Ancient History & Civilisation

Krishna, the Gita, and the Indian Nation


Sanjaya said: “Wherever Krishna the lord of yoga and Arjuna the archer are, there too will be good fortune, victory, prosperity, and firm good conduct. That’s what I believe.”

— Bhagavad Gita 18.78

In 1926, Swami Shraddhananda proposed a new kind of institution for promulgating the Gita. “The first step which I propose,” he wrote, “is to build one Hindu Rashtra mandir [temple of the Hindu nation] at least in every city and important town, with a compound which could contain an audience of 25 thousands and a hall in which Katha from Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads and the great epics of Ramayana and Mahabharat could be daily recited.” He suggested that a “life-like map of Mother-Bharat” be placed in proximity in each of these new temples, “so that every child of the Matri-Bhumi [mother-land] may daily bow before the Mother and renew his pledge to restore her to the ancient pinnacle of glory from which she has fallen!”1

Shraddhananda was a leader of the Arya Samaj, a large Hindu reformist group, and took an active role in the movement for Indian independence from British colonial rule. During Gandhi’s first nationwide satyagraha campaign against the Rowlatt Act in 1919, Shraddhananda led the mobilization in Delhi. As his plan for temples of the Hindu nation indicates, he envisioned the Bhagavad Gita playing a key role in creating victory and prosperity for the nation of India, symbolized in the form of Mother Bharat. No longer just a matter of facilitating liberation of individual souls through the paths of knowledge or devotion, as the medieval commentators had interpreted it, Krishna’s yoga in the Gita would now be redeployed for the liberation of an entire nation, restoring it to an “ancient pinnacle of glory.” It would do so, in Shraddhananda’s proposal, through an institution for the mass recitation of Krishna’s words, reaching audiences far greater than ever before in the Gita’s life.

Shraddhananda had another agenda here as well. In the 1920s, the swami became active in the Hindu Sangathan (Hindu solidarity) movement. He had come to see other religions in India, primarily Islam and Christianity, as posing a threat to the Hindu majority and Indian nationhood. He feared that conversions of lower-class Hindus by Muslims and Christians would lead to the disintegration of the ancient class system, a bulwark of Indian social structure. The Muslims had their large congregational spaces, the Jami Masjids, and their single holy text, the Quran. Shouldn’t the Hindus construct similar places for mass assembly, he reasoned, and select for themselves a shared sacred “bible”? For Shraddhananda, the Bhagavad Gita would be mobilized to help unify and consolidate a specifically Hindu nation in the face of internal religious enemies to the nation-building project.

Swami Shraddhananda’s vision for nationwide assembly halls for Gita recitation did not come to fruition on the scale that he proposed, although a number of “Gita Temples” and “Gita Halls” were constructed in the following decades.2 Still, the Bhagavad Gitadid gain a vastly wider distribution than ever before in early twentieth-century India through numerous vernacular translations and mass publication of inexpensive editions by publishers such as the aptly named Gita Press of Gorakhpur. The Gita came to play a crucial role in the thinking and discourse of leaders of the Indian independence movement, including Lala Lajpat Rai, Aurobindo Ghose, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and Gandhi. Yet as Shraddhananda’s double agenda indicates, the promotion of the Gita as a national text could quickly slip into a more sectarian or “communal” agenda. In an anticolonial movement that aspired to be cohesive and unifying on a national scale, the Gita and other Hindu symbols could be seen as divisive, since they excluded non-Hindu communities. Or in another direction, the relevance of the Gita could be projected beyond Hinduism and India to embrace all humanity as a universal spiritual work.


FIGURE 7. Shrimad Bhagavad Gita Mandir, Mathura, built by Raja Baladeva Das Ji Birla, 1946.
Photograph by the author.

The dramatic growth in readership and interpretive interest in the Bhagavad Gita in early twentieth-century India raises several questions. Why did so many Indian leaders and activists adopt the Gita as a central work in their efforts? How did they interpret Krishna’s teachings in light of their situations and aims? And where did the Gita lead them? If the presence of Krishna and Arjuna assures good fortune and victory, as Sanjaya promises, just what are the good fortune and victory they could deliver?

Quest for a Historical Krishna

Krishna was still very much alive in late nineteenth-century India. Writing in the 1880s of his native Bengal, the patriotic novelist and essayist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee observed:

In Bangal, the worship of Krsna is virtually pervasive. Krsna’s temples in village after village, Krsna’s worship in house after house, Krsna’s festivals in almost every month, Krsna-plays in festival after festival, songs of Krsna from voice after voice, the name of Krsna on all lips. The garments of some carry Krsna’s name; the bodies of others are imprinted with Krsna’s name. None will start his journey without taking Krsna’s name; none will begin a letter or commence study without writing Krsna’s name; the beggar does not ask for alms without uttering “Hail Radha-Krsna!”3

In other regions throughout the subcontinent, the devotional traditions surrounding the cowherd god Krishna flourished as well, in homes and temples, festivals and dances, and songs.

Western scholars, meanwhile, had come to regard Krishna as a mythical character. Krishna was a composite of several different legends. To British eyes, Krishna’s lack of historicity reflected the woeful lack of historical consciousness among Indians. As Mill put it with his usual asperity, ancient Indian literature contained “not a single production to which the historical character belongs.” In India, he goes on, “the actions of men and those of deities are mixed together, in a set of legends, more absurd and extravagant, more transcending the bounds of nature and of reason, less grateful to the imagination and taste of a cultivated and rational people,” than those of any other civilization in the world.4

Even as a mythical being, Krishna was found wanting. This supposed deity was associated with frivolity, self-indulgence, sensuality, and immoral conduct. His amorous conduct with the Gopis, described in the Bhagavata Purana and many later poems, was seen as particularly reprehensible. Those who devoted themselves to such a god were also judged harshly. Writing of the Pushtimarg community of Krishna devotees, the eminent British Indologist Monier Monier-Williams observed that they interpreted the attachment of Krishna and the Gopis “in a gross and material sense.” As a result, he continued, “their devotion to Krishna has degenerated into the most corrupt practices and their whole system has become rotten to the core.”5 For British colonials, Krishna stood as a symptom of what was wrong with India.

