Category Archives: Hinduism and Politics

Bharat Mata

The figure of a maternal goddess connected to the land is not a new idea in Hinduism, however, it was not until the conception of Bharat Mata (Mother India), that the worship of the country of India itself as a goddess began to emerge (Foulston 204).  What distinguished Bharat Mata from the much older goddess of the Earth, Prithvi, is Bharat Mata’s association with the specific geography of India (Ramaswamy 564). The subcontinent of India itself becomes a goddess and a mother who is sustained by the sacrifice of her children (Kinsley 181). Bharat Mata embodies all that is India: the land, the people, the religion, the culture, and even the politics. This image of a single Mother representing an entire nation was a way to arouse “the national sentiments of the population as a whole,” (Thapar 88) since it was the duty of the collective to protect the Mother from outside dangers (Thapar 88).

One of the earliest depictions of Bharat Mata is in Bhuedeb Mukhopadhyay’s Unabima Purana (‘The Nineteenth Purusa’), where she is portrayed as a widow and the epitome of what it means to be Aryan (Foulston 204-205). Not long afterwards, in 1873, she appeared in Kiran Chandra Bandyopadhyay’s play, Bharat Mata, as a trodden down motherland (Foulston 205). It, however, was not until her appearance in the nationalist novel Anandamath (Abbey of Bliss or The Sacred Brotherhood) written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, that the character of Bharat Mata began to gain popularity (Foulston 205). The novel was written during the late nineteenth century, a time when the Indian independence movement was at its height, and as a result the figure of a mother who required the protection of her children against outside aggression took on a more central role in India’s fight for political freedom (Kinsley 181).

Chatterjee’s novel itself is set during the late eighteenth century in a Bengali community during the famine of 1770. Anandamath follows a group called the ‘Order of the Children,’ who worship a Mother goddess, as they work to free themselves as well as their Mother from the tyranny of their oppressors (Foulston 205). One of the more significant scenes in the novel occurs when the character of Mahendra is taken into the ‘Order’s’ temple by the chief monk. Once in the temple, Mahendra is shown three different forms of the Mother goddess. The first form depicts the Mother as she was in the past. This form portrays her as Annapurna, the goddess of plenty. The next form of the Mother goddess depicts her in her current state. In contrast to the first form, this form is portrayed as Kali, naked and disheveled. Kali’s nakedness is seen as visually representing all that has been taken away from India since it had been under British rule (Foulston 206). Additionally, Kali is adorned with skulls (Foulston 206) and severed arms (Kinsley 181). The skulls signify the death of the land caused by the famine (Foulston 206), while the severed arms represent the sacrifices that will need to be made in order to free the Mother from British oppression (Kinsley 181).

The final form of the Mother is what she would be if she were liberated: a mighty, ten armed goddess, yielding a weapon in each hand, with the enemy crushed at her feet. This depiction of a supreme warrior draws on the image of the great goddess Durga (Foulston 206 and Ramaswamy 562). Excited by the prospect of this radiant Mother, Mahendra asks when she will once again attain this form to which the chief monk’s reply is, only when all of her children recognize her as true Mother (McKean 254). The chief monk’s reply emphasizes that the only way that liberation, both political and spiritual, can be obtained for the ‘Order’ and the Mother is through complete devotion to and sacrifice for the Mother (McKean 254). It is only when all of the Mother’s children are willing to serve the Mother and sacrifice themselves for her, like the members of the ‘Order’ are willing to do, that the Mother goddess will once again become great (Kinsley 182). This statement can also be seen as paralleling modern Hindu nationalistic rhetoric by suggesting that “anyone who wants a place in India should view India as their sacred land and their Mother” (Foulston 207-208), thus establishing a separation between the devoted children of Bharat Mata and those that would seek to oppress the Mother and her children.

Chatterjee’s Anandamath, in addition to providing one of the first clear figures of the Mother-goddess, also depicts Bharat Mata in the form of a song of praise, which has since become a national song, entitled Vande Mataram (Hail to the Mother or I bow to Thee Mother) (Foulston 207).  Incidentally, this song of praise to the Mother goddess in the novel was actually written before the novel itself and has resulted in numerous translations being produced (Foulston 208).  Among the translations that have been produced is one by Sri Aurobindo, who was an early proponent of Indian nationalism (Foulston 207). The slogan “Vande Mataram” quickly became popular apart from the novel, as the idea of “the Motherland and the stirring nature of her anthem have been attractive to many seeking their own identity” (Foulston 208). The slogan “Vande Mataram” was used politically for the first time in 1905 at demonstrations for the partition of Bengal. At this point in time, both Hindus and Muslims joined together to shout the slogan. However, by 1921, Hindus used the same slogan against Muslims during the Calcutta riots; thus Vande Mataram is regarded by many Muslims to be anti-Islamic (Foulston 208).

This hymn of praise to the Motherland became “the rallying cry for an emergent patriotic cult of Bharat Mata” (Ramaswamy 558) seeking Indian independence from the British (Foulston 208 and Ramaswamy 558). Even though India is now an independent country, the idea of a Mother-goddess is still very prevalent in India. The Indian national anthem for example, which was first sung in 1911, similarly expresses the same sentiment as Chatterjee’s Vande Mataram (Kinsley 183).

In the Anandamath, Bharat Mata is associated with the fight against British colonialism, however, over the years there has been a transition so that the figure of Bharat Mata has become more closely associated with Hindu nationalism as opposed to Indian nationalism. (Foulston 209). Whereas, during the Indian independence movement, Hindus and Muslims fought alongside each other to free the Mother, the image of Bharat Mata and national identity is now deeply embedded in Hindu piety and activism which is symbolized by the temples erected for Bharat Mata (Gupta 104 and McKean 264). The first temple dedicated to Bharat Mata was erected in 1936 in Banaras (or Varanasi) in which Bharat Mata is represented by a relief map of a still undivided India (Foulston 209). The purpose for building the temple was an “attempt at creating a composite religious and national identity and was seen as a place . . .  where all could worship.” (Gupta 102). The desire to create a place where there was no distinction between Hindu and Muslim, people of high caste and people of low caste, however, was undercut by the Hindu symbols that adorned the temple. On the gates of the temple, for example, the slogan Vande Mataram was inscribed. Since its use against Muslims in 1921, this slogan has been considered by many Muslims as anti-Islamic. The use of Vande Mataram on the gates of the temple only served as a way to further alienate the Muslim population and embed the image of Bharat Mata in Hindu nationalism (Foulston 209-210 and Gupta 103-104).

A second temple for Bharat Mata was constructed in 1983 at Haridwar, which is an important pilgrimage city for Hindus, by Swami Satyamiterand Giri, the leader of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP)(Foulston 210). In comparison to the temple in Banaras, this eight-storey building depicts the figure of Bharat Mata standing on the map of India holding stalks of grain and an urn of milk in her hands (Foulston 210). The Mother goddess herself takes up the first floor, while the other floors are occupied by “a variety of deities, national heroes and virtuous women satis, some of whom have burned themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre” (Foulston 210). The incorporation of both Hindu symbols and deities with national martyrs in the Bharat Mata temple in Haridwar associates the national Indian identity with the Hindu identity, and is thus able to convey to its visitors a particular configuration of what a unified India looks like (McKean 277).

Before the consecration of the Bharat Mata temple in Haridwar, the Vishva Hindu Parishad promoted the worship of Bharat Mata via a six-week tour of India. The Vishva Hindu Parishad organized the Ekatmata Rath Yatra (One Mother Chariot Procession) integration ritual, where 400 litres of Ganga water as well as “images of Ganga Ma, Siva, and a temporary shrine to Bharat Mata” (Foulston 210) were taken all over India. During the worship of Bharat Mata, religious leaders as well as Hindu nationalists warned the participants that Hinduism was under threat due to the government’s positive treatment of minorities, particularly Muslims” (Foulston 210-211). Thus the Bharat Mata temple at Haridwar portrays the figure of Mother India in terms of Hindu ideals and values, ultimately presenting Bharat Mata as Hindu.

Since her earliest appearances as the Mother goddess worshiped by a community of renouncers in Chatterjee’s Anandamat, the figure of Bharat Mata has “continued to transform, adapting to differing political agendas (Sen 173). In her earliest form, Bharat Mata was a figure that created unity amongst all Indians. The image of Mother India quickly became associated with the fight for Indian independence, as it was up to the children to free the Mother from the oppression of British rule. At the time when India was suffering under British rule, the idea of a maternal figure that required devotion and self-sacrifice from her children was a beneficial way to unite the entire populace of India against a common cause. The fusion of the land, the people, and the Mother as one served to instill the idea that the only way the people could be free is if the Mother is freed and vice versa. The Indian nationalism associated with Bharat Mata has since shifted towards Hindu nationalism. While the nation of India is still “figured as a loving Mother surrounded by her devoted children,” (McKean 252) the figure of the tyrannical oppressor has now shifted from the British to the secular state as well as Muslims (McKean 252).  In this figure of Bharat Mata, “nationhood, culture and religion have become part of a package deal” (Sen 173).  There is no longer a separation between the spiritual and the political. The figure of Bharat Mata has become a representative of what it means to be an ideal Hindu.



