Category Archives: M. Colonization and Reform

Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois

Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois was a French-Catholic missionary with the Missions Etrangeres de Paris sent to India in the early seventeen-nineties whose mission-work continued until the early eighteen-twenties. During this time Dubois authored a number of important detailed accounts of the Hindu faith and culture, which were valued by many for their ethnographic knowledge. Once such contemporary proponent of the Abbe Dubois’ work was Lord Bentwick. As discussed in the articleCastes of Mind, Nicholas B. Dirks quotes Bentwick, writing that, “in a political point of view, the information which the work of the Abbe Dubois has to impart might be of the greatest benefit in aiding the servants of the Government in conducting themselves more in unison with the customs and prejudices of the natives.” (see Dirks  65).

Little information is known about the Abbe’s life before his ordination an subsequent missionary work in India, where he was first stationed with the Pondicherry mission in the south of India. Following this the Abbe worked in Mysore aiding the reorganization efforts of the Christian community in the area, (see Dubois 1823:1-2). To better coalesce with the natives, Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois adopted the diet and clothing tendencies of his Hindu contemporaries, effectively renouncing the Euorpean lifestyle of the time. During his time in India many small agricultural communities were said to have been founded by the Abbe Dubois, as well as the introduction of vaccinations as a method of disease prevention, (See Dubois and Beauchamp 1897:19). By eighteen-twenty-three Dubois left India and returned to Paris, where he later became the director of the Missions Etrangeres de Paris (see Dubois and Beauchamp 1897:xxviii).

Of the works authored by Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois, the most influential of which is Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies, which is divided into three distinct parts, each of which discusses at length a different pillar of both Hindu culture and religion. The first and second sections discuss respectively the ‘General View of Society in India, and Especially of the Caste System’ and ‘The Four States of Brahmanical Life’, having a primary focus on cultural and societal implications of the Hindu tradition. While the third section aptly titled ‘Religion’ is concerned with the actual spiritual beliefs of practitioners of the Hindu tradition. Each of the three larger sections is further divided into chapters concerned with specific topics falling within the overarching theme of the section.

The first five chapters of the first section discuss at length the caste system found at the epicentre of  Hindu culture. The Abbe suggests that the ubiquity of the caste system in Hindu culture is the sole reason the Hindus did not regress into total barbarism which had been observed by other cultures occupying the ‘torrid region’ (Dubois  and Beauchamp 1897:29). Dubois further illustrates the importance of the caste system by observing what  became of social ‘pariahs’ a demographic of Hindu society with which he had become very familiar with. Stating that a population composed of such individuals quickly devolves into something altogether worse than the cannibalistic hordes observed in the African continent (see Dubois and Beauchamp 1897:29).

The second section takes an in-depth look at the Brahmin caste of Hindu society, covering a vast array of religious practices and expectations. It discusses at length all stages of brahmanical life starting with upanayana a ceremony in which young brahmin males are bestowed with a sacred cord, signalling their entrance into brahmic life. From this point until the age of matrimony they are acknowledged as residing in the condition of brahmacari. If the young male does not marry for any particular reason in the prescribed time period is no longer viewed as brahmacari andthe name of grhasthais not given to him. However, the six privileges afforded to the caste are still available to him. The six privileges being ‘to read, and get to read the Vedas, to make and to cause to me made, the sacrifice of the yajna, and lastly to receive alms and to give presents to the Brahmins,(Dubois 1816:101-102).

The second stage of brahmanical life  is that of grhastha, a title afforded to Brahmin males who have married and had produced children. The Abbe highlights myriad of different observances this state of Brahmins is required to maintain, a significant portion of which focus on ritual purity and auspiciousness. Not the least of these practices is ritual bathing in water that is deemed sacred, like that of the Indus or Ganges rivers. While in the water, it is of utmost importance that the man to keep his thoughts transfixed on Visnu and Brahma, the ritual bath is finished “by three times taking up handfuls of water, and with their faces turned toward the sun pouring it out in libations to that luminary”, (Dubois 1816:149). After exiting the water the grhastha brahmin dresses himself in a particular fashion that does not affect his purity or auspiciousness. This practice is conducted three times over the course of a day.

Dubois also discusses at great length the assortment of different prayers devout members of the Brahman caste observe and provides an exhaustive example highlighting the specific mechanics of the sandhya or ‘triple-prayer’ (see Dubois 1816:154-157).

The third and final section of Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies focuses more attentively on religious beliefs at the core of Hindu tradition. The first chapter of this section begins to draw a parallel between the Roman and Hindu primary deities, comparing Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto to Brahma, Visnu, and Siva (see Dubois 1816:370). The Abbe continues by explaining the origins of each member of the trimurti (the aforementioned Hindu gods) and begins to highlight the henotheistic nature of the Hindu faith. Following this the Abbe gives a more in-depth description of each member of the trimutr, as well as other prominent figures like Krsna or Indra.  Discussing in detail the role each member plays in the Hindu religion. Special attention and detail is given in the discussion of Visnu, as Visnu is said to take up to ten different forms or avatara, each of these forms and the situation(s) they correspond to are briefly illustrated.

In his Letters on the State of Christianity in India in which the Conversion of Hindoos is Considered Impracticable, a work composed of a collection of correspondences written by the Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois which were sent to his superiors in Paris, the Abbe gives a detailed account of the state in which the Christian, and especially the Roman-Catholic faith(s) were in India. The opinion held by Abbe Dubois was that because the caste system was so deeply entrenched in the Hindu tradition, the conversion of natives proved to be a task of immense difficulty. Abbe Dubois writes that “during a period of twenty-five years that I have familiarly conversed with them, lived among them as their religious teacher and spiritual guide, I would hardly dare to affirm that I have anywhere met a sincere and undisguised christian,” (see Dubois 1823:63). Dubois continues to describe the degree to which this effect was observed, noting that one of the greatest points of contention for Hindu converts is the christian belief of total equality between people of varied societal position in the eyes of God, that a Brahmin of high standing should be treated as equal to a ‘pariah’. Continuing this sentiment, the Abbe suggests that even a totalitarian or despotic rule could be imposed upon the Hindu people with greater ease than it would be to dismantle the caste system; thus highlighting the vast emphasis placed upon the caste system in the Hindu tradition.

The writings of Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois offered a valuable insight into the complexity of the Hindu culture and the religion as a whole. The thirty years of experience working and residing among the Hindu people, adopting many of their customs and practices, allowed the Abbe to accrue a wide and intimate knowledge of the manners and customs of the Hindu tradition. Henry K. Beauchamp writes that “any account given by such a man of the manners and customs of the people amongst whom he lived must in any case be instructive,” (see Dubois and Beachamp 1897: xxii).

Works Cited and Bibliograhy:

Dubois, Abbe Jean-Antoine (1816), Description of the Character, Manners, and Customs, of the People of India; and of Their Institutions Both Religious and Civil. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, (1816)

Dubois, Abbe Jean-Antoine (1816), Beauchamp, Henry K (1897), Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies. Oxford: Clarendon Press (1905)

Dubois, Abbe Jean-Antoine (1823), Letters on the State of Christianity in India in Which the conversion of Hindoos is Considered Impracticable. To which is added a vindication of the Hindus, male and female, in answer to a severe attack made upon both by the Reverend ****.

London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green (1823), Reprinted by Asian Educational Services

Dirks Nicholas B. (1992) “Castes of Mind.” Representations, No. 37, Special Issue: Imperial Fantasies and Postcolonial Histories (Winter 1992): 56-78

Related Topics:

  • Sadhya
  • Protestant missionary work taking place at the same time
  • Lord Bentwick

Related Websites:

Article Written By: Brendan Spiess (February 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.

Basava and the Lingayat tradition

Basava, also referred to as Basavanna, was a south Indian philosopher who is widely regarded as the founder of the Lingayattradition of Hinduism (Das 161). He is viewed as an early advocate for socio-religious reform, promulgating his teachings in what is now the Indian state of Karnataka (Ishwaran 2).

Although little is known about Basava’s early life, there are a few texts that provide details about his childhood. In addition to scarce historical records, the Basava Purana, written by Palkuriki Somanatha, provides a hagiographical account of his life. In addition, the Basavaraja Devara Ragale, a poem written in the 13th-century by Harihara, also provides important information about his life (Leslie 239). His poems, typically referred to as vacanas, have also provided extensive descriptions about his life and his beliefs (see Schouten 50-61).

Basava was born in a small village called Bagevadi to a Brahmin family (Ishwaran 1). His father was appointed by a local king to be the chief of his village. Though Basava was not born in a particularly wealthy family, he nonetheless enjoyed social privileges by virtue of his class and his father’s role in the village as the chief (Leslie 239). Over the course of his childhood, Basava engaged in activities that were traditionally prescribed for Brahmin males. Therefore, he was exposed to various religious rituals and also received formal religious education (Leslie 240).

However, despite the formalities that he had undergone, Basava grew increasingly disillusioned with the Brahmanical tradition in which he was raised (Schouten 2). In Harihara’s Basavaraja Devara Ragale, Basava was forced to participate in his sacred- thread ceremony – a crucially important initiation ceremony for twice-born males – at the age of eight. In contrast, according to the Basava Purana, he did not participate in his sacred-thread ceremony (Leslie 240). His father construed Basava’s reluctance to participate as egregiously disrespectful to tradition, creating friction in the relationship between Basava and his father (Rao and Roghair 58). Both accounts of his life relay a similar motif, namely his criticisms of the Brahmanical tradition at a very young age.

At the age of sixteen, Basava left his home village of Bagevadi and went to Kudalasangama, a popular pilgrimage site for Siva worshippers. The impetus for his decision to leave was marked by “a desire to escape… the religious ritualism and social prejudice of his environment” (Leslie 240). It was also at this time that Basava had become particularly fond of the Hindu god, Siva. Although several Saivite sects were prominent during this time, it is likely that Basava was exposed to the Lakulisa- Pasupata sect of Saivism in Kudalasangama (Das 162). He subsequently spent the next twelve years of his life in Kudalasangama where he extensively engaged in the service and worship of Siva. In addition, Basava continued to expand his education and also composed works of poetry (Das 162).

The socio-religious context in Karnataka during the 12th– century played an instrumental role in shaping Basava’s conceptions about the Brahmanical system of which he was particularly critical. A central facet of the Brahmanical system – the varna system – was construed by Basava to be an inherently oppressive system (Sahasrabudhe 225). In the Rg Veda, the Purusa – Sukta hymn situates the Brahmin class to be at the top of the social hierarchy, followed by the ksatriya, vaisya, and sudra classes. The class system was highly influential in Karnataka during this time, and the stratification of society closely followed the hierarchy implicit in the Purusa Sukta (Ishwaran 8). Devotion to god – bhakti – was a very popular mode of religious practice in Karnataka. This led to the creation of many temples that were primarily run by Brahmin priests. Due to the emphasis placed by the Brahmins on the importance of devotional practice, sudras felt that they were religiously obligated to donate their time and money to the priests (Ishwaran 7). Consequently, this led to the emergence of significant socio-economic and socio-religious disparities that were particularly conspicuous in Karnataka during this time. Basava was profoundly impacted by the segregation of worship that was commonplace in Siva temples. Devout sudras were unable to engage in the worship and service of Siva “in the company of the higher castes” (Ishwaran 7).  Basava viewed this unfair treatment by the Brahmins as prejudice masked under the pretext of notions about ritual pollution (Das 163). In his vacanas, Basava extensively articulates his concerns about the oppressive and exploitative Brahmanical system in place; moreover, he assigned culpability to the Brahmin priestly class for reinforcing this system (Schouten 55). Ultimately, the socio-religious context of the time served as the major impetus behind shaping many of the reformist attitudes that Basava later came to hold.

The next significant transition in Basava’s life is marked by his move away from Kudalasangama to a small town named Mangalavada (Leslie 242). Legendary accounts suggest that the Hindu god Siva had appeared in one of his dreams and instructed Basava to move to Mangalavada (Leslie 241). However, Basava was frightened by the notion of having to leave Kudalasangama given the profound impact the village had on his religious and spiritual development. Siva reappeared in a subsequent dream where he presented Basava with his own personal Siva linga, a symbol that represents Siva in Saivite tradition (Das 162). This reassured Basava that regardless of where he was, Siva would always be there for him, manifest in the form of a linga. Therefore, it is said that these dreams spurred his transition to Mangalavada because Basava viewed it as incumbent upon himself to “articulate his emotional commitment to [Siva]” (Leslie 242). In a place like Mangalavada, his message could reach a larger audience which would allow him to fulfill his goal.

            Mangalavada was a small town that was under the control of the Calukya empire in the 12th– century and was primarily inhabited by low class sudras (Leslie 242). Basava viewed this as an opportunity to promulgate some of his notions regarding religion and the importance of social reform. Over the course of the next several years, Basava regularly engaged with the people in his community through conversation and dialogue (Das 163). In addition, Basava regularly wrote works of poetry – vacanas – to disseminate his teachings to a broader audience (Leslie 242). In contrast to the Brahmanical system which valorized the use of Sanskrit as the principal way to communicate religious and spiritual topics, Basava instead decided to write in Kannada (Sahasrabudhe 223). He was a strong proponent of communicating religious and spiritual matters in the vernacular language in order to ensure that those teachings could be accessible to the greatest number of people. Sanskrit, however, was a language that was only accessible to relatively few people in society (i.e. primarily Brahmins), and therefore its use alienated the majority of people who had no knowledge of the language (Schouten 11). Thus, the preservation of the Kannada language and culture is heavily attributed to Basava due to his resistance to Sanskritic influences (Ishwaran 1).