For educated Indians of the emerging nationalist movement, Krishna’s bad reputation was a problem. The cowherd Krishna of the Bhagavata and later devotional tradition cut an unworthy figure, they agreed, but the teachings that the adult Krishna set forth in the Bhagavad Gita offered great promise. Could they perhaps make Krishna a more reputable model for the needs of the time rather than a remnant of the medieval past? The solution would be to reconstruct the character of Krishna on firmer historical grounds, much as European writers like Ernest Renan were doing with the character of Jesus. This task was taken up by several leading nationalist writers and politicians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, starting with Chatterjee in his Krishna-Charitra, followed by Lajpat Rai’s Yogiraj Shri Krishna and other similar works. The result was a recalibration of Krishna’s personality. His early life among the cowherds of Vraja was radically amended or jettisoned, while his grown-up role in the Mahabharata as well as, especially, his battlefield dialogue with Arjuna in the Gita were promoted. No longer a self-indulgent child or seductive adolescent, the historical Krishna should be seen, as Lajpat Rai put it, as “a great teacher, a great warrior, and a man of great learning.”6

Lawyer, journalist, educational reformer, relief worker, and political leader, Lajpat Rai wrote a series of short biographies of “Great Men of the World” in the 1890s, addressed to the youths of India. Quoting Thomas Carlyle, Lajpat Rai stated that great men are like sparks of the great fire that provides light to the world and brings happiness to humanity. He hoped that these sparks would kindle national idealism in young people. He began with Giuseppe Mazzini, followed by Giuseppe Garibaldi. Indian nationalists were keenly interested in the success of the Italian risorgimento, for it too had needed to over-come internal divisions and foreign oppression in order to consolidate a unified, independent nation-state. After the Italians, Lajpat Rai turned to Indian worthies. He wrote on Shivaji, the seventeenth-century Marathi warrior and ruler, and Dayananda Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj. Finally he took on Krishna, in Yogiraj Shri Krishna, published in 1900.

Lajpat Rai admits at the outset that Krishna has been portrayed in an unflattering light. In their “excessive enthusiasm,” poets have done Krishna a grave injustice, creating all kinds of misconceptions about him in the minds of the Indian people. “They have so pierced him with the arrows of their petty and vulgar imaginations,” Lajpat Rai says of the devotional poets, “that his personality has totally changed and as a result most of the Aryans considering him impure and sensual have developed an aversion to him.”7 How can one reconcile the frivolous depiction of the cowherd Krishna, tempting lover of the Gopis, with the dignified teacher of the Bhagavad Gita?

To write a historical biography of an ancient figure like Krishna, there is of course a serious problem of sources. One must cull facts, says Lajpat Rai, from the imaginary and hyperbolic accounts of poets. He therefore starts with a discussion of the available sources and his own historical method. Lajpat Rai assumes that earlier sources are more trustworthy than later ones, which over time have been corrupted by poetic fancy. Puranas like the Bhagavata, he acknowledges, cannot be treated as historical sources, even though they contain the most extensive accounts of Krishna’s life. The Puranas have fundamentally altered Krishna’s personality, in Lajpat Rai’s view. The Mahabharata is a more ancient composition, he observes, and thus closer in time to the life of Krishna. Even here, Lajpat Rai must admit that the epic poem is a composite work that includes later additions. The most reliable basis for a historical biography of Krishna is contained in the oldest strata of the Mahabharata.

How old is that oldest strata? Lajpat Rai acknowledges that it is difficult to determine the exact date of the Mahabharata war, since there are no other historical sources from that ancient period. He does cite one estimate, based on astronomical details mentioned in the text, that place it at least 3,426 years back, at 1520 BCE. Whether or not we accept that calculation, Lajpat Rai states that we can safely date the Bharata war and core composition describing it to a period earlier than the Upanishads. Some scholars, he says, contend that the entire Mahabharata story is fictive, and that its heroes like Krishna and the Pandavas are imaginary literary creations. To counter this, Lajpat Rai cites the many references to these figures throughout Sanskrit literature, thereby proving Krishna’s real historical existence. Was Krishna an incarnation of God? Lajpat Rai believes that Krishna never made any such claim, nor did anyone else during his lifetime give him that title. The incarnation theory is a “creative projection” added later to enhance Krishna’s prestige. Krishna’s doubleness as a human and divine figure is poetic hyperbole.

In Lajpat Rai’s estimation, Krishna was a human warrior and ruler who lived in ancient northern India during the early Vedic period, fought in the great war narrated in the Mahabharata, and presented teachings to his friend Arjuna on the battlefield that formed the core message of theBhagavad Gita. Later Indian tradition turned Krishna into an incarnation of God, supplemented his original teachings in the Gita with later topics, and appended a frivolous youth onto this admirable figure.

After this preamble, Lajpat Rai can proceed to tell the life of Krishna as a “model human being.” His life, in Lajpat Rai’s telling, exemplifies Krishna’s primary teachings in the Bhagavad Gita. These hold valuable lessons relevant to the present. Lajpat Rai identifies two dangerous tendencies among contemporary youths in colonial India. The first is Western materialism. The atheism of Europe, observes Lajpat Rai, has seduced the minds of many youths, weaning them from the fundamental truths of Hinduism and leaving them open to the Western way of life. “According to them the aim of life is nothing but to eat delicious food, wear fashionable clothes, travel in luxury vehicles, and live in comfort.”8 The second danger is the opposite of this: the Indic tradition of world renunciation. Some Indian youths think only of spiritual development and hold all worldly pleasures as contemptible.