Duara, Prasenjit (1991) “The New Politics of Hinduism.” The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 3: 42-50.

Foulston, Lynn (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Portland, Oregon: Sussex Academic Press.

Gupta, Charu (2006) “The Icon of Mother in Late Colonial North India: Bharat Mata, Matri Bhasha and Gau Mata.” In Beyond Representation: Colonial and Postcolonial Constructions of Indian Identity, edited by Crispin Bates, 100-122. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kinsley, David R (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McKean, Lisa (1996) “Bharat Mata: Mother India and Her Militant Matriots.” In Devi: Goddesses of India, edited by Hawley, John S. and Donna M. Wulff, 250- 280. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ramaswamy, Sumathi (2005) “The Goddess and the Nation: Subterfuges of Antiquity, the Cunning of Modernity.” In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, edited by Gavin Flood, 549 – 566. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The Ebook an Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Sen, Geeti (2002) “Iconising the Nation: Political Agendas.” India International Centre Quarterly Vol. 29, No.3/4: 155-175.

Thapar, Suruchi (1993) “Women as Activists; Women as Symbols: A Study of the Indian Nationalist Movement.” Feminist Review, Palgrave Macmillan Journals, Vol. 44: 81–96.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Vishva Hindu Parishad

Ekatmata Rath Yatra

Vande Mataram

Unabima Purana

Indian Independence



Bankim Chandra Chatterjee

Bharat Mata temple in Varanasi

Bharat Mata temple in Haridwar


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Barbra Entz (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.


Annie Besant

Annie Besant was an English woman who would come to be an advocate for the Hindu religion and women’s educational rights in India. Born in 1847, Besant grew up in a home where her father valued science over religion and her mother was a devout Anglican. Her parents’ differing views on religion would come to impact Besant’s beliefs and work as she grew up. She came to associate England and India by gendered terms. England being male and paternal in its rationality and materialism, and India as female due to its spirituality and mysticism. Besant’s father died when she was only five years old, thus, she grew up mainly influenced by her mother’s Christian beliefs. She received a good education from a wealthy woman who agreed to privately tutor her because her mother could not afford public education. Besant married a clergyman, however, her marriage quickly became tumultuous as she began to denounce her Christian faith. Besant would refuse to take communion and unsurprisingly this angered her clergyman husband. This led to a fractious marriage and an eventual separation (Anderson 2002:28).

More and more Besant began to question the Christian faith. The illness of her young daughter Mabel was one such event which drew Besant towards an atheist mindset. She eventually joined the National Secular Society which was lead by Charles Bradlaugh. Besant and Bradlaugh formed a strong friendship and he helped foster her free-thinking ideas.  Besant also became acquainted with George Bernard Shaw at this time (Oppenheim 13). With her new secularist mindset, Besant did not deny the presence of God but rather attributed consequences to human action. Before, her Christian faith had led her to believe that the universe revolved around God as the one true deity. In contrast, secularism allowed humans to be accountable for evil and for the consequences, whether it be rewards or punishment (Oppenheim 14).

In the year 1874, Annie Besant went to London and there she became known as ‘Red Annie.’ She supported such issues as women’s suffrage, use of birth control, secularism and socialism. Besant made it very clear that she was against the imperialism of England. She became a rebel figure because she went against the Victorian ideals that existed at the time in England. A series of articles written by Besant in the 1870’s demonstrated her discontent over England’s control of India. At this time, Besant identified herself as an atheist socialist but in 1889 she turned to the religion of Theosophy (Anderson 1994: 565). This particular religion was new at the time Besant converted to it and was based on discovering the hidden meanings or mysteries behind divinity. It sought to explain the relationships or bonds between the universe, humans, and the divine. Her conversion to Theosophy was met with consternation from her fellow secularists and from Indian theosophists. She had been a woman who did not believe in God and wanted the separation of religion and the state, and now she was affiliating herself with a religion where “all major creeds are paths to God” (Anderson 2002:28). Oppenheim (1989) suggests that her conversion to Theosophy was not as surprising as many thought. She had been questioning the secularist and atheist thoughts for some time, and had found that they did not allow for brotherhoods to be formed, but rather pitted different groups against each other (15). Besant remained a follower of Theosophy for the rest of her life and based much of her work on its ideologies.

1907 was an important year for Besant as she became the president of the Theosophical Society.  By this time Besant had already become quite assimilated into Indian culture. The base for the Theosophical Society was in India and Besant tried to participate in Indian life as fully as possible. She moved to India permanently and wore a white sari, as widows do, because it demonstrated mourning over the wrongdoings Britain had committed in India (Anderson 2002:29). She explained her affinity for India by claiming that she felt she had been Indian in another lifetime [Ingalls (1965) mentions how Besant discovered that many of her incarnations took place in India]. Whilst in the Theosophical Society, Besant focussed much of her work on supporting the domesticity of Indian women. Besant believed that it was important that Indian customs be upheld and this included women carrying out their traditional roles in the home. She received some criticism for this viewpoint because she had been so against the Victorian idea of a private sphere for women in her native land of England. Indeed many ambiguities arose with Besant’s ideas. One such ambiguity or criticism Besant faced was her lack of political conviction. In the year 1885 the Indian National Congress, composed of British members, was attempting to include more Indians in the governance of India. Besant had long been known to be against the Imperial supremacy of Britain yet she did not seem to have any qualms with British involvement in India’s government. She was quoted once as saying that “an Indian does not resent being governed; for he thinks the duty of a ruler is to rule, but he does resent the insolence often shown by the very juvenile civilians” that Britain was sending to India (Anderson 2002:30). Rather, Besant chose to focus mainly on the spiritual nature of India as she believed that this was the most vital part of its essence. She was concerned that western ideologies were crippling to India’s traditional Hindu beliefs and practices.

Bust of Annie Besant in the Theosophical Society headquarters (Adyar, Tamil Nadu, India)
Bust of Annie Besant in the Theosophical Society headquarters (Adyar, Tamil Nadu, India)

In order to preserve India’s Hindu background, Besant turned her efforts towards education. She felt that it was important to educate the young males on the religion, and history of India in order that they may be proud citizens of India in the future. In this way, Besant was trying to ensure that the western ideals of the British did not permeate into India and eradicate its important history and spirituality. Besant tried to distance herself from social reforms, wanting to focus mainly on the preservation of India’s Hindu culture. However, in the early 1900s she did become involved in advocating against child marriages and the seclusion of women. It is important to note that her support of these issues in no way negated her belief that women should still be domestic. When she began a school for young girls, the goal was that their education would help them to be better wives, not to help them achieve independence (Anderson 2002: 31). Tradition held that the men dealt in public affairs outside of the home and that women were mothers and wives who concerned themselves with domestic affairs. It is clear that Besant did not believe Indian women to be suppressed because of this (Anderson 1994: 567). To her, they seemed quite content in their societal roles and thus no change needed to be made. In the Central Hindu School (Besant’s school for boys) and her school for girls, Besant ensured that Sanskrit was taught as vigorously as the English language. Just as in the schools run by the British, her schools also taught important morals. However, Besant had more success than the British run universities in India because she tailored her curriculums to Indian culture. Figures such as St. Paul would be replaced in a lesson with Sri Rama; King Alfred was replaced by Sivaji. Besant’s devotion to Hindu tradition and custom in the education of India’s youth won her over with her pupils and their parents (Ingalls 86).

The year 1913 was significant for Besant because it was then that she turned to political pursuits. Having been distant from involving herself in issues of a political nature, Besant was thrown into the realm of politics when she was taken to court by a man whose sons were under her guardianship.  Accusations about one of her colleagues were made and this cast a shadow on the Theosophical Society. As a result, Besant felt an increasing need, in her own words: “to enter more than I have hitherto done into the social life of Madras” (Stafford 62-63).  After her negative experience in court, she formed ‘The Brothers of India.’  This was a group committed to looking out for India’s best interests with a focus on Hinduism as the mode towards their means. The men in this group were from the Theosophical Society and they had seven guidelines, which they were to follow in order to serve India’s best interests. The first six guidelines reflected many of Besant’s early beliefs. For example, these men were to only have their daughters marry when they were seventeen years of age to promote the education of the masses and to not ostracize widows for remarrying. The seventh guideline was most significant which “committed all members to a combined programme of spiritual, educational, social and political reform, and the placing of the programme under the guidance and direction of the Indian National Congress” (Stafford 64). Before, there had been reforms for each of these areas individually, but Besant wanted to unite all of these areas and to place equal importance on all reforms together. The Indian National Congress was asked to take the programme under its direction but they felt that it was not their place to interfere in these reforms because they were focussed solely on political ventures. However, Annie Besant was not deterred. She sought to bring the different groups and movements into one strong voice.

