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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 July 2010

Faculty of History, University of Cambridge E-mail:


This essay considers the relationship between the Bhagavad Gita as a transnational text and its changing role in Indian political thought. Indian liberals used it to mark out the boundaries between the public sphere they desired and a reformed Hinduism. Indian intellectuals also used the image of Krishna to construct an all-wise founder figure for the new India. Meanwhile, in the transnational sphere of debate, the Gita came to represent India itself in the works of theosophists, spiritual relativists and a variety of intellectual radicals, who approved of the text's ambivalent view of the relationship between political action and the World Spirit. After the First World War, Indian liberals, notably Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, philosopher and later India's second president, used Krishna's words to urge a new and humane international politics infused with the ideal of “detached action”.

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1 This point, among several others, was sharpened by Arjun Appadurai's commentary during the conference at the New School, New York. I owe him warm thanks.

2 The literature on the meaning of liberalism is never-ending and descends into semantic niceties. I have tried to define Indian liberalism in several publications. But here I use it as a broadly descriptive term, much along the lines of Majumdar, B. B., History of Political Thought: From Rammohun to Dayananda (1821–84), vol. 1, Bengal (Calcutta, 1934)Google Scholar. See, however, Paul, E., Miller, F. and Paul, J., Liberalism Old and New (Cambridge, 2007)Google Scholar; and Simhony, A. and Weinstein, D., The New Liberalism: Reconciling Liberty and Community (Cambridge, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bayly, C. A., ‘Empires and Indian Liberals’, in Hall, Catherine and McLelland, Stuart, eds., Historians on Race, Nation and Empire 1750 to the Present (Manchester, forthcoming, 2010), pp. 7493Google Scholar. A classic statement of Indian liberalism would be Banerjea, Surendranath, A Nation in Making (Bombay, 1925)Google Scholar; or, in a vernacular idiom, Bharatendu Harish Chandra's speech at Ballia in 1883, when he asked “Bharatvarsh ki unnati kaise ho sakti hai?” (“How can Indian make progress?”), Bhartendu Grantavali, 3, (Varanasi, 1956), 262–7, and stressed the importance of community, communication and sympathy.

3 Cf. Runciman, David, Pluralism and the Personality of the State (Cambridge, 1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Ibid., esp. 10–11.

5 Bartolomeo de Las Casas was the sixteenth-century Dominican priest who urged the Spanish church and secular authorities to recognize that the Amerindians also had souls.

6 For the background see Young, Richard Fox, Resistant Hinduism: Sanskrit Sources on Anti-Christian Polemics in Early Nineteenth-Century India (Vienna, 1981)Google Scholar.

7 The best recent discussion of Fulfilment Theology is in Bellenoit, Hayden, Missionary Education and Empire in Late Colonial India 1860–1920 (London, 2007)Google Scholar.

8 Copley, Antony, Gay Writers in Search of the Divine: Hinduism and Homosexuality in the Lives and Writings of Edward Carpenter, E. M. Forster and Christopher Isherwood (Delhi, 2006)Google Scholar.

9 Michael Collins, “Rabindranath Tagore and the West, 1912–41”, unpublished D.Phil. thesis, Oxford University, 2008.

10 Johnson, W. J., “Introduction”, The Bhagavad Gita (Oxford World's Classics) (Oxford, 1994, 2004)Google Scholar, vii–xx; I am also grateful to Dr Eivind Kahrs for help on this historical issue.

11 I owe this point to Shruti Kapila.

12 Majumdar, Bimanbehari, Krsna in History and Legend (Calcutta, 1969), 39Google Scholar.

13 See Kapila, S., ‘Self, Spencer and Swaraj: Nationalist Thought and Critiques of Liberalism’, Modern Intellectual History 4/1 (2007), 109–27Google Scholar,

14 Majumdar, Krsna, 38.

15 Aurobindo, Sri, Essays on the Gita (First Series) (Calcutta, 1949), 15Google Scholar; these essays were originally published in the Arya, Aug. 1916–July 1918.

16 Ibid., 56; see also Andrew Sartori in this issue.

17 See e.g. Capper, Charles and Wright, Conrad E., eds., Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Context (Boston, 1999)Google Scholar; Reid, John T., Indian Influences in American Literature and Thought (Delhi, 1965), 1834Google Scholar, on Emerson, Thoreau, et al.