The life and teachings of Krishna present a better alternative to both dangers. Krishna urges Arjuna to do his duty and fight, not to renounce or indulge himself. “According to Krishna’s teachings,” Lajpat Rai concludes, “it is the duty of a Kshatriya, until he earns the right to be called a Brahmin, to fight against his enemies, and if in order to uphold religion, righteousness and truth, he has to take up arms and risk his life he should not hesitate to do so.”9 What Lajpat Rai has in mind is that Indian youths should commit themselves to opposing British colonial rule, even if that involves risking their lives—as he did.

Varieties of Karma Yoga

In 1907, Lajpat Rai was arrested for leading widespread agrarian agitations in the Punjab region and deported without trial to Mandalay Fort in Burma. While in prison, he wrote a lengthy article on the “Message of the Bhagwad Gita,” published in the Modern Review.10 In his interpretive essay, Lajpat Rai stresses that Krishna’s primary purpose in the Gita is to persuade Arjuna to fight. All else is secondary to the activist message. Past commentators on the Gita, Lajpat Rai observes, have often neglected this central agenda in Krishna’s discourse, and instead emphasized the paths of knowledge, devotion, or some other philosophical doctrine. Dharma or duty should be the supreme law of one’s life, and once one recognizes that duty, no consideration of self-interest, love, or mercy should distract one from it. As such, Krishna above all advocates the path of karma yoga. This has clear present-day political implications, according to Lajpat Rai. Quoting Sanjaya’s concluding statement about the beneficial presence of Krishna and Arjuna, he continues, “A nation’s prosperity and success depend upon wisdom like that of Krishna and bravery like that of Arjuna.” As in the Mahabharata, a crisis looms in early twentieth-century India. “If ever any nation stood in need of a message like that of Krishna, it is the India of today.”11 Despite his own incarceration in Burma, Lajpat Rai ends on a hopeful note. If his fellow Indians are able to heed this message from theGita, India’s future is just as assured as the victory of Arjuna over the Kaurava forces at Kurukshetra.

Lajpat Rai was not the only one to enlist the Bhagavad Gita in the cause of Indian independence. The Gita was particularly significant for those who, like Lajpat Rai, sought a more active, confrontational, “masculine” response to British colonial rule. They too valued Krishna’s emphasis on selfless duty-based worldly action and viewed the path of karma yoga as his most important teaching. Yet among these activist interpreters of the Gita there were profound differences. They range from the young revolutionaries of the Anushilan Samiti and Yugantar, through the so-called Extremists like Aurobindo and Tilak active in the Indian National Congress, to Hindu nationalists like Shraddhananda and K. S. Hedgewar, founder of the Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

To gain entry to the inner circle of the Anushilan Samiti (Self-Culture Association), a police surveillance report of 1909 stated, an initiation was required. Lying flat on a human skeleton, holding a revolver in one hand and a copy of the Bhagavad Gita in the other, the initiate had to recite the group’s oath.12 The Anushilan Samiti formed a cadre-based revolutionary network centered in Bengal in the early part of the twentieth century. Other similar groups operated largely underground in Maharashtra, Punjab, and other parts of India. Samiti members were convinced that insurrectionary violence against the British was the best path for gaining independence for India, and sought to catalyze this uprising through propaganda and terrorist actions. They trained themselves in the use oflathi, sword, and other weapons, and celebrated the virtues of manly strength to counter the British stereotype of Indian effeminacy.

Two types of literature circulated within the Anushilan Samiti. One was practical: how- to works on bomb making and other military techniques. The other was ideological: works like the Bhagavad Gita, intended to provide a rationale and stimulus for the group’s revolutionary activities. Krishna’s advice to Arjuna was constantly quoted in the revolutionary books and newspapers.13 The young revolutionaries saw the fullest religious foundation for their efforts in the Kshatriya dharma of the Gita, Krishna’s persuasive urging of Arjuna to fight in a righteous battle, and the text’s emphasis on selfless devotion to a greater cause. The revolver in one hand and Gita in the other at initiation symbolized the practical and ideological limbs of their revolt.

Lying on a corpse symbolized the willingness to die in the cause of freedom. The young revolutionary Khudiram Bose was inspired by the speeches of Ghose and his readings of the Bhagavad Gita to join Yugantar (New Era), the underground group led by Aurobindo’s brother Barinchandra Ghose. In 1908, Khudiram and his confederate Prafulla Chaki carried out a bomb attack on the carriage of District Judge D. H. Kingsford. They selected the judge as target because he had been responsible for bringing cases against activist newspapers like Aurobindo’s Bande Mataram (I bow to the Mother). Kingsford was not in the carriage at the time, but the bomb did kill the wife and daughter of a local British barrister. Khudiram was apprehended and sentenced to death by hanging. At the gallows, it was reported, the eighteen-year-old youth died cheerful and smiling, holding a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, with the final words, “Bande Mataram.” Many would celebrate him as one of the first martyrs of the Indian struggle for independence.

Clandestine groups like the Anushilan Samiti and Yugantar did not leave extensive written records on matters like Gita-interpretation. But Aurobindo’s early writings illustrate how the Bhagavad Gita fit within the developing ethos of the independence movement in the early twentieth century.14Aurobindo was an early critic of the elitist orientation and moderate reformism of the Indian National Congress in the 1890s, and soon affiliated himself with others, such as Lajpat Rai and Tilak, who advocated Indian independence as the first and highest priority. Within Congress circles they were called the Extremists. Aurobindo operated aboveground as a journalist and spokesperson within Congress, but also worked covertly in support of underground groups like the Anushilan Samiti and Yugantar.

Similar to Lajpat Rai, Aurobindo’s initial reading of the Gita focuses on the central importance of action. He criticizes those Vedanta commentators of the past such as Shankara who had highlighted the value of renunciation. Writing in his aptly named weekly journals Bande Mataram andKarmayogin (which featured an image of Krishna and Arjuna in their chariot on the cover), Aurobindo proclaims karma yoga as the means by which India could gain independence from Britain and fulfill itself as a nation. To achieve this righteous end, violence is an acceptable means, much as Krishna explained to Arjuna.

