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The Secular as Sacred?The Religio-Political Rationalization of B. G.

Tilak
Author(s): Mark J. Harvey
Source: Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2 (1986), pp. 321-331
Published by: Cambridge University Press
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Modern Asian Studies, 20, 2 (1986), pp. 321-33I. Printed in Great Britain.

The
TheSecular
Secular
as Sacred?-The
as Sacred?-The
Religio-political
Religio-poli
Rationalization
Rationalization
of B. of
G. Tilak
B. G. Tilak
MARK J. HARVEY
McMaster University

BAL GANGADHAR TILAK (I856-I920) attempted throughout his

public life to mobilize the Indian populace for mass political action. H
did this by means of his speeches, journalism, leadership and philosoph
His desire was to throw off the yoke of British colonialism, to deliver h

countrymen out of bondage. To this end Tilak sought a cogent an

comprehensive, yet distinctly Indian, justification for anti-British pr

Hindu activism. He believed that the divergent sects of India coul

converge to form 'a mighty Hindu nation' if they would only follow t
original principles of the Hindu tradition as set forth in such texts as t
Ramayana and the Bhagavadg7ta. And this convergence should be the g
of all Hindus.1 Tilak's interpretations of these texts, especially the GTt

provided him with his 'justification' which rationalized his politic

work in religious guise.


The so-called 'original principles', Tilak believed, center on a call for
action in the world applied to both the spheres of religion and politic

This call for action or activism Tilak called 'Karma-yoga'. And Til

believed that it was in the Gita that the concept of activism was carried
its logical conclusion in that Krsna's exhortations for Arjuna to fight

should be taken as a rallying cry for Hindus to 'fight the British


violence if necessary, in order to regain political supremacy.'3 Furthe
he believed that the Gita conformed to the best principles of the Hin
tradition. He said, 'it may well be said that there is no other work in t
whole of Sanskrit literature, which explains the principles of the prese

Hindu Religion in as succinct and ... unambiguous manner as t


Gita.'4 Moreover, he asserted, 'gita suglta kartavya kim anya
sastrostaraih' which translated means, 'it is quite enough if on

thoroughly studies the Gzta; what is the use of dabbling in the other
Sastras?'5

1 Karunakaran, p. 96. 2 Smith, p. 90. 3 Embree, p. 301.

4 Tilak, p. XXV. 5 Tilak, p. XXV.

oo26-749X/86/090709o3$05.oo ? 1986 Cambridge University Press


321

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MARK J. HARVEY

322

Tilak, then,
then, sought
sought to
to develop
developaaphilosophy
philosophyof
ofactivism
activismbased
basedonon
his
hi
understanding
understanding of
of these
these original
originalprinciples
principlesasasfound
foundininthe
theclassic
classic
texts
texts
o
the Hindu
Hindu tradition.
tradition. He
He turned
turnedto
tothe
theGita
Gitaasasthe
thesingle
singlemost
mostimportant
importan

text upon
upon which
which aa justification
justificationfor
foractivism
activismcould
couldbebebased.6
based.6InIn
thi
t

