Gita’s Message to Tilak, Gandhi, and Godse! And how it Changed India’s History.

By Dr. Panchajanya Paul, MD

Bhagvad Gita’s message has uplifted the life of millions. Many great leaders have been inspired by the message of Gita. But as with any book, scripture, or a leader, the true value of the message lies in its application. In the battle of Mahabharata, Krishna guides Arjuna out of his grief, inaction and doubt; and inspired him to the battle. This discourse came to be known as Bhagvad Gita. Historian Herman writes “In Gita, Krishna gave Arjuna 3 reasons to fight the battle. First, - do it for your own sake for your honor as a soldier and warrior.  Second is- fight the battle for its own sake, as a task that like every task in life, deserves to be done well, regardless of whatever the consequences might be. And, thirdly, when Arjuna was still not convinced, he said, do it for my sake, as he reveals himself as the reincarnation of Vishnu in all his power and glory – in short to do it as an act of obedience and homage to God.”. This three can also be seen as three paths to realize the reality namely the Bhakti Yoga or the path of devotion, Jnana Yoga or the path of knowledge, and Karma Yoga or the path of action. Gita does not pick and choose any one path over the others. These have given rise to varied meaning and interpretation amongst scholars since its conception around 2 millenniums ago. People have, and continue to draw different message from Gita based on their needs and values. Gita’s message has also shaped the history of India’s freedom struggle against the British colonial rule. In this article, we will examine the lives of three important Indian historical figures of the 20th century- Tilak, Gandhi, and Godse, and see how the message of Gita impacted them.


Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856 –1920) was an Indian nationalist, teacher, social reformer, lawyer and an independence activist. He was a prominent leader of the Indian independence movement and was dubbed “Father of the Indian unrest" by the Biritish. Tilak was a great leader who was accepted by the people and was aptly awarded with the honorary title of "Lokmanya. He was one of the first and strongest advocates of "Swaraj" (self-rule) and a strong radical in Indian consciousness. He famously quoted -"Swarajya is my birthright and I shall have it!” He was a religious person and drew his inspiration from the Bhagvad Gita. He was a strong advocate of Swaraj and was against Gandhi's policy of Total-ahimsa (non-violence), and advocated the use of force where necessary. Tilak joined the Indian National Congress in 1890, and became the most eminent radical of his time. Tilak wanted to accomplish self-governance using both non-violent as well as violent means. He opposed the moderate views of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and was supported by fellow Indian nationalists Bipin Chandra and Lala Lajpat Rai. They were referred to as the "Lal-Bal-Pal triumvirate". Their ideological difference turned into an ugly fight between moderates and radicals in the 1907 Congress-annual-session at Surat, Gujarat. The Congress was party split into two groups- one the radical group led by Tilak, and the other moderate group led by Gokhale, only to be reunited back in 1915.