Aurobindo gives a strong spiritual valence to this nation. Drawing both from European nationalists like Mazzini and Indian theistic traditions, he envisions Indian nationhood as a kind of divine force. “Nationalism is a religion that has come from God,” he emphasizes, and if there is one “over-mastering idea” to Indian nationalism, he continues, it is the conviction “that there is a great Power at work to help India, and that we are doing what it bids us.”15 With the divinization of the nation, Aurobindo integrates the devotional dimension of Krishna’s teachings into his understanding of karma yoga. Just as Krishna directs Arjuna to act as his instrument in the great battle at Kurukshetra, Aurobindo urges his audience of activists to see themselves as agents of a divine Power in their battle for an independent Indian nation.

In contrast to the Gita, however, Aurobindo does not identify this overarching Power as Krishna. Instead, it is a Goddess. Within Indian nationalist circles the nation was widely seen as a great Mother Goddess, called Kali, Durga, Bhavani, or most commonly Bharat Mata (Mother India). This newcomer to the Indian pantheon first took shape in an influential novel by Chatterjee, Anandamath (1880). Chatterjee’s novel also contributed the song “Bande Mataram,” which became the anthem of the early Indian freedom fighters. Aurobindo added to her growing cult with a 1905 pamphlet, “Bhawani Mandir” (Temple of the Goddess), and the title of his first journal, Bande Mataram. The cult of the nation-goddess continued in Shraddhananda’s proposal in the 1920s to have the Mother India goddess installed in every temple of the Hindu nation, so that her children could daily bow before her. Reversing the older bhakti paradigm of Krishna and the Gopis, in this new gendered (and nonerotic) nationalist devotionalism, the masculine activists would render their services as devoted sons on behalf of the feminine Mother India.16

Around 1905, at the height of his journalistic and political activities, Aurobindo began to experiment with the yogic disciplines of breath control and meditation. He did so not as a renouncer but rather as an engaged worldly activist who needed the strength and wisdom that these practices might provide. He hoped, in other words, to become a “person of settled wisdom,” a sthitaprajna, as Krishna describes it. But the results of his practices, along with the repercussions of his covert political involvements and Krishna’s apparent intervention, would lead him away from leadership in the nationalist movement on to a new path and into an expanded understanding of the Bhagavad Gita. We will return to Aurobindo’s second career later in this chapter.

Aurobindo’s senior colleague in the extremist wing of the Congress, Tilak, a journalist, also devoted concentrated attention to the Bhagavad Gita as a key ideological work for the Indian struggle. Tilak was arrested in 1908 for articles in his newspaper that British officials claimed celebrated Khudiram and his partner for their bomb attack at Muzaffarpur. The British contended that those articles might incite more terrorist acts. Tilak was convicted and sentenced to six years of hard labor in Mandalay prison, Burma. While in jail, he composed a substantial new commentary on theGita, which he termed a rahasya or “hidden doctrine,” as if he were disclosing a previously concealed meaning in the ancient work. His Srimad Bhagavadgita Rahasya, published in the Marathi language in 1915, was quickly translated into Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Kannada, Telugu, and Tamil, and became one of the two most influential of all Indian nationalist interpretations of the Gita.17

Like Aurobindo, Tilak argues adamantly for an activist or “energist” reading of Krishna’s teachings, against the older “escapist” Vedantic interpretations of Shankara, Ramanuja, and Madhva. In Tilak’s view, interpretation of a religious work like the Gita must be historically situated. While he admits that Shankara’s knowledge-oriented reading of the text may have been justified during the “Age of Renunication” in which Shankara lived, the present period is an “Age of Karma,” and the Gita must be interpreted in accord with the needs of the age. As with Aurobindo, Tilak accepts that this action might include violence, provided it is carried out without any desire to reap the fruit of the violent deeds. But herein lies a quandary of dharma.


FIGURE 8. B. G. Tilak Composing His Gita Rahasya in Mandalay Prison, detail from mural painting of Tilak’s life by Gopal Damodar Deuskar at Tilak Smarak Mandir, Pune.
Author’s photograph. Tilak is depicted in jail, with Krishna and Arjuna appearing before him as he writes.

In the Gita, Arjuna’s duty to exercise violence in battle is grounded first of all on his dharma as a Kshatriya, a member of the warrior class. In classical India, this class enjoyed a monopoly on legitimate violence in order to preserve the social order and protect proper political authority. Tilak himself was a Brahmin by birth and clearly recognized that India could not rely solely on its remaining Kshatriya groups to carry out a struggle for freedom from British colonial control. As he saw it, the pressing need was to enlist all Indians in this battle. Tilak’s historical interpretation offers a solution to the problem of a class-based dharma in the Gita. In a class society where public duties were clearly ordered and separated, as in the time of the Mahabharata, Tilak acknowledges, it was appropriate to call on Kshatriyas in times of war. In the present situation of foreign occupation, though, the duty of public service should fall on all citizens. In effect, British colonialism turns all Indian citizens into potential Kshatriyas.

The practical question for Tilak and other activist leaders was how to mobilize larger masses on behalf of the struggle for an independent Indian nation. Throughout his career, Tilak experimented with ways to enlist the Indian population in this effort. In the 1890s, he transformed a local Maharashtrian festival for the god Ganesha into a large public celebration, and he established a new festival to honor Shivaji. Since British officials were reluctant to interfere in Indian religious affairs, these annual public events provided an opportunity to bring together people of all classes, both urban and rural. They also enabled Tilak and other activists to convey covert political messages at these mass gatherings. In Tilak’s tactical thinking, Hinduism was the surest magnet to attract the Indian masses. It had a liability as well. Ganesha was an indisputably Hindu deity, and Shivaji was most famous for his militant resistance to the authority of the Mughals, an Islamic regime. So while the festivals might bring the Hindu population together, they could alienate other religious communities, especially the Muslim population. The Indian National Congress was committed to an Indian nation that included all communities, and Hindu-centered mobilization strategies threatened to fracture this solidarity.