philosophical
philosophical justification
justification cum
cumrationalization
rationalizationhe
hesought
sought(a)(a)totorevitalize
revitali
his tradition,
tradition, Hinduism,
Hinduism, (b)
(b) to
tosupplant
supplantWestern
Westernphilosophy,
philosophy,and
and
(c)(c)
tot
legitimize
legitimize political
political activism.
activism.
However,
However, there
there were
were two
two major
majorobstacles
obstaclesfor
forTilak
Tilakinindeveloping
developing
such
su
an interpretation:
interpretation: one
one philosophical,
philosophical,the
theother
otherexegetical.
exegetical.Philosophi
Philosop
cally the
the problem
problem was
was that
that the
themajor
majororthodox
orthodoxcommentators
commentatorsonon
th
Gita, Ramanuja
Ramanuja and
and Samkara,
Samkara,had,
had,essentially,
essentially,what
whatmight
mightbebeterme
term
'anti-activistic'
'anti-activistic' interpretations
interpretationsof
ofthe
theGlta.
Glta.Ramanuja,
Ramanuja,c.c.I,ooo
I,oooC.E.,
C.E.,
i
his Visistadvaita
Visistadvaita commentary
commentaryheld
heldto
toa amostly
mostlydevotionalist
devotionalistview
view
ofof
tht
G7ta and
and conceived
conceived it
it as
as developing
developingprinciples
principlesupon
uponwhich
whicha adevotionadevotiona
list religion
religion to
to Krsna
Krsna should
shouldbe
bebased.
based.The
Theonly
onlyactivism
activismininRamanuja's
Ramanuja'
system
system came
came in
in the
the form
form of
ofliturgical
liturgicalacts
actsdevoted
devotedtotothe
thegod,
god,
Krsna.
Krsna.
In
the popular
popular devotionalist
devotionalist sects
sectsof
ofTilak's
Tilak'stime
time(and
(andtoday)
today)this
thiswas
was
the
th
predominantly
predominantly accepted
accepted interpretation
interpretationof
ofthe
theGzta's
Gzta'smessage.
message.Samkara,
Samkar
on the
the other
other hand,
hand, held
held that
thatrenunciation
renunciationof
ofall
allaction
actionininthe
theworld
world
waw
the main
main teaching
teaching to
to be
be gleaned
gleanedfrom
fromthe
theG7ta.
G7ta.Historically,
Historically,inin
terms
terms
of
the 'sanskritized'
'sanskritized' literati,
literati, this
thisview
viewprevailed.
prevailed.Tilak
Tilakfelt
felthehecould
could
adapt
adap

Ramanuja's
Ramanuja's devotionalism
devotionalism with
withreasonable
reasonableease,
ease,sosothat
thathis
hismain
main
concern was to counteract the hold of renunciation over the wide

spectrum of Indian philosophy.


Tilak's view was that renunciate philosophy first took hold in In
circa the fifth century B.C.E. with the rise ofJainism and Buddhism

Tilak these were heretical sects which advocated opening 'the d


Renunciation to all castes.'7 Samkara, c. 800 C.E., made numer
accommodations to this heresy and helped to integrate it int

Vedantin school of orthodox Hinduism. Samkara asserted that the

phenomenal world in which we live is maya, that is, less than absolute
real, and that release (moksa) from this 'less than real' world is the g
of humanity. For Samkara this release could only be attained by turnin
one's back on the world of action which is what binds us to this 'illuso
world; one must renounce the world of illusions and binding action. I
6 Brown, p. 197.

7 Tilak, p. 703. However, D. MacKensie Brown believes 'Tilak's real focus is n


traditional, classical renunciate philosophy as such. Rather, primarily he is stor
ing... against contemporary "escapist" Hinduism which, he believes, offers the fal

ideal of renunciation of all worldly activity by the seeker after Moksa.' (Brown, p. 20
This interpretation makes sense in light of Tilak's emphasis on 'activism' which is 'thi
worldly' oriented.

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THE SECULAR AS SACRED?

323

was this interpretation of Indian philosophy which dominated


religious milieu of Tilak's time. Tilak, then, had to debase renun
philosophy of which Samkara was the main proponent. Only then c
Tilak's activistic philosophy, Karma-yoga, become legitimate.
The exegetical obstacle that Tilak faced in developing his philosop
of activism (Karma-yoga) was the widespread interpretation of

specific character of Krsna's advice to Arjuna in the Gita. It was tho


that although Krsna admonished Arjuna to fight (act), ultimately t
form of action was based on Arjuna's very specific caste obligation

Ksatriya (warrior-noble varna). This common understanding w


based primarily on verse 43, chapter XVIII which says

The inherently natural duty (Karma) of the Ksatriya is bravery, brill

courage, intentness, not running away from battle, generosity, and exerc
authority (over subject people).8

