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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 July 2010

Department of History, University of California, Irvine E-mail:


This essay examines the significance of the Bhagavad Gita for V. D. Savarkar's interpretations of religion, nationalism, and the idea of Hindu India. As one of the intellectual founders of Hindu nationalism, Savarkar has emerged as the most controversial Indian political thinker of the last century, gaining notoriety for his program to ‘Hinduize Politics and Militarize Hindudom’, for his anti-Muslim and anti-Christian politics, and for his advocacy of violence in everyday life. By bringing together key selections from Savarkar's seminal historical writings, the essay also traces how Savarkar developed the concept of ethical warfare from the Gita for his political purposes of contesting colonial power and creating a Hindu nation. It also shows that Savarkar adopted history writing as his main literary form for his engagement with the Gita and its principles, thereby departing from the existing hermeneutical traditions of studying the Gita. For Savarkar, the creation of historical knowledge that embodied key ideas from the Gita was necessary for transforming the individual and the nation. He claimed that it ultimately motivated individuals to adopt violence for the creation of Hindu India.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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1 Savarkar, V. D., “Ek hi dharm-pustak nahin, yeh achcha hai!” Savarkar Samagra, vol. 7 (New Delhi, 2003), 313–14 (please note that the location of the speech is not given in the text)Google Scholar.

2 Bhide, A. S., ed., Veer Savarkar's “Whirl-Wind Propaganda”: Statements, Messages & Extracts from the President's Diary of His Propagandistic tours, Interviews from December 1937 to October 1941 (Bombay, 1941), vGoogle Scholar.

3 This is not to say that Savarkar did not produce other essays and speeches on the Gita. For example, the thousands of pages that make up Savarkar's unpublished papers have not been thoroughly examined by scholars on this theme. The Savarkar Papers are housed at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi (hereafter NMML)

4 Tilak, Bal Gangadhar, Srimad Bhagavadgita Rahasya or Karma-Yoga-Sastra, vol. 1, trans. Sukthankar, Bhalchandra Sitaram (Delhi, 2002), 1516Google Scholar.

5 NMML, Savarkar Papers, Microfilm Reel No. 10, Letter from A. S. Bhide, Personal Secretary of V. D. Savarkar, President of Hindu Mahasabha, to P. N. Setha, Secretary, Hindu League (date not given).

6 Minor, Robert, ed., Modern Interpreters of the Bhagavad Gita (Delhi, 1991), 223Google Scholar.

7 Keer, Dhananjay, Veer Savarkar (Bombay, 1988), 78Google Scholar.

8 Ibid., 458

9 Bhatt, Chetan, Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies and Modern Myths (Oxford, 2001), 104Google Scholar.

10 Nearly every work on Hindu nationalism in the twentieth century includes a discussion of Savarkar's seminal role in the development of Hindutva. To be clear, my point is that in comparison to every other major intellectual of the twentieth century in India, the large body of Savarkar's writings—published and unpublished—has generally received little attention. Select recent scholarship on Savarkar includes Jaffrelot, Christophe, The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India (New York, 1998)Google Scholar; Noorani, A. G., Savarkar and Hindutva: The Godse Connection (New Delhi, 2002)Google Scholar; Sarkar, Sumit, Beyond Nationalist Frames: Postmodernism, Hindu Fundamentalism, History (New Delhi, 2002)Google Scholar; Misra, Amalendu, Identity and Religion: Foundations of Anti-Islamism in India (New Delhi, 2004)Google Scholar; Erin O'Brien, “Active Awakening: Swaraj in Gandhi's Hind Swaraj and in Savarkar's The Indian War of Independence” (University of Calgary, unpublished MA thesis, 2006); John Pincince, “On the Verge of Hindutva: V. D. Savarkar, revolutionary, convict, ideologue, c.1905–1924” (University of Hawaii, unpublished PhD thesis, 2007).

11 Keer, Veer Savarkar, 73.

12 Savarkar, V. D., My Transportation for Life, Selected Works of Veer Savarkar, vol. 2 (Chandigarh, 2007), 38Google Scholar.

13 Ibid., 261. Chapter 11 is perhaps one of the most prominent and recognized parts of the Gita. It includes a dialogue in which Krishna reveals to Arjuna that he is the Supreme Deity, or the Lord.

14 For example, Savarkar lists the following religious texts that he read in prison: the Upanishads, the Rig Veda, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Brahma Sutras, Sankhya texts, Yoga Vashishta, and Imitation of Christ. See Savarkar, My Transportation.

15 For the purposes of this essay, my focus is on examining Savarkar's engagement with the Gita, but a similar critique can also be made of Savarkar's work that engages with other texts.

16 Savarkar, My Transportation, added emphasis.

17 Ibid., 152–3

18 Tilak, Bhagavadgita Rahasya, xliv.

19 Brown, D. Mackenzie, “The Philosophy of Bal Gangadhar Tilak: Karma vs. Jnana in the Gita Rahasya”, Journal of Asian Studies 17/2 (1958), 198CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Savarkar, V. D., Josepha Mejhini: atmacaritra ni rajakarana (Pune, 1946)Google Scholar.