Similar drawbacks lay in the new cult of the nation-goddess Bharat Mata and promotion of the Bhagavad Gita to bible-like status. This became apparent in the 1920s with the emergence of Hindu nationalism in several new incarnations: the Hindu Sangathan movement, the revived Hindu Mahasabha, and the RSS. The fundamental question raised by these new groups concerned the identity of the putative Indian nation. Would India be defined as a territorial nation, a geographic entity inclusive of all persons and communities within its borders, as the Indian National Congress asserted? Or would India be defined as an ethnic nation whose essential nature resided in its Hindu-ness, as the Hindu nationalist groups advocated? Would Bharat Mata be the goddess of a geographic nation or a religious one? In the early 1920s, Shraddhananda came to the conclusion that the ethnic or religious definition should prevail. His proposal for the mass recitation of the Gita and homage to the Mother India goddess in temples of the Hindu nation signals how the Bhagavad Gita could be allied with Hindu nationalist projects.

Another karma yogin devoted to the Hindu nation was Hedgewar, who established the RSS in 1925.18 As a youth in Maharashtra, Hedgewar had avidly read Tilak’s newspaper writings and found inspiration in the heroism of Shivaji. He joined the Anushilan Samiti for several years during his time in Calcutta for medical study. Returning to Maharashtra in 1916, Hedgewar made the decision to renounce both marriage and medical practice to dedicate himself unequivocally to the freedom movement. In 1920 he worked tirelessly in Gandhi’s noncooperation campaign, and was sent to prison for his efforts. Hedgewar occupied his time in jail with spinning and reading the Bhagavad Gita, the book of choice among imprisoned Indian freedom fighters. Released in 1922, he gradually withdrew from the Indian National Congress. Hedgewar came to believe that only Hinduism could motivate the population to achieve independence and reform society. Unfortunately, as he saw it, the Hindu community was weak and divided. To remedy that affliction, he organized the RSS.

The primary aim of the RSS was to build strength and character among Hindu males, and the model for that character-building enterprise grew out of Hedgewar’s reading of the Gita. Each person has a divinely implanted dharma, a set of duties and responsibilities. To act in accord with that dharma contributes to the well-being of society; to act contrary to dharma is egocentric behavior disruptive of the social order. Krishna’s teaching of nishkama karma (action without desire) is crucial in directing individuals to perform their social obligations with detachment and humility. Beginning with young boys, Hedgewar designed RSS training to engage them in both physical and moral cultivation that would make them effective karma yogins.

For Hedgewar, the path of karma yoga is best when combined with the discipline of devotion. Ideally the RSS svayamsevak (voluntary servant) should devote himself to the “living God” that is the Hindu nation, represented as the feminine Divine Mother. At the highest levels of cultivation, the RSS karma yogin would remove all layers of individual ego identity and merge his own ego with that of the nation. This can be seen as a nationalist adaptation of Krishna’s devotional ideal. In Hedgewar’s understanding, threats against the Mother come not only from external British colonial rulers but also from within. Indian Muslims and Christians who promulgate values contrary to the dominant Hindu ethos, and likewise those Westernized Indian elites who would reform Hindu society along European lines (whether that be capitalism, socialism, or communism), all pose insidious dangers. Devotion to Mother India therefore requires action directed against both external colonialism and internal others. The Divine Mother needs all the help she can get.

Not all Indian nationalists looked to the Bhagavad Gita for moral support, of course. One prominent critic was the lawyer and Dalit spokeperson Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. In his writings on the Gita, Ambedkar insisted that it be seen as a historical work, composed at a certain time, and he criticized those who sought to give it a universal significance. In its own time, he argued, the Bhagavad Gita was a counterrevolutionary defense of Vedic practices and the hierarchical class system favored by Brahmins, aimed against the powerful critique of Buddhism. Krishna cleverly appropriated many Buddhist tenets in order to make his counterargument, says Ambedkar, but at its core Krishna’s teaching aimed to supply a divine foundation for the brahmanic social order, and it supported genocide over the Buddhist principle of nonviolence. Ambedkar proposed that Buddhism offers a superior ethical foundation for Indian nationhood.19

Gandhi’s Nonviolent Gita

Of all the Indian nationalist readers of the Bhagavad Gita, none was more dedicated to it than Gandhi, the Mahatma. He referred to it as a “spiritual reference book,” “dictionary of daily reference,” “book of home remedies,” “wish-granting cow,” and “mother,” andreturned to it over and over again throughout his life for clarification and nurturance.

Gandhi first read the Gita around 1888 or 1889, when studying law in London, in the company of some theosophical friends. Together they read the poetic translation of Arnold, The Song Celestial, alongside Arnold’s popular retelling of the life of the Buddha Shakyamuni, The Light of Asia, and the Christian Bible. “My young mind tried to unify the teachings of the Gita, The Light of Asia, and the Sermon on the Mount,” Gandhi later remembered, pointing to the open-ended and experimental way that he sought spiritual and practical instruction from any available religious source.20 Along with his theosophist friends, he approached the Gita not as a specifically Hindu or Indian text but rather as a possible revelation or source of Truth.

During his public career, Gandhi made the Bhagavad Gita a constant point of reference in his talks and writings. He considered the work his “infallible guide to conduct.” When he returned from South Africa to India in 1915, Gandhi established an ashram at Sabarmati, and made recitation of the Gita a central part of the daily morning and evening prayer sessions, along with hymns and prayers from other religious traditions. Imprisoned in the early 1920s, Gandhi carefully read Tilak’s Gita Rahasya and other translations, and began to compile his own Gitakosh, a glossary of terms from the work. In 1926 Gandhi presented a series of talks on the Gita at his ashram, amounting to a sustained commentary on the work, and in 1929 made his own Gujarati translation.


FIGURE 9. Mahatma Gandhi during evening prayer at Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, 1930, photograph by Samaldas Gandhi.
Reproduction courtesy GandhiServe, Berlin.