However, Tilak sought a justification for action which was universa


applicable to Indians.9 He believed that the path of action in the wo
which he called 'Karma-yoga', should be the duty for all individuals
not merely for one portion or varna of the Indian people. The prob
then, was to transform Krsna's specific advice into a doctrine of act

which was applicable to all peoples.10

These two issues, (i) the refutation of traditional renunciate philo

phy and (2) the specific nature of Krsna's advice to Arjuna, i.e.,
Arjuna should act only because it was his varna duty as a Ksatriya

so, were Tilak's main obstacles in developing his theory of acti

(Karma-yoga). He saw them as a two-edged sword that he had to bl


and, therefore, he attacked these problems together.

Tilak used three main sources to refute Samkara's renunciat


philosophy and to generalize activism as a path for all Hindus
thereby to establish his conception of Karma-yoga (activism). T

were (I) Jinanadeva's commentary on the Gita, the Jinnesvari (toge

with portions ofJianadeva's anti-Samkara philosophical treatise


Amrtanubhava), (2) Ramanuja's critical commentary on the Gita
Gitabhasya, and (3) his (Tilak's) own translation and commentary

GZta Rahasya.

Jnanadeva was a fellow Maharastran (Tilak's home state) who l

in the thirteenth century. Jnainadeva was considered an unusually p


and saintly scholar and, thus, his opinion on religious matters carr
great authority. In his philosophy he asserted, in contradistinction
Samkara, that the human world of action, phenomena, and materia
8 Tilak, p. 1195.

9 Brown, p. 97-8-

10 Brown, p. 201.

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MARK J. HARVEY

324

were
were true
true and
andauthentic
authentic'natural
'natural
expressions
expressions
of of
Reality."'
Reality."'
ThisThis
belief
belief
was
was based
based on
onhis
hisintuition
intuitiongained
gained
from
from
hishis
personal
personal
mysticism.
mysticism.
Thus,
Thus,
Jnfinadeva
Jnfinadeva was
wasable
abletotodismiss,
dismiss,atat
least
least
to to
hishis
own
own
satisfaction,
satisfaction,
Samkara's
Samkara's
view
view that
that the
thephenomenal
phenomenalworld
world
was
was
'less
'less
than
than
real'
real'
(maya).
(maya).
However,
However,
he emphasized
emphasizeddevotional
devotionalaction
actionoror
Bhakti
Bhakti
as as
most
most
important
important
for for
the the
tradition,
tradition, whereas
whereasTilak
Tilakemphasized
emphasized
'social
'social
action
action
forfor
universal
universal
benefit'
benefit'

or Lokasamgraha.12
Lokasamgraha.12

Tilak,
Tilak, also,
also, brought
broughttotobear
bearthe
thereknowned
reknowned
Gitabhasya
Gitabhasya
of Ramanuja.
of Ramanuja.
Tilak
Tilak found
found especial
especialsupport
supportfor
for
hishis
cause
cause
in in
Ramanuja's
Ramanuja's
comments
comments
on on
verses
verses 47
47 and
and48,
48,chapter
chapterXVIII
XVIIIofof
the
the
Gita.
Gita.
In In
hishis
commentary
commentary
on these
on these
verses
verses Ramanuja
Ramanujadiscussed
discussedthe
thenature
nature
ofof
action
action
andand
duty
duty
as unavoidable
as unavoidable

and,
and, therefore,
therefore,the
therenunciation
renunciation
ofof
action
action
byby
philosophers
philosophers
suchsuch
as as
Samkara
Samkara was
wasan
anillusory
illusorypath
pathtotomoksa
moksa
(release).
(release).
Ramanuja
Ramanuja
saidsaid
thatthat
one
one should
should follow
followthe
thepath
pathofofKarma-yoga
Karma-yoga
because
because
it was
it was
a practical
a practical
(and
(and possible)
possible)path
pathtotofollow
followtotoeventual
eventual
release.
release.
Ramanuja's
Ramanuja's commentary
commentaryononverses
verses
4747
and
and
48,48,
chapter
chapter
XVIII
XVIII
is asis as

follows:
follows:

