Tilak, Bal Gangadhar

views updated May 29 2018


TILAK, BAL GANGADHAR (18561920), was an Indian political leader. Known by his followers as Lokamanya, "revered by the people, " but as the "father of Indian unrest" by the British authorities in India, Tilak had a crucial role in defining Indian nationalism by an appeal to Hindu religious and cultural symbols. He was born on July 23, 1856, in the Ratnagiri district of the Bombay Presidency. His family belonged to the Citpāvan subcaste of Brahmans, members of which had been influential as both religious and secular functionaries under the Marathas, the last indigenous rulers of the region, and Tilak had a proud consciousness of the greatness of Hindu civilization. He began his career in the recently established Fergusson College in Poona, where in 1881 he and his friend G. G. Agarkar established two newspapers: Kesari, in Marathi, and Maratha, in English. The papers criticized many aspects of British rule and called for a rejuvenation of India's national life.

Tilak's rise to prominence as a nationalist leader must be seen in the context of movements for social and religious reform that had attracted many intellectuals in the Poona region and elsewhere. Many reformers believed, however, in working with the British to bring about gradual political change and in seeking to reform deeply embedded social practices that seemed to have Hindu religious sanction. Tilak did not condone such practices but insisted that freedom from British rule was the first priority, not social or religious reform.

Sometimes Tilak supported, but he also opposed, the Indian National Congress, the organization founded in 1885 that became the chief agent in winning Indian independence. Two characteristics often alienated him from other nationalist leaders: one was his use of Hindu religious symbols as expressions of Indian nationalism, and the other was his acceptance of violence as a legitimate political tool sanctioned by the Hindu tradition.

In two of Tilak's books, Orion (1893) and The Arctic Home of the Vedas (1903), he argued that the mythic Hindu stories could be interpreted as actual history, thus giving Indians pride in the antiquity of their nationalist narrative. In Gītā Rahasya (1915), a commentary on the Bhagavadgītā, written while he was imprisoned for sedition, Tilak argued that it was not, as many commentators had interpreted it, a text that encouraged passive devotion to a deity, but, on the contrary, it was a revolutionary call to use violence against oppression. Mahatma Gandhi was later to argue, with Tilak in mind, that the message of the Bhagavadgītā was one of nonviolence and love of one's enemies.

Tilak's appeal to the Hindu tradition as a basis for a renewal of Indian greatness and opposition to the British was dramatized in numerous initiatives. One of these was starting festivals to celebrate Śivājī (16211680), the great warrior who fought the Mughal emperors, defending Hinduism against the invading Muslims. The implication of the message was not lost on either the Muslim minorities or the British rulers. More directly identified with Hinduism were festivals supported by Tilak in honor of the popular deity Gaapati, or Gaeśa. These had been in existence as family or local celebrations, but Tilak saw them as a chance for widespread group support for the project for political freedom, for Gaapati is the god of new beginnings, a help in overcoming obstacles, and the son of Śiva, the most powerful and potent of the great gods, often pictured as a warrior smiting his enemies. Tilak also joined in the campaign against cow slaughter, arguing that Hindus venerated the cow as a religious symbol. Since Muslims and the British were beef eaters, the campaign had a potent social and political message.

Some of the causes that Tilak supported in the name of Hindu cultural nationalism seemed, not only to the British but also to other Indian intellectuals, reactionary. One was his denunciation of the government when, in 1890, it introduced legislation to raise the permissible age of marriage for girls from ten to twelve. Orthodox Muslim leaders, as well as Hindus, argued that the government was interfering with a practice sanctioned by religion. Then, in 1897, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in Poona, and the government ordered a house-to-house search under a military officer, W. C. Rand, which Tilak said violated the sanctity of the Hindu home; he also argued that, following the example of Śivājī, violence was justified to protest it. When Rand was assassinated, Tilak was charged with incitement to murder because of his writings, and he was sentenced to eighteen months in prison.