Also in 1929 he composed an introduction to the translation, “Anasaktiyoga” (the discipline of nonattached action), which is his most succinct interpretive statement on the Gita. The introduction and translation were released on March 12, 1930, the day that Gandhi began his salt satyagraha. Again in prison from 1930 to 1932, Gandhi wrote a series of letters to the ashram, giving a simplified chapter-by-chapter summary of Krishna’s teachings for those who found his earlier commentary difficult to comprehend. His last recorded discussion of the Gita took place with the American writer Vincent Sheean in January 1948, three days before his assassination.

In writing on the Bhagavad Gita, Gandhi does not claim any scholarly credentials for himself. His authority lies rather in his attempt to govern his life according to its precepts. “At the back of my reading,” he writes in his “Anasaktiyoga,” “there is the claim of an endeavor to enforce the meaning in my own conduct for an unbroken period of forty years.”21 Beyond this personal dimension, Gandhi’s interpretation of the Gita is a deeply political act. Writing in the 1920s, Gandhi faces several challenges. Like other activists, he views karma yoga as the most relevant teaching of the Gita. But in light of his own commitment to nonviolence (ahimsa) and his desire to make this a fundamental principle of the Indian independence movement, he needs to counter those like Tilak as well as the revolutionaries who employ Krishna’s teachings to justify the use of violence in a righteous cause. At the same time, he seeks to separate the Gita from the more Hinduist claims on the text, like those of the Hindu Sangathan or the RSS.

The Mahabharata is not history, Gandhi asserts. Instead, it is a work that treats “religious and ethical questions.” Gandhi is indifferent to the question of Krishna’s historical existence. Krishna is “perfection and right knowledge personified,” he states, but the portrait is imaginary.22 Krishna may have lived, but the idea of him as a divine incarnation is a later invention.

Gandhi’s disinterest in historical veracity lays the groundwork for an allegorical reading of the epic and the Gita. Kurukshetra, in Gandhi’s internalist reading, is within each of us. The epic battle is a struggle between dharma and its opposite, between the forces of good and evil. “Pandavas and Kauravas, that is, divine and demoniacal impulses, were fighting in this body, and God was watching the fight from a distance,” Gandhi explains. “Please do not believe that this is the history of a battle which took place on a little field near Hastinapur. The war is still going on.”23 As a nonhistorical moral allegory, the Mahabharata and its Bhagavad Gita have permanent value.

The objective on this interior battlefield is “to become like unto God,” to attain “self-realization.” The singular path to accomplishing this, Gandhi declares, is through renunciation of the fruits of action. This principle is “the unmistakable teaching of the Gita.” Along with Krishna and the other activists, Gandhi emphasizes that this kind of renunciation can be carried out in the midst of worldly activities. There is no line of demarcation between worldly pursuits and salvation. Like Lajpat Rai and Tilak, Gandhi criticizes those who follow paths of renunciation or devotion to the exclusion of worldly duties. “The popular notion of bhakti,” he remarks, “is soft-heartedness, telling beads and the like, and disdaining to do even a loving service, lest the telling of beads, etc., might be interrupted.” This brand of religious devotionalism gets in the way of work. Such a devotee, Gandhi goes on, “leaves the rosary only for eating, drinking, and the like, never for grinding corn or nursing patients.”24 For Gandhi, by contrast, there is no higher ideal than that of the sthitaprajna, who utilizes the yogic disciplines of self-control to carry out social duties—whether those be grinding corn, nursing patients, or working for the independence of India—without attachment. This is the true yogi. At Gandhi’s ashram, the section of the Gita describing the sthitaprajna would be recited at every evening prayer session as a recurrent reminder.

What about the fact that Krishna successfully urges Arjuna to engage in a battle of unquestionable violence? How does Gandhi account for this central theme of the Bhagavad Gita? First of all, he points out that the Mahabharata is not a glorification of physical warfare but rather a proof of its futility. The victors shed tears of sorrow and repentance, and are left with nothing but a legacy of miseries. More specifically, when Krishna tells Arjuna to “fight,” he means simply that Arjuna should do what he regards as his duty. Since every action requires a choice, doing one’s duty always requires an inner struggle. The internal battle to overcome our own tendencies to act according to self-interested desires and instead base our actions on disinterested responsibility is the perpetual fight that Krishna urges on us all.

Gandhi engages Tilak’s interpretation more directly over one particular passage. In Gandhi’s translation it goes: “In whatever way men resort to Me, even so do I render to them. In every way, O Partha, the path men follow is mine” (4.11). Tilak cited this verse to prove that the Gita upholds the principle of “tit for tat,” or retributive violence. We should act toward others as they do to us. The aggressive violence of British occupation, Tilak had argued, may legitimately be met with violent resistance by freedom fighters. Gandhi counters that the verse cannot be interpreted in this way. We cannot justify retributive violence. The verse lays down God’s law, Gandhi observes, and not a directive for human interaction. Krishna will “worship a person as the latter worships Him.” As Gandhi sees it, the message of the verse is “we reap as we sow.”25

Krishna does not explicitly endorse the principle of nonviolence in the Gita, Gandhi admits. Nevertheless, nonviolence is a corollary of Krishna’s primary teaching—namely, nonattachment to the fruits of action. Any action that cannot be performed without attachment is taboo, and this means that murder, lying, dissoluteness, and the like are disallowed. Although the Gita was not written to justify nonviolence, Krishna takes it for granted. To reinforce this point, Gandhi cites his own experience. Perfect renunciation such as Krishna advocates is not possible without perfect observance of nonviolence.

The principle of nonattachment applies even to the righteous work of the freedom struggle. The danger with nationalist thinking, according to Gandhi, is that it may lead to the adoption of “bad means,” which Gandhi terms duragraha. “If we are attached to our goal of winning liberty, we shall not hesitate to adopt bad means.” Gandhi refers here to all those nationalists who justify acts of vilification or violence by citing noble goals, such as victory, prosperity, and good fortune. By contrast, Krishna recommends that we should not be attached even to a good cause. “Only then will our means remain pure and our actions, too.”26

Gandhi ends his disquisition on the Bhagavad Gita by stressing the value of Krishna’s teachings for the hard work of discipline that he urges on himself, members of his ashram, and all who read his words. He reiterates his conviction that the Gita is a work of universal ethics, not the possession of a particular national or religious community. “This is a work which persons belonging to all faiths can read. It does not favor any sectarian point of view. It teaches nothing but pure ethics.”27 The Gita may be, as Gandhi puts it, a “deity of the mind,” but it is not an exclusive “Hindu Bible.”