Home Rule for India was brought forth by Besant. She believed that both India and Britain would be better off if India was permitted to be self-governing. Stafford (1983) suggests that Besant’s Irish background influenced her decision to have a Home Rule for India. Besant wrote many articles which stressed how India would be a much more valuable ally as a nation free from colonialism as opposed to being a colonial state. She discussed the many grievances that India had suffered under British rule. According to Besant, Britain continuously benefitted more from India than India did from itself. Britain prevented India’s capital from remaining within the nation. As well, in terms of education, missionaries wanted Indians to convert, and the British geared education towards their own means; the cultivation of more clerks and junior officials was often the British goal (Stafford 66-67).  With the approaching war (World War I), Besant asserted that it was important for India to recognize her own nationhood. In 1916 Besant was finally successful in achieving a Home Rule for India. A meeting between the Congress and the Moslem League occurred.  As Ingalls (1965) suggests, this was very significant because an agreement called the Lucknow Agreement determined that in the event of Indian self-government, “two-thirds majority of either religious community would hold a veto power” (87).  Unfortunately, the Congress did not honor this agreement. Being the strong-willed woman that she was, Besant continued to give speeches to gain support. She was then placed under house arrest by a governor of Madras [see Anderson (2002: 39) for more information on the Governor’s actions against Besant]. Much to the dismay of the Congress, Besant had many devout followers, and her house arrest only served to make her a martyr for her cause. Gandhi was amongst her supporters, as well as other male Indian nationalists. People were dismayed to hear of the treatment of Besant. She was called Mother Besant by many and had won over the hearts of the people with her passionate belief in Indian nationalism. Significantly, Besant’s internment brought forth many Indian women activists for women’s rights. Others who normally would not have supported an English woman as a nationalist leader also protested her internment. When she was released after three months, she became the President of the Indian National Congress in December of 1917 (Ingalls 87-88).

Now as president, Besant was able to induce change for women’s rights in India. As she had done in the past, Besant did not denounce the important role in the home of the women, but rather suggested that women had an ancient importance and that their emancipation was needed so that they could fulfill their ancient position. In this way, Besant appealed to the traditionalism of Indian women and men, while still implying that some changes needed to be made. In late 1917 Besant formed and presided over the first feminist organization in India. It was called the Women’s Indian Association (Anderson 2002:47). Many women looked up to Besant as someone who had defied the odds and demonstrated that women could have a voice and the power to affect change in a male-dominated world. After 1917, her influence began to decrease. Gandhi was at the forefront of India’s nationalism and many saw him as a more appropriate leader for the Indian cause because he was a swadeshi or home made nationalist. Besant disagreed with many of Gandhi’s ideas and she lost favor with many because of this. To many, it seemed that she had become pro-government despite her original Home Rule intentions for India, however, she had simply altered her views because the political climate of India had changed. Besant had once been deemed an incarnate goddess, but at this time she was being referred to as a demoness and some called her Putana [this is a demoness from the epic Ramayana. She is known to have put poison on her breasts and suckled the child Lord Krsna, thus killing him (Anderson 2002:50)]. Interestingly, Gandhi, though he had many qualms with Besant’s views, stood up for her against the harsh words she was receiving from those who once supported her.

The last years of Besant’s career were difficult times for her. She resigned from the Home Rule League she had founded and Gandhi took her place as president. Moreover, she also resigned from the Indian National Congress. Besant was embittered by the way in which she was disregarded, but she continued to persevere. She formed a new National Home Rule League and eventually rejoined the Indian National Congress, though not in a leading position. Besant died in the year 1933 at the age of eighty-six. Towards the end of her career she was marginalized, however, many still fondly remembered her as Mother Annie Besant. She was the English woman with the Indian soul who fought for a more free India (Anderson 2002:49-51).






Anderson, Nancy Fix (2002) “Mother Besant and Indian National Politics.” The Journal of        Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 30, No. 3: p.27-54. London: Frank Cass


Anderson, Nancy Fix (1994) “Bridging Cross-cultural Feminisms: Annie Besant and women’s   rights in England and India, 1874-1933.” Women’s History Review, Vol. 3, No. 4: p.       563-580. New Orleans: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group.


Ingalls, Daniel H.H. (1965) “The Heritage of a Fallible Saint: Annie Besant’s Gifts to India.”         Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 109, No. 2: p. 85-88.     Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.


Mortimer, Joanne Stafford (1983) “Annie Besant and India 1913-1917.” Journal of      

            Contemporary History, Vol. 18, No. 1: p. 61-78. London: Sage Publications, Ltd.


Oppenheim, Janet (1989) “The Odyssey of Annie Besant.” History Today, Vol. 39, No. 9: p.        12-18. Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company.



Related Topics for Further Investigation


Central Hindu School

Charles Bradlaugh

Commonweal (newspaper)

Home Rule League

Indian National Congress

Madame Blavatsky


nationalist movement (India)

National Reformer (newspaper)

New India (newspaper)

‘Red Annie’


‘The Brothers of India’

Theosophical Society


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Article written by: Haley Kleckner (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

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


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


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

The Satyagraha Movement

The Satyagraha Movement

The Satyagraha Movement is often referred to as Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence movement. To be clear, Gandhi’s historical actions took place through various movements, which can all be referred to as satyagraha-based, a term which Gandhi coined himself. As well, although these movements did encompass Gandhi’s beliefs of non-violence, the term satyagraha is actually an amalgamation of two Sanskrit words; satya, meaning truth, and agraha, which is the act of taking, seizing or holding (Hardiman 51). This notion of taking hold of the truth was the underlying basis of much of Gandhi’s quest of civil resistance throughout the early 20th century.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2nd, 1869 in the coastal town of Porbandar, which is within the modern Indian state of Gujarat (Parekh 1). His father and grandfather both held highly regarded political positions as chief administrators, despite the merchant caste status of the Gandhi family name. Mohandas Gandhi grew up within a rather diverse religious upbringing. Although his parents were both Vaisnavites, a sect characterized by expressing devotion towards the Hindu deity Visnu, his mother also belonged to a combined Hindu and Muslim sect called Pranami (Parekh 1). Mohandas Gandhi moved from western India to England in 1888 to study and train to become a lawyer, and when he was called to the Bar in 1891 he moved back to India to begin his legal career. However, his work in India did not seem to interest him much, so Gandhi readily accepted when offered a position as a lawyer in South Africa in 1893. The experiences during his prolonged stay in South Africa are integral for considering the changing course of action that Gandhi’s life would soon take.

Although there were many events and societal conditions that led to the emergence of the Satyagraha Movements, there are a few specific traumas that spurred the initial stages of Gandhi’s journey. On the travel from Durban to Pretoria within South Africa, although Gandhi had a ticket to be seated in the first class compartment, he was refused access to his rightful seat. This was a direct demonstration of racial tensions expressed by a passenger who did not want to ride within the same corridors as a ‘coloured man’. Gandhi held true to his rights in this instance and refused to leave until the police constable forced him out of first class (Gandhi 82). A similar trauma was encountered during the subsequent trip from Charlestown to Johannesburg aboard a stagecoach. Again, although Gandhi had purchased a ticket to be seated inside the coach, he was told by the stagecoach leader that he must sit outside next to the coachman. The racial injustice became too much, however, when the stagecoach leader decided he wanted to sit outside to smoke and demanded Gandhi take a seat on the footboards on a piece of dirty cloth. Gandhi resisted to accept such an insult and was beaten by the stagecoach leader until the cries of fellow passengers caused the assault to cease (Gandhi 84). These traumatic events upon his early travel within South Africa incited the initial basis of much of Gandhi’s life-long satyagraha philosophies, demonstrated through various historical movements.

Over the next few years in South Africa, the developments of Gandhi’s personal beliefs on political, social and spiritual ideals led to the emergence of his manifesto, Hind Swaraj, in 1909, and his Constructive Programme text (Hardiman 2). These works both outlined Gandhi’s view on the “degenerate status” of India and his thoughts on resolving this plight (Parekh 7). Hind Swaraj and the Constructive Programme were the initial vehicles in which Gandhi outlined his ideals regarding civil resistance through the concept of satyagraha. These works are seen as a major turning point in Gandhi’s life’s work and as the start of a series of events that would come to define his satyagraha journey. The radical nature of Gandhi’s philosophies caused a great deal of controversy and the Hind Swaraj was subsequently banned in India by the British (Hardiman 2).

Despite obvious controversy over the satyagraha philosophies presented by Gandhi, he forged onward with his civil resistance plans against the colonial rule of the British in India. His next notable successes include the confrontations with planters in Champaran in 1917, against the Kheda colonial tax bureaucracy in 1918 and against Indian mill bosses in Ahmedabad later that year (Hardiman 2). Triumph with such movements led to his leadership of his first national protest known as the Rowlatt Satyagraha in 1919, involving a cessation of work (hartal) and mass demonstrations taking place nation-wide. However, Gandhi called off the protest once it incurred widespread violence and other non-dharmic actions that were opposite to what Gandhi’s ideals of satyagraha were set out to be. Gaining control over the Indian National Congress in 1920, Gandhi then declared a new satyagraha that he referred to as the Non-Cooperation Movement. Involvement with this led to his arrest in March of 1922 and the commencement of a two-year incarceration (Wolpert 115). Further spiritual developments occurred during this time; Gandhi begun to take vows of silence and episodes of fasting, showing his utter devotion and passion towards his ideals of obtaining freedom for India through movements of satyagraha. After his release from prison, Gandhi continued to lead various well-known campaigns including the Salt Satyagraha in 1930, Civil Disobedience Movement during 1930-1934 and Quit India Movement of 1942 (Hardiman 2).