21 Savarkar, V. D., Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, trans. Godbole, S. T. (New Delhi, 1971), 458Google Scholar.

22 What future studies will need to consider, for example, is how Savarkar's writings were influenced by a rich tradition of historical narratives of wars and battles found in Maharashtra in western India. Here I am thinking not only of how Savarkar located his writings within an emergent historiography of wars in western India, but also of his engagement with a genre of texts called bhakars that date back to the early modern period. Jawant D. Joglekar, for example, states that Savarkar studied both the Chatrapatichi Bakhar and Peshavyanchi Bhakar in Veer Savarkar: Father of Hindu Nationalism (n.p., [2006]), 25. For a discussion of bakhars see Deshpande, Prachi, Creative Pasts: Historical Memory and Identity in Western India, 1700–1960 (New York, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Guha, Sumit, “Speaking Historically: The Changing Voices of Historical Narration in Western India, 1400–1900”, American Historical Review 109/4 (2004), 10841103CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 van Buitenen, J. A. B., trans., The Bhagavadgita in the Mahabharata (Chicago, 1981), 99Google Scholar. The reference is from Chapter VII, lines 1–4, of the Gita.

24 See Sawhney, Simona, The Modernity of Sanskrit (Minneapolis, 2009), 86124Google Scholar.

25 Gandhi, M. K., ‘Discourses on the Gita’, in Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (hereafter CWMG), vol. 37 (Ahmedabad, 2000), 76Google Scholar.

26 Ibid., 82.

27 Keer, Veer Savarkar.

28 Parel, Anthony, ‘Introduction’, in M. K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj and Other Writings (Cambridge, 1997), xxviiGoogle Scholar.

29 Ibid., 6 n. 3.

30 Gandhi, M. K., “At It Again”, in CWMG, vol. 31 (Ahmedabad, 2000), 286Google Scholar.

32 See Gandhi, Hind Swaraj.

33 Parel, ‘Introduction,’ Hind Swaraj, xvii.

34 Gandhi, M. K., CWMG, vol. 32 (Ahmedabad, 1969), 496Google Scholar. Also cited in Parel, ‘Introduction,’ Hind Swaraj, xvii.

35 “An Indian Nationalist”, The Indian War of Independence of 1857 (London, 1909), vii. Please note that Savarkar's name was not included in the original edition of the book. Also, later editions of the book have a slightly modified title: The Indian War of Independence, 1857. The discussion of IWI is further developed in Chaturvedi, Vinayak, “V. D. Savarkar and the Uses of History”, in Bates, Crispin, ed., Perception, Narration and Reinvention: The Pedagogy and Historiography of the Indian Uprising (New Delhi, forthcoming in 2010)Google Scholar.

36 Savarkar, Indian War of Independence, 5–6.

37 Ibid., vii.

38 Ibid., 8.

39 Ibid., vii.

40 See Kapila, Shruti, ‘Self, Spencer and Swaraj: Nationalist Thought and Critiques of Liberalism, 1890–1920’, Modern Intellectual History 4/1 (2007), 109–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Savarkar, Indian War of Independence, 3–12.

42 Ibid., 328.

43 Ibid., 9 (my emphasis).

44 Savarkar, Six Glorious Epochs, 409.

45 See Chaturvedi, Vinayak, ‘Vinayak & Me: Hindutva and the Politics of Naming’, Social History 28/2 (2003), 155–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

46 Hardiman, David, Gandhi in His Time and Ours: The Global Legacy of His Ideas (New York, 2004), 175Google Scholar.

49 See Gandhi, Hind Swaraj.

50 Savarkar, Six Glorious Epochs, 256.

52 Ibid., 256–7.

53 Ibid., 168.

54 Ibid., 167–8.

55 Ibid., 168.

56 See Upadhyaya, K. N., “The Bhagavad Gita on War and Peace”, Philosophy East and West 19/2 (1969), 159–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Subedi, Surya P., “The Concept in Hinduism of ‘Just War’”, Journal of Conflict & Security Law 8/2 (2003), 339–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

57 Savarkar, Six Glorious Epochs, 255–6.

59 Savarkar's engagements with these thinkers and ideas also need to be considered, in association with the Gita, for a fuller interpretation of an intellectual history of Savarkar's political thought. On similar themes see Silvestri, Michael, “The Bomb, Bhadralok, Bhagavad Gita, and Dan Breen: Terrorism in Bengal and Its Relation to the European Experience’, Terrorism and Political Violence 21/1 (2009), 127CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

60 NMML, Savarkar Papers, Microfilm Reel No. 10, Letter from V. D. Savarkar, President of All-India Hindu Mahasabha, to Manager, Sindh Bookstall, 7 July 1941.