Tilak was a learned erudite man. He started a Marathi newpaper called Kesari in 1881. He used to publish inflammatory anti-British articles which drew the ire of the British government. In 1908, Prafulla Chaki and Khudiram Bose threw a bomb on a carriage at Muzzafarpur, to kill the Magistrate Douglas Kingsford, but erroneously killed two women travelling in it. Chaki committed suicide prior to his arrest and Bose was hanged. Tilak posed a direct challenge to the British rule of India with his support for Chaki and Bose. Tilak defended them in his paper and justified it for immediate Swaraj or self-rule. Tilak was arrested for sedation and sentenced to six years of imprisonment in Burma. Tilak made full use of the prison time and wrote an authoritative text book on Gita. It was published in 1915 in Marathi as Shrimadh Bhagvad Gita Rahasya or Karmayog Shashtra. Gita advocates three paths: Karma yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Gyana Yoga; without preferring one over the other. In Tilak’s interpretation of Gita, karma Yoga rules supreme, and takes precedence over the bhaktiyoga (devotion) and jnanayoga (knowledge). He advocated that the real message of Gita is to act or perform, which is stressed in the initial chapters of Gita (1-5) than renounce, which is mentioned in the later chapters (6-18). He used Gita’s message to defend the ethical obligation to selfless action. But unlike Gandhi, he justified the action, even when it became violent like killing as long as it is without personal interest or motive. Tilak even tried to convince Gandhi to leave the idea of total non-violence and try to get Self-Rule by any means available including violence.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869 –1948) was the most successful political leader who led India to its fight for independence. He was given the honorific Mahatma (high-souled), lovingly called Bapu (father) and post-independence called the Father of the Nation (India). Gandhi during his time in the Yerwada Jail (1922-24) read around 150 books including the entire Mahabharata along with all the available translations of Gita including Tilak’s. Gandhi had deep regards for Tilak and wrote “During my incarceration I was able to study the Gita more fully. I went reverentially through the Gujrati translation of the Lokamanya’s great work. The reading whetted my appetite for more and I glanced through several works on Gita”. However, the message Gandhi drew from Gita was different to that of Tilak, and it will change the future of India’s freedom movement, and countless civil rights movement to follow. Gandhi on his release from the prison will use his insights on Gita and give regular talks on Gita at the Sabarmati Ashram, over a nine-month period from February-November, 1926. These collected talks will form the basis of the book called ‘Bhagavd Gita: According to Gandhi’. The book provides rich material on Gandhi’s understanding of Gita, and how it shaped his life, and the course of India’s freedom struggle. Gandhi agreed with Tilak about the importance of doing the right action and following truth as per Gita. However, he disagreed with Tilak about how to do the right action. Gandhi drew the message of non-violence and ahimsa from Gita. Gandhi explained his position as, “According to the Gita, all acts that are incapable of being performed without attachment are taboo. This golden rule saves mankind from many pitfalls. According to this interpretation murder, lying, dissoluteness and the like must be regarded as sinful and therefore taboo...Thinking along these lines, I have felt that in trying to enforce in one’s life the central teaching of the Gita, one is bound to follow Truth and Ahimsa. When there is no desire for fruit, there is no temptation for untruth or ahimsa (violence). Take any instance of untruth or violence, and it will be found that at its back was the desire to attain the cherished end…the Gita had to deliver the message of renunciation of fruit. …but if the Gita believed in ahimsa or it was included in desirelessness, why did the author take a warlike illustration? When the Gita was written, although people believed in ahimsa, wars were not only non-taboo, but nobody observed the contradiction between them and ahimsa…Let it be granted, that according to the letter of the Gita it is possible to say that warfare is consistent with renunciation of fruit. But after forty years’ unremitting endeavor fully to enforce the teaching of the Gita in my own life, I have in all humility felt that perfect renunciation is impossible without perfect observance of ahimsa in every shape and form…”

After the death of Tilak (1920), Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1916), and Motilal Nehru (1931) - Gandhi became the most prominent leader of the Indian National Congress, and determined its future course in the India’s freedom movement. Gandhi’s method of ahimsa, non-violence, and Satyagraha drawn from Gita will become the tools for millions of Indians who will follow Gandhi in all is movements like the Non Cooperation, Civil Disobedience, Quit India movements. These continued efforts along with the weakening of the British Empire after the World War II, the unrest during the Indian National Army’s (INA) trials (1945-46) at Red Fort, and the continued USA’s pressure on Britain to grant India’s freedom, culminated in India’s Independence in 1947. However, India’s independence came with a heavy price as the country was partitioned into Muslim majority Pakistan and a Hindu majority India. The partition heralded one of history’s worst human tragedies as the religious riots and genocide led to death of around 2 million people and displacement of around 14 million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.
Gandhi used to say “My life is my message”. “Be the change you want to see in others”. His message will uplift and inspire millions. However, everyone did not agree with his message. Many blame Gandhi for India’s partition and the human tragedy around it. There was a growing dissatisfaction especially among groups of Hindu nationalist at the turn of affairs. As Hindus were the majority of Indian subcontinent who were ruled by the Muslim and later by the British, many Hindus hoped for a better future for Hindus in independent India. As Historian Herman writes “The Hindu nationalist groups believed that India’s independence should mean a reassertion of Hindu power, after centuries of British and Mughal imperial domination. Gandhi’s secular version of the religion with its Hindu-Muslim unity, and end to untouchability seemed vulgar and blasphemous to them.” One such person was Nathuram Vinayak Godse (19 May 1910 – 15 November 1949). He came from an educated Chitpavan Brahmin family like Tilak. He was a prominent member of Hindu Mahasabha and ran a Marathi language newspaper for the Hindu Mahasabha called Hindu Rashtra. He was angry with Gandhi's philosophy, and believed that Gandhi’s action was against the interest of the Hindus. With time, he became extreme in his thinking and came to the conclusion that since Gandhi’s life was his message; the only way to kill the message was to kill Gandhi. Godse along with Narayan Apte plotted to assassinate Gandhi.

