Bal Gangadhar Tilak – Remembering the Lokmanya

“Swarajya is my birthright and I shall have it” ~ Bal Gangadhar Tilak

Conferred with the title of ‘Lokmanya’, meaning accepted by all, Bal Gangadhar Tilak is known for starting the Sarvajanik Ganesh Puja and used it as a platform to fight against British imperialism, along with Shivaji Jayanti. He had inspired a whole generation of freedom fighters from Savarkar to Azad to Bhagat Singh. He is an icon of the freedom struggle of Bharat.

Early Life

Bal Gangadhar Tilak was was born on 23 July 1856 in Ratnagiri to Gangadhar Ramachandra Tilak, a Sanskrit scholar. He was a brilliant but equally mischievous student. Since childhood, he was independent in nature and not awed by authority. The rebel in him was born quite early. Tilak grew up listening to the stories on the 1857 revolution of people like Lakshmi Bai, Nana Saheb and Tatya Tope from his grandfather who was in Kashi at that time. He, however, soon had to go to Pune, when he was just 10 as his father was transferred there. It was a new phase in Tilak’s life, shifting from a small town to a large city. Pune at that time was a major educational centre.

He joined the Anglo Vernacular school where he was able to get good education. Sadly, his mother passed away soon and also his father when he was just 16 years old. He took the full name Bal Gangadhar Tilak after his father. Then soon he joined Deccan College in Pune.

Tilak, however, felt that having a good physique was important, thus, he began to exercise regularly. Even his food intake was regulated and he took active part in all games and sports. He became an expert swimmer and equally good at wrestling. Soon he got his BA degree in 1877 and later completed his LLB too. With his academics, Tilak could have easily got a job like many others and serve the British. But he didn’t chose it.

Spreading the idea of Nationalism through education system

Tilak decided to dedicate his life for the country and he felt that first one must inculcate the concept of Swaraj. People should be made to feel the thirst for freedom and patriotism had to be nurtured. And that meant an education that would make people take pride in being a Bharatiya. The Western oriented education system made “educated” Bharatiyas look down on their own country. He got support from his class mate Gopal Krishna Agarkar.

Tilak and Agarkar, were joined in by the great Marathi writer Vishnu Shastri Chiplunkar. Himself a teacher, Chiplunkar wished that the younger generation should receive the kind of education Tilak dreamed of. The New English School was the result of their dream, and with its success, the Deccan Education Society was founded in 1884. A year later the Fergusson College was founded. Tilak, Agarkar and Chiplunkar –  Bharat would forever be grateful to this trio.

Kesari and Mahratta

With the school and college well established, Tilak turned his attention to another task, awakening the people, especially the youth to the evils of British rule and inculcating the spirit of nationalism. That resulted in Tilak starting the Marathi weekly Kesari and the English weekly, The Mahratta. Kesari soon became popular, and Tilak used it to spread his ideas on nationalism, as well as to expose the evil British rule.

Through Kesari, Tilak exhorted every Bharatiya to fight for their rights and stand up to the tyranny of the British rule. Tilak managed to spread the message using very simple language that an ordinary person could understand.

When Shivaji Rao became the Maharaja of Kolhapur, Tilak wrote a series of articles in Kesari, exposing the shabby treatment given to him by the British. This aroused the indignation of ordinary people and unrest gripped Kolhapur and Pune. The Government arrested Tilak and Agarkar on charges of inciting passions and they were sentenced to 4 months rigorous imprisonment. It was getting tougher for Tilak – he even had to quit Fergusson and Deccan Education Society, over differences with management on salary raise.

He was forced to leave an institution which he had nurtured and raised. He was not getting much profit from the Kesari and Mahratta either. Still, instead of working under the British, he began to take up classes by himself to earn a living.

It was this period between 1890, when he resigned from Deccan Education Society, to 1897, when he was arrested, that moulded Tilak’s character and value system. Tilak took the British head on now and emerged as the leader of thousands.

Leader of the masses – Lokmanya

Tilak organized the Ganesh Puja on a large scale, as well as Shivai Maharaj Jayanti. His intention was to foster a sense of community among ordinary Bharatiyas, above feelings of caste, class, religion. Soon he became a member of Pune’s Municipal Council, the Bombay Legislature and an elected “Fellow” of Bombay University. He was actively into politics now and in the midst of it all, published his maiden work “Orion.” Tilak’s idea of inculcating nationalism and community spirit through the Ganesh Puja and Shivaji Jayanti was working as people participated together overlooking differences of caste, community, class.