All these movements led by Gandhi characterize and demonstrate his ideals towards societal problems, whether spiritual, social or political, through methods of non-violence (ahimsa) with the underlying insistence on truth (satyagraha). The sources of his complex satyagraha syllabi are various, including Hindu influences such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita, as well as Leo Tolstoy’s Christianity-based book The Kingdom of God is Within You (Parel 118). Combined with Gandhi’s eclectic religious upbringing and personal passion to diversify his knowledge, a very specific and unique set of beliefs is encompassed by this notion of satyagraha. Although the aspect of non-violence in Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha could be attributed to influences from Jainism, it is widely believed that “Gandhi’s non-violence was, by contrast, rooted in altruism and compassion towards fellow humans” (Hardiman 58). From Hindu sources, Gandhi found exceptional power in the concept of dharma, and outlined its use through various aspects such as duty, religion and ethics (Parel 86). As well, his philosophies fought the Untouchability that is outlined within the caste system of the Hindu religion, causing Gandhi to once remark that “there is no warrant whatsoever in Hinduism for untouchability as it is practiced today” (Sharma 37). These sort of specific beliefs are all inclusive in Gandhi’s satyagraha way of life.

Although he was met with a large amount of criticism, violent resistance and incarcerations throughout his life, his movements did manage to make a direct impact throughout India. Most notably, this is true with the independence of India on August 15, 1947 (Parekh 23). However, although independence was achieved through satyagraha movements of truth and non-violence, Gandhi was continually followed by violence. He was persistent and insistent upon non-violent solutions and dharmic actions up to when he was assassinated during a prayer meeting on January 30th, 1948. The legacy of Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha movements of the early 20th century can be seen to permeate global society today. Gandhi’s campaigns of non-violence have been able to awaken a similar type of satyagraha-based passion in various leaders of civil rights movements throughout the world. Two prominent examples of successful satyagraha related campaigns were those led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, who both have cited a substantial influence from the philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi (Hardiman 257-283).
































Brock, Peter (1983) The Mahatma and Mother India: essays on Gandhi’s non-violence and nationalism. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House.

Gandhi, Mohandas (1927) An Autobiography; or, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Trans. Desai, Mahadev. (1976) Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House.

Green, Martin (1986) The Origins of Nonviolence: Tolstoy and Gandhi in their historical settings. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Hardiman, David (2003) Gandhi in His Time and Ours: the global legacy of his ideas. New York: Columbia University Press.

Parekh, Bhikhu (1997) Gandhi. New York: Oxford University Press.

Parel, Anthony (2006) Gandhi’s Philosophy and Quest for Harmony. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Prabhath, S.V. (2010) Gandhi Today. New Delhi: Serials Publications.

Rai, C. and Singh, D. (2000) Relevance of Gandhian Thought. Delhi: New Bharatiya Book Corporation.

Sharma, Arvind (2005) A New Curve in the Ganges: Mahatma Gandhi’s interpretation of Hinduism. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld Ltd.

Wolpert, Stanley (2002) Gandhi’s Passion. New York: Oxford University Press.



Related Research Topics:

Hinduism                                                                    Constructive Programme

Jainism                                                                       Non-cooperation Movement

Christianity                                                                 Indian Independence Movement

Indian National Congress                                        Salt Satyagraha

British colonialism                                                     Indian Class (varna)/Caste system

dharma Pranami religious sect

Ramayana                                                                   ahimsa

Bhagavad Gita Nelson Mandela

Mahabharata Martin Luther King Jr.



Related Websites:

Article written by Angie Davis (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888 – 1975)

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was a philosopher, politician and academic and was considered one of the greatest Indian thinkers of the twentieth century.  He was born on September 5, 1888 and lived to age 86.  Throughout his adult life he was a well known public figure in his native India, serving as both Vice-President and President. In addition to his political career, he was also a renowned writer on Hindu philosophy. Radhakrishnan is known to some as a “bridge builder” between the East and the West for his efforts to expand Western society’s knowledge about India and their understanding of Hindu thought and religion. He showed that the philosophical systems of each tradition are comprehensible within the terms of the other (Behur 1-4). One is hard pressed to find Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s own words about his life story since he steadfastly refused to write an autobiography (Braue 1-2).

Early Life

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was born during a time when Hinduism was in the midst of being renewed and restored in the hearts of millions of Indians (Harris 2-3). He was the second of five sons and one daughter born to Sarvepalli Veeraswamy and Sitamma, poor Brahmins living in the town of Tirutani in Tamil Nadu state.  Tirutani had a population of about 170 000 and was considered a pilgrimage destination due to its major Subrahmanya temple (Minor 4). Radhakrishnan’s family kept the name Sarvepalli as an indication of their place of origin. In the middle of the 18th century the family moved from Sarvepalli to another village located in the Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh. All were devout Vaisnavaties and worshipped the well-known god Krsna (Minor 3-4).  Radhakrishnan’s early life was spent in the religious centers of the small towns of Tirutani and Tirupati.  His father was employed as a subordinate revenue official in the service of the local Zamindar [landlord] and with limited income the family lived in relative poverty.


Radhakrishnan grew up in a traditional Hindu atmosphere (Harris 3). His parents were very orthodox and his father did not want his son to learn English [his mother tongue was Telugu] and pressed his boy to become a priest. However, despite their orthodox views, his parents sent him away to several Christian Missionary Institutions – the Lutheran Mission School in Tirupati (1896 – 1900), Voorhee’s college, Vellore (1900 – 1904) and Madras Christian College in Madras (1904 – 1908) (Kohli 38-39). Sarvepalli was an excellent student and was awarded multiple scholarships which helped sustain him throughout his academic career.

In 1906, he received a B.A. with honours in philosophy, and in 1909 obtained an M.A. and was a most distinguished alumni. He main interest was in the Vedas and Upanishads and spent much of his time specializing in these subjects as well as studying Hindi and the Sanskrit language. He wrote his thesis for his M.A. on the ‘Ethics of the Vedanta and its Metaphysical Presuppositions”. At only age 20 his thesis was recognized and published. Radhakrishnan’s passion for philosophy developed more by chance than choice. A cousin, recently graduated from the same college, was kind enough to pass on his textbooks in philosophy.  This generosity decidedly influenced his academic path (Kohli 40-41).

Marriage and Family

In 1903, at age 16, it was arranged by his family that Radhakrishnan was to be married to Siva Kumaramma, his 10 year old first cousin (Minor 4). The couple had their first daughter together in 1908, the first of six children over the proceeding fifteen years. Their family included four daughters and two sons, one of which died shortly after birth (Kohli 39). Their youngest son, Sarvepalli Gopal, would go on to become a distinguished and notable historian and biographer (Braue 4). Radhakrishnan’s devoted wife, Sivakamu, died on November 26, 1956 and their marriage was “the end of a long chapter”, as he put it.

Teaching Career

Sarvepalli’s education had shaped a most disciplined mind and strong individual, acquiring many qualities of a potentially great leader. Spanning from 1909 to 1952, his career had three notable phases, teacher of philosophy, leader in higher education and finally politician and statesman.

In 1909 he accepted a teaching position at the Madras Presidency College in the Philosophy department where he spent seven years teaching and researching in the area of Indian Philosophy and Religion.  In 1916, he advanced to a full professorship (Braue 4).  He impressed the senior professor of philosophy so much that his mentor actually ended up asking him to lecture his classes. Radhakrishnan was endowed with a great intellect and gifted with an amazing memory enabling him to employ a vast vocabulary and eloquent communication style, to great advantage (Kohli 38-40).

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Calcutta took notice of this extraordinary academic mind and offered Sarvepalli the King George V Chair of Mental and Moral Science, a prestigious position which he occupied twice – from 1921 to 1931 and again from 1937 to 1941.  He was clearly honoured by this appointment and described the position as “the most important philosophy chair in India”.  As chair, he represented the University of Calcutta at the Congress of the Universities of the British Empire and the International Congress of Philosophy at Harvard in 1926.  Radhakrishnan also presented many lectures at numerous universities: Chicago, London, Manchester and Oxford.  He then accepted a position at Manchester College in Oxford in addition to teaching comparative religion at the University of Oxford (Braue 4).

In 1931, he was knighted by England for his great services to education and subsequently stepped down as the King George V Chair in order to accept the Sir Sayaji Rao  Gaekwad Chair at Banaras Hindu University. Later in his academic career he also occupied the Spalding Chair in England until 1952, when he was appointed Professor Emeritus at Oxford. (Braue 4-6).

