Saturday, August 16, 2014

Religion Inspired India's Freedom Fighters

by Sri Ajit Halder

This article focuses on the untiring efforts of Indian freedom fighters to free India from British colonial rule.  Every year Indians celebrate Independence Day on the 15th of August with great enthusiasm.  This article therefore aims to serve as a timely tribute to the bravery and sacrifices of India’s freedom fighters.

The theme of this article is the influence of the moral and aesthetic teachings of religion in general, and Hinduism in particular, that motivated the leaders and influenced the masses to engage in the struggle for India’s Independence.  True, India’s founding figures derived their liberal views and principles of democracy from the West; however it must be emphasized that those leaders were equally inspired by India's rich tradition of spiritual and scriptural knowledge. This is evident in their utterances, writings and religious practices.

Note that although the title of the article is rather short, the subject it ought to cover must be broad considering both the temporal and spatial dimensions of India's freedom struggle.  In terms of time, India’s freedom struggle spread across a period spanning almost two centuries, beginning with the battle of Plassey in 1757, covering the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, and culminating in the attainment of independence in 1947.  In terms of space, the struggle for independence took place both within India and abroad - with revolutionary terrorist acts in London, the Gadar Movement in USA, and INA action in Singapore and the Malayan peninsula being a few of the major events to have occurred overseas.

The first word in the title is ‘Religion’, and a discussion on this word will help to understand the purpose of this article. 


The word religion stands for faith or belief in something higher and nobler than worldly concerns.  Religion recognizes a super-human controlling power, the Ishwara, God.  In India, religion is a way of life and is an integral part of the culture of the Indian masses.

Religious beliefs influenced and guided the leaders of India and its masses as they took their fight to gain freedom as a religious act.  This resonates with the Hindu maxim ‘Serving humanity (in the present context, serving fellow Indians) is an act of worshiping Divinity’.  It must be stressed here that besides Hindus, members of various religious groups like the Moslems, Jains, Buddhists, and Christians were involved in the struggle for freedom and their heroism and sacrifice are gratefully acknowledged.

The Gita, a principal Hindu scripture, played a distinct role in shaping the thoughts of national political leaders and its doctrine of Karma Yoga motivated those involved in the movement.  Mahatma Gandhi wrote the following acknowledging his debt to the Gita:

“When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad-Gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. Those who meditate on the Gita will derive fresh joy and new meanings from it every day”.

These are indeed inspiring words to his many followers, and the verses of the Gita kindled hope and encouragement in the hearts of the agitators to carry on their mission.

Gandhiji was a devotee of Sri Ramachandra, and the Ramacharit Manas impressed him much.  In Gandhiji’s prayer meetings, the hymn Ramdhun and other Hindu devotional songs and readings from the scriptures were regularly presented.  All these brought a religious fervor to the prayer sessions, much appreciated by the large gatherings that attended those meetings.

The emphasis placed on doing one’s duty – the principle of Karma Yoga as propounded in the Gita - found utterance in the writings of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. In the words of Pandit Nehru:

“The Bhagavad-Gita deals essentially with the spiritual foundation of human existence.  It is a call to meet the obligations and duties of life; yet keeping in view the spiritual nature and grander purpose of the universe”.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak wrote the ‘Gita Rahasya’ and Sri Aurobindo published his ‘Essays on the Gita’.  In these books, the authors discussed the moral teachings of the scripture that threw new light on how to attain spirituality through noble actions.  It becomes clear that the message of the Gita inspired Gandhiji and other leaders to guide the freedom movement.

In worshipping Devi Shakti, the feminine aspect of divine energy, Hinduism eloquently glorifies the concept of Women Power.  Hindus worship Durga Mata as the Mother Goddess.  The notion of motherhood has also found a respectful place in adoration of the motherland.  ‘Maatri Bhumi’ is not only our mothers’ land, but being the land of our birth, is reverentially recognized as our Mother.  This warmth of feeling towards our motherland asserts a moral relationship with Bhaarat Maata. The song ‘Vande Mataram’ from Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s famous creation Anandamath greatly inspired the freedom fighters. The song is a hymn to the motherland India; it literally means ‘I bow to thee, Mother Land’. The hymn played a vital role in the independence movement.  It was first sung by Poet Tagore at the 1896 session of the Indian National Congress and henceforth became popular as the marching song of the masses parading the streets of a city demanding Purna Swaraj, i.e. full sovereignty for India.

No doubt the Gita text had a profound impact on the religious thinking of our national leaders.  Added to this, the founding figures immersed themselves in ancient Sanskrit and Buddhist literature and the edicts of Emperor Asoka.  Nehru searched for India’s old artifacts in his ‘Discovery of India’ and chose the Asokan Lion Pillar and the Buddhist wheel of law as national symbols for a new, independent India.  Gandhiji introduced phrases like ‘Satyameva Jayate’ (Truth always triumphs), ‘Satyagraha’ (holding on to the Truth) and ‘Sarvadaya’ (Universal awakening) from Sanskrit, and people participating in mass demonstration chanted these phrases to create enthusiasm and nationalistic feeling. These slogans are quoted here to emphasize the moral-political motive of Gandhiji to inspire the Indian masses to follow him in protest marches.

The broad aim of this article has been to emphasize the proposition that religion inspired India’s freedom fighters.  This was attempted through a detailed discussion on the principles of religion, the message of the Gita, and India’s artistic tradition and culture.   It is hoped that this article will help the reader appreciate the braiding together of two knowledge traditions: the religious tradition oriented towards aestheticism and morality (inherited from ancient India’s rich knowledge source), and the Western liberal thoughts aimed at gaining political independence from colonial rule and establishing social justice and equality for all in liberated India.

No comments:

Post a Comment