In many vacanas, Basava presents arguments that undermine the intrinsically hierarchical nature of the class system (Schouten 51-52). Prejudicial attitudes towards lower class members of society (e.g. sudras) by the upper classes were commonplace (Ishwaran 8), and Basava argued that citing ritual pollution as a justification for such attitudes by the Brahmins was flawed. Central to Basava’s argument was his belief in the polluting origin of life (Schouten 59). The womb was traditionally regarded as a source of pollution, and because humans are born of the womb, one’s existence is plagued with pollution the moment they are born. Therefore, Basava concluded that “any pretension to high birth is meaningless” (Schouten 60) because regardless of one’s class, no one could escape the impurities associated with birth. In other words, the hierarchical nature of the class system, according to Basava, made no sense because of the common impure origin of human beings.

For many people, Basava’s ideals of social reform and equality were particularly impactful because he did not exclude anyone from his teachings on the basis of class or caste (Schouten 39). In addition, he espoused progressive views towards women, namely his recognition of women as individuals with rights (Sahasrabudhe 224). At the time, his acceptance for all people was construed as a radical departure from the traditional Brahmanical system because the egalitarian principles that Basava championed were, in many ways, contradictory to the views of the Brahmanical system (Das 163). This, in turn, was particularly attractive to lower class Hindus who had been traditionally alienated by the Brahmanical system.

In addition to his teachings about equality and social reform, Basava disseminated teachings about the nature of God and offered prescriptive approaches for the realization of God (Leslie 242). Because Basava was a devotee of Siva, many other Siva devotees, particularly from lower classes, found refuge in his teachings. Therefore, Basava was able to cultivate a large following which primarily consisted of Siva devotees – saranas – that distanced themselves from the Brahmin orthodoxy and instead embraced the inclusive model of Hinduism that Basava championed (Schouten 10). These saranas, according to Basava, no longer retained their class identity. This, too, was viewed unfavorably by the Brahmin orthodoxy, which, in contrast, stressed the immutability of one’s class (Das 163).

Due to a lack of royal patronage, Basava initially found it difficult to disseminate his teachings to a greater audience. The city of Kalyana – capital of the Calukya empire – had not yet divorced itself from the rigid Brahmanical orthodoxy; moreover, the Calukya leadership was generally apprehensive about Basava’s radical ideas because his ideas were met with strong contempt by the orthodoxy (Das 163). However, Bijjala, a powerful feudatory of the Calukya empire and a Saivite, was especially fond of Basava’s teachings (Leslie 242). The sustained decline of the Calukya empire coupled with poor leadership under Taila III led Bijjala to overthrow Taila III in 1162. Thus, he installed himself as the new emperor of the Calukya empire, paving the way for Basava to spread his teachings in Kalyana (Leslie 242). In addition to his religious endeavors, however, Basava was also a prominent political figure in the empire. He was appointed by Bijjala to serve as the chief minister of the empire, a position he held for thirty-six years (Ishwaran 6).

Basava continued to rally support from the people of Kalyana, with a particular focus on uniting Siva devotees and sudras. He later established the anubhava mandala, an institution that was central to accomplishing this goal. It served as a platform that enabled people from all walks of life to freely discuss spiritual, religious, and philosophical topics (Schouten 4). As time went on, a profound distrust of the Brahmanical system coupled with a growing sense of fraternity among Basava’s followers led Basava to formally establish the Saivite Lingayat sect (Ishwaran 2).

The monopolization of temples by the Brahmins was particularly disconcerting for Basava because it prevented many low-class Hindus from engaging in the worship of Siva (Ishwaran 7). Consequently, Basava reconceptualized the way people approached the worship and service of God – bhakti – to accommodate for the alienated peoples of society and to undermine the already waning influence of the priesthood. Basava explicitly declared that it was not necessary to visit a temple in order to worship God (Leslie 242). According to Basava, the linga is a manifestation of Siva; thus, it could serve as an object of worship. For many people, God was no longer a distant entity confined to the inner depths of temples. One could now freely worship Siva without concerning themselves about the mandates of orthodox tradition. In recognition of the all-encompassing presence of God, Basava believed that one could transform any object into a linga that could be worshipped if their devotion was strong enough (Rao and Roghair 33). The significance of the linga for practitioners of the Lingayat tradition continues to persist in contemporary practice, as well. Children will often undergo an initiation ritual (diksa) where a guru will present the child with a linga; moreover, one is expected to wear the linga around the neck for the rest of their life and worship it five times a day (Rao and Roghair 8).

There are two cornerstone principles of Lingayatism – kayaka and dasoha – that Basava argued were valid forms of worship and service to God. From God’s perspective, one’s profession did not dictate his or her worth in the eyes of God. Manual labor – kayaka –  was looked down upon by the orthodoxy, but Basava emphasized that the precise nature of one’s work did not matter, insofar as one did his or her work with effort and honesty (Leslie 243). The principle of kayaka was wildly popular because it gave people the reassurance that doing their work dutifully was a viable path toward God (Das 164). Dasoha refers to a concern for the wellbeing of others in one’s community (Ishwaran 10). A portion of one’s earnings, according to Basava, should be used to improve the lives of other people, regardless of their class affiliation. The principle of dasoha was therefore adopted by many people in Kalyana who no longer donated their earnings to the priesthood (Leslie 243).

Basava’s rising influence in Kalyana was inevitably met with protest by the orthodoxy who accused Basava of exploiting his political power and his position as chief minister of the Calukya empire (Das 163). In order to dismantle Basava’s influence in Kalyana, the orthodoxy believed that altering Bijjala’s perception of Basava could create a significant rift between both individuals. Consequently, Basava was accused of inappropriately using empire funds to support saranas who needed financial support. In addition, he was also accused of “polluting the royal court” (Leslie 244) through his interactions with sudras and untouchables. Accusations against Basava continued to climb, further exacerbating social tensions between the Brahmins and the saranas. Though these social tensions were not initially manifest in the form of violence, this dramatically changed after a sarana man was said to have married a Brahmin woman. The orthodoxy was fiercely critical of this wedding because the man was an untouchable (Schouten 49). Thus, the wedding was construed as an affront to the established orthodoxy, and the married couple was subsequently put to death by the Brahmins (Das 164). The saranas felt betrayed by Bijjala because he ordered the death of the couple, and violence soon flooded Kalyana (Schouten 50). Meanwhile, Basava was accused of organizing an insurgency against Bijjala’s empire, further heightening tensions (Leslie 244).

As conflict continued to escalate in Kalyana, Bijjala’s army intervened and killed many of Basava’s followers. Distraught by these events, Basava decided that he could no longer witness the terror that had unfolded in Kalyana (Ishwaran 85). He moved back to Kudalasangama where he died a few years later in 1167 (Das 164). Meanwhile, the growing resentment the saranas had towards Bijjala ultimately led to Bijjala’s assassination (Rao and Roghair 13).

The future of the Lingayat sect was uncertain following Basava’s death. His leadership was crucially important in maintaining cohesion within the sect and a sense of fraternity. However, his absence left the Lingayat tradition susceptible to Brahmanical influences (Schouten 15). The so-called Brahmanization of the Lingayat sect was manifest in a number of ways. For instance, temples dedicated to Siva had been built and the Brahmanical practice of donating money to priests had also surfaced in the tradition (Ishwaran 4-5). Over the next few centuries following his death, steps were taken by influential adherents of the Lingayat tradition to ensure that the distinctive identity of the sect was not eroded upon by Brahmanical influences. Many of Basava’s vacanas and other writings had been consolidated; moreover, these texts were given canonical status in Lingayatism (Ishwaran 4). Another significant development in the tradition was the establishment of the Virakta monastic system (Schouten 15). Moreover, this system was  important in preserving a sense of community in the sect by facilitating religious discussion amongst its followers in addition to providing Lingayat education (Ishwaran 4). Collectively, these developments were able to resist Brahmanical influences and thus enabled the tradition to retain its unique identity.


Das, Sisir K. (2005) A History of Indian Literature, 500-1399: From Courtly to the Popular. Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

Ishwaran, K (2019) Speaking of Basava: Lingayat Religion and Culture in South Asia. London: Routledge.

Leslie, Julia (1998) “Understanding Basava: History, Hagiography and a Modern Kannada Drama.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 61:228-61. Accessed February 3, 2020. doi:10.1017/S0041977X00013793.

Michael, Blake R. (1983) “Foundation Myths of the Two Denominations of Virasaivism: Viraktas and Gurusthalins.” The Journal of Asian Studies 42:309-22. Accessed February 24, 2020. doi:10.2307/2055116.

Rao, Velcheru N., and Gene Roghair (2014) Siva’s Warriors: The Basava Purana of Palkuriki Somanatha. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sahasrabudhe, M (1979) “Mahatma Basavesvara – A Social Reformer.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 40:221-26. Accessed February 3, 2020.

Schouten, Jan P. (1995) Revolution of The Mystics: On the Social Aspects of Virasaivism. Delhi:  Motilal Banarsidass

Srinivas, Mysore N. (1976) The Remembered Village. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Basava Purana

Basavaraja Devara Ragale

Palkuriki Somanatha



Dodda Basavanna Gudi

Calukya Dynasty

Basava Jayanthi

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Bhadra Pandya (Spring 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.

Shiv Sena

Shiv Sena is a modern militant Hindu political organization. This organization originally emerged from a movement in Mumbai demanding treatment for the Maharshtrians over migrants to the city. The city of Mumbai is one of Indias largest commercial and industrial centres. The citys predominant language is is Marathi which plays an important role in the unity among Maharshtrians. Shiv Sena is a product of nativism based upon Marathi ideologies and Hindutva (Hindu nationalism). The name Shiv Sena derived from the seventeenth century founder of the Maratha Empire. The Marathas became prominent in the seventeenth century under the leadership of Shivaji Maharaj, who revolted and defeated the Mughal Empire of the North. By adopting the name Shiv Sena, which translates to the Army of Shiva(Katzenstein 387) in 1966, this organization formed to safeguard the interest of the sons of the soil.In 1967, Shiv Sena entered the political scene by helping Congress defeat Krishna Menon, a South Indian by birth. And in 1968, this organization had 42 of 140 seats in the municipal election (Katzenstein 387).

Nativism is a term for the policy of protecting the interests of native born or established inhabitants against the interests of migrants. Multi-ethnic societies, such as India, often cultivate Nativist attitudes. Nativism most commonly arises in urban areas as opposed to small cities or tiny villages because industrial and commercial centres often attract migrants. On occasion, when Nativism is politicized it will find expression in the forms of demonstrations, riots, nativist associations and nativist political parties (Katzenstein 386). Shiv Senas movement of nativism is different from ethnic movements, linguistic movements and regional sub-nationalism because it is specifically anti-migrant (Katzenstein 386). However, Indian subnational movements such as Akali Dal and Dravida Monnetro Kazhagam may contain elements of nativism. Alkali Dal is a regional political party in the Punjab state of northwestern India, who is the principal advocacy organization for the large Sikh community (DSouza 2014). Dravida Monnnetro Kazhagam is also a regional political party in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu. They are a nationalistic movement advocating the betterment of the dravidian population in Tamil Nadu as well as Sri Lanka (DSouza 2014). In India nativist movements have emerged in different sorts and sizes. In a small North Indian town of Khajurho, the faint dispersion of nativist attitudes had cased one of the three small restaurants to change its obvious South Indian name to one that is ethnically non-descriptive. In the city of Gauhati in North India, there have been violent demonstrations against migrant Marwari businessmen and shopkeepers (Katzenstein 386). And in the city of Bombay (current day Mumbai), nativist sentiment has found explicit political expression in the militant political party Shiv Sena. Bal Thackeray, the founder of the party, was a cartoonist for the Marthi newsletter the Marmik. Under his leadership the Shiv Sena became a dominant political force in Maharashtra (Hollar 2012).