Such activities made Tilak the leading figure in the group within the Indian National Congress that he proudly called the "Extremists," in contrast to the "Moderates," whom he denounced for begging favors from their British overlords when they should be taking by force what was rightfully theirs. He popularized the slogan, "Swarāj [self-rule] is my birthright and I will have it." In 1907 he and his group tried to gain control of the annual meeting of the Indian National Congress in Surat, but failed, leading to a split in the organization. In 1908 Tilak was arrested on charges of incitement to violence and sentenced to six years of imprisonment in the unhealthy Andaman Islands, but he survived the ordeal and in 1916 he rejoined the Congress.

At this time, Gandhi arrived on the Indian political scene with a message of nonviolence that rejected Tilak's reading of the Bhagavadgītā. Tilak's death in August 1920, just before the Indian National Congress adopted Gandhi's platform of nonviolence, prevented Tilak from questioning the new direction that the nationalist movement was taking. Gandhi's success in subsequent years in persuading Indian nationalists to accept his version of Hinduism as a religion of nonviolence and love overshadowed for many years Tilak's insistence that Hinduism could be the basis for a militant nationalism that would fight to win India's independence. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, Tilak's version of militant Hinduism, not Gandhi's pacifism, was dominant in India's political life.

See Also

Bhagavadgītā; Brahman; Gandhi, Mohandas; Gaeśa; Marathi Religions.


There is no good biography that comprehensively examines Tilak's personal life, political activities, and religious views, and assesses his role in the nationalist narrative. Richard I. Cashman, The Myth of the Lokamanya: Tilak and Mass Politics in Maharashtra (Berkeley, 1975), is a scholarly study of aspects of his political activities. Stanley A. Wolpert, Tilak and Gokhale: Revolution and Reform in the Making of Modern India (Berkeley, 1962), contrasts his positions with those of his great liberal contemporary and rival, G. K. Gokhale. D. V. Tahmankar, Lokamanya Tilak: Father of Indian Unrest and Maker of Modern India (London, 1956), is an authorized biography but gives a fuller picture of Tilak's life and times. G. P. Pradhan, Lokamanya Tilak (New Delhi, 1994), is intended to show Tilak as a great patriot and thinker. Examples of Tilak's combination of religious and political thought can be found in B. G. Tilak, Tilak: His Writings and Speeches (Madras, India, 1922). An English translation of his Marathi work is available in Srimad-Bhagavadgītā-Rahasya, edited by B. S. Sukthanankar (Poona, India, 1965).

Ainslie T. Embree (2005)

Tilak, Bal Gangadhar

views updated May 18 2018


TILAK, BAL GANGADHAR (1856–1920), revolutionary Hindu nationalist leader, called Lokamanya ("Revered by the People"). Born to a venerable Chitpavan Brahman family in Maharashtra's Konkani village of Chikalgaon on 23 July 1856, Bal Gangadhar Tilak was married at fifteen to Tapi Bai, a Chitpavan girl of ten. A year later, he graduated from high school and immediately enrolled in Pune's Deccan College, where he focused on Sanskrit Vedic studies. Tilak later wrote books on the religious philosophy of the Bhagavad Gītāas well as Vedic astronomy and astrology. Unlike most modern Indian and Western scholars, Tilak believed that the Vedas were composed by ancient tribes, whose "Arctic home" was at the "North Pole" prior to the "Glacial Ice Age." He also studied law in Bombay (Mumbai), which he later found useful in his litigation-plagued career.

Cultural Nationalist

Tilak was one of Maharashtra's most popular cultural nationalists, publishing several important newspapers in Pune, the Mahratta in English and Kesari (Lion) in Marathi, the latter read aloud in village centers to tens of thousands of illiterate peasants, as well as being subscribed to by urban intellectuals. Tilak thus became the cultural leader and political hero of Maharashtra's masses. Tilak denounced Sir Andrew Scoble's "Age of Consent" Bill, which tried to raise the "statutory rape" age for intercourse (with or without a child bride's consent) from ten to twelve years. He called it a "foreign Christian intrusion" in the private household affairs of Hindu Indians. Two years later he publicized the popular revival of annual religious festivals throughout Maharashtra to celebrate the "birthday" of the Hindu divinity Gaṇesha, whose elephant-headed statues were carried around every town and village for days before being raucously immersed in rivers or coastal waters. Ganpati festivities, which included paramilitary gymnastics by "Ganesh guards" dressed in khaki uniforms, are considered the birth of modern militant cultural Hindu nationalism. In 1895 Tilak inaugurated a second annual festival in Pune, to honor the birth of Maharashtra's greatest Hindu national hero, Shivaji Maharaj. The Shivaji festivals drew even larger crowds than those for Gaṇesha. Speeches in Marathi extolling Shivaji's heroic deeds in waging guerrilla warfare against, and defeating, the foreign Muslim Mughals, excited the most interest among young men, many of whom used their energies and time to make crude bombs in their basements, before long throwing them at British officers driving by in their carriages.

