The post-World War II era saw the dramatic end of colonialism across the world. The first and most devastating blow to colonialism was the freedom of India. Overnight, the second most populous nation in the world, accounting for over 1/6th of the world’s population, achieved freedom. Despite the sad events that accompanied India’s Independence, the partition of India and the accompanying massacres, Independence Day is a happy event, celebrated by over a billion people every year, in many parts of the world. The movement for India’s freedom was not merely political. Most of the freedom fighters were deeply spiritual in their outlook. Here we pay homage to some of the individuals who strove for the Independence of India, but with a different emphasis – highlighting the inspiration and vision that many freedom fighters drew from the Bhagavad Gita.
Lokmanya Tilak (1856-1920) – Lokmanya Tilak was known as the “Father of Indian Unrest”, being the very first person to demand full independence from Britain in parliament sessions. Deeply inspired by the Gita, he explained: “The most practical teaching of the Gita, and one for which it is of abiding interest and value to the men of the world with whom life is a series of struggles, is not to give way to any morbid sentimentality when duty demands sternness and the boldness to face terrible things… It is my firm conviction that it is of utmost importance that every man, woman and child of India understands the message of the Gita.”
Bankim Chandra Chatterji (1858-1930) – Bankim Chandra Chatterjee was a writer who gave fresh impetus to the freedom struggle. Through him India became kindled with religious, nationalistic and artistic fervour after being infused with the powerful visions contained in his writings, particularly in the novel ‘Anandamath’. The Anandamath story is set in 18th century India, when a group of warrior sannyasis mounted a guerilla war against Moghul rule. It was a riveting story line with amazing characters and meaningful dialogues. Yet more importantly, hundreds of thousands of Indians took the story as a metaphor for their own present day situation, understanding it as a call to arms to drive the new tyrants away from their sacred soil. Bankim Chandra saw the Gita as the ideal for all humanity to live up to. He wrote a commentary on the Gita, which was only three quarters complete when he died, and an inspiring life sketch of Krishna based on historical and literary research, titled ‘Sri Krishna Charitra’.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) – Gandhiji’s role in the freedom movement of India needs little explanation. His very name invokes images of India’s Independence struggle. He wrote the following very inspiring lines about the Gita: “When disappointment stares me in the face and all alone I see not one ray of light, I go back to the Bhagavad-Gita. I find a verse here and a verse there, and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming tragedies — and my life has been full of external tragedies — and if they have left no visible or indelible scar on me, I owe it all to the teaching of Bhagavad-Gita.
Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950) – Sri Aurobindo was one of the greatest revolutionaries in the early phase of the Indian freedom struggle, and is recognised throughout the world as a great mystic, intellectual and visionary. He felt that India’s miseries were largely due to weak-mindedness and cowardice in its leaders, who did not have the nerves to risk loss of their own comfort and wealth for the upliftment of the nation. He emphasised the necessity of the Gita in uplifting India as well as liberating humanity from the bondage of our lower nature into the bliss of divinity. He wrote: “A certain class of minds shrink from aggressiveness as if it were a sin. It is an error, we repeat, to think that spirituality is a thing divorced from life…. It is an error to think that the heights of religion are above the struggles of this world. The recurrent cry of Sri Krishna to Arjuna insists on the struggle; “Fight and overthrow thy opponents!”, “Remember me and fight!”, “Give up all thy works to me with a heart full of spirituality, and free from craving, free from selfish claims, fight! Let the fever of thy soul pass from thee.”
Damodarpanth Chapekar (executed 1898) – In the late 1890’s, in the Maharashtra province of India, there was a devastating plague, which killed many people. The colonial government was very apathetic regarding provision of relief for the suffering people. Indeed, the British agricultural policies (enforcing production of cotton rather than traditional food crops) seriously compounded the problem. More so, the celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee were carried out in the midst of the plague-hit region. This sent a wave of resentment amongst the Indian populace, against the colonial government. It was at this time that the erstwhile limited freedom struggle against the British gained popular support and momentum. Outraged by the countless miseries of the famine, one Damodarpant Chapekar shot dead the British plague commissioner, Mr Rand, and the British officer Mr Ayerst on June 22, 1897. He was later betrayed by two friends, and was sentenced to death. He embraced the gallows with the Bhagavad Gita in his hands on April 18th 1898.
Madanlal Dhingra (1887-1909) – Dhingra was the assassin of Sir Curzon Wyllie, in 1909. He was executed in London on 17 August 1909. Bhagat Singh and Uddham Singh acknowledged Dhingra as his predecessor. A colourful and brave personality throughout his short life, he died with the Gita in his hands.
Khudiram Bose (1889-1906) – Bose was a young revolutionary from Bengal. He was brought up with a deep knowledge of the Hindu heritage, and was constantly pained that a country which had once achieved so much was now bankrupt and under foreign yoke. He was arrested and hung at the tender age of 17 for his part in an attack on British targets. He had the words “Vande Mataram” on his lips and the Bhagavad Gita in his hands when he died.
Hemu Kalani (1923-1943) – Hemu Kalani was a freedom fighter from Sindh, who participated in all aspects of the freedom struggle, from the boycott of British goods, to Gandhi’s campaigns and revolutionary activities. He was caught in a plot to steal British munitions and supply it to Indians. While marching to the gallows, he consoled his distressed mother by quoting verses from the Gita regarding the indestructibility of soul. This shows the bravery and coolness that the Gita can inspire, even in the face of calamity. He said as he was about to be executed that he would like to be born again to finish the job of liberating India. Little did the young revolutionary know that India was to become free within a few years after his death. He was hung on 21st January 1943.