There are essentially two phases of the formation of Shiv Sena (Katzentstein 388). The first was the emergence of the Sena as a nativist movement which aimed to protect the interests of the local people against the encroachment of the outsiders.And the second was the development of its more militant phase. Even though these two phases need to be examined independently, the origins of these phases are not; instead, they have emerged from each other (Katzentstein 388). The nativist phase of Shiv Sena mainly focuses on the job competition of middle class Maharashtrians. Shiv Sena primarily argues that a the main goal of an educated Maharashtrian was to find a stable job, particularly an office job. They claim that Maharashtrians, unlike other migrants to the state, do not have the aspirations or the equity to take up new businesses. For these people, it is far better to take up a reliable and safe office job rather than entering the unknown of commercial pursuits. The typical interpretation of the situation is that South Indians had been migrating to Mumbai, and that they began to monopolize the office jobs in the city. Accordingly, Maharashtrians were unable to compete with the migrant South Indians because either South Indians were able to speak better english or these people would hire exclusively from their own communities (Katzenstein 389). It is generally thought that the different communities in Mumbai maintained different employment specializations. South Indians were being recruited to management positions and office work; Maharashtrians typically worked as house servants or labourers. Bringing attention to these struggles faced by Maharashtrians is what had won Shiv Sena most of its votes. Shiv Sena also claimed, that as a community the Maharashtrians felt themselves to be subordinate on their own native soil(Katzenstein 392). These feelings of subordination were established in part due to the demographic position of Maharashtrians in the the city of Mumbai. In 1961, Maharashtrians were a minority, representing only 41% of Mumbais population, however they were still the largest linguistic community (Katzentstein 392). Although the fact that the non-Maharashtrians exceeded the local Maharashtrians in their own city evidently affected the way Maharashtrians perceived themselves and others. The minority position of Maharashtrians would have mattered less if these people did not perceive themselves to be economically or socially subordinate (Katzentstein 393). Surveys comparing the Maharashtrian communities from 1950 to 1966, when the Sena emerged, showed that the underdeveloped Maharashtrian communities had not changed in 16 years. This lack of economic and social change had caused the shift in the psychology of the Maharashtrians (Katzenstein 394). This lack of change and frustration provoked the emergence of Shiv Sena. Even two years before the formation of Shiv Sena proposals for Maharashtrian unity, and attacks on outsidersin the Marmik sparked awareness for the Maharashtrian frustration. The formation of Shiv Sena was only successful in the city of Mumbai and there neighbouring city of Thana. Shiv Sena attempted, but failed to attain political power in other urban and rural areas in Maharashtra. This success in the large cities opposed to smaller towns and rural areas was attributed to the higher literacy rates and the higher rates of migration. The literacy rates in Mumbai were twice as high than the surrounding ares of the rest of the state of Maharashtra; if this were not the case it is debated that the Sena would not have succeeded. Much of the partys reputation had been won through the media, especially through the Marmik.

With attempts to move farther into the state of Maharashtra, Shiv Sena realized that regional identity alone cannot help the party reach its ambitions because their philosophies and avenues to gain support had changed. Bal Thackeray had realized that his anti-south campaign had lost its edge (Engineer 1203). Thackeray, however, got an opportunity to reassure his importance when the Hindu revivalist movement began to emerge in the early eighties, after the episode of conversions to Islam of some Harijans in the Meenakshi- Puram district of Tamil Nadu (Engineer 1203). The party had already played an important role in the Kosa and Bhiwandi riots in the late sixties and the early seventies, only rarely was its anti-Muslim concept overlapped with its anti-south efforts. In 1984, Shiv Sainiks were roaming the streets of Mumbai with swords in their hands, this followed communal riots in Mumbai and Bhivandi (Engineer 1203). A series of riots and communal violence took place wherever the party opened a branch. Shiv Sena again used the changing demographic of Aurangabad to its advantage. Marathwada was previously a part of the old Nizam state. It was ruled by Muslim elite with some collaborations with Hindu elites. Hindu resentment against Muslim domination had began to surface (Engineer 1203). This situation had become worse with the social and demographic change. Like the city of Mumbai, industrialization had brought non muslim outsiders to Aurangabad. The muslim population began to decrease in numbers and significance. In 1985 Shiv Sena entered the town of Aurangabad by increasing communal tensions (Engineer 1204).

The anti-Muslim movement presented by the leadership did not make it to a popular level, until the movements leading to the riots of 1992 and 1993. These riots took place in Mumbai in December 1992 carrying into January 1993. 900 people were killed in these riots, which were initiated by the hostilities of large protests. These protests were reactions to the 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu Karsevaks in Ayodhya. In Hindu mythology, Ayodhya is the first place of the God – king Rama (Banerjee 1214). And the location of the Babri Mosque was believed to be on the actual birthplace of Rama. This event had escalated Hindu and Muslim tension. It is believed that the riots in Mumbai were pre-planned, and that the Hindu rioters were granted access to the location of muslim homes and businesses through sources that were not public. The women of Shiv Sena were recored as playing an important role in these riots. This violence in Mumbai had included a large number of women. Shiv Sena, mobilized women to block the arrest of several of its leaders, these women also prevented fire engines from being able to access Muslim areas in need. As well they had looted Muslim stores and attacked Muslim women (Banerjee 1214). Shiv Sena women also had a lot of influence in the partys violence through shaming the men with taunts of wearing bangles, being unmanly and suggesting that they could not be fathers to their children since they were standing by watching the violence Hinduswere being subjected to.

To further understand the significance of the rise of Shiv Sena in Mumbai it is important to understand the terms local peopleand the sons of the soil. Maharashtra, meaning the land of the Marathi speaking people, is the third largest state of India. Maharashtra meaning The land of the Marathi speaking people. The local people in Maharashtra were defined with three meanings: firstly, that a persons mother tongue was the linguistically dominant language. In Maharashtra, this was Marathi. Second that a person had lived in Maharashtra for at least ten to fifteen years. Lastly, one who identifies with the joys and sorrowsof Maharashtra (Katzenstein 387). It is important to note that the feeling of sub-ordinance felt by the local people of Mumbai and surrounding areas created tension and caused the very uprising of the Sena. Shiv Sena has had an outlasting effect on the people and culture of Mumbai and Maharashtra. It has been discussed that Shiv Sena and Bal Thackeray had changed Mumbai forever. Particularity the violence and riots they had sparked across the city.


Banerjee, Sikata. (1996) The Feminization of Violence in Bombay: Women in the Politics of the Shiv Sena.Asian Survey 36 (December): 1213-1225.

DSouza, Shanthie M. (2014) Dravidian Progressive Federation. Britannica Academic. Accessed March 25, 2017.

DSouza, Shanthie M. (2014) Shromani Akali Dal (SAD)Britannica Academic. Accessed March 25, 2017.

Engineer, Asghar A. (1988) Aurangabad Riots: Part of Shiv Senas Politcal Strategy.Economic and Political Weekly 23: 1203-1205.

Engineer, Asghar A. (1988) Shiv Sena – Protector of Hinduism or Menace to Minorities.Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 8:70 – 74

Hollar, Sherman (2012) Bal Thackeray.Britannica Academic. Accessed March 25, 2017.

Heuze, Gerard. (2000) Populism, Religion and Nation in Contemporary India: the Evolution of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 20: 1-62

Katzenstein, Mary. (1973) The Emergence of Shiv Sena in Bombay.Asian Survey 13: 386 – 399

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Caste system


Mogul Empire

Marathi Empire


South Indian


Marathi Ideologies

Shivaji Maharaj

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Cora Place (March 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Shiv Sena

The Shiv Sena is a Hindu nationalist party based in Mumbai and founded by Bal Thackeray in 1966. Although the modern Shiv Sena party is deeply involved in Hindu nationalist rhetoric, it started as a regional, pro-Marathi party in the state of Maharashtra. The roots of the Shiv Sena’s pro-Marathi origins is evident in the name – which translates as Army of Shivaji. Shivaji was a Marathi warrior responsible for the foundation of the Maratha Empire in the seventeenth century. In the earliest period of the Shiv Sena, the organisation was motivated by the economic plight and migration of non-Maharashtrians to Mumbai (Roy 139). In addition to the establishment of the Shiv Sena, Thackeray had launched Marmik, a Marathi language based newspaper that pushed many of the Maharashtrian issues that would also be espoused by Shiv Sena. By the 1980’s, Mumbai and Maharashtra had been experiencing decades of economic decline and a stagnant labour market.

According to Shiv Sena founder, Bal Thackeray, Maharashtrians suffered from economic and social discrimination. When including Thackeray’s claims with the economic conditions of the state, it led to increased support for Shiv Sena (Banerjee 113). Thackeray had used the economic situation as a way to vilify all non-Marathi Indians in Mumbai and the state of Maharashtra. In 1984, however, Shiv Sena and Thackeray had moved away from a pro-Marathi ideology to the broader ideology of “Hindutva” or Hindu nationalism. In order to rejuvenate the Shiv Sena and take advantage of the weak political situation in Maharashtra, the adoption of Hindutva gave the Shiv Sena a wider Hindu base in contrast to a narrower ethnic base. It also allowed the Shiv Sena to gain political prominence, as Nehruvian secularism (named after former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru) became overshadowed by the Hindu nationalist ideology (Banerjee 85). Bal Thackeray and the Sena, as a result, began to focus their disdain and particular brand of Hindutva on India’s Muslim population.

In 1947, India had been partitioned into two states (and later three) on the basis of religion. Muslim-majority Pakistan (and later Bangladesh separate from Pakistan) and Hindu-majority India were divided into two dominions. The partition led to the displacement of approximately ten to twelve million people and resulted in a period of mass violence in both India and Pakistan. Like the 1940’s, the 1980’s was a period of tension and anxiety. Mainstay policies, such as secularism, began to look exhausted (Banerjee 85). As a result, Hindutva became more prominent. In order to understand the theory of nationalism theorised by Anthony D. Smith that was adopted by Shiv Sena, among other Indian far-right political organisations, some explanation of the form of nationalism espoused is required. The form of nationalism that Hindu nationalism fits is the theoretical model of Primordialism; primordialism can be explained in a way as a variant of “organic nationalism” (Smith 55). Primordialism is a strategy by which an ethnic group uses their language, religion, culture as markers of biological affinity (Smith 56). The basics of this nationalist strategy work with the Shiv Sena in both its pro-Marathi ideology and later Hindutva ideology. For the Shiv Sena, language was the original source of tension and grew to include religion, or wider-kin, according to primordialism. Other principles of primordial nationalism include an attachment to customs and territory (Smith 57): this too is supported by Thackeray and Shiv Sena’s push for policies to benefit Maharashtrians, rather than other Indians and Muslims in the 1960’s and 70’s. Anthony D. Smith’s monograph, Nationalism, uses the example of Pakistan and India as a case for primordial nationalism. In Nationalism, there is the discussion of Pakistan’s independence being driven by Muslim elites during the partition of India, as well as being driven by a desire to protect Muslim culture, traditions, and institutions (Smith 59).

As a Hindu nationalist organisation, Shiv Sena has not been averse to violence. While the Shiv Sena is a political party, it had been involved in inciting the Mumbai riots of 1992-93. Several instances – Jogeshwari, Behrampada, Dhavari, and Govandi – are some of the most notable acts that surround the period of the Mumbai Riots, where between sixty and sixty-seven percent of attacks by Shiv Sena targeted Muslim populations in and around Mumbai (Banerjee 35). According to Thackeray and Shiv Sena, Muslims are the enemies of the Hindu nation, supporting the primordial model of nationalism. As the Shiv Sena were founded upon a pro-Marathi ideology and named the “Army of Shivaji”, there is a sort of tradition that is notable. In the seventeenth-century,  Shivaji created an independent state from the Muslim Mughal Empire, starting in Maharashtra and eventually becoming the Maratha Empire. For Shiv Sena, this forms the early basis of the tradition of Muslims being their enemies. This is repeated in traditional “myths” of Islamic aggression against Hindus as a result of long-lasting Muslim rule of India and stories of Muslim rulers using brutality to maintain their dominance over the Hindus of India (Banerjee 36). Another example of how the Muslims were depicted as bloodthirsty is a slaughterhouse in Govandi/Deonar. A slaughterhouse was opened in this neighborhood in 1975, mostly employing Muslims, which resulted in the Sena using this as a political issue to state that Muslims are deliberately offending the Hindu people and faith as a result (Banerjee 49-50). This method of demonizing the Muslim populations of Maharashtra and India as a whole has also given the Sena an opportunity to use the matter of Hindu masculinity in their nationalist discourse.

The Shiv Sena have a discourse that is simple to understand once in the context of the Primordial nationalist theory. It maintains a narrative that Muslims are historical enemies of India and the Hindus, and the Sena maintains that Hindu masculinity is threatened by the Muslims. As a result, Shiv Sena has claimed that the Indian government is weak for maintaining a secularist system that damages Hindu tradition. Furthermore, Shiv Sena has characterised the government as impotent, effeminate, and castrated in order to be subservient to India’s Muslim community (Roy 141). The Shiv Sena espouse that due to the weakness of the Indian government, Hindu masculinity is rejuvenated through acts of violence against Muslims. This weakness is noted by the Shiv Sena in their reference to the authorities as Hijras (eunuchs), though it is disputed that the authorities actually sided with the Sena during instances like the Mumbai Riots in 1992 and 1993 (Banerjee 37-38). In the Shiv Sena organisation, the regeneration of masculinity is heavy in its rhetoric, attributing violence and aggression as masculine attributes. This can be noted in the rhetoric of referring to Shiv Sena militants as Shiv Sainiks (warriors), and their fight against Muslims as a dharmayudh (Holy War) (Roy 143). Another aspect of Shiv Sena’s nationalist rhetoric playing on masculinity is to draw on the necessity of protecting the women of their family. This is used by Shiv Sena in this particular instance by referring to the nation of India as Bharat Mata, or “Mother India” (Roy 146). While Shiv Sena is a majority male organisation and known to use hyper-masculinity with patriarchal constructs, the Sena also maintain a wing of women. For the Shiv Sena, it is possible that a woman can have “masculine traits”, and that masculinity and femininity are not necessarily limited to biological or gendered dichotomies (Banerjee 133-134).