Gandhi’s nonviolent and nonsectarian reading of the Bhagavad Gita would prove enormously influential in India, disseminated through his newspapers, publications, and translations into all the vernacular languages. At the time, many Indians fit Gandhi himself into the theological framework of the Gita. Just as Krishna says that he incarnates himself in age after age, whenever dharma is threatened, perhaps Gandhi was the avatara of this age.28

Not all Indians shared Gandhi’s approach to the text, of course, or judged him with such reverence. Ironically, Gandhi’s assassin also saw himself as a Gita-style karma yogin. In January 1948, after Indian independence and the catastrophic communal violence surrounding the partition of the subcontinent, Gandhi began to hold daily public prayer sessions in Birla House, Delhi, reciting passages from the Gita and Quran along with religious works from other traditions. On the evening of January 30, Nathuram Godse interrupted Gandhi at the prayer grounds with two bullets fired at point-blank range.

As a youth, Godse had first become politically active in Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaigns of 1929 and 1930, but soon became disillusioned. Gandhi’s policies were too pro-Muslim, he decided. Godse joined the RSS in 1932.


FIGURE 10. Mahatma Gandhi, chromolithograph, artist unknown.
Published by Subhash Picture Publishers. Author’s collection. Gandhi’s characteristic iconography includes a copy of the Gita Updesha.

Here too the restless militant was frustrated by the group’s inactivity, and later withdrew to form a more radical group, the Hindu Rashtra Dal. He believed that Gandhian nonviolence was useless as a political weapon and was leading to an “emasculation” of the Hindu community. Godse instead praised past revolutionaries like Aurobindo and Khudiram, and held that it was “a religious and moral duty to resist and if possible overcome foreign occupation by force.”29 For Godse, the dismemberment of Mother India through the partition and ensuing violence against its Hindu population were the final insults. He held Gandhi’s politics of appeasement responsible and decided it was his duty to rid the nation of its enemy.

Two days before his execution, Godse wrote a final letter to his parents in which he affiliated himself with Krishna and his teachings. Krishna killed Shishupala, Godse noted, yet did so not on the battlefield but rather on “holy sacrificial ground.” No doubt Godse had in mind his own action at a place of prayer. “Lord Krishna, in war and otherwise, killed many a self-opinionated and influential persons for the betterment of the world, and even in the Gita He has time and again counseled Arjun to kill his near and dear ones and ultimately persuaded him to do so.”30 So too Godse had come to believe that Krishna’s directives to Arjuna applied to his own assassination of the influential Gandhi for the world’s betterment. On the morning of his execution, in the tradition of Khudiram, Godse carried a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and uttered as his final words, “Bande Mataram.”

Aurobindo’s Universalizing Vision

Though Godse cited Aurobindo’s early teachings to justify his action, Aurobindo himself had long ago taken a different course. To take up Aurobindo’s second career, we need to return to the time of Khudiram’s unsuccessful but consequential bomb attack on Justice Kingsford in 1908. After the bombing police quickly swooped in on known subversives, including Barinchandra and others in the Yugantar cadre. They found bomb materials, weapons, and incriminating documents, including many copies of the Bhagavad Gita. The police also arrested Aurobindo on suspicion that he was “ringleader” of the whole revolutionary network. The alleged conspirators were charged with “waging war on the king”—a treasonous offense punishable by death. The ensuing Alipore bomb trial was a complicated, lengthy, and contentious legal event, widely reported in newspapers throughout India. Barinchandra was eventually convicted and sentenced to death, but his penalty was later commuted to life imprisonment. As for Aurobindo, the prosecution could not establish any clear incriminating evidence linking him to the crime. He was acquitted and released after a year in jail.

Aurobindo’s life was transformed by his time in prison. Shortly after he was released, Aurobindo described his experiences in a remarkable impromptu speech. First put into solitary confinement, Aurobindo relates, he had tried to meditate, but initially found it difficult. He soon received a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, however, and then was able to progress in his efforts.

I was not only able to understand intellectually but to realize what Sri Krishna demanded of Arjuna and what He demands of those who aspire to do His work, to be free from repulsion and desire, to do work for Him without the demand for fruit, to renounce self-will and become a passive and faithful instrument in His hands, to have an equal heart for high and low, friend and opponent, success and failure, yet not to do His work negligently.

Applying Krishna’s teachings to his own situation enabled Aurobindo to gain mastery over the impatience and despair that had hindered him. With this, Aurobindo says, he began to realize the “central truth of the Hindu religion.”31

Prison officials compassionately allowed him to begin taking brief walks outside his cell, and while he was doing so, Aurobindo reports, “God’s strength” entered into him.

I looked at the jail that secluded me from men and it was no longer by its high walls that I was imprisoned; no, it was Vasudeva [Krishna] who surrounded me. I walked under the branches of the tree in front of my cell but it was not the tree, I knew it was Vasudeva, it was Sri Krishna whom I saw standing there and holding over me his shade. I looked at the bars of my cell, the very grating that did duty for a door and again I saw Vasudeva. It was Narayana [Krishna] who was guarding and standing sentry over me.32

Like Arjuna granted divine vision in the Gita, Aurobindo received God’s grace and gained a visual realization of Krishna’s all-encompassing presence. And as with Arjuna’s vision on a field of battle, this manifestation of Krishna’s divine nature responded to Aurobindo’s own problematic situation—his incarceration.