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Image Source: India Today

When famine broke out in 1896, Tilak asked the Government to help the distressed farmers. He published news of the famine in depth in both Mahratta and Kesari. The British Government, however, was indifferent to the plight of those affected and revenue was still collected forcibly from suffering farmers. So Tilak began to expose the indifference of the British Government in his magazines. He exhorted the people to question the Government on their failure and indifference to the whole famine crisis.

However, instead of responding, the British Government actually went ahead and decided to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign. Around the same time, Pune was in the grip of a severe plague. The officer in charge, Rand, adopted harsh measures, which included barging into the private quarters of people’s homes, pulling them out of their beds, and separating infected people rudely from their families. Enraged by these actions, two brothers, Damodar Hari and Balakrishna Hari known as the Chapekar brothers, assassinated Rand. Both were arrested and hanged for their act.

Tilak took on the Government more strongly than ever with a series of articles titled “Has the Government gone mad?” in the Kesari. His fiery writings now made the Government officials tense and they decided he was a threat.

The Government lodged a case against Tilak, accusing him of abatement to murder in the Rand case, and arrested him in 1897. Charged with sedition and slapped with charges of disturbing peace, Tilak was sentenced to one and a half years of rigorous imprisonment.

Put in a dark cramped cell, filled with mosquitoes and bugs and given coarse food, Tilak was subjected to the worst of indignities. He had to make mats and ropes from coir due to which his fingers got blisters. However, his spirit was not broken and he wrote his work “The Arctic Home in the Vedas” in prison. Finally, under pressure from other leaders and scholars, the Government released Tilak from prison in 1989.

Tilak, by now, had become a hero, and people rushed in the streets to have a glimpse of him. His portrait began to be worshiped in homes by people. He was a national leader now.

“Swadeshi, Swaraj, National Education” was Tilak’s motto and soon this feeling had spread like wildfire among the masses. The Government was looking for an opportunity to curb Tilak and found it soon enough. A false case of funds embezzlement was slapped on Tilak and he was treated like a common criminal. Coming out on bail, Tilak fought a long battle for justice and was finally rewarded damages after 14 long years.

When the Globe and Times of India, alleged that Tilak incited people to commit murders, he sued both of them and made them apologize. Tilak criticized the repressive measures in Kesari, under an article “The Country’s Misfortune”.

The Government now decided that Tilak was too dangerous to be left free any longer and charged him with sedition. Arrested on June 24, 1908, Tilak was sentenced to six year’s rigorous imprisonment at Mandalay in Burma. He was in his 50s by then, a diabetic. This sentence angered many supporters of his, as well as many Western thinkers. Once again in Mandalay, Tilak was placed in a cramped prison with just a cot, a table, a chair and a bookshelf. Placed in a solitary confinement, his room had no protection from the heat or cold. He spent time reading, and once again wrote another book Gita Rahasya. He also learnt German and French in prison.

Released and back in Bharat on June 16th, 1914, Tilak received a hero’s welcome in Pune. However by this time, a rift had developed in the Congress between the Extremists and Moderates. Tilak headed the Extremist faction, which also included Lala Lajpati Rai and Bipin Chandra Pal.

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Lal, Bal, Pal – the famed triumvirate (left to right)

However, with attempts to unite the two groups failing, Tilak quit Congress and started the Home Rule League along with Annie Beasant, G. S. Khaparde and S. Subramania Iyer.

For Tilak, home rule meant one thing “A Bharatiya should have as much freedom in Bharat as an Englishman has in England.” He began to tour the North, first Lucknow and then Kanpur, and declared boldly “Swaraj is our birthright, and we shall have it”.

“We want equality. We cannot remain slaves under foreign rule. We will not carry for an instant longer, the yoke of slavery that we have carded all these years. Swaraj is our birth right.”

– Bal Gangadhar Tilak

When the Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place, Tilak further intensified the struggle, touring all over Bharat. However, the constant stress took a toll on him and by June 1920, his condition began to worsen. On August 1, 1920, the great man was no more, passing away in his sleep. A veritable ocean of people surged to have a glimpse of the great man – Mahatma Gandhi, Lala Lajpat Rai, were among those who carried the funeral bier of Tilak.

Tilak and Gita Rahasya

How Tilak came to write the Gita Rahasya? When we look at the Gita Rahasya, we are, at once, struck by 2 things:

  1. The enormous size of the work which was completed in just 5 months.
  2. The unique (at the time) interpretation where the text is seen primarily as a call to worldly action.

