivals as a mode of political mobilization for the Indian Independence Movement.

Tilak joined together the Hindu religion and Indian politics in order to emphasize his policy of Hindu nationalism. He believed that religion played a very important role in nationality. Tilak’s historical interpretations led him to believe that Indian unity existed only during times when Hinduism’s predominance was secure, and chaos and disorder were prevalent when the Hindu religion reached a low point (Muralidharan 12). Tilak has often been credited with exercising a policy of exclusionary nationalism, emphasizing the distinctness of the Hindu religion rather than cultural tolerance. A great example of this religious intolerance was Tilak’s revival of the Hindu Ganapati festival, which often occurred during the same time as the Islamic Muharram observance. As such, the festival became an occasion for fighting between Muslims and Hindus (Muralidharan 13). Hinduism, being a class-based religion, excluded the lower classes of the religion in many instances. Therefore, in addition to alienating much of the Muslim Indian population, Hindu nationalism also alienated much of the lower caste Hindu population. Ultimately, Tilak’s policy of Hindu nationalism was unitary and intolerant of diversity, making him a controversial historical figure.

After his release from prison in 1914 Tilak was run down both physically and spiritually. He was willing to accept Dominion status within the British Empire as opposed to complete independence (Guha 117). He also called upon India to support England in World War One and began to praise some of the beneficial aspects of the British government (Pati 53). He remained active in politics and went back to being a Congressman in 1915 (Pati 52). However, the polarization that had resulted in the Moderates and Extremists was no longer relevant upon his return. In 1916 he went on to form the All India Home Rule League, which further voiced Indian demand for self government.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak died on August 1, 1920 at the age of 64. Tilak left an enduring legacy. After his death he became recognized as the first “father of the movement for the liberation of India,” a cause that would later be adopted by Mahatma Gandhi (Karve 208). [See Spear (1969) for a historical account of the independence activism of Mahatma Gandhi]. The Swadeshi Movement that Tilak helped initiate ultimately achieved its goal when Indian independence was achieved in 1947. Through his political activism, Hindu nationalism, and various modes of religious and political mobility Tilak was able to lay the groundwork for the future of the Indian Independence Movement.



References and Further Recommended Reading

Biswas, A. K. (1995) “Paradox of Anti-Partition Agitation and Swadeshi Movement in Bengal (1905).” Social Scientist, Vol. 23, No. 4/6:38-57.

Brown, Mackenzie (1961) Indian Political Thought: From Ranade to Bhave. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

_______ (1958) “The Philosophy of Bal Gangadhar Tilak: Karma vs. Jnana in the Gita Rahasya.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2:197- 206.

Chaitanya, Krishna (1987) “Rediscovering the Gita: The Gita for Modern Man.” India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1:120-125.

Christopher, A. J. (2002) “Decolonisation Without Independence.” Geojournal, Vol. 56, No. 3:213- 224.

Guha, Ramachandra (2010) Makers of Modern India. New Delhi: Penguin Group.

Harvey, Mark (1986) “The Secular as Sacred?-The Religio-Political Rationalization of B.G. Tilak.” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2: 321-331.

Hindery, Roderick (1976) “Hindu Ethics in the Ramayana .” The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 4, No. 2:287-322.

Karve, D. D. (1961) “The Deccan Education Society.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 20, No.2:205-212.

Muralidharan, Sukumar (1994) “Patriotism Without People: Milestones in the Evolution of the Hindu Nationalist Ideology.” Social Scientist, Vol. 22, No. 5/6 :3-38.

Nambodiripad, E. M. S. (1986) “The Left in India’s Freedom Movement and in Free India.” Social Scientist , Vol. 14, No. 8/9:3-17.

Pati, Biswamoy (2007) “Nationalist Politics and the ‘Making’ of Bal Gangadhar Tilak.” Social Scientist, Vol. 35, No. 9/10:52-66.

Roy, Himanshu (1993) “Builders of Modern India.” Social Scientist, Vol. 21, No. 12:60-62.

Sharma, Arvind (2002) Modern Hindu Thought: The Essential Text. New York: Oxford University Press.

Spear, Percival (1969) “Mahatma Gandhi.” Modern Asian Studies. Vol. 3, No. 4:291- 304

Related Topics For Further Investigation

Bhagavad Gita

Gopal Krishna Gokhale

India Independence

Mahatma Ghandi


Swadeshi Movement


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Article written by Jessica Kelly (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.