The second key phase of Radhakrishnan’s life, as a leader in higher education, spanned from 1931 to 1962.  He was made the Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University and served as a member of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations. Throughout this time he delivered many presentations at universities all over his native India.

During World War II he also toured and lectured in China (Braue 6-7), and from 1953 to 1962 he held the post of chancellor of Delhi University.  In 1940, he achieved a milestone by being the first Indian to be elected as Fellow of the British Academy. As a professor, he was always very popular with his students and was loved and respected as a remarkable teacher. The genesis of his popularity was his genuine empathy and his great ability to engage people of all ages. This combination of attributes and skills continued to win him respect throughout his long and memorable public life (Behura 3).

Rise in Politics and Political Career

After the end of the Second World War, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan began a shift from his academic career with a view to apply his philosophy and religious studies toward political and social development.  He served as head of the Indian delegation to the UNSECO conferences held in Paris from 1946 – 1952 (Braue 7) and was later elected to the position of Chairman of UNESCO in 1948.

When India received independence from Great Britain in 1947, Sarvepalli was still India’s key representative at UNSECO. He would later also be awarded the titles and responsibilities of Ambassador-Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of India to the Soviet Union from 1949 to 1952 (Kohli 44).  Radhakrishnan was widely thought to be one of the most respected and successful of all diplomats in Moscow at the time. He had met Stalin twice, as the Ambassador of India, with Stalin commenting, “ You are the first person to treat me as a human being and not as a monster. You are leaving us and I am sad. I want you to live long.” (Kohli 45). Dr. Radhakrishnan, the diplomat, was considered a very sympathetic and humane person, open to other viewpoints, and never considered to be an elitist intellectual.

After his return to India in 1952, Sarvepalli was elected as India’s first Vice-President, an inaugural position that had been created under the new constitution. He would be re-elected in 1957, not long after the death of his wife. During his many tours around the world his main objective was to impress upon foreign leaders India’s viewpoint on major international issues and increase his country’s role on the global stage.

In many of his books and dissertations, Radhakrishnan takes great pains to interpret Indian thought in a way that Westerners could relate to. (Kohli 45) Through his public life he remained steadfastly committed to high principles, dignity and moral authority. This integrity of purpose made him a highly revered figure in India and internationally he became one of the best-liked and respected public figures of all time.

In May of 1962, this well regarded philosopher and statesman was elected President of the State of India, succeeding Dr. Rajendra Prasad, becoming the second Head of State of a newly independent India. During his presidency, India was faced with war on two separate occasions, first with China and subsequently with Pakistan. In 1967,  Sarvepalli made an emotional farewell broadcast to the nation and told his loving country that he would not seek another term as President and would retire from public life.

After the death of Nehru in 1964, he described the former leader as “an earnest of the age to come, the age of the world men with world compassion.” And went on to say, “The best way to honour his memory is to get on with the work which he left unfinished, his work of peace, justice and freedom at home and abroad” (Dehruy 8).  Radhakrishnan’s dedication and efforts made a great contribution towards the realization of Nehru’s objectives.

Philosophical Beliefs

Sarvepalli often described philosophy as “ the attempt to think out the presuppositions of experience, to grasp. By means of reason, life or reality as a whole”(Braue 42). He attained prominence due to his eloquence in describing Indian philosophy according to Western academic standards, enabling non-Indo cultures to understand and consider Eastern philosophies and, most particularly, from India. He once stated his greatest challenge was that western philosophers, despite claiming to be objective, were inevitably influenced by the theological teachings of their own cultures.

Radhakrishnan’s philosophical work took two distinct directions. His philosophy is Indian idealism (Braue 44). First, his Indian Philosophy was defined as Radhakrishnan interpreted it. Originally what he presented was no different than the “Vedanta” which he had defined earlier.  Later, he changed its designation to “Hinduism” or the “Hindu View”. The second direction was the construction of a philosophical system from experimental grounds without relying on Indian thought (Minor 43).

Radhakrishnan tried to clarify for his western audiences that Hinduism is a progressive unity and that the history of Hinduism is of evolutionary advancement. He saw the method of “Hinduism’s” historical development as characterized by a critical attitude toward the traditions of the past in a modern sense, not just accepting past thoughts (Minor 45). Radhakrishnan was also an advocate of the class system of Hinduism. He believed that it was the only democratic solution to racial problems. Caste was a way to organize society and suggested that it is entirely functional, not a “mystery of divine appointment” (Minor 45-46). Thus, the foundation of the caste system are the ideas of free will, equality and democracy (Minor 45-46).

Radhakrishnan wrote many books on his philosophical beliefs and he was well known for his ideas on the Prasthana Trayi, the Bhagavadgita, the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra.


Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan died on April 17,1975 after a prolonged illness. At that time, Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi said, “As a teacher, he was deeply involved with the welfare of youth. As a statesman, he had deep understanding of the practical problems of nation building. He contributed significantly to the consolidation of our political parliamentary traditions. Now death has claimed him, but the memory of his commanding presence, the resonance of his voice and the radiance of his thought cannot fade and will remain a part of our legacy.” (Kohli 48)

Every year on September 5th, on Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s birthday, “Teachers Day” is celebrated all across India and the government gives national awards to teachers. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan will remain one of the greatest Indian philosophers of the 20th century and of all time (Kohli 48-49).


Braue, Donald A. (1985) Maya in Radhakrishnan’s Thought. New Delhi: Narendra Prakash Jain.

Dehury, Dinabandhu (2010) Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan as Statesman. Orissa: Orissa Government.

Gopal, Sarvepalli (1989) Radhakrishnan, a Biography. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Harris, Ishwar C. (1982) Radhakrishnan: the Profile of a Universalist. Columbia: South Asian Books

Hawley, Michael (2003) “The Making of a Mahatma: Radhakrishnan’s Critique of Gandhi. Studies in Religion 32(1-2), 135-148.

Kohli, A.B. (2001) Presidents of India. New Delhi: Reliance Publishing House.

Kumar Behura, Dillip (2010) The Great Indian Philosopher: Dr. Radhakrishnan. Orissa: Orissa Government.

Michael, Aloysius (1979) Radhakrishnan on Hindu Moral Life and Action. Delhi: Concept Publishing Company.

Minor, Robert N. (1987) Radhakrishnan A Religious Biography. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Minor, Robert N. (1997) Radhakrishnan as Advocate of the Class/Caste System as a Universal Religio-Social. International Journal of Hindu Studies 1(2), 386 – 400.

Murty, K. Satchidananda and Vohra, Ashok (1990) Radhakrishnan: His Life and Ideas. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Schilpp, Paul A. (1992) The Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers

Sharma, Arvind (2002) Modern Hindu Thought. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Indian political system

Rajendra Prasad

Sarvepalli Gopal

Comparative Religion



Jawaharlal Nehru

Rabindranath Tagore



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli

Article written by Ryan Booth (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi, the famous proponent of peace and non-violence in conflict-torn India during the early 1900’s, devoted his life to achieving an independent, egalitarian and united India. His life experiences led to his discovery of satyagraha, non-violent protest, and he implemented this tool in his work to free India from British colonial rule and to quell the civil disputes occurring within the country. In his attempts to bring India to peace, through well planned satyagrahas and his detailed Constructive Programme, he himself became a symbol in India and around the world.

Gandhi was born in Porbandar India on October 2, 1869 (Parekh 1, Chatterjee 15, Fischer 13-14). His family were members of the merchant class (Vaisyas) [Gandhi directly translates as grocer (Parekh 1, Fischer 12)] but rose to high political positions. His father, Karamchand, was prime minister of Porbandar (Fischer 13) and had many close Jaine friends [Jainism is a religion that employs strict non-violent and peaceful ideologies] (Parekh 1). His mother, Putali Bai, was a member of the Pranami (Prananath) religious sect that combined various beliefs and traditions including those of Hindus and Muslims (Parekh 1, Chatterjee 15). She was a deeply religious woman, and observed many religious fasts over her lifetime (Parekh 1, Fischer 15). Thus, Gandhi’s own political work, religious beliefs and morals were likely influenced by his early life and the beliefs of his parent’s.

Gandhi moved to England in 1888 to pursue an education as a lawyer (Fischer 27) and while there, was engulfed in western traditions and religion. He was introduced to Christianity, the Bible, especially the New Testament (Nanda 12). It was here that Gandhi began cultivating his own religious beliefs and practices in Hinduism which, over time, became infused with aspects of multiple religions including Christianity. It was at this time that Gandhi first discovered the Bhagavad Gita (one part of the larger Mahabharata epic), and its yogic teachings, especially those of Karma Yoga which epitomizes the path of selfless action to achieve spiritual liberation (Fischer 29-33, Hick 90). This text was so important to Gandhi that it became his ‘spiritual dictionary’ (Nanda 13). Upon returning to India, Gandhi experienced little success as a lawyer and eventually moved to South Africa to practice.