The vision enabled Aurobindo to see his fellow prisoners in a divine light. “I looked at the prisoners in the jail, the thieves, the murderers, the swindlers, and as I looked at them I saw Vasudeva, it was Narayana whom I found in these darkened souls and misused bodies.” Later, brought into the courtroom, Aurobindo was able to envision Krishna pervading the place: the magistrate sitting on the bench was Krishna, and the prosecuting counsel was also Krishna. Aurobindo reports that he heard the voice of Krishna reassuring him, saying,

I am in all men and I overrule their actions and their words. My protection is still with you and you shall not fear. This case which is brought against you, leave it in my hand. It is not for you. It was not for the trial that I brought you here but for something else. The case itself is only a means of my work and nothing more.33

Similar to Arjuna at Kurukshetra, Aurobindo at Alipore came to see himself as an instrument in Krishna’s greater plan.

What was that “something else” that Krishna had in mind for Aurobindo? In his speech Aurobindo explains that in prison, he gained a deeper realization about his work. Up to then Aurobindo had been involved in political work aimed at “uplifting the nation,” but while in jail he recognized the deep truth of the Hindu religion. Now he reports that the Hindu religion, which he terms the “eternal dharma,” has a destiny. It is to go forth “to do its work among the nations…. That which we call the Hindu religion is really the eternal religion, because it is the universal religion which embraces all others.”34 The struggle to liberate the Indian nation from colonial control forms only one part of this greater global spiritual mission. Aurobindo has received a call to devote himself to Krishna’s larger project.

Free from jail, Aurobindo continued to give speeches and edit the weekly Karmayogin, for which he wrote most of the articles. In 1910, in the wake of another revolutionary assassination of a British officer, the government cracked down on all insurgents. Officials initiated a sedition charge against Aurobindo for one of his articles. Meanwhile, Aurobindo received what he called a “sudden command from above” to get out of Calcutta and take refuge in a nearby French territory. From there he made a secretive escape to Pondicherry, another French territory in the southern part of the subcontinent, free from the reach of British law.

Aurobindo spent the remaining forty years of his life in Pondicherry. Although he never renounced his earlier political work and never ruled out a possible return to British India, he lived in Pondicherry as a virtual renouncer, turning his attention to other matters he now considered more important. He saw this shift as an expansion of the scope of his work. Previously he had been concerned with “the service and liberation of the country,” but henceforth he viewed his aim as “world-wide in its bearing and concerned with the whole future of humanity.”35 To this end he deepened his meditative practices, and described in voluminous detail his inner experiences as well as his vision of integral yoga and spiritual evolution on a global scale. Gradually an ashram took shape in Pondicherry around Aurobindo.

The Bhagavad Gita continued to play a significant role in Aurobindo’s new work. Starting in 1916, he wrote two series of interpretive essays exploring themes in the Gita, later collected in book form as Essays on the Gita. In the first essay Aurobindo sets out his approach. He starts by pointing to the doubleness of the Gita, as of any lasting religious scripture.

First of all, there is undoubtedly a Truth one and eternal which we are seeking, from which all other truth derives, by the light of which all other truth finds its right place, explanation and relation to the scheme of knowledge…. Secondly, this Truth, though it is one and eternal, expresses itself in Time and through the mind of man; therefore every Scripture must necessarily contain two elements, one temporary, perishable, belonging to the ideas of the period and country in which it was produced, the other eternal and imperishable and applicable in all ages and countries.36

Aurobindo declares himself uninterested in the historicist approach, which deals in the temporary and perishable. He wishes to seek in the Gita the permanent living truths applicable to “the spiritual needs of our present-day humanity.” Likewise, he is disdainful toward the “polemist commentators” of the medieval period who sought to confine the Gita within a narrow ontological consistency. The Gita is not itself a systematic work, Aurobindo observes, but rather a synthesizing one. In it there is “a wide, undulating, encircling movement of ideas which is the manifestation of a vast synthetic mind and a rich synthetic experience.”37 Seen in this way, the Gita is not a “weapon” for dialectical warfare but instead a “gate” that opens out into a world of spiritual truth and experience.


FIGURE 11. Aurobindo Ghose in Pondicherry, ca. 1915, photograph.
Reproduction permission courtesy Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, Pondicherry.

Here the agenda of the Gita in the time of its composition matches the need of the twentieth century, as Aurobindo sees it. The author of the Gita reconciled and unified the many contending religious viewpoints and practices in the India of its time. Similarly, Aurobindo argues, “we on the coming day stand at the head of a new age of development which must lead to a new and larger synthesis.” The Gita presents itself as a point of departure by which Aurobindo can begin to articulate that new synthesis. Not a historical work of the past, not a philosophically consistent doctrinal text, and not anymore a Hindu or Indian scripture, the Bhagavad Gita carries an “essential and living message” that all humanity needs for its own spiritual evolution in the new global age.38

While Aurobindo set forth his universalizing interpretation in Pondicherry, the Bhagavad Gita continued its prolific life in India. It was not simply a work of the Hindu past. All readers viewed it as relevant to contemporary life, but they saw its relevance in different ways. The work took on multiple identities, almost as if Krishna had adopted several incarnations simultaneously in response to diverse needs. And each interpretive identity would have its own legacy.

For Hindu nationalists from the RSS through Godse to the Hindutva campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s, the Gita would serve as a representative icon of a unitary Hindu heritage to be defended against threat from enemies outside and within the nation. Krishna’s teachings could provide a warrant for even violent actions intended to protect the dharma embodied in the Hindu population.

For the Indian activists allied with Gandhi, the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita would define and reinforce the disciplined and dispassionate practices of nonviolent karma yoga at the center of the struggle for Indian independence. Thanks to its role in Gandhi’s thinking, the Gita would be passed on to many other activists engaged in struggles against oppression around the world up to the present day.

For Aurobindo and his disciples, the Gita would serve as a crucial starting point for a new spiritual synthesis extending to all humanity. Along with Vivekananda, Aurobindo would be a paradigm for those Indian gurus, increasingly numerous in the West from the 1960s on, who would adopt ancient Hindu texts and teachings for new modern audiences in India and throughout the world. More than any other Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita would be the vehicle for these new teachings.

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