While this development of women within the Shiv Sena may appear contrary to what Bal Thackeray originally espoused when founding the Shiv Sena, he lauded the role of women within the organisation (Sen 75). Despite this, Thackeray also maintained the position that women should maintain the more restricted roles of “everyday Sena women” as carriers of domestic and religious culture (Sen 75). There is a contradiction in what Thackeray espouses regarding the traditional role of women and the eventual role of women within Shiv Sena. Thackeray had many contradictions in regards to his writings and speeches regarding the role of women. As stated previously, Thackeray believed that women should carry the domestic and religious culture as necessary, but in his speeches, he made pleas to women to take up arms and defend themselves in the streets of Mumbai (Sen 77). Just as Shiv Sena used metaphors associated with lightning and fire to rejuvenate masculinity among Hindu men, Thackeray invoked the female goddesses Kali and Durga with the ideals of female militancy for Shiv Sena women, albeit to minimal effect (Sen 79).

While it may have been the goal of Bal Thackeray and Shiv Sena leaders to mobilise a militancy within Shiv Sena women, it appears to have failed. Instead, the Shiv Sena women used their political motivation to achieve objectives through continuous political engagement (Sen 108-109). As a result, the women of Shiv Sena provide a more pragmatic and utilitarian approach to Hindutva and Shiv Sena’s political participation. While Thackeray’s rhetoric may have been contradictory, it appears to have been suited to the situation when it came to Sena women. The call to arms may have failed when contrasted to how Hindu men responded, but it had an impact on how women approached politics within not only India, but also the male-heavy Hindutva movement. In fact, the role of Shiv Sena women is more aligned with Shiv Sena allies, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). The Shiv Sena’s penchant for violence is contrasted by the RSS’ cooperative and activist approach – which is more in line with what Roy has noted with the Shiv Sena women (Roy 145). The two parties both belong to the Hindu nationalist movement but have different approaches. With there being different approaches within the Shiv Sena organisation itself, though, there is a possibility for further change within the organisation, especially following Bal Thackeray’s death in 2012.











Bibliography & Further Recommended Readings

Banjaree, Sikata (1999) Warriors in Politics: Hindu Nationalism, Violence, and Shiv Sena in Mumbai. Boulder: Westview Press.

Heuze, Gerard (2000) “Populism, Religion, and Nation in Contemporary India: The Evolution of Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 20: 3-43.

Roy, Abhik (2006) “Regenerating Masculinity in the Construction of Hindu Nationalist Identity: A Case Study of Shiv Sena.” Communication Studies 57: 135-152.

Sen, Atreyee (2007) Shiv Sena Women: Violence and Communalism in a Bombay Slum. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Smith, Anthony D. (2010) Nationalism: Theory, Ideology, History. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Aghadi women

Babri Masjid

Bal Thackeray

Bombay/Mumbai Riots

Hindu Nationalism

Partition of India

Mughal Empire

Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh


Srikrisna Commission


Related Websites


This article was written by: Rasim Music (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is India’s far right nationalist group. The RSS was founded by ex-congressman Keshav Baliram Hedgewar in 1925, after the impact of Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation movement (Andersen 589). The RSS was founded with two major themes involved; to unite Hindus after the initial separation from British rule, and to rally Hindus against invading religious beliefs such as Islam (Andersen 589). The RSS drew most of its beliefs from the Maharashtrian tradition, which combined gymnastic and military traditions. Many of RSS members were a once part of the Maharashtrian tradition, where leading ideologies of the RSS originally emerged (Andersen 589). Savarkar, a nationalist Hindu scholar, had a large impact on the RSS beliefs.

Savarkar’s thesis argued that any Hindu person in the subcontinent is considered a unified nation,  (Andersen 592). Savarkar, along with many other Hindu nationalists, disagreed that the Aryans were not the only ones to invade the subcontinent; instead, Savarkar believed that Aryans were originally from the Sindh valley, and their ideologies spread throughout India over time (Andersen 592). Savarkar argued that the sufferings endured from foreign invasions over the years created a more cohesive nation (Andersen 592). This view was widely accepted by Hedgewar, and many other Hindu nationalists. By March 1925, The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang was created by Hedgewar alongside Savarkar in Nagpur.

The RSS’ activities were very limited during this time. On Sunday mornings they would gather as a group; on Tuesdays and Thursdays, intellectual gatherings, later known as Baudhik, were held (Andersen 592). In April 1926, The RSS’s first activity was recorded. Hedgewar took the swayamsevaks, a grouping of RSS members, to the Shri Ramchandra festival, where they formed queues, and provided drinking water for the locals. The RSS also prevented Brahmins and Muslim beggars from taking money from the locals (Andersen 593). Initiation into the RSS was rigorous, acceptance into the organization showed absolute devotion to India and her people. Additional testing was done even after being accepted into the RSS, done by Hedgewar himself (Andersen 593). By 1928, the RSS began to spread out of Nagpur and into neighboring provinces (Andersen 593). The RSS had 18 shakhas (units) at their disposal at this time. On November 9, 1929, the leaders of the RSS decided that they should have one guide. Hedgewar was appointed to this position, along with two all-Sangh officials. In 1930, Hedgewar was arrested for breaking India’s forest laws and was sentenced to nine months in prison, where he spread the ideology of the RSS. By 1931, the RSS was composed of 60 shakhas (Andersen 594). The RSS was established in the Benaras Hindu University, greatly benefiting from the spread of RSS beliefs through students word of mouth (Andersen 594). On June 21, 1940, Hedgewar passed away after a long illness, and Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar was named his successor (Andersen 594).

From 1940-1948 RSS membership grew extensively, with 500 branches and 60,000 members in the Sangh (Andersen 594). The RSS had two major concerns during the Second World War: the protection of Hindu culture and community in case Japan invaded, and to prepare for the post-war period hardships that would likely follow (Andersen 595). In an attempt to prevent dissolution of the organization, the Sangh cooperated with government policies. On August 5, 1940, the British Government banned para-military drill and uniform activities (Andersen 595). The RSS complied, and was later recognized for this in an analysis done by British government officials. The compliance the RSS showed allowed them continuance to operate as an activist group (Andersen 595).

After Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, Golwalkar was thrown in jail and the RSS was banned from operating due to suspicion that the RSS were acting in crimes  of arson, robbery, and murder (Andersen 674). The government wrongfully assumed that the RSS was a political body, and in retaliation the RSS believed the only way to survive was to become a political party. The Sangh ran on a Hindu monastery model, making it difficult for them to become part of congress. The RSS became democratic in order to better their chances of joining congress, although it was still not used within the Sangh (Andersen 677). Many members within the RSS were acting members of congress. However, they were representing parties separate from the Sangh. (Andersen 677). Hedgewar originally created the RSS with the strict idea of leaving it as an organization; Golwalker continued this idea further with no intention of changing the policy. It was forbidden to have the pracharaks (cadres) to participate in congress at all (Andersen 678). But to much of the RSS’s beliefs, they were allowed entry into Congress on October 7, 1949. However, this lasted only a short while. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s Prime Minister at the time, allowed RSS men to join congress only if they gave up RSS membership (Andersen 678). Still unsure of what to do, the RSS instead became a part of many other organizations to spread their ideology.

The RSS launched their first organization, the Akhil Bharatyia Vidyarthi Parishad, an organization of students (Andersen 725). This group has grown into the one of the largest student organisations in India. The ideologies of the RSS drew the attention of middle to lower class students, who now compose the majority of the organization (Andersen 726). The organisation was most influential in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Madhya Pradesh, all of which had great RSS strength. Another project was to establish a newspaper for the RSS. The newspaper was not very successful, with many news agencies refusing to publish the RSS stories (Andersen 726). Desperate to get their foot in the political doorstep, the RSS began to support the nationalist political group called the Jan Sangh, created by Shyama Prasad Mookerjee on April 5, 1980.

Mookerjee held many of the same values as the Sangh, with a desire to unite all Hindu castes and bring the lower castes into the light (Andersen 679). The RSS acted as a mentor for the BJP, guiding their views to be more aligned with the Sangh.  (R. Sarkar & A. Sarkar 333). The BJP was created with the viewpoint of creating a unified, politicized Hinduism (Odgen 304). The BJP had a great distrust in outsiders, and believed that any outsider would have to pledge allegiance to Bharat, the Indian subcontinent (Odgen 307). The Jan Sangh’s first and major concern was to protect the country and her culture from the invasion of Muslim ideologies, going as far to associate Pakistani Muslims with terrorism within India (Odgen 307). The BJP were determined to get back Pakistani occupied land, and believed that restoring and strengthening India’s nationalism through militaristic means were necessary (Odgen 307). These beliefs became the norm for the BJP party by 1998. Aggression towards Pakistan increased tremendously in May 1998, when the BJP came into power and began nuclear testing.

The BJP and RSS still play a role in politics today. Many BJP high-ranking officials were once part of the RSS, including India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, and BJP president Amit Shah (R. Sarkar and A. Sarkar 333). They still hold the same beliefs today, with many BJP decisions having close ties with the Sangh agenda. Recently, the RSS core goal has been the protection of cows in India, a sacred animal to the Hindu religion (R. Sarkar and A. Sarkar 334). In order to protect Hindu values and to strengthen culture, the BJP banned the sale of beef products in India. 22 of the 29 States in India already have imposed a ban on the slaughter of cows, all with varying degrees of punishment (R. Sarkar and A. Sarkar 331). It is a punishable offence in Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh to consume beef products, with jail time of up to 10 years in Jharkhand, Jammu & Kashmir, Haryana, and Rajasthan. With the new BJP law in effect, it is a punishable offence to sell, consume, or be in possession of beef all throughout India.

The RSS is also trying to make change to the national curriculum (Overland 2001). Longtime RSS member Murli Manohar Joshi was India’s Minister of Education. He seeked to change the education system to become more Hindu orientated, with the slogan to “nationalize, Indianize, and spiritualize” India’s educational system (Overland 2001). Joshi’s education draft required children to learn Sanskrit, along with Hindi as well. His draft also touched on history books, making it mandatory to learn about Hedgewar and his beliefs (Overland 2001). The Human Resource Ministry introduced value education, designed to teach Hindu traditions, such as spiritual principles and practices (Overland 2001). Many textbook have had changes made already, with RSS teachings as the predominant subject (Overland 2001).

The RSS has shown their ability to shape Hindu culture very well throughout their history. With the BJP in power, the RSS demonstrates that they have the ability to push their agenda via voting power. Their dedication to Hinduism is still shown today, through education reforms, policy changes, and international relations, specifically with Pakistan. The Swayamsevaks and the BJP will continue to transform India into a nationalized, unified Hindu society.








Andersen, Walter (1972) “The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh: I: Early Concerns.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 7 No. 11: 589 591-597.


Andersen, Walter (1972) “The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh: III: Participation in Politics”. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.7 No. 13: 673 675 677-682.


Andersen, Walter (1972) “The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh: IV; Jan Sangh and Other Organisations.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 7 No. 14: 724-727.


Odgen, Chris (2010) “Norms, Indian Foreign Policy and the 1998-2004 National Democratic Alliance.” Round Table (London), Vol. 99 No. 408: 303-315.


Overland, Martha Ann (2001) “A Right-Wing Hindu Group Exerts Its Muscle in India Academe.” The Chronicle of Higher Education.


Sarkar, Amar and Radha Sarkar (2016) “Sacred Slaughter: An Analysis of Historical, Communal, and Constitutional Aspects of Beef Bans in India.” Politics, Religion & Ideology, Vol. 17 No. 4: 329-351.


Related Topics

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)


India in WWII

Education System in India

Pakistan and India Relations

Indian National Congress

Early Life of Keshav Baliram Hedgwar

RSS Headquarters in Nagpur

Noteworthy Websites

Article written by: Alex Moumdjian (March 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.

Bharat Mata

The figure of a maternal goddess connected to the land is not a new idea in Hinduism, however, it was not until the conception of Bharat Mata (Mother India), that the worship of the country of India itself as a goddess began to emerge (Foulston 204).  What distinguished Bharat Mata from the much older goddess of the Earth, Prithvi, is Bharat Mata’s association with the specific geography of India (Ramaswamy 564). The subcontinent of India itself becomes a goddess and a mother who is sustained by the sacrifice of her children (Kinsley 181). Bharat Mata embodies all that is India: the land, the people, the religion, the culture, and even the politics. This image of a single Mother representing an entire nation was a way to arouse “the national sentiments of the population as a whole,” (Thapar 88) since it was the duty of the collective to protect the Mother from outside dangers (Thapar 88).

One of the earliest depictions of Bharat Mata is in Bhuedeb Mukhopadhyay’s Unabima Purana (‘The Nineteenth Purusa’), where she is portrayed as a widow and the epitome of what it means to be Aryan (Foulston 204-205). Not long afterwards, in 1873, she appeared in Kiran Chandra Bandyopadhyay’s play, Bharat Mata, as a trodden down motherland (Foulston 205). It, however, was not until her appearance in the nationalist novel Anandamath (Abbey of Bliss or The Sacred Brotherhood) written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, that the character of Bharat Mata began to gain popularity (Foulston 205). The novel was written during the late nineteenth century, a time when the Indian independence movement was at its height, and as a result the figure of a mother who required the protection of her children against outside aggression took on a more central role in India’s fight for political freedom (Kinsley 181).