In South Africa at this time, Hindus were often used as indentured laborers (Parekh 3, Fischer 46) and suffered from restricted rights and freedoms. Gandhi himself was subject to many indignities, and in response became a strong proponent of Indian rights and legal equality in South Africa (Fischer 48), thus exemplifying the Karma Yoga path taught to him by the Gita. It was here that Gandhi developed and implemented his very first satyagraha. This was the use of non-violent protests to achieve, not victory over an enemy, but instead a compromise or reconciliation (Nanda 4). It was considered a form of civil disobedience, which could involve public demonstrations, non-cooperation with government policies, and even fasting as a personal satyagraha. All forms required the graceful acceptance of the consequences of their actions (Parekh 3). Gandhi achieved many successes in regards to Indian rights while in South Africa, but was also able to unify Hindus and Muslims living there. This can be credited to the fact that many shared a common language and tradition and faced similar challenges in a foreign country. To unite Hindus and Muslims in India would prove to be more difficult in the years ahead.

While in South Africa, Gandhi explored religion further, often incorporating new religious facets into his unique brand of Hinduism, including aspects of Judaism and Christianity, which he learned from various friends (Parekh 5). However, his knowledge of religion came mainly from reading influential texts, such as the Hindu epics of the Ramayana [Gandhi believed it to be “the greatest book in all devotional literature” (Chatterjee 16)], the Mahabharata and most importantly the Bhagavad Gita (Chatterjee 7, Fischer 29-30). The Gita inspired Gandhi to begin his life path of becoming a Karma yogi, and a man of action (Fischer 35-36). For Gandhi, religion was embodied in dharma (righteousness) and was the “sustaining order which upholds the individual and society and in turn has to be upheld by them” (Chatterjee 18). Thus religion was simply a moral framework for the conduct of daily life (Nanda 24). Gandhi eventually came to realize that religion played an important role in politics (Nanda 24) and was critical in maintaining a stable society (Chatterjee 18). After a period of 21 years, Gandhi returned to India, armed with his new religious views and powerful political weapon: the satyagraha.

India, at this time, was suffering from great civil unrest and religious disputes. Hindu-Muslim relations were strained and there was increasing opposition and animosity towards the British colonial government. The Indian National Congress, which had been established as a means of channeling Indian resentment of colonial rule into constitutional reforms and legal moderation (Fischer 132), had become ineffective due to poor leadership (Parekh 7). This ineptitude resulted in public revolts erupting throughout India. Gandhi, a supporter of the colonial rule at first, became unconvinced of its ability to maintain control over the increasing civil unrest. He did not agree with the oppressive measures taken to maintain order, but also could not agree with the Indian National Congress’s ineffective political strategy. Gandhi decided to implement his Constructive Programme which included measures to restructure India and restore peace and order to the country to prepare it for independence from the British government (Parekh 8).

The Constructive Programme focused both on large sweeping changes as well as small, mainly symbolic, changes including: abolishing the caste system and untouchability, equality for women, the use of indigenous languages and the adoption of a common, national language. It also promoted economic equality (including tribal peoples), the development of village industries and banning the use of foreign cloth (Parekh 8-9, Nanda 8). Gandhi believed that in order to restore peace and stability to India, Indian society would first have to become more dharmic, which could be attained if society became more egalitarian (Chatterjee 20). This idea of a dharmic society stems from the teachings of the Gita and Gandhi once said, God’s grace and revelation are not the monopoly of any race or nation; they descend equally upon all who wait upon God” (Nanda 69). Thus any person can become close to their God through personal, loving devotion (bhakti), regardless of race, gender or class (Hick 131-132). He also realized the importance of symbols as a way of attaining and maintaining equality through their ability to convey strong emotional responses in the public. He used symbols such as the spinning wheel, khadi (home spun cloth) the cow and the Gandhi cap. Gandhi himself eventually became a symbol in his own right (Parekh 9). He believed that his Constructive Programme combined with carefully thought out and meaningful satyagrahas would be the key to India’s independence (Parekh 8).

Gandhi implemented his first national satyagraha in 1919 which involved nation wide cessation of work (hartal) and mass demonstrations, in response to the further losses of civil liberties and freedoms imposed on India by the colonial government (Parekh 12). It was Gandhi’s first nation wide defiance of the British government (Fischer 176). The hartal proved to be very successful in Bombay with six hundred followers. However, when the hartal reached Delhi some demonstrations turned violent and Gandhi had to abandon it, calling it his ‘Himalayan miscalculation’ (Parekh 12, Fischer 177-178). Further oppression by the British government by banning group gatherings and demonstrations, escalated tensions in India, and on April 13, 1919 colonial forces opened fire on unarmed civilians, killing hundreds (Parekh 12, Fischer 179-180). This event was a turning point in Indian history and the stability of the British rule began to be threatened.

In response this tragic event, and in the face of exponentially increasing violence in the country, Gandhi implemented his second nation wide satyagraha: The Non-cooperation Movement of 1920 (Parekh 12, Fischer 187). Gandhi based it on his belief that the government could no longer rule effectively if its citizens refused to cooperate with its policies and set up their own alternative governing institutions (Parekh 12, Fischer 187). Gandhi also attempted to incorporate the Muslim community into his nationalist movement for independence (Nanda 97). The Non-cooperation movement was unsuccessful for two reasons: alternative governing bodies were not created because the public was not willing to give up their hard earned careers (Parekh 14) and it inadvertently caused further strain in Hindu-Muslim relations. The majority of Muslims were supportive of the British governing body as it provided them with an English education and government careers (Nanda 97).

Gandhi became increasingly concerned over the growing Hindu-Muslim conflict. The emerging Muslim middle class felt that their progress was being impeded, as they were in constant competition, with the Hindus, over jobs. Most middle class Muslims did not have the access to the level of education needed to obtain these jobs and thus felt they were at an unfair disadvantage (Fischer 220). To address their frustrations Gandhi began a twenty-one day fast to promote unity and a mutual respect and tolerance and support of a Hindu-Muslim friendship (Parekh 15, Fischer 221). However, civil unrest continued to increase until he felt that another satyagraha was necessary to avoid explosive violence, and edge India closer to independence. He decided to protest against the British salt tax of the 1930’s by having thousands of people along India’s sea coast produce salt illegally (Parekh 15-16, Fischer 268-269). Gandhi chose his salt satyagraha for several reasons: salt was important to all Indians and Muslims, and bore heavily on the poor, and showed the how corrupt and cruel the British government was (Parekh 15-16). The salt satyagraha was successful as it was able to show colonial rule was weak and could be defeated (Parekh 16). It has been considered Gandhi’s most successful attempt at non-violent civil disobedience as a means to promote compromise, through the use of powerful symbolism (Nanda 81).

Hindu-Muslim relations continued to worsen and partition of India was immanent. In light of economic and political trouble Muslim’s feared they would no longer be in control of their people and that a partition was necessary to maintain Muslim religious integrity (Parekh 20). Pakistan and the Indian Union were eventually formed out of the partition (Fischer 476). The newly formed Pakistan contained millions of Hindus, and likewise the Indian Union contained millions of Muslims. These newly formed minorities were concerned with their status under the new majority rulers and fighting erupted from within (Fischer 476). Gandhi disagreed with the partition on religious and traditional grounds and predicted the violence that resulted. Thus, he devoted the remainder of his life to quelling violence between the disputing parties, and bringing about Hindu-Muslim religious equality through pilgrimages of peace (Parekh 23, Nanda 147), because he felt that all religions could be considered equal (Hick 131). His own life became a weapon in the war against violence, and he hoped that his sacrifice would act as a catalyst promoting peace and equality throughout India, as well as Pakistan (Parekh 23).

India achieved its independence on August 15, 1947 (Parekh 23). Gandhi remained focused on his pilgrimage and on January 13, 1948 began his final satyagraha, a fast unto death (Fischer 494), which was ultimately successful in ending the religious riots in both Pakistan and the Indian Union (Fischer 502). People, moved by his selfless action, pledged to ‘establish real peace’ between the dominions (Fischer 499). However, while he had many followers, there were still some who disagreed vehemently with his ideals and as a result Gandhi had many threats on his life (Parekh 24, Fischer 503-505). Instead of worrying for his life, Gandhi believed his death would act as a symbol to the country and achieve what he could not accomplish in his lifetime (Parekh 25). On January 30th, 1948 Gandhi was assassinated (Parekh 25).

Gandhi’s death proved to be incredibly influential in the events that would follow. It effectively united people in mourning the loss of India’s most beloved political peace activist, and calmed the conflict torn nation, and was instrumental in achieving the egalitarian society Gandhi has strived for during his life (Parekh 25). Gandhi exemplified the Karma Yoga path of selfless action, and he never wavered in his attempts to achieve a dharmically stable Indian society through religious and social equality. Gandhian policies and ideologies remain in Indian society and have also spread around the world in a ‘nonviolent revolution’ (Hick 203-204). His emphasis on morality, religion and non-violent cooperative negotiations have often been used as a template to base political decisions as well as decisions made in day to day life.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Chatterjee, Margaret (1983) Gandhi’s Religious Thought. Notre Dame: University of

Notre Dame Press.