Tried and Transported for Sedition

Tilak's most popular mantra was "Sva-raj ('self-rule' or 'freedom') is my birthright, and I will have it!" At times, his Kesari editorials and powerful Shivaji festival speeches incited those who read or heard his words to violent actions against British officials or other foreigners. One of Tilak's Pune Brahman disciples assassinated an Englishman as he left the governor's Jubilee Ball honoring Empress Victoria in 1897, just half a century before another Maharashtrian Brahman was to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi. Tilak was tried for sedition for several editorials he wrote in his newspaper. He eloquently defended himself and pleaded innocent, but was found guilty in 1908 and was transported to Mandalay Prison in Burma (Myanmar) for six years. He was released at the start of World War I and cabled his "support" for the Allied cause to the king-emperor. He outlived Gopal Krishna Gokhale, his moderate Maharashtrian Brahman rival for leadership of the Indian National Congress, by five years.

Impact on Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi first met Tilak when Gandhi returned to India from South Africa, while visiting Pune at his guru Gokhale's invitation. To Gandhi's mind, gentle Gokhale was like Mother India's greatest river, "the Ganges," which "invited one to its bosom." Tilak, on the other hand, was "the ocean" itself, forbidden to Hindus, who never knew what dreadful dangers lurked beneath its "dark waters." But Tilak's fearless insistence upon "freedom," his successful use of popular religious and cultural Hindu symbols, and his boycott of all things "foreign"—all of which lured India's illiterate peasant population into the nationalist movement—appealed powerfully to Mahatma Gandhi. But ever-scrupulous Gandhi insisted on nonviolence in all his satyagraha struggles. Tilak never feared or worried about violence. "There's no place in politics for saints or religious scruples," Lokamanya Tilak once told Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi "begged to differ," insisting that "religion (Hindu dharma) could no more be removed from 'politics' than from life itself." On 1 August 1920, the day Tilak died, Mahatma Gandhi launched his first nationwide satyagraha in Bombay.

Stanley Wolpert

See alsoCongress Party ; Gandhi, Mahatma M. K. ; Gokhale, Gopal Krishna ; Maharashtra


Athalye, D. V. The Life of Lokamanya Tilak. Poona: A. Chiploonkar, 1921.

Bhat, V. G. Lokamanya Tilak: His Life, Mind, Politics and Philosophy. Poona: R. B. Nigudkar, 1956.

Karandikar, S. L. Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak. The Hercules and Prometheus of Modern India. Poona, 1957.

Karmarkar, D. P. Bal Gangadhar Tilak. A Study. Mumbai: Popular Book Depot, 1956.

Tahmankar, D. V. Lokamanya Tilak: Father of Indian Unrest and Maker of Modern India. London: J. Murray, 1956.

Wolpert, Stanley A. Tilak and Gokhale: Revolution and Reform in the Making of Modern India. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1953 and 1961.

Tilak, Bāl Gangādhar

views updated May 29 2018

Tilak, Bāl Gangādhar (1856–1920). Indian politician and patriot, who perceived the importance of religion in political matters, especially in relation to self-government. For his forthright articles in 1908, he was deported to Mandalay for six years. In prison in Mandalay he wrote his famous book Srimad Bhagavad Gītā Rahasya (The True Import of the Gītā), which saw ‘the religion of the Gītā, combining spiritual knowledge, devotion and action’ as the foundation of India's revival. Tilak died on 1 Aug. 1920, and because the people came in such large numbers to pay their last respects to the national hero, the cremation took place at Chowpati Beach, Bombay.