Chatterjee’s novel itself is set during the late eighteenth century in a Bengali community during the famine of 1770. Anandamath follows a group called the ‘Order of the Children,’ who worship a Mother goddess, as they work to free themselves as well as their Mother from the tyranny of their oppressors (Foulston 205). One of the more significant scenes in the novel occurs when the character of Mahendra is taken into the ‘Order’s’ temple by the chief monk. Once in the temple, Mahendra is shown three different forms of the Mother goddess. The first form depicts the Mother as she was in the past. This form portrays her as Annapurna, the goddess of plenty. The next form of the Mother goddess depicts her in her current state. In contrast to the first form, this form is portrayed as Kali, naked and disheveled. Kali’s nakedness is seen as visually representing all that has been taken away from India since it had been under British rule (Foulston 206). Additionally, Kali is adorned with skulls (Foulston 206) and severed arms (Kinsley 181). The skulls signify the death of the land caused by the famine (Foulston 206), while the severed arms represent the sacrifices that will need to be made in order to free the Mother from British oppression (Kinsley 181).

The final form of the Mother is what she would be if she were liberated: a mighty, ten armed goddess, yielding a weapon in each hand, with the enemy crushed at her feet. This depiction of a supreme warrior draws on the image of the great goddess Durga (Foulston 206 and Ramaswamy 562). Excited by the prospect of this radiant Mother, Mahendra asks when she will once again attain this form to which the chief monk’s reply is, only when all of her children recognize her as true Mother (McKean 254). The chief monk’s reply emphasizes that the only way that liberation, both political and spiritual, can be obtained for the ‘Order’ and the Mother is through complete devotion to and sacrifice for the Mother (McKean 254). It is only when all of the Mother’s children are willing to serve the Mother and sacrifice themselves for her, like the members of the ‘Order’ are willing to do, that the Mother goddess will once again become great (Kinsley 182). This statement can also be seen as paralleling modern Hindu nationalistic rhetoric by suggesting that “anyone who wants a place in India should view India as their sacred land and their Mother” (Foulston 207-208), thus establishing a separation between the devoted children of Bharat Mata and those that would seek to oppress the Mother and her children.

Chatterjee’s Anandamath, in addition to providing one of the first clear figures of the Mother-goddess, also depicts Bharat Mata in the form of a song of praise, which has since become a national song, entitled Vande Mataram (Hail to the Mother or I bow to Thee Mother) (Foulston 207).  Incidentally, this song of praise to the Mother goddess in the novel was actually written before the novel itself and has resulted in numerous translations being produced (Foulston 208).  Among the translations that have been produced is one by Sri Aurobindo, who was an early proponent of Indian nationalism (Foulston 207). The slogan “Vande Mataram” quickly became popular apart from the novel, as the idea of “the Motherland and the stirring nature of her anthem have been attractive to many seeking their own identity” (Foulston 208). The slogan “Vande Mataram” was used politically for the first time in 1905 at demonstrations for the partition of Bengal. At this point in time, both Hindus and Muslims joined together to shout the slogan. However, by 1921, Hindus used the same slogan against Muslims during the Calcutta riots; thus Vande Mataram is regarded by many Muslims to be anti-Islamic (Foulston 208).

This hymn of praise to the Motherland became “the rallying cry for an emergent patriotic cult of Bharat Mata” (Ramaswamy 558) seeking Indian independence from the British (Foulston 208 and Ramaswamy 558). Even though India is now an independent country, the idea of a Mother-goddess is still very prevalent in India. The Indian national anthem for example, which was first sung in 1911, similarly expresses the same sentiment as Chatterjee’s Vande Mataram (Kinsley 183).

In the Anandamath, Bharat Mata is associated with the fight against British colonialism, however, over the years there has been a transition so that the figure of Bharat Mata has become more closely associated with Hindu nationalism as opposed to Indian nationalism. (Foulston 209). Whereas, during the Indian independence movement, Hindus and Muslims fought alongside each other to free the Mother, the image of Bharat Mata and national identity is now deeply embedded in Hindu piety and activism which is symbolized by the temples erected for Bharat Mata (Gupta 104 and McKean 264). The first temple dedicated to Bharat Mata was erected in 1936 in Banaras (or Varanasi) in which Bharat Mata is represented by a relief map of a still undivided India (Foulston 209). The purpose for building the temple was an “attempt at creating a composite religious and national identity and was seen as a place . . .  where all could worship.” (Gupta 102). The desire to create a place where there was no distinction between Hindu and Muslim, people of high caste and people of low caste, however, was undercut by the Hindu symbols that adorned the temple. On the gates of the temple, for example, the slogan Vande Mataram was inscribed. Since its use against Muslims in 1921, this slogan has been considered by many Muslims as anti-Islamic. The use of Vande Mataram on the gates of the temple only served as a way to further alienate the Muslim population and embed the image of Bharat Mata in Hindu nationalism (Foulston 209-210 and Gupta 103-104).

A second temple for Bharat Mata was constructed in 1983 at Haridwar, which is an important pilgrimage city for Hindus, by Swami Satyamiterand Giri, the leader of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP)(Foulston 210). In comparison to the temple in Banaras, this eight-storey building depicts the figure of Bharat Mata standing on the map of India holding stalks of grain and an urn of milk in her hands (Foulston 210). The Mother goddess herself takes up the first floor, while the other floors are occupied by “a variety of deities, national heroes and virtuous women satis, some of whom have burned themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre” (Foulston 210). The incorporation of both Hindu symbols and deities with national martyrs in the Bharat Mata temple in Haridwar associates the national Indian identity with the Hindu identity, and is thus able to convey to its visitors a particular configuration of what a unified India looks like (McKean 277).

Before the consecration of the Bharat Mata temple in Haridwar, the Vishva Hindu Parishad promoted the worship of Bharat Mata via a six-week tour of India. The Vishva Hindu Parishad organized the Ekatmata Rath Yatra (One Mother Chariot Procession) integration ritual, where 400 litres of Ganga water as well as “images of Ganga Ma, Siva, and a temporary shrine to Bharat Mata” (Foulston 210) were taken all over India. During the worship of Bharat Mata, religious leaders as well as Hindu nationalists warned the participants that Hinduism was under threat due to the government’s positive treatment of minorities, particularly Muslims” (Foulston 210-211). Thus the Bharat Mata temple at Haridwar portrays the figure of Mother India in terms of Hindu ideals and values, ultimately presenting Bharat Mata as Hindu.

Since her earliest appearances as the Mother goddess worshiped by a community of renouncers in Chatterjee’s Anandamat, the figure of Bharat Mata has “continued to transform, adapting to differing political agendas (Sen 173). In her earliest form, Bharat Mata was a figure that created unity amongst all Indians. The image of Mother India quickly became associated with the fight for Indian independence, as it was up to the children to free the Mother from the oppression of British rule. At the time when India was suffering under British rule, the idea of a maternal figure that required devotion and self-sacrifice from her children was a beneficial way to unite the entire populace of India against a common cause. The fusion of the land, the people, and the Mother as one served to instill the idea that the only way the people could be free is if the Mother is freed and vice versa. The Indian nationalism associated with Bharat Mata has since shifted towards Hindu nationalism. While the nation of India is still “figured as a loving Mother surrounded by her devoted children,” (McKean 252) the figure of the tyrannical oppressor has now shifted from the British to the secular state as well as Muslims (McKean 252).  In this figure of Bharat Mata, “nationhood, culture and religion have become part of a package deal” (Sen 173).  There is no longer a separation between the spiritual and the political. The figure of Bharat Mata has become a representative of what it means to be an ideal Hindu.



Duara, Prasenjit (1991) “The New Politics of Hinduism.” The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 3: 42-50.

Foulston, Lynn (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Portland, Oregon: Sussex Academic Press.

Gupta, Charu (2006) “The Icon of Mother in Late Colonial North India: Bharat Mata, Matri Bhasha and Gau Mata.” In Beyond Representation: Colonial and Postcolonial Constructions of Indian Identity, edited by Crispin Bates, 100-122. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kinsley, David R (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McKean, Lisa (1996) “Bharat Mata: Mother India and Her Militant Matriots.” In Devi: Goddesses of India, edited by Hawley, John S. and Donna M. Wulff, 250- 280. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ramaswamy, Sumathi (2005) “The Goddess and the Nation: Subterfuges of Antiquity, the Cunning of Modernity.” In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, edited by Gavin Flood, 549 – 566. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The Ebook an Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Sen, Geeti (2002) “Iconising the Nation: Political Agendas.” India International Centre Quarterly Vol. 29, No.3/4: 155-175.

Thapar, Suruchi (1993) “Women as Activists; Women as Symbols: A Study of the Indian Nationalist Movement.” Feminist Review, Palgrave Macmillan Journals, Vol. 44: 81–96.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Vishva Hindu Parishad

Ekatmata Rath Yatra

Vande Mataram

Unabima Purana

Indian Independence



Bankim Chandra Chatterjee

Bharat Mata temple in Varanasi

Bharat Mata temple in Haridwar


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Barbra Entz (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.


Annie Besant

Annie Besant was an English woman who would come to be an advocate for the Hindu religion and women’s educational rights in India. Born in 1847, Besant grew up in a home where her father valued science over religion and her mother was a devout Anglican. Her parents’ differing views on religion would come to impact Besant’s beliefs and work as she grew up. She came to associate England and India by gendered terms. England being male and paternal in its rationality and materialism, and India as female due to its spirituality and mysticism. Besant’s father died when she was only five years old, thus, she grew up mainly influenced by her mother’s Christian beliefs. She received a good education from a wealthy woman who agreed to privately tutor her because her mother could not afford public education. Besant married a clergyman, however, her marriage quickly became tumultuous as she began to denounce her Christian faith. Besant would refuse to take communion and unsurprisingly this angered her clergyman husband. This led to a fractious marriage and an eventual separation (Anderson 2002:28).

More and more Besant began to question the Christian faith. The illness of her young daughter Mabel was one such event which drew Besant towards an atheist mindset. She eventually joined the National Secular Society which was lead by Charles Bradlaugh. Besant and Bradlaugh formed a strong friendship and he helped foster her free-thinking ideas.  Besant also became acquainted with George Bernard Shaw at this time (Oppenheim 13). With her new secularist mindset, Besant did not deny the presence of God but rather attributed consequences to human action. Before, her Christian faith had led her to believe that the universe revolved around God as the one true deity. In contrast, secularism allowed humans to be accountable for evil and for the consequences, whether it be rewards or punishment (Oppenheim 14).

In the year 1874, Annie Besant went to London and there she became known as ‘Red Annie.’ She supported such issues as women’s suffrage, use of birth control, secularism and socialism. Besant made it very clear that she was against the imperialism of England. She became a rebel figure because she went against the Victorian ideals that existed at the time in England. A series of articles written by Besant in the 1870’s demonstrated her discontent over England’s control of India. At this time, Besant identified herself as an atheist socialist but in 1889 she turned to the religion of Theosophy (Anderson 1994: 565). This particular religion was new at the time Besant converted to it and was based on discovering the hidden meanings or mysteries behind divinity. It sought to explain the relationships or bonds between the universe, humans, and the divine. Her conversion to Theosophy was met with consternation from her fellow secularists and from Indian theosophists. She had been a woman who did not believe in God and wanted the separation of religion and the state, and now she was affiliating herself with a religion where “all major creeds are paths to God” (Anderson 2002:28). Oppenheim (1989) suggests that her conversion to Theosophy was not as surprising as many thought. She had been questioning the secularist and atheist thoughts for some time, and had found that they did not allow for brotherhoods to be formed, but rather pitted different groups against each other (15). Besant remained a follower of Theosophy for the rest of her life and based much of her work on its ideologies.

1907 was an important year for Besant as she became the president of the Theosophical Society.  By this time Besant had already become quite assimilated into Indian culture. The base for the Theosophical Society was in India and Besant tried to participate in Indian life as fully as possible. She moved to India permanently and wore a white sari, as widows do, because it demonstrated mourning over the wrongdoings Britain had committed in India (Anderson 2002:29). She explained her affinity for India by claiming that she felt she had been Indian in another lifetime [Ingalls (1965) mentions how Besant discovered that many of her incarnations took place in India]. Whilst in the Theosophical Society, Besant focussed much of her work on supporting the domesticity of Indian women. Besant believed that it was important that Indian customs be upheld and this included women carrying out their traditional roles in the home. She received some criticism for this viewpoint because she had been so against the Victorian idea of a private sphere for women in her native land of England. Indeed many ambiguities arose with Besant’s ideas. One such ambiguity or criticism Besant faced was her lack of political conviction. In the year 1885 the Indian National Congress, composed of British members, was attempting to include more Indians in the governance of India. Besant had long been known to be against the Imperial supremacy of Britain yet she did not seem to have any qualms with British involvement in India’s government. She was quoted once as saying that “an Indian does not resent being governed; for he thinks the duty of a ruler is to rule, but he does resent the insolence often shown by the very juvenile civilians” that Britain was sending to India (Anderson 2002:30). Rather, Besant chose to focus mainly on the spiritual nature of India as she believed that this was the most vital part of its essence. She was concerned that western ideologies were crippling to India’s traditional Hindu beliefs and practices.

Bust of Annie Besant in the Theosophical Society headquarters (Adyar, Tamil Nadu, India)
Bust of Annie Besant in the Theosophical Society headquarters (Adyar, Tamil Nadu, India)

In order to preserve India’s Hindu background, Besant turned her efforts towards education. She felt that it was important to educate the young males on the religion, and history of India in order that they may be proud citizens of India in the future. In this way, Besant was trying to ensure that the western ideals of the British did not permeate into India and eradicate its important history and spirituality. Besant tried to distance herself from social reforms, wanting to focus mainly on the preservation of India’s Hindu culture. However, in the early 1900s she did become involved in advocating against child marriages and the seclusion of women. It is important to note that her support of these issues in no way negated her belief that women should still be domestic. When she began a school for young girls, the goal was that their education would help them to be better wives, not to help them achieve independence (Anderson 2002: 31). Tradition held that the men dealt in public affairs outside of the home and that women were mothers and wives who concerned themselves with domestic affairs. It is clear that Besant did not believe Indian women to be suppressed because of this (Anderson 1994: 567). To her, they seemed quite content in their societal roles and thus no change needed to be made. In the Central Hindu School (Besant’s school for boys) and her school for girls, Besant ensured that Sanskrit was taught as vigorously as the English language. Just as in the schools run by the British, her schools also taught important morals. However, Besant had more success than the British run universities in India because she tailored her curriculums to Indian culture. Figures such as St. Paul would be replaced in a lesson with Sri Rama; King Alfred was replaced by Sivaji. Besant’s devotion to Hindu tradition and custom in the education of India’s youth won her over with her pupils and their parents (Ingalls 86).

The year 1913 was significant for Besant because it was then that she turned to political pursuits. Having been distant from involving herself in issues of a political nature, Besant was thrown into the realm of politics when she was taken to court by a man whose sons were under her guardianship.  Accusations about one of her colleagues were made and this cast a shadow on the Theosophical Society. As a result, Besant felt an increasing need, in her own words: “to enter more than I have hitherto done into the social life of Madras” (Stafford 62-63).  After her negative experience in court, she formed ‘The Brothers of India.’  This was a group committed to looking out for India’s best interests with a focus on Hinduism as the mode towards their means. The men in this group were from the Theosophical Society and they had seven guidelines, which they were to follow in order to serve India’s best interests. The first six guidelines reflected many of Besant’s early beliefs. For example, these men were to only have their daughters marry when they were seventeen years of age to promote the education of the masses and to not ostracize widows for remarrying. The seventh guideline was most significant which “committed all members to a combined programme of spiritual, educational, social and political reform, and the placing of the programme under the guidance and direction of the Indian National Congress” (Stafford 64). Before, there had been reforms for each of these areas individually, but Besant wanted to unite all of these areas and to place equal importance on all reforms together. The Indian National Congress was asked to take the programme under its direction but they felt that it was not their place to interfere in these reforms because they were focussed solely on political ventures. However, Annie Besant was not deterred. She sought to bring the different groups and movements into one strong voice.

Home Rule for India was brought forth by Besant. She believed that both India and Britain would be better off if India was permitted to be self-governing. Stafford (1983) suggests that Besant’s Irish background influenced her decision to have a Home Rule for India. Besant wrote many articles which stressed how India would be a much more valuable ally as a nation free from colonialism as opposed to being a colonial state. She discussed the many grievances that India had suffered under British rule. According to Besant, Britain continuously benefitted more from India than India did from itself. Britain prevented India’s capital from remaining within the nation. As well, in terms of education, missionaries wanted Indians to convert, and the British geared education towards their own means; the cultivation of more clerks and junior officials was often the British goal (Stafford 66-67).  With the approaching war (World War I), Besant asserted that it was important for India to recognize her own nationhood. In 1916 Besant was finally successful in achieving a Home Rule for India. A meeting between the Congress and the Moslem League occurred.  As Ingalls (1965) suggests, this was very significant because an agreement called the Lucknow Agreement determined that in the event of Indian self-government, “two-thirds majority of either religious community would hold a veto power” (87).  Unfortunately, the Congress did not honor this agreement. Being the strong-willed woman that she was, Besant continued to give speeches to gain support. She was then placed under house arrest by a governor of Madras [see Anderson (2002: 39) for more information on the Governor’s actions against Besant]. Much to the dismay of the Congress, Besant had many devout followers, and her house arrest only served to make her a martyr for her cause. Gandhi was amongst her supporters, as well as other male Indian nationalists. People were dismayed to hear of the treatment of Besant. She was called Mother Besant by many and had won over the hearts of the people with her passionate belief in Indian nationalism. Significantly, Besant’s internment brought forth many Indian women activists for women’s rights. Others who normally would not have supported an English woman as a nationalist leader also protested her internment. When she was released after three months, she became the President of the Indian National Congress in December of 1917 (Ingalls 87-88).

Now as president, Besant was able to induce change for women’s rights in India. As she had done in the past, Besant did not denounce the important role in the home of the women, but rather suggested that women had an ancient importance and that their emancipation was needed so that they could fulfill their ancient position. In this way, Besant appealed to the traditionalism of Indian women and men, while still implying that some changes needed to be made. In late 1917 Besant formed and presided over the first feminist organization in India. It was called the Women’s Indian Association (Anderson 2002:47). Many women looked up to Besant as someone who had defied the odds and demonstrated that women could have a voice and the power to affect change in a male-dominated world. After 1917, her influence began to decrease. Gandhi was at the forefront of India’s nationalism and many saw him as a more appropriate leader for the Indian cause because he was a swadeshi or home made nationalist. Besant disagreed with many of Gandhi’s ideas and she lost favor with many because of this. To many, it seemed that she had become pro-government despite her original Home Rule intentions for India, however, she had simply altered her views because the political climate of India had changed. Besant had once been deemed an incarnate goddess, but at this time she was being referred to as a demoness and some called her Putana [this is a demoness from the epic Ramayana. She is known to have put poison on her breasts and suckled the child Lord Krsna, thus killing him (Anderson 2002:50)]. Interestingly, Gandhi, though he had many qualms with Besant’s views, stood up for her against the harsh words she was receiving from those who once supported her.

The last years of Besant’s career were difficult times for her. She resigned from the Home Rule League she had founded and Gandhi took her place as president. Moreover, she also resigned from the Indian National Congress. Besant was embittered by the way in which she was disregarded, but she continued to persevere. She formed a new National Home Rule League and eventually rejoined the Indian National Congress, though not in a leading position. Besant died in the year 1933 at the age of eighty-six. Towards the end of her career she was marginalized, however, many still fondly remembered her as Mother Annie Besant. She was the English woman with the Indian soul who fought for a more free India (Anderson 2002:49-51).






Anderson, Nancy Fix (2002) “Mother Besant and Indian National Politics.” The Journal of        Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 30, No. 3: p.27-54. London: Frank Cass


Anderson, Nancy Fix (1994) “Bridging Cross-cultural Feminisms: Annie Besant and women’s   rights in England and India, 1874-1933.” Women’s History Review, Vol. 3, No. 4: p.       563-580. New Orleans: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group.


Ingalls, Daniel H.H. (1965) “The Heritage of a Fallible Saint: Annie Besant’s Gifts to India.”         Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 109, No. 2: p. 85-88.     Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.


Mortimer, Joanne Stafford (1983) “Annie Besant and India 1913-1917.” Journal of      

            Contemporary History, Vol. 18, No. 1: p. 61-78. London: Sage Publications, Ltd.


Oppenheim, Janet (1989) “The Odyssey of Annie Besant.” History Today, Vol. 39, No. 9: p.        12-18. Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company.



Related Topics for Further Investigation


Central Hindu School

Charles Bradlaugh

Commonweal (newspaper)

Home Rule League

Indian National Congress

Madame Blavatsky


nationalist movement (India)

National Reformer (newspaper)

New India (newspaper)

‘Red Annie’


‘The Brothers of India’

Theosophical Society


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Haley Kleckner (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak

Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920)

Bal Gangadhar Tilak was a Hindu Indian independence activist, journalist, lawyer and social reformer. Tilak was often referred to as “The Father of Indian Unrest,” originally a derogatory term allotted to him by the British authorities, it is now considered a favorable title (Pati 52). Tilak was also given the honorary title of “Lokmanya,” meaning “accepted by the people.” Tilak greatly valued education and believed that by educating the people of India Indian independence could be achieved. [For a brief history of the Indian Independence Movement see Christopher (2002)]. Bal Gangadhar Tilak began his political career by engaging in various political debates. He eventually became the leader of the extremist wing of the Indian National Congress. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was a devout Hindu holding the distinct belief that Hinduism was the most superior religion on Earth. He believed that the Hindu religion held the key to achieving Indian Independence.

Born on July 23, 1856 in Ratnagiri, India as a Chitpawan Brahmin, Bal Gangadhar Tilak was among the first generation of Indians to receive a college education (Sharma 192). He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1876, and received a Bachelor of Law in 1880 from Deccan College (Sharma 192). Tilak was greatly influenced by his grandfather who had borne witness to some of the atrocities and achievements that occurred during the Indian Mutiny (Sharma 193). This would come to influence his political ideologies later in life.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak was instrumental in advancing the education of the people of India. Tilak said “The salvation of our motherland lay in education and only education of the people” (Sharma 193). His first educational endeavor was in 1880 as a co-founder of Poona’s New English School (Brown 1961:76). Later in 1884, Tilak, along with several of his colleagues, founded the Deccan Education Society (Brown 1961:76). The following year the Deccan Education Society established Fergusson College in Poona. Tilak’s educational activism reflected his belief that educating the masses was the only way to achieve Indian independence.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak established two newspapers, the Mahratta, published in English, and the Kesari, published in Marathi (Brown 1961:77). Both newspapers were intended to promote education among the Hindus of Western India. The newspapers were also meant to promote mass agitation among Indians, a conscious effort to mobilize Indians against British rule (Brown 1961:77). Both newspapers were widely successful and managed to gain the attention of the British authorities. This attention, coupled with Tilak’s ambition of mobilizing the people of India to fight for independence, would cause Tilak legal difficulties in the future.

One of Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s first political experiences occurred as a result of the Age of Consent Bill of 1890, which proposed raising the minimum age of cohabitation for Hindu marriages from 10 to 12 years of age (Sharma 194). Tilak did not disagree with the content of the bill, but disagreed with the British government’s ability to establish and enforce the bill. He felt that legal decisions should be made by Indians upon the attainment of Indian self government, rather than by a foreign government (Brown 1961:77). Tilak often stated “Indian social problems must be solved by Indians” (Sharma 195).

During a three year period from 1905-1908 the British government decided to divide the province of Bengal into two separate provinces, which they claimed was for the purpose of “administrative convenience” (Sharma 195). Tilak and two of his colleagues, Lala Lajpat Rai and Binpin Chandra Pal, created the Lal-Bal-Pal political regime to protest what they believed was actually an attempt to “divide and rule” by the British government (Sharma 195). The Lal-Bal-Pal regime is often considered the first instance of Indian nationalism and spurred the Swadeshi (indigenous goods) Movement (Muralidharan 12). [For more information on the economic and social impact of the Swadeshi Movement see Biswas (1995)]. Their program of “swaraj, swadeshi and national education” provided the impetus required to mobilize the people of India (Nambodiripad 4).

Tilak played a fundamental role in the Swadeshi Movement. The aim of the Swadeshi Movement was to gain swaraj or “self rule” for India through the establishment of economic self sufficiency. Tilak often stated “swaraj is my birthright; and I will have it” (Nambodiripad 3). Tilak used the movement as an opportunity to extend his political influence to both the working class and the citizens of Bombay (Pati 61).

Bal Gangadhar Tilak became a member of the Indian National Congress in 1890. In 1907 diverging opinions within the Indian National Congress had reached an apex, which resulted in the “Surat Split,” dividing members of Congress into two camps; the “moderates” and the “extremists” (Guha 115).   Tilak came to represent the extremists, and his lifelong acquaintance, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, represented the moderates. [Guha (2010) provides an account of Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s life and political career]. As leader of the extremists, Tilak’s mandate included “self government, national education, and the use of boycott” and passive resistance (Brown 1961:78). Tilak never did become president of the Indian National Congress.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak was imprisoned twice in his lifetime. The first imprisonment in 1897 was for sedition and lasted eighteen months (Guha 117). Sedition in this instance was defined as “spreading disaffection against the British Indian government” (Karve 208). In 1908 Tilak was charged with sedition for the second time (Guha 117). His actions were seen as “intensifying racial animosity between Indians and the British” (Guha 117). He served his six year sentence in Burma. The news of Tilak’s imprisonment caused outrage in Bombay where textile workers in seventy mills went on strike and ultimately shut down production (Guha 117). This provides evidence of the widespread support and popularity that Tilak had gained among the Indian working class. He was tried for sedition a third time in 1916, however he was successfully acquitted of the charges (Guha 118).

The Hindu religion was very important to Bal Gangadhar Tilak, both as his practiced religion as well as for political purposes. He believed that Hinduism, and its various sects, ought to be united in order to form one ‘mighty Hindu nation’ (Harvery 321). Tilak believed that this unity could be achieved by simply adhering to the principles outlined in traditional Hindu texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana (Harvey 321). [Chaitanya (1987) provides modern insight into the contents of the Bhagavad Gita. For insight into the Ramayana see Hindery (1976)]. He outlined his philosophy in his book titled Gita Rahasya, meaning “The Secret of the Gita,” which he wrote during his six year imprisonment in Burma (Sharma 196). The principle that Tilak emphasized the most in his book was found in the Bhagavad Gita. It was the need for activism, or action, which he felt should be applied to religion and politics. This call for action is often referred to as Karma Yoga, a principle in Brahmanic theory insisting upon the warrior’s responsibility to fight (Brown 1958:197). He also advocated the superiority of the Hindu religion over the religions of the West in Gita Rahasya (Sharma 197). Ultimately Bal Gangadhar Tilak sought the use of principles found within the Bhagavad Gita to revitalize Hinduism, replace Western philosophy, and legitimize political action (Harvey 322).

In addition to the Gita Rahasya Tilak wrote two books on Vedic Studies. This included The Orion in 1893, and The Arctic Home Of The Vedas in 1903. In both books he attempted to use science to reveal the history of Hinduism in an attempt to reconstruct Hindu history (Sharma 197). His aim was to separate Hindu tradition from the work of Western academics. The “Aryan theory of race” characterized by Tilak in these books would become of crucial importance to Hindu revitalization (Muralidharan 16).

Tilak sought to strengthen the Hindu tradition and Indian consciousness through the revival of two Hindu festivals, one dedicated to the deity Ganapati, and the other to Sivaji (Brown 1961:78). Tilak managed to transform the Ganapati celebration from a private in-the-home affair into a mass celebration. He began the Sivaji festival to celebrate the achievements and memory of the medieval warrior chief by the same name (Guha 116). He ultimately used these festivals as a mode of political mobilization for the Indian Independence Movement.

Tilak joined together the Hindu religion and Indian politics in order to emphasize his policy of Hindu nationalism. He believed that religion played a very important role in nationality. Tilak’s historical interpretations led him to believe that Indian unity existed only during times when Hinduism’s predominance was secure, and chaos and disorder were prevalent when the Hindu religion reached a low point (Muralidharan 12). Tilak has often been credited with exercising a policy of exclusionary nationalism, emphasizing the distinctness of the Hindu religion rather than cultural tolerance. A great example of this religious intolerance was Tilak’s revival of the Hindu Ganapati festival, which often occurred during the same time as the Islamic Muharram observance. As such, the festival became an occasion for fighting between Muslims and Hindus (Muralidharan 13). Hinduism, being a class-based religion, excluded the lower classes of the religion in many instances. Therefore, in addition to alienating much of the Muslim Indian population, Hindu nationalism also alienated much of the lower caste Hindu population. Ultimately, Tilak’s policy of Hindu nationalism was unitary and intolerant of diversity, making him a controversial historical figure.

After his release from prison in 1914 Tilak was run down both physically and spiritually. He was willing to accept Dominion status within the British Empire as opposed to complete independence (Guha 117). He also called upon India to support England in World War One and began to praise some of the beneficial aspects of the British government (Pati 53). He remained active in politics and went back to being a Congressman in 1915 (Pati 52). However, the polarization that had resulted in the Moderates and Extremists was no longer relevant upon his return. In 1916 he went on to form the All India Home Rule League, which further voiced Indian demand for self government.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak died on August 1, 1920 at the age of 64. Tilak left an enduring legacy. After his death he became recognized as the first “father of the movement for the liberation of India,” a cause that would later be adopted by Mahatma Gandhi (Karve 208). [See Spear (1969) for a historical account of the independence activism of Mahatma Gandhi]. The Swadeshi Movement that Tilak helped initiate ultimately achieved its goal when Indian independence was achieved in 1947. Through his political activism, Hindu nationalism, and various modes of religious and political mobility Tilak was able to lay the groundwork for the future of the Indian Independence Movement.



References and Further Recommended Reading

Biswas, A. K. (1995) “Paradox of Anti-Partition Agitation and Swadeshi Movement in Bengal (1905).” Social Scientist, Vol. 23, No. 4/6:38-57.

Brown, Mackenzie (1961) Indian Political Thought: From Ranade to Bhave. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

_______ (1958) “The Philosophy of Bal Gangadhar Tilak: Karma vs. Jnana in the Gita Rahasya.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2:197- 206.

Chaitanya, Krishna (1987) “Rediscovering the Gita: The Gita for Modern Man.” India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1:120-125.

Christopher, A. J. (2002) “Decolonisation Without Independence.” Geojournal, Vol. 56, No. 3:213- 224.

Guha, Ramachandra (2010) Makers of Modern India. New Delhi: Penguin Group.

Harvey, Mark (1986) “The Secular as Sacred?-The Religio-Political Rationalization of B.G. Tilak.” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2: 321-331.

Hindery, Roderick (1976) “Hindu Ethics in the Ramayana .” The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 4, No. 2:287-322.

Karve, D. D. (1961) “The Deccan Education Society.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 20, No.2:205-212.

Muralidharan, Sukumar (1994) “Patriotism Without People: Milestones in the Evolution of the Hindu Nationalist Ideology.” Social Scientist, Vol. 22, No. 5/6 :3-38.

Nambodiripad, E. M. S. (1986) “The Left in India’s Freedom Movement and in Free India.” Social Scientist , Vol. 14, No. 8/9:3-17.

Pati, Biswamoy (2007) “Nationalist Politics and the ‘Making’ of Bal Gangadhar Tilak.” Social Scientist, Vol. 35, No. 9/10:52-66.

Roy, Himanshu (1993) “Builders of Modern India.” Social Scientist, Vol. 21, No. 12:60-62.

Sharma, Arvind (2002) Modern Hindu Thought: The Essential Text. New York: Oxford University Press.

Spear, Percival (1969) “Mahatma Gandhi.” Modern Asian Studies. Vol. 3, No. 4:291- 304

Related Topics For Further Investigation

Bhagavad Gita

Gopal Krishna Gokhale

India Independence

Mahatma Ghandi


Swadeshi Movement


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by Jessica Kelly (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Satyagraha Movement

The Satyagraha Movement

The Satyagraha Movement is often referred to as Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence movement. To be clear, Gandhi’s historical actions took place through various movements, which can all be referred to as satyagraha-based, a term which Gandhi coined himself. As well, although these movements did encompass Gandhi’s beliefs of non-violence, the term satyagraha is actually an amalgamation of two Sanskrit words; satya, meaning truth, and agraha, which is the act of taking, seizing or holding (Hardiman 51). This notion of taking hold of the truth was the underlying basis of much of Gandhi’s quest of civil resistance throughout the early 20th century.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2nd, 1869 in the coastal town of Porbandar, which is within the modern Indian state of Gujarat (Parekh 1). His father and grandfather both held highly regarded political positions as chief administrators, despite the merchant caste status of the Gandhi family name. Mohandas Gandhi grew up within a rather diverse religious upbringing. Although his parents were both Vaisnavites, a sect characterized by expressing devotion towards the Hindu deity Visnu, his mother also belonged to a combined Hindu and Muslim sect called Pranami (Parekh 1). Mohandas Gandhi moved from western India to England in 1888 to study and train to become a lawyer, and when he was called to the Bar in 1891 he moved back to India to begin his legal career. However, his work in India did not seem to interest him much, so Gandhi readily accepted when offered a position as a lawyer in South Africa in 1893. The experiences during his prolonged stay in South Africa are integral for considering the changing course of action that Gandhi’s life would soon take.

Although there were many events and societal conditions that led to the emergence of the Satyagraha Movements, there are a few specific traumas that spurred the initial stages of Gandhi’s journey. On the travel from Durban to Pretoria within South Africa, although Gandhi had a ticket to be seated in the first class compartment, he was refused access to his rightful seat. This was a direct demonstration of racial tensions expressed by a passenger who did not want to ride within the same corridors as a ‘coloured man’. Gandhi held true to his rights in this instance and refused to leave until the police constable forced him out of first class (Gandhi 82). A similar trauma was encountered during the subsequent trip from Charlestown to Johannesburg aboard a stagecoach. Again, although Gandhi had purchased a ticket to be seated inside the coach, he was told by the stagecoach leader that he must sit outside next to the coachman. The racial injustice became too much, however, when the stagecoach leader decided he wanted to sit outside to smoke and demanded Gandhi take a seat on the footboards on a piece of dirty cloth. Gandhi resisted to accept such an insult and was beaten by the stagecoach leader until the cries of fellow passengers caused the assault to cease (Gandhi 84). These traumatic events upon his early travel within South Africa incited the initial basis of much of Gandhi’s life-long satyagraha philosophies, demonstrated through various historical movements.

Over the next few years in South Africa, the developments of Gandhi’s personal beliefs on political, social and spiritual ideals led to the emergence of his manifesto, Hind Swaraj, in 1909, and his Constructive Programme text (Hardiman 2). These works both outlined Gandhi’s view on the “degenerate status” of India and his thoughts on resolving this plight (Parekh 7). Hind Swaraj and the Constructive Programme were the initial vehicles in which Gandhi outlined his ideals regarding civil resistance through the concept of satyagraha. These works are seen as a major turning point in Gandhi’s life’s work and as the start of a series of events that would come to define his satyagraha journey. The radical nature of Gandhi’s philosophies caused a great deal of controversy and the Hind Swaraj was subsequently banned in India by the British (Hardiman 2).

Despite obvious controversy over the satyagraha philosophies presented by Gandhi, he forged onward with his civil resistance plans against the colonial rule of the British in India. His next notable successes include the confrontations with planters in Champaran in 1917, against the Kheda colonial tax bureaucracy in 1918 and against Indian mill bosses in Ahmedabad later that year (Hardiman 2). Triumph with such movements led to his leadership of his first national protest known as the Rowlatt Satyagraha in 1919, involving a cessation of work (hartal) and mass demonstrations taking place nation-wide. However, Gandhi called off the protest once it incurred widespread violence and other non-dharmic actions that were opposite to what Gandhi’s ideals of satyagraha were set out to be. Gaining control over the Indian National Congress in 1920, Gandhi then declared a new satyagraha that he referred to as the Non-Cooperation Movement. Involvement with this led to his arrest in March of 1922 and the commencement of a two-year incarceration (Wolpert 115). Further spiritual developments occurred during this time; Gandhi begun to take vows of silence and episodes of fasting, showing his utter devotion and passion towards his ideals of obtaining freedom for India through movements of satyagraha. After his release from prison, Gandhi continued to lead various well-known campaigns including the Salt Satyagraha in 1930, Civil Disobedience Movement during 1930-1934 and Quit India Movement of 1942 (Hardiman 2).

All these movements led by Gandhi characterize and demonstrate his ideals towards societal problems, whether spiritual, social or political, through methods of non-violence (ahimsa) with the underlying insistence on truth (satyagraha). The sources of his complex satyagraha syllabi are various, including Hindu influences such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita, as well as Leo Tolstoy’s Christianity-based book The Kingdom of God is Within You (Parel 118). Combined with Gandhi’s eclectic religious upbringing and personal passion to diversify his knowledge, a very specific and unique set of beliefs is encompassed by this notion of satyagraha. Although the aspect of non-violence in Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha could be attributed to influences from Jainism, it is widely believed that “Gandhi’s non-violence was, by contrast, rooted in altruism and compassion towards fellow humans” (Hardiman 58). From Hindu sources, Gandhi found exceptional power in the concept of dharma, and outlined its use through various aspects such as duty, religion and ethics (Parel 86). As well, his philosophies fought the Untouchability that is outlined within the caste system of the Hindu religion, causing Gandhi to once remark that “there is no warrant whatsoever in Hinduism for untouchability as it is practiced today” (Sharma 37). These sort of specific beliefs are all inclusive in Gandhi’s satyagraha way of life.

Although he was met with a large amount of criticism, violent resistance and incarcerations throughout his life, his movements did manage to make a direct impact throughout India. Most notably, this is true with the independence of India on August 15, 1947 (Parekh 23). However, although independence was achieved through satyagraha movements of truth and non-violence, Gandhi was continually followed by violence. He was persistent and insistent upon non-violent solutions and dharmic actions up to when he was assassinated during a prayer meeting on January 30th, 1948. The legacy of Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha movements of the early 20th century can be seen to permeate global society today. Gandhi’s campaigns of non-violence have been able to awaken a similar type of satyagraha-based passion in various leaders of civil rights movements throughout the world. Two prominent examples of successful satyagraha related campaigns were those led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, who both have cited a substantial influence from the philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi (Hardiman 257-283).
































Brock, Peter (1983) The Mahatma and Mother India: essays on Gandhi’s non-violence and nationalism. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House.