Fischer, Louis (1950) The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Harper and Row Publishers Incorporated.

Hick, John and Hempel, Lamont, C. (1989) Gandhi’s Significance for Today. New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc.

Nanda, B. R. (2002) In Search of Gandhi: Essays and Reflections. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Parekh, Bhikhu (1997) Gandhi. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation





Islamic religious beliefs and traditions

Hindu-Muslim conflict

The partition of India

Indian National Congress

British colonialism

Constructive Programme

British salt tax and the salt satyagraha

The Non-cooperation Movement

Indian Class (Varna)/Caste system

Untouchables (Candala)

Pranami (Prananath) religious sect




Karma Yoga



Bhagavad Gita



Related Websites

Article written by: Karma Tiberg (April 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.


Hindutva is the essence of what it means to be Hindu. There is deliberate deviance from the term “Hinduism” because of the common association with “isms” as Western manifestations (Bhatt 85). Hindutva seeks to define a Hindu not through religiosity (as most would identify a Hindu as one that practises Hinduism) nor through geography; as India is the home to the largest population of Hindus, but rather on ideals that are an aggregate of the two concepts.

There are four fathers of Hindutva: Maharshi Dayananda Saraswati, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, and most formidably, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (Sharma 4). They prescribed six elements of Hinduism that needed modification in order to unify Hindus under a common cause, Hindutva. Hinduism is inherently diverse; there are endless variations within the faith. To the fathers of Hindutva this was seen as a weakness. Hinduism needed to be transformed into a rigid and codified belief system. “To admit to infinite variations within the faith was seen as a sign of weakness” (Sharma 9). It was also imperative that Hinduism abandon its adherence to non violence; the second element of modification then is to take up a masculine, aggressive, and violent faith. “Hindus had to learn to live and die for an ideal” (Sharma 9). The third characteristic of the Hindutva vision was to place “Hinduness” relative to other faiths. It was a common thought among these founders of Hindutva that Hinduism was the oldest and most perfect faith. It was in essence the “mother of all religions.” As such, Hinduism only had wisdom to share with others and nothing to learn from them (Sharma 10). This was an attempt to subordinate all other faiths and reinforce Hindu supremacy. This plays into the fourth element; a constant sense of threat to the survival of Hinduism. Perhaps because of the colonial past of India and the seemingly endless threats coming from all angles; Christianity/Western influence, or Islamic fundamentalists from within the country it was thought that the constant sense of threat would revitalise Hindus to be defensive to perceived threats of dilutions to their faith (Sharma 10). The fifth feature of the ideal Hindu nation was the end of theology. “Hinduism had been perfected in the Vedas and the Upanishads. The question of discussing doctrinal issues therefore did not arise. Answers to every question about modern life, science and technology were to be found in the Vedas” (Sharma 11). The last characteristic of the Hindutva ideal was brutal honesty. Abuse and contempt were legitimate tools of conversation and discourse. “Everything had to be stripped to its basics and presented” (Sharma 11).

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the self proclaimed father of Hindutva furthers his recommendations with four additional essentials to Hindutva. The first essential to Hindu identity was “a citizenship of paternal decent within a physically bounded territory” (Bhatt 94). India’s physical geography is one that is defined by boundaries; the Himalayas in the North, the Bay of Bengal to the East, Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea to South and West respectively. However, as was mentioned previously, geography alone cannot define a Hindu. The second criterion is one that Savarkar deems the most important: “the bond of common blood” (Bhatt 94). He argues that Hindus were not only a nation (rastra) but a race (jati) (Bhatt 94). The third essential to membership of the Hindu nation is the idea of a common culture and civilization that Savarkar claimed bound all Hindus, regardless of caste. This clause has Vedic roots inasmuch as a civilization is by definition composed of a common history, literature, laws, customs and festivals which share the same mother tongue [in this case Sanskrit] hence the common civilization was sankriti (Bhatt 97). This would seemingly include the Muslim and Christian population within India; however, they are effectively excluded in the fourth and final criterion of Hindutva. Savarkar’s concluding definition of a Hindu is one who “looks upon” and “considers” the land that is India as his Fatherland (pitribhu) and Motherland (matribhu) (Bhatt 99). The Muslim and Christian population within India would obviously consider India a homeland because that is where they live but the foundations of their faith would lay outside of the Indian subcontinent [Motherland and Fatherland in this sense essentially make reference to the exact place where the various religious were created E.g. Christianity would be said to begin when and where Jesus was born].

The ideal of Hindutva has been a political issue in India since its inception in the early 1920’s [V.D Savarkar’s book of the same name was published in 1923] (Bhatt 78). The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [RSS] was founded in this time period and will become the foundational organization in the Sangh Parivar [the “family” of nationalist organizations] (Bhatt 4). In the decades to come the Sangh is thought to become a formidable force in Indian politics. Democracy is believed to be a by-product of British colonialism in India. However Hindutva and a democratic political system are conflicting ideologies. Religion and politics are said to not function symbiotically; India is no exception; “democracy in India is perceived to be in danger because the Sangh Parivar” (Bhambri 3). The foundational principle of democracy is rule of law and equality. The Hindutva ideology is one that is committed to “One Country, One Culture and One Nation” (Bhambri 4). The Sangh Parivar reinforces this motto and is hostile to the idea of guaranteed rights for all groups in society (Bhambri 4). The very constitution of India is rejected by the followers of Hindutva [ergo the Sangh Parivar]. They believe that Christians and Muslims have a homeland that is outside India, and therefore should not be granted the same concessions regarding equal citizenship. In Sangh ideology, “India belongs to Hindus and other minority groups should win over the goodwill of the majority and will willingly accept their minority status” (Bhambri 4). The Sangh Parivar believes that a pure Hindu state shall mean the total destruction of the culturally pluralist and diverse society of India. The forces of Hindutva will not be able to achieve their goal of establishing a Hindu nation-state without a violent civil war within the country (Bhambri 5). India is an inherently pluralistic society, with over 500 seats in its legislature [Lok Sabha]; India has made considerable efforts to ensure that all groups are represented. Hindutva’s ideal of eliminating all cultures that are not associated with Hinduism would prove to be a daunting task considering the constitutionally entrenched features of India. The nationalist movements do, however, pervade the system. A particularly contentious issue among Hindu nationals and the government of India is the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya (Bhambri 21) The Sangh Parivar was successful in reviving this movement which was described by the Prime Minister as an “initiative that reflected national sentiment” (Bhambri 21). The Prime Minister clarifies that it was not the temple construction that would be particularly contentious, but the rights to perform puja on the site (Bhambri 21).

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) [a frontal organization in the Sangh Parivar] openly communicated with the Prime Minister regarding these rights. They also sent a warning to the government not to create obstacles in the way of constructing the temple at Ayodhya (Bhambri 21). Communications between the VHP and the Prime Minister came to a halt when the VHP confessed that they did not have the authority to negotiate matters pertaining to temple construction; that decision was made by the Dharmacharyas [Hindu religious heads] (Bhambri 22). On the surface, this issue seems quite benign; a religious movement wants the rights to perform their rituals without government involvement. What is disturbing is the infiltration of religiosity into politics especially in the area of policy making. It would seemingly be a step backwards to have religious heads paramount to government functioning. The Dharmacharyas are Saints and Sadhus that have been elevated to the position of real decision makers by the Sangh Parivar (Bhambri 22). The Sangh has a Hindutva agenda which, was previously described as being counteractive to democracy, yet the very those principles of democracy have enabled the Sangh and its various entities to pervade the system and push through very undemocratic policies. The constitution has created a sovereign, democratic, republic state which is the legitimate guarantor of the rule of law and the rights of the citizen. The basic structure of the Constitution is threatened if priests and not an elected Parliament become the representatives of the will of one particular group of people in India (Bhambri 23).

The foundations of Hindutva, by nature are confoundin. In essence, Hindutva can be interpreted to be a reaction to British colonialism posing a threat to the distinct society that is India. Hindutva’s nationalist appeal does not permeate throughout the country; some of its more aggressive policies do not have the breadth of appeal that is necessary to drive a uniform nationalist movement. It was British rule over India that introduced some of the country’s most unifying principles. Innovations such as transportation and communication technologies between regions as well as literacy in the populous were all facilitated by British colonialism. These features knitted together the vast political and economic region that is India, for the first time in its history (Krishnan 129/130). It was through the dynamic influence of Christianity and Western domination over the subcontinent in the 19th century that a sense of unity and national consciousness developed among Indians (Krishnan 133). Without the influence of the West, it would seem that Hindutva has no premise. The religion that is Hinduism is one that reflects a polytheistic system of worship. Hindutva seeks to undermine that important facet [if not defining feature] and move towards a more monotheistic, Judeo-Christian system of belief. The extreme nationalist movement that is Hindutva is greatly indebted to the influence that it seeks to abolish. While the issue of Hindu nationalism and the ensuring movement has many more underlying comprehensive features it is a contentious issue that will continue to infiltrate all aspects of Hindu life.