Tilak’s first acquaintance with the Gita came in 1872 when he was 16 years old. His father was on the death bed and as a last wish requested him to read out a Prakrit bhashya on the Gita called the Bhasavivrtti. That experience made a deep and lasting impression on young Tilak’s mind. Though he did not understand much at that young age, that experience laid the ground for what would become a great life long pursuit to get to the very core of the Gita’s message. As he grew up, Tilak read several Sanskrit bhashyas and works by learned scholars in English and Marathi.

All this extensive reading left him with a fundamental doubt: Why should the Gita, which was expounded in a battle-field setting, to induce a dejected Arjuna to fight, contain an exposition of the path to Moksha primarily through Jnana and Bhakti? And that doubt gradually gained ground because he could not find a satisfactory answer in any of the bhashyas.

He felt that it could not be argued as it was all a matter of perspective. Tilak held that no matter how many interpretations of diverse commentators may exist, surely, the author could not have composed a book with so many plausible interpretations coexisting. He must have intended but one meaning and one purpose running through the book. Tilak resolved to discover that core message.

tilak-Gita-Rahasya

As the first step, he set aside all bhashyas and interpretations to free his mind of any bias and just read the original several times very carefully. At last, the fundamental message which dawned on him was very different from the emphasis placed by all the traditional commentators over several centuries. He sums it up this way:

  1. The Gita does not preach the philosophy of Renunciation (Nivritti).
  2. Above all things, the Gita preaches action and energism (Karma Yoga).
  3. The single word yoga used in the Gita was intended to mean Karma Yoga only.

Now, the challenge was, how to present and justify this alone as the Gita’s central message, given that it was quite different from the interpretations of the bhashyakaras of yore.

However, as the freedom struggle intensified and his commitments grew, the task of proving this conclusively with citations from other texts like the Upanishads, YogaSutras, BrahmaSutras etc. was something he simply lacked the bandwidth to do.

30th April 1908: Prafulla Chaki and Khudiram Bose threw a bomb on the carriage of Magistrate Kingsford at Muzzafarpur. Bose was swiftly executed. Tilak, in the Kesari, defended the heroes and called for immediate Swaraj. He was convicted and sent to Mandalay, Burma. It was a harsh 6 years sentence and with that all chances of writing his magnum opus on the core philosophy of the Gita seemed to have come to a cruel end. But providence had destined that Krishna’s timeless message will again find a new voice for the new century, to reignite our shackled nation.

There was no better moment for a fresh perspective on the Gita and as luck would have it, the Government permitted Tilak to carry his books and other reference material needed for this enormous task from Pune to Mandalay.

November 1910: As the winter descended, neither the damp of the cold cell nor any iron fetters and grills or gloomy stone walls could subdue that great intellect and spirit as he applied himself to the holy task. The monumental effort began on Karttik Shuddha 1st November, 1910. Furiously Tilak laboured night & day. Just as the blessed one, he himself must have rattled those 700 verses to Arjuna between the two armies. And what did he use to write the manuscript? A lead pencil! Hundreds and hundreds of pages ceaselessly poured, from his lead pencil, filling the whole prison cell.

In real life, we may have at times felt a conflict between our religious duties and our secular duties. Sometimes, a sense of disillusionment too sets in as we are unable to reconcile the work we do in the world with the calling of our heart. What is the answer in such situations?

Now, the problem is, when we turn to the Gita and find a verse like say:

बुद्धियुक्तो जहातीह उभे सुकृतदुष्कृते।

तस्माद्योगाय युज्यस्व योगः कर्मसु कौशलम्।।2.50।।

It seems to contain our answers, but there are so many interpretations. So, what exactly is Krishna trying to say here?

Tilak was the most emphatic that the Gita did not preach, “neither as a pastime for persons tired out after living a worldly life nor as a preparatory lesson for such a life. It was preached to give philosophical advice as to how one should live his worldly life with an eye to release (Moksha) and to teach the true duty of human beings in worldly life”.

Reflecting back at his labours, he urges: “My last prayer to everyone, therefore, is that one should not fail to thoroughly understand this ancient science of the life of a householder, or of worldly life, as early as possible in one’s life.”

Tilak thus shakes off any sense of unworldliness which the paths of philosophy or bhakti may induce and hurls us right into the centre of action – as grihastas and as professionals – to heroically do that job that’s expected of us.

योगः कर्मसु कौशलम्

(This article has been compiled from the tweet threads of @GabbarSanghi and @Gopanarya )

(Featured Image Source)


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