(47)
(47) Thus
Thus one's
one'sown
ownduty,
duty,i.e.,
i.e.,the
the
duty
duty
which
which
should
should
be undertaken;
be undertaken;
which
which
duty
duty is
is free
freefrom
from(the
(theidea
ideaof)
of)agency,
agency,
etc.,
etc.,
andand
constitutes
constitutes
my my
propitiation;
propitiation;
which
which (duty)
(duty)consists
consistsininKarmayoga
Karmayoga
and
and
in in
thethe
activity
activity
of the
of the
senses-is
senses-is
easyeasy
to to
be accomplished
accomplishedby
bya aman
manwho
whois is
connected
connected
with
with
Prakrti.
Prakrti.
Therefore,
Therefore,
one'sone's
own own

duty
duty called
called Karmayoga,
Karmayoga,though
thoughdefective,
defective,
is better
is better
than
than
thethe
duty
duty
of aof
man
a man

competent
competent in
inconquest
conquestover
overthe
thesenses,
senses,
viz.,
viz.,
than
than
Jianayoga,
Jianayoga,
which
which
is is

accompanied
accompaniedby
by(a(aliability
liabilityto)to)negligence
negligence
because
because
of of
its its
consisting
consisting
in the
in the
restraint
restraint of
of all
allthe
thesenses,
senses,and
andfurther
further
which
which
is performed
is performed
wellwell
(but)(but)
occasionally.
(The Lord) confirms the same: (doing the duty) ordained according to the very
nature, i.e., because action is ordained according to the very nature of a man
connected with Prakrti, inasmuch as it consists in the activity of the senses,
therefore, one doing action incurs no sin.
On the other hand, on the part of a devotee ofJniinayoga, it is quite possible

that he incurs sin from negligence; because (Jfianayoga) is attended by (a

liability to) negligence.

(48) Therefore, one ought not to abandon action, which is easy to accomplish
because it is born with oneself, and which is free from (a liability to) negligence,
though attended with evil, i.e., though it is attended with pain. The meaning is:

one should engage precisely in Karmayoga even when one is capable of

Jfianayoga, (for) all undertaking, i.e., undertakings consisting in action as well


as undertakings consisting in knowledge, are surrounded by evil, i.e., pain, as
l Brown, p. 203.
12 Cashman, p. 12, and Brown, p. 204. 'Lokasamgraha' is a Sanskritic compound
consisting of 'Loka', which means world or humanity, and 'Samgraha', which means
conciliation, propitiation, kind treatment, or holding together. 'Lokasamgraha', then,

means the propitiation or conciliation of humanity or the welfare of the world.

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THE SECULAR AS SACRED?

325

fire by smoke. However, this is the difference: Karmayoga is easy to accom


and free from (a liability to) negligence: whileJnanayoga is the opposite of

In summary, Ramanuja believed these verses (I) admonished o


perform action (Karma-yoga) because it was the only possible path

to the very nature of living beings (and all matter), (2) showed

Jnana-yoga (or renunciation) was not possible also because of the n


of living matter, (3) demonstrated that action performed while do
one's duty was not binding, and (4) held that even if one could follo
renunciate path it was far inferior to the Karma-yoga path becaus
action was surrounded by a binding potential and the inherent restr
of the senses, i.e., renunciation's nonaction was itselfillusory. Thus,

by performing actions which were not binding could one esc


bondage. Karma-yoga, Ramanuja believed, was such a path.