Bhambhri, Chandra Prakash (2003) Hindutva: A Challenge to Multi-cultural Democracy. Delhi: Shipra Publications.

Bhatt, Chetan (2001) Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies and Modern Myths. New York/Oxford: Berg.

Krishnan, O.N. (2005) Hindutva or Dhammatva. New Delhi: Asian Publication Services.

Sharma, Jyotirmaya (2003) Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism. India: Viking.

Other Related Topics

Abhinav Bharat

Bharatiya Jana Sangh

Bharitiya Janata Party (BJP)


Hindu Rashtra

Lok Sabha

Mitra Mela

Sangh Parivar

Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)

Noteworthy Websites

Written by Kim Welby (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Related Readings (On Mahatma Gandhi)

Chatterjee, M. (1983) Gandhi’s Religious Thought. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press.

Desai, Mahadev (1946) The Gita According to Gandhi. Amhedabad: Navajivan.

Erikson, E. H. (1970) Gandhi’s Truth. New York: W. W. Norton.

Fischer, L. (1959) The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. Reprint Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Gandhi, M. K. (1982) An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Harmondworth: Penguin.

Tendulkar, D. G. (1952-58) Mahatma: Life and Work of M. K. Gandhi, 8 vols. Bombay: V. K. Jhaveri.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar India. Gandhi was the youngest child of his father’s fourth wife, and it was his mother who taught him about the inner strength and sacrifice he would become known for (Watson 7). Belonging to the working class, the Vaisyas, Gandhi grew up in a well to do family as his father Karamchand was a successful businessman (Fischer 1950:12). While his father owned homes in Porbandar, Rajkot, and Kutiana (Fisher 9), Gandhi lived an ordinary childhood. In school he was a mediocre student, sometimes having learning troubles. As Gandhi himself once remembered “My intellect must have been sluggish, and my memory raw” (Fisher 1954:9). At the age of 13 Gandhi was married in an arranged marriage to another 13 year old named Kasturbai; a match made by their parents. Gandhi was not aware of the arrangement until all the plans were complete and later said his marriage was as if “two innocent children all unwittingly hurled themselves on the ocean of life, with only their experiences in a former incarnation to guide them” (Fischer 1954:10). Later on in life, Gandhi became a bitter enemy to child marriage because sex had obsessed him greatly in his child years (Parekh 1). After he finished school, Gandhi was faced with the decision of what career he would pursue. He thought of medicine but his father objected to the dissection of dead bodies; subsequently, he turned his attention to law. Gandhi learned about an English law course and degree that he could obtain and quickly jumped at the opportunity (Fischer 1954:12). However, elders in his caste rejected, in vain, the idea of him leaving for England because they believed the English had different morals. However, in order to gain acceptance and go, Gandhi made an oath that he would not touch meat, alcohol, or women. In September 1888, he set sail from Bombay for England (Watson 9).

In order to fit into English culture Gandhi found himself wearing a top hat, morning coat, striped trousers and spats, as well as participating in dancing and elocution lessons (Watson 9). However, it was a Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita, which Gandhi read while in England that shaped his inspiration in life (Fischer 1954:15). The Bhagavad-Gita, an exquisite poem about the science and practice of yoga, inspired Gandhi. He felt that it was a metaphor in which the battlefield was the soul and Arjuna, the protagonist, was man’s higher impulses struggling against evil (Fischer 1954:16). Mahatma Gandhi could be regarded as a karma yogi; one who used the Gita to define the perfect karma yogi.

“He is a devotee who is jealous of none, who is a fount of mercy, who is without egotism, who is selfless, who treats alike cold and heat, happiness and misery, who is ever forgiving, who is always contented, whose resolution are firm, who is dedicated mind and soul to god, who causes no dread, who is not afraid of others, who is free of exultation, sorrow and fear, who is pure, who is versed in action yet remains unaffected by it, who renounces all fruit, good or bad, who treats friend and foe alike, who is untouched by respect or disrespect, who is not puffed up by praise, who does not go under when people speak ill of him, who loves silence and solitude, who has a disciplined reason. Such devotion is inconsistent with the existence at the same time of strong attachments” (Fischer 1954:18).

This is how Gandhi lived and he used this ideal of desirelessness to teach others of ahimsa (non violence). Gandhi said that “one person, who can express ahimsa in life, exercises a force superior to all the forces of brutality” and even though it seems that passive resistance seems very ineffective, it is really intensely active and more effective in ultimate result (Misra & Gangal 52-53). In addition to nonviolence, Gandhi also taught satyagraha (adherence to truth) (Pant 5). Satyagraha is a combination of two words, satya (truth) and agraha (taking seizing, holding) and that one seizes hold of the truth (Hardiman 51). Gandhi knew that reason itself could not win an argument so to aid in his quest for truth he would often go through self inflicted suffering such as fasting (Hardiman 52). Gandhi believed greatly in adherence of non violence. As he once said, “truth is God and there is no way to find truth except the way of non violence” (Woodcock 7).

Before the great strides Gandhi made in his later years, his early career in London was not a success because he was too shy to voice his opinion in court. Therefore, in 1893, when he was sought after by a Muslim firm in South Africa, he was thrilled with the new job prospect and accepted the offer, sailing off to South Africa that same year (Parekh 2-3). While in South Africa he went through several experiences and challenges that would change the way he thought. Gandhi quickly learned of the racial prejudice that existed in South Africa because of the British and Dutch colonial activity. The first day of traveling to work on a railway carriage, Gandhi was beaten because he refused to give up his stage coach seat (Watson 9). In another situation where all Indians had to register and be fingerprinted, Gandhi used his method of satyagraha. Included among his non violent resistant acts were picketing in front of registration centers, burning cards, courting arrest and gracefully accepting punishment and suffering from police officers (Parekh 3). Gandhi realized that his methods of ahimsa and satyagraha worked because it reversed the “eye for an eye” mentality which, in his opinion, just makes the whole world blind (Fischer 35).

While still married, Gandhi gave up sexual intercourse at the age of 36 from 1906 until his death (Fischer 1950:72). This practice, known as brahmacharya, gave him a spiritual and practical purity that would purge him from weakness. Gandhi saw brahmacharya as a means of making himself equal to his tasks instead of being engaged in the pleasures of daily life and the propagation and rearing children (Watson 13). It signifed control of all the senses at all times and at all places in thought, word, and deed (Fischer 1950:72).

After twenty one years in South Africa Gandhi returned to his homeland in India. After his arrival, he traveled around India with “his ears open and mouth shut” to see what the social situation of India was like at the time (Parekh 6). After four years of being back in India he became an influential national leader because of his morals, visions, manners, self confidence and courage to stand up against established leadership (Parekh 11). After several years of using his approaches of ahimsa and satyagraha Gandhi was able to teach the meaning of swaraj or “self governance” to the Indian people by showing them what they could do (Pant 5). He believed that India needed general principles on how to govern the society, and then allow India to comprehend them in their own way (Parekh 75). Gandhi, like every Indian, wanted to be free of British domination, but also wanted more for his country. Gandhi said “I am not interested in freeing India merely from the English yoke. The movements, political freedom and social and economic freedom must go together” (Pant 16). Finally, on August 15th 1947 India gained independence from England because of the tireless work of Gandhi (Watson 57). He was a crusader for equal rights, respect for women and had removed the untouchability and thus he was given the title “Father of the Nation” (Pant 16).

The name Mahatma Gandhi is often thought to be Gandhi’s real name, however the name Mahatma is taken from Sanskrit meaning Great Soul. It is used to honor the man who gave Indians and the world self-respect and hope through his beliefs and actions. Interestingly Gandhi never personally thought that he deserved the honor of the title (Woodcock 2).

On the evening of January 30, 1948 during a prayer meeting Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead by a young Hindu by the name of Nathuram Godse who belonged to an extremist party (Watson 61). As Gandhi fell to the ground his last words were “He Ram, He Ram” (Oh God, Oh God) (Fischer 1950:505). His life journey was now over; Gandhi had left his mark on the world. He had left home as a young, timid man and through non-violence, adherence to the truth and belief in his people, he ended it as a Mahatma.


Fischer, Louis (1950) The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Harper and Row.

Fischer, Louis (1954) Gandhi; His life and message for the world. New York: Mentor Press.

Hardiman, David (2003) Gandhi in his time and ours. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mirsra, K. and Gangal, S. (1981) Gandhi and the Contemporary World. Delhi: Chanakya


Pant, Jitendra (2002) Gandhi; Messiah of Peace. Toronto: Lustre Press.

Parekh, Bhikhu (1997) Gandhi. New York: Oxford University Press.

Watson, Francis (1967) Gandhi. London: Oxford University Press.

Woodcock, George (1971) Mohandas Gandhi. New York: The Viking Press

Related Topics for Further Investigation





India Independence




Websites Related to Topic History/Gandhi/gandhi.html

Article written by Travis Petrisor (April 2006), who is solely responsible for the content .