18 Cf. Dalmia, Vasudha, The Nationalisation of Hindu Traditions: Bhartendu Harischandra and Nineteenth-Century Banaras (Delhi, 1996), 394Google Scholar.

19 Pinch, William R., ‘Bhakti and the British Empire’, Past and Present 179 (May 2003), 159–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Dalmia, Nationalisation, p. 399.

21 Doyle, Arthur Conan, The History of Spiritualism, 2 vols. (London and New York, 1926)Google Scholar.

22 Smith, David, ‘Nietzsche's Hinduism, Nietzsche's India: Another look’, Journal of Nietzsche Studies 28 (2004), 3756CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Cited in Tribune (Lahore), 10 Nov. 1883.

24 Turner, Bryan, “The Early Sociology of Religion”, in Turner, Bryan S., ed., Anthropological Religion, vol. 3 (London, 1992, repr. London, 1997), viGoogle Scholar.

25 See S. Kapila, “The Eventuality of Science in India”, Isis forum, May 2009.

26 Annie Besant, A Study in Karma (Adyar, 1917), 153.

27 Ibid. 174,

29 Majumdar, Krsna, p. 41.

30Krishna Carita”, Bhartendu Samgraha, ed. Hemant Sharma, 5th ed. (Varanasi, 2002), 182–8.

31 Selected writings of Jotirao Phule, ed. G. P. Deshpande (Delhi, 2002), 72.

32 Jordens, J. T. F., Dayananda Sarasvati; His Life and Ideas (Delhi, 1978), 273Google Scholar.

33 The Collected works of Lala Lajpat Rai, ed., B. R. Nanda, vol. 1 (Delhi, 2003), p. 434.

34 Pal, Bipan Chandra, Sri-Krsna (Calcutta, 1909), 78Google Scholar.

35 Banerjea, A Nation in Making, 33, 40, 130, 192; Biagini, Eugenio and Bayly, C. A., eds., Giuseppe Mazzini and the Globalisation of Democratic Nationalism (Oxford, 2008)Google Scholar.

36 Bhagawan Das, “Krishna: A Study in the Theory of Avataras” no. 2, Hindustan Review 41–2 (1920), 15.

37 Majumdar, Krsna, 53.

38 Farquhar, J. N., Gita and Gospel (Madras, 1907), 364Google Scholar.

39 Gopal, Sarvepalli, Radhakrisnhnan: A Biography (Oxford, 1992), 25Google Scholar.

40 Earl of Ronaldshay, The Heart of Aryavarta: A Study of the Psychology of Indian Unrest (London, 1925), 125.

41 Wadia, Sophia, “The Place of the Gita in the India of Today, Hindustan Review 67 (1935), 166–70Google Scholar.

42 Mukerji, Dhan Gopal, The Song of God: Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita (London, 1929), xlvGoogle Scholar.

43 Shri Bhagavad Gita, Revised and Edited by and with Its Gloss Siddhi Datri by R. J. K Shastri (Gandal, Kathiawar, India, 1937).

44 Ibid., p. 22.

45 Ibid., p. 25.

46 See also his own translation and commentary on the Gita: Radhakrishnan, S., The Bhagavadgita with an Introductory Essay, Sanskrit Text, English Translation and Notes (London, 1948)Google Scholar. This was dedicated to the “late Mahatma Gandhi” and pointed to the text's importance during the wartime and postwar period.

47 Radhakrishnan, S., Religion and Society (London, 1947), 10Google Scholar; originally given as lectures in the University of Calcutta and Benares Hindu University in 1942.

48 Ibid., 16.

49 Ibid., 22.

50 Ibid., 30.

51 Ibid., 40.

52 Radhakrishnan, Religion and Society, 49.

53 Ibid., 83.

54 Halbfass, Wilhelm, India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding (New York, 1988), 253Google Scholar.

55 An argument advanced by Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Yogendra Yadav, conference for Centre of Policy Studies, New Delhi, Kesaroli, Jan. 2009.

56 See Aishwary Kumar in this issue.

57 Hindu Rashtra Darshan (A Collection of Presidential Speeches from the Mahasabha Platform) (Bombay, 1949), Introduction, ii.

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