Skip to main content


  • C. A. BAYLY (a1)

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”.

Hide All

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). See, however, Paul, E., Miller, F. and Paul, J., Liberalism Old and New (Cambridge, 2007); and Simhony, A. and Weinstein, D., The New Liberalism: Reconciling Liberty and Community (Cambridge, 2001); 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. 7493. A classic statement of Indian liberalism would be Banerjea, Surendranath, A Nation in Making (Bombay, 1925); 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).

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).

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

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).

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), 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), 39.

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

14 Majumdar, Krsna, 38.

15 Aurobindo, Sri, Essays on the Gita (First Series) (Calcutta, 1949), 15; 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); Reid, John T., Indian Influences in American Literature and Thought (Delhi, 1965), 1834, on Emerson, Thoreau, et al.

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

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

20 Dalmia, Nationalisation, p. 399.

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

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

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), vi.

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), 273.

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), 78.

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).

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), 364.

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

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), 166–70.

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

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). 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), 10; 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), 253.

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.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Modern Intellectual History
  • ISSN: 1479-2443
  • EISSN: 1479-2451
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-intellectual-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed