The freedom movement of India should not merely be considered a political one. It implicated a deep spiritual connection. A large number of freedom fighters including the prominent leaders conceived that spiritual elevation was indispensible to inspire themselves with the idealism of self-less devotion and dedication. Needless to say, the Bhagavad Gita, the crux of the Mahabharata, played the pivotal role to give an impetus to this spiritual movement that directly or indirectly became the driving force of the great freedom movement. A good many leaders were deeply inspired by the teachings of renunciation of the Bhagavad Gita to withstand the apprehension of death and physical tortures and the lures of the material world. Renunciation in the Gita does not construe renunciation of action but in action.
When in 1907 Lala Lajpat Rai was imprisoned for his leading role in widespread agrarian agitation in the Punjab region and exiled to Mandalay in Burma (now Myanmar), he wrote a lengthy interpretation of Bhagavad Geeta entitled, ‘The Message of the Bhagavad Gita’, published in the Modern Review. He used to read this scripture as a religious duty because it was a source of great consolation and strength to him in the hour of his trouble and solitude.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak, ‘Father of the Indian unrest’, first advocated “Swaraj” (self-rule). When he was convicted of and sentenced to six-year rigorous imprisonment in Mandalay in Burma for his controversial articles celebrating Khudiram’s Muzaffarpur bomb attack on Kingsford, he concentrated attention to the Bhagavad Gita. In his commentary “Srimad Bhagavad Gita Rahasya”, he strove to elevate the chapter “Karmayog” over the other two chapters “Gyanyog” and “Bhaktiyog” with a view to inspire the freedom fighters with the idealism of self-less devotion. He believed the law of karma is an energetic principle. He also thought that it is impossible for imperceptible to become perceptible and quality-less to become quality-ful without performing karma or action. In his opinion the most esoteric teachings of the Gita advocate series of struggles and demands sternness and boldness to face terrible things face to face. Therefore, he sternly opposed the moderate view of Gokhale.
Rishi Bankim Chandra Chattopadhaya was the composer of “Vande Mataram” (Hail Mother). This mantra became the shibboleth to the freedom fighter from the Himalayas to Kanyakumari. His renowned novel “Anandamath” first ensconced the coexistence between politics and religion and elevated freedom movement to new height. He could infuse a new sense of patriotism among the next generation freedom fighters. The Bhagavad Gita entrenched a deep impact in the mind of this great writer. His incomplete commentary on the Gita entitled “Krishna Charit” proved this. He sketched Krishna in his commentary as a flesh and blood.
The role of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in the liberation movement of India does not need little mention. He realized that the Bhagavad Gita’s punctuation on selfless devotion and service without aspiring result was the obtruse source of inspiration of him.
Karmany-evadhikaras te ma phaleshu kadachana
Ma karma-phala-hetur bhur ma te sango ' stvakarmani
(Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 2, Verse 47)
He was very much engrossed with the magical influence of the Gita. It is explicit in his famous observation where he said, “When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad-Gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. Those who meditate on the Gita will derive fresh joy and new meanings from it every day”. He considered the Gita as the universal mother who turns away nobody and her door is wide open to anyone who knocks. In his opinion a true votary of the Gita can never be depressed by disappointment as the scripture provides perennial flow of joy and peace without any tint of skepticism and superbia. His deep faith to the Bhagavad Gita above all is expressed in his comment, “I find a solace in the Bhagavad Gita that I miss even in the Sermon on the Mount”.
During his incarceration in the Yerwada Jail, Gandhi went through Tilak’s “Bhagavad Gita Rahasya” with deep regards. He wrote, “I went reverentially through the Gujrati translation of the Lokamanya’s great work. The reading whetted my appetite for more and I glanced through several works on Gita”. Gandhi was in compliance with Tilak’s laying emphasis on the importance of doing the right action. But he absolutely differed from Tilak’s modus operandi of ‘Karmayog’. Gandhi drew out the nectar of non-violence i.e. ‘ahimsa’ and truth from Gita. He thought that violence is antithetical to the true spirit of non-attachment. He thought, “I have in all humility felt that perfect renunciation is impossible without perfect observance of ahimsa in every shape and form”.
The great revolutionary-turned-spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo Ghosh pointed out the impuissance and pusillanimity of a group of lily-livered leaders who did not muster courage and determination enough to face the challenges and adversities and lead the freedom movement positively. Therefore, he felt an urge to rouse mental and spiritual power of the people of India. He wrote “Essays on Gita” where he emphasized on the necessity of spirituality in life.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, another great patriot who organized Azad Hind Fauz, considered that the Bhagvad Gita was his source of inspiration behind his relentless fight for the liberation of India from the British realm. This great leader was considered the confluence of Bhakti (devotion) and Shaki (power). This unique confluence could be possible for his earnest devotion to this Holy Scripture. Even when his INA was fighting tooth and nail with the British, he used to read the Bhagavad Gita to enhance his mental strength and spiritual power.
Khudiram Bose, controversially called the first martyr of India’s freedom struggle, was deeply influenced by the message delivered in ‘Karmayog’ of the Bhagavad Gita in his noble mission to liberate India from the tyrannical yoke of the British. He reportedly embraced the gallows with the Bhagavad Gita in his hands. Damodar Hari Chapekar of Maharashtra who with his two brothers killed W. C. Rand, the Chairman of the Special Plague Committee, and his military escort Lt. Ayerst as a mark of protest against the oppressive approach by the British Government, also embraced gallows with the Bhagavad Gita in his hands. Shaheed Madan Lal Dhingra, an Indian revolutionary independence activist, while studying in England, assassinated Sir William Hutt Curzon Wyllie. He was sentenced to death. The Bhagavad Gita had so deep influence on him that he embraced the noose with the Gita in his hands. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the founder of the RSS in Nagpur in 1925, was imprisoned for participating in Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement in 1920. Much of his hours in seclusion in the prison would be spent in reading Bhagavad Gita.
Besides, Anushilan Samiti based in Dhaka and Jugantar group in Calcutta that propounded revolutionary violence during early twentieth century were deeply inspired by the Bhagavad Gita. The members of those extremist organizations would reportedly take oath lying on human skeletons with arms in one hand and the Gita in the other. In 1905, the second Swadeshi movement started in protest against the partition of Bengal by the viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. The movement continued up to 1911. The chief architects of the movement were Aurobindo Ghosh, Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal and Lala Lajpat Rai. Calcutta witnessed an unprecedented sight when 50.000 people gathered in the city streets with the Gita in their hands.
Actually, the culture of the Bhagavad Gita helped the freedom fighters dissociate themselves from body consciousness and elevated them above mundanity. They could overcome the deep-rooted fear of death and depression. They were taught that a man is not a body but a soul which is immortal and non-perishable.
Nainam chindanti shashtrani nainam dahati pabaka
Na chaining kledayantyapo na shoshoyati maruta.
(Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 2, Verse23)
They were also taught that the soul never dies and it puts on new garments quitting the old one and accepts new material body.
Vasamsi jirnani yatha vihaya navani grhnati naro parani
Tatha sarirani vihaya jirnany anyani samyati navani dehi.
(Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 2, Verse 22)