There had been a threat to Gandhi’s life all along his political carrier which began in South Africa and continued all along. There were five prior unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Gandhi. This one succeeded. Godse shot Gandhi three times with a semi-automatic pistol in the chest at point blank range at the Birla House in New Delhi on January 30, 1948. Gandhi was outside for prayers surrounded by his family and followers. Gandhi at the time of death, in his last breadth, invoked his last prayer saying “Hey Ram”. Godse shouted "police" and surrendered himself. Godse and Apte were arrested and put to trial. The trial began at Delhi’s Red Fort in 1948 and lasted for a year. Gamdhi lived by the principles of truth that he got from Gita. So also would be the claim by Godse. Historian Herman writes, “Ironically Gandhi’s murderers would also quote from the Gita at their trial”. Godse said during the trial in his final statement “My respect for the mahatma was deep and deathless. It therefore gave me no pleasure to kill him. Indeed, my feelings were those of Arjuna when he killed Dronacharya, his Guru at whose feet he learned the art of war”. But Godse could not forgive Gandhi for his pro-Muslim bias. Godse said “I felt convinced that such a man was the greatest enemy, not only of the Hindus, but of the whole nation.” At the end of trial, Godse and Apte were found guilty and sentenced to death. Both were executed by hanging, simultaneously on 15 November 1949, at Ambala Jail.

Gandhi had always been aware of threats to his life, and two days prior to his assassination he said “If I am to die by the bullet of a mad man, I must do so smiling. There must be no anger within me. God must be in my heart and on my lips”. Thus the life of the Mahatma shaped and guided by Gita, also ended on the message of Gita. This provides a valuable lesson. Religion and religious books and scriptures are only as good as the people using them. The same Gita which inspired Tilak and Gandhi to do their great deeds also inspired Godse to commit the heinous crime of killing Gandhi. In all these instances the message of Gita remained the same, the only thing different was how people used them. This is an important lesson. As the world is plagued by terrorism and fanaticism committed in name of religion, it is to be understood that there also exist millions of peace loving religious people who mean no harm to others. Ultimately, all that matters are intent and action. There is an old parable on Buddha. Once Buddha was giving sermons, and it became dark. Buddha said its night now; all go back to your home and complete your assigned tasks. There was a thief there. He went home and began to steal at night. He thought I am doing my action as prescribed by Buddha. Similarly, there was a prostitute, who went back to her amorous activities at night. She believed that she was following the instruction of Buddha. There was a scholar, who went back to his studies and meditation. Thus we see that the same message was interpreted by different people based on their different agendas. Thus blind faith to any doctrine can lead people astray, and as religion can uplift and enlighten, so can it make one hateful and inhuman.

Gandhi and Chuchill by Arthur Herman – page 587
Excerpts from Nathuram Godse's Deposition before Justice Atma Charan of The Special Court Jan 2006:
Bhatt, Chetan (2001). Hindu Nationalism Origins, Ideologies and Modern Myths. Oxford: Berg Publishers. p. 34. ISBN 9781845209865.
Ortiz, edited by Gaye Williams; Joseph, Clara A.B. (2006). Theology and Literature Rethinking Reader Responsibility. (1st ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 136–137. ISBN 9781403982995.
Book: Gandhi an Autobiography- The story of my experiments with truth - page 67
Book: Gandhi and Churchill- The epic rivalry that destroyed an empire and forged our age by Arthur Herman- page 78
Book: The Bhagvad Gita According to Gandhi

Dr. Panchajanya Paul, MD, ABIHM, ABPN, is an American Board certified - Child, Adolescent, and Adult psychiatrist. He is a diplomat of the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine. He holds adjunct faculty position at Emory University School of Medicine; University of Georgia & Georgia Regents University, and University of Central Florida School of Medicine. He is a freelance writer who lives in Atlanta.