Gandhi, Mohandas (1927) An Autobiography; or, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Trans. Desai, Mahadev. (1976) Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House.

Green, Martin (1986) The Origins of Nonviolence: Tolstoy and Gandhi in their historical settings. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Hardiman, David (2003) Gandhi in His Time and Ours: the global legacy of his ideas. New York: Columbia University Press.

Parekh, Bhikhu (1997) Gandhi. New York: Oxford University Press.

Parel, Anthony (2006) Gandhi’s Philosophy and Quest for Harmony. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Prabhath, S.V. (2010) Gandhi Today. New Delhi: Serials Publications.

Rai, C. and Singh, D. (2000) Relevance of Gandhian Thought. Delhi: New Bharatiya Book Corporation.

Sharma, Arvind (2005) A New Curve in the Ganges: Mahatma Gandhi’s interpretation of Hinduism. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld Ltd.

Wolpert, Stanley (2002) Gandhi’s Passion. New York: Oxford University Press.



Related Research Topics:

Hinduism                                                                    Constructive Programme

Jainism                                                                       Non-cooperation Movement

Christianity                                                                 Indian Independence Movement

Indian National Congress                                        Salt Satyagraha

British colonialism                                                     Indian Class (varna)/Caste system

dharma Pranami religious sect

Ramayana                                                                   ahimsa

Bhagavad Gita Nelson Mandela

Mahabharata Martin Luther King Jr.



Related Websites:

Article written by Angie Davis (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888 – 1975)

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was a philosopher, politician and academic and was considered one of the greatest Indian thinkers of the twentieth century.  He was born on September 5, 1888 and lived to age 86.  Throughout his adult life he was a well known public figure in his native India, serving as both Vice-President and President. In addition to his political career, he was also a renowned writer on Hindu philosophy. Radhakrishnan is known to some as a “bridge builder” between the East and the West for his efforts to expand Western society’s knowledge about India and their understanding of Hindu thought and religion. He showed that the philosophical systems of each tradition are comprehensible within the terms of the other (Behur 1-4). One is hard pressed to find Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s own words about his life story since he steadfastly refused to write an autobiography (Braue 1-2).

Early Life

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was born during a time when Hinduism was in the midst of being renewed and restored in the hearts of millions of Indians (Harris 2-3). He was the second of five sons and one daughter born to Sarvepalli Veeraswamy and Sitamma, poor Brahmins living in the town of Tirutani in Tamil Nadu state.  Tirutani had a population of about 170 000 and was considered a pilgrimage destination due to its major Subrahmanya temple (Minor 4). Radhakrishnan’s family kept the name Sarvepalli as an indication of their place of origin. In the middle of the 18th century the family moved from Sarvepalli to another village located in the Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh. All were devout Vaisnavaties and worshipped the well-known god Krsna (Minor 3-4).  Radhakrishnan’s early life was spent in the religious centers of the small towns of Tirutani and Tirupati.  His father was employed as a subordinate revenue official in the service of the local Zamindar [landlord] and with limited income the family lived in relative poverty.


Radhakrishnan grew up in a traditional Hindu atmosphere (Harris 3). His parents were very orthodox and his father did not want his son to learn English [his mother tongue was Telugu] and pressed his boy to become a priest. However, despite their orthodox views, his parents sent him away to several Christian Missionary Institutions – the Lutheran Mission School in Tirupati (1896 – 1900), Voorhee’s college, Vellore (1900 – 1904) and Madras Christian College in Madras (1904 – 1908) (Kohli 38-39). Sarvepalli was an excellent student and was awarded multiple scholarships which helped sustain him throughout his academic career.

In 1906, he received a B.A. with honours in philosophy, and in 1909 obtained an M.A. and was a most distinguished alumni. He main interest was in the Vedas and Upanishads and spent much of his time specializing in these subjects as well as studying Hindi and the Sanskrit language. He wrote his thesis for his M.A. on the ‘Ethics of the Vedanta and its Metaphysical Presuppositions”. At only age 20 his thesis was recognized and published. Radhakrishnan’s passion for philosophy developed more by chance than choice. A cousin, recently graduated from the same college, was kind enough to pass on his textbooks in philosophy.  This generosity decidedly influenced his academic path (Kohli 40-41).

Marriage and Family

In 1903, at age 16, it was arranged by his family that Radhakrishnan was to be married to Siva Kumaramma, his 10 year old first cousin (Minor 4). The couple had their first daughter together in 1908, the first of six children over the proceeding fifteen years. Their family included four daughters and two sons, one of which died shortly after birth (Kohli 39). Their youngest son, Sarvepalli Gopal, would go on to become a distinguished and notable historian and biographer (Braue 4). Radhakrishnan’s devoted wife, Sivakamu, died on November 26, 1956 and their marriage was “the end of a long chapter”, as he put it.

Teaching Career

Sarvepalli’s education had shaped a most disciplined mind and strong individual, acquiring many qualities of a potentially great leader. Spanning from 1909 to 1952, his career had three notable phases, teacher of philosophy, leader in higher education and finally politician and statesman.

In 1909 he accepted a teaching position at the Madras Presidency College in the Philosophy department where he spent seven years teaching and researching in the area of Indian Philosophy and Religion.  In 1916, he advanced to a full professorship (Braue 4).  He impressed the senior professor of philosophy so much that his mentor actually ended up asking him to lecture his classes. Radhakrishnan was endowed with a great intellect and gifted with an amazing memory enabling him to employ a vast vocabulary and eloquent communication style, to great advantage (Kohli 38-40).

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Calcutta took notice of this extraordinary academic mind and offered Sarvepalli the King George V Chair of Mental and Moral Science, a prestigious position which he occupied twice – from 1921 to 1931 and again from 1937 to 1941.  He was clearly honoured by this appointment and described the position as “the most important philosophy chair in India”.  As chair, he represented the University of Calcutta at the Congress of the Universities of the British Empire and the International Congress of Philosophy at Harvard in 1926.  Radhakrishnan also presented many lectures at numerous universities: Chicago, London, Manchester and Oxford.  He then accepted a position at Manchester College in Oxford in addition to teaching comparative religion at the University of Oxford (Braue 4).

In 1931, he was knighted by England for his great services to education and subsequently stepped down as the King George V Chair in order to accept the Sir Sayaji Rao  Gaekwad Chair at Banaras Hindu University. Later in his academic career he also occupied the Spalding Chair in England until 1952, when he was appointed Professor Emeritus at Oxford. (Braue 4-6).

The second key phase of Radhakrishnan’s life, as a leader in higher education, spanned from 1931 to 1962.  He was made the Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University and served as a member of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations. Throughout this time he delivered many presentations at universities all over his native India.

During World War II he also toured and lectured in China (Braue 6-7), and from 1953 to 1962 he held the post of chancellor of Delhi University.  In 1940, he achieved a milestone by being the first Indian to be elected as Fellow of the British Academy. As a professor, he was always very popular with his students and was loved and respected as a remarkable teacher. The genesis of his popularity was his genuine empathy and his great ability to engage people of all ages. This combination of attributes and skills continued to win him respect throughout his long and memorable public life (Behura 3).

Rise in Politics and Political Career

After the end of the Second World War, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan began a shift from his academic career with a view to apply his philosophy and religious studies toward political and social development.  He served as head of the Indian delegation to the UNSECO conferences held in Paris from 1946 – 1952 (Braue 7) and was later elected to the position of Chairman of UNESCO in 1948.

When India received independence from Great Britain in 1947, Sarvepalli was still India’s key representative at UNSECO. He would later also be awarded the titles and responsibilities of Ambassador-Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of India to the Soviet Union from 1949 to 1952 (Kohli 44).  Radhakrishnan was widely thought to be one of the most respected and successful of all diplomats in Moscow at the time. He had met Stalin twice, as the Ambassador of India, with Stalin commenting, “ You are the first person to treat me as a human being and not as a monster. You are leaving us and I am sad. I want you to live long.” (Kohli 45). Dr. Radhakrishnan, the diplomat, was considered a very sympathetic and humane person, open to other viewpoints, and never considered to be an elitist intellectual.

After his return to India in 1952, Sarvepalli was elected as India’s first Vice-President, an inaugural position that had been created under the new constitution. He would be re-elected in 1957, not long after the death of his wife. During his many tours around the world his main objective was to impress upon foreign leaders India’s viewpoint on major international issues and increase his country’s role on the global stage.

In many of his books and dissertations, Radhakrishnan takes great pains to interpret Indian thought in a way that Westerners could relate to. (Kohli 45) Through his public life he remained steadfastly committed to high principles, dignity and moral authority. This integrity of purpose made him a highly revered figure in India and internationally he became one of the best-liked and respected public figures of all time.

In May of 1962, this well regarded philosopher and statesman was elected President of the State of India, succeeding Dr. Rajendra Prasad, becoming the second Head of State of a newly independent India. During his presidency, India was faced with war on two separate occasions, first with China and subsequently with Pakistan. In 1967,  Sarvepalli made an emotional farewell broadcast to the nation and told his loving country that he would not seek another term as President and would retire from public life.

After the death of Nehru in 1964, he described the former leader as “an earnest of the age to come, the age of the world men with world compassion.” And went on to say, “The best way to honour his memory is to get on with the work which he left unfinished, his work of peace, justice and freedom at home and abroad” (Dehruy 8).  Radhakrishnan’s dedication and efforts made a great contribution towards the realization of Nehru’s objectives.

Philosophical Beliefs

Sarvepalli often described philosophy as “ the attempt to think out the presuppositions of experience, to grasp. By means of reason, life or reality as a whole”(Braue 42). He attained prominence due to his eloquence in describing Indian philosophy according to Western academic standards, enabling non-Indo cultures to understand and consider Eastern philosophies and, most particularly, from India. He once stated his greatest challenge was that western philosophers, despite claiming to be objective, were inevitably influenced by the theological teachings of their own cultures.

Radhakrishnan’s philosophical work took two distinct directions. His philosophy is Indian idealism (Braue 44). First, his Indian Philosophy was defined as Radhakrishnan interpreted it. Originally what he presented was no different than the “Vedanta” which he had defined earlier.  Later, he changed its designation to “Hinduism” or the “Hindu View”. The second direction was the construction of a philosophical system from experimental grounds without relying on Indian thought (Minor 43).

Radhakrishnan tried to clarify for his western audiences that Hinduism is a progressive unity and that the history of Hinduism is of evolutionary advancement. He saw the method of “Hinduism’s” historical development as characterized by a critical attitude toward the traditions of the past in a modern sense, not just accepting past thoughts (Minor 45). Radhakrishnan was also an advocate of the class system of Hinduism. He believed that it was the only democratic solution to racial problems. Caste was a way to organize society and suggested that it is entirely functional, not a “mystery of divine appointment” (Minor 45-46). Thus, the foundation of the caste system are the ideas of free will, equality and democracy (Minor 45-46).

Radhakrishnan wrote many books on his philosophical beliefs and he was well known for his ideas on the Prasthana Trayi, the Bhagavadgita, the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra.


Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan died on April 17,1975 after a prolonged illness. At that time, Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi said, “As a teacher, he was deeply involved with the welfare of youth. As a statesman, he had deep understanding of the practical problems of nation building. He contributed significantly to the consolidation of our political parliamentary traditions. Now death has claimed him, but the memory of his commanding presence, the resonance of his voice and the radiance of his thought cannot fade and will remain a part of our legacy.” (Kohli 48)

Every year on September 5th, on Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s birthday, “Teachers Day” is celebrated all across India and the government gives national awards to teachers. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan will remain one of the greatest Indian philosophers of the 20th century and of all time (Kohli 48-49).


Braue, Donald A. (1985) Maya in Radhakrishnan’s Thought. New Delhi: Narendra Prakash Jain.

Dehury, Dinabandhu (2010) Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan as Statesman. Orissa: Orissa Government.

Gopal, Sarvepalli (1989) Radhakrishnan, a Biography. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Harris, Ishwar C. (1982) Radhakrishnan: the Profile of a Universalist. Columbia: South Asian Books

Hawley, Michael (2003) “The Making of a Mahatma: Radhakrishnan’s Critique of Gandhi. Studies in Religion 32(1-2), 135-148.

Kohli, A.B. (2001) Presidents of India. New Delhi: Reliance Publishing House.

Kumar Behura, Dillip (2010) The Great Indian Philosopher: Dr. Radhakrishnan. Orissa: Orissa Government.

Michael, Aloysius (1979) Radhakrishnan on Hindu Moral Life and Action. Delhi: Concept Publishing Company.

Minor, Robert N. (1987) Radhakrishnan A Religious Biography. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Minor, Robert N. (1997) Radhakrishnan as Advocate of the Class/Caste System as a Universal Religio-Social. International Journal of Hindu Studies 1(2), 386 – 400.

Murty, K. Satchidananda and Vohra, Ashok (1990) Radhakrishnan: His Life and Ideas. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Schilpp, Paul A. (1992) The Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers

Sharma, Arvind (2002) Modern Hindu Thought. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Indian political system

Rajendra Prasad

Sarvepalli Gopal

Comparative Religion



Jawaharlal Nehru

Rabindranath Tagore



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli

Article written by Ryan Booth (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.