Ramanuja was similar toJfianadeva in his devotionalist leanings a


interpretation of the Gita. What he meant by Karma-yoga was gene
personal and liturgical acts of devotion which brought the devotee c

to God. Tilak essentially co-opted Ramanuja's pronouncements


phraseology concerning Karma-yoga and supplied them with his
meanings.
Tilak's own solutions, credible or not, are contained in his blo

commentary on the Gita, the Git6 Rahasya ('secret teaching of the G


Not so surprising was the fact that this 'secret teaching' was Tilak's
version of Karma-yoga ('path of action'). In the Rahasya Tilak asser
that Karma-yoga was the main soteriological path justified by the

The whole of the treatise or sastra ('primary purpose'-Tilak) w


concerned with Arjuna's general context-whether to act or not

Tilak thought that this was important to every human being becau

was a decision everyone must make. Krsna's advice to Arjuna w


perform action. Tilak saw in this simple advice a special or 'se
teaching' which other commentators had missed and from whic

could legitimize his political activism. He set the stage for

interpretation by means of his subtle definitional changes of the H


tradition's terminology. There were three particular terms with w
Tilak concerned himself: karma, yoga and dharma. Tilak believed th
only with a profound knowledge of these could one achieve a realis
and comprehensive understanding of the Gita and its 'secret teachi
Tilak went on to infuse these terms with a new meaning that justi
political activism.
Karma, from the Sanskrit verb root /kr, means to do or to act,
13 Isvaradatta, p. 347-8.

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326

MARK J. HARVEY

activity,
activity,
affairs,
affairs,
doing or
doing
performance.
or performance.
There are two broad
There
divisions
are two
of broad divisions
karma
karma
distinguished
distinguished
by the traditional
by the traditional
school of Sanskrit
school
grammarians,
of Sanskrit grammaria

Mimamsa,
Mimamsa,
and and
Tilak Tilak
employed
employed
these divisions.
these
Thedivisions.
two categories
The
are two categories
yajfinrtha
yajfinrtha
karma
karma
(actions(actions
for the purpose
for the
of sacrifice
purpose
andof
notsacrifice
binding) and not bindin

and
andpurushartha
purushartha
karma karma
(actions for
(actions
the purpose
for of
the
the purpose
self and binding).
of the self and bindin
Sacrificial
Sacrificial
actions
actions
were considered
were considered
ennobling and
ennobling
meritorious,and
and not
meritorious, and no
conducive to an accumulation of karma which binds one to the world of

suffering. Actions performed for the self were thought to be selfishly


motivated by greed and lust, and lent themselves to a heavy accumulation of karma. Arjuna, Tilak believed, was concerned with actions that
might bind him; he wished to avoid them in order to gain final release

(moksa). The Gila, Tilak explained, was concerned with 'performing


action in such a way that one ... attained Release without committing
sin.'14
Yoga, from the Sanskrit verb root /yuj, means to yoke, to join, to
unite or to use. Tilak said that one made use of yoga to some end, i.e., it
was a device or means to achieve a purpose or end. For Tilak, the Gita
employed the word yoga generally to mean 'skilful means', so that the

composite term, Karma-yoga, should be understood to mean 'skilful


means or use of action.'15 Tilak based this understanding or interpreta-

tion on his translation and commentary of verses 48-50, chapter II.

Several commentators, e.g., D. MacKenzie Brown and Franklin

Edgerton, have remarked on Tilak's rather free rendering of this section,


especially verse 5o. Tilak's translation follows.
(48) 0 Dhanananjaya! Casting off Attachment and looking upon as alike the
being fruitful and unfruitful (of Action) perform Action being ~yogasta' (that is,

'steadfast in the path of Karma-Yoga'-Trans.); the (mental) state of being

Equable (towards the Action being fruitful or unfruitful) is known as (Karma-)

Yoga.

(49) For, (external) Karma is by far inferior to the Yoga (of the Equability) of
Reason; (therefore) surrender yourself to (this equable) Reason; . . . those who
perform Action only with an eye to the Fruit are kr.pana (that is, low, or on a
lower level).
(50) He, who is steeped in the (equable) Reason remains untouched both by sin

or merit in this (world); therefore, take shelter in Yoga. The cleverness


(skilfulness or trick) of performing Action (without acquiring merit or sin) is

known as (Karma-) Yoga.16

Tilak's translation of verse 50 (above) was quite an expansion of the


original. The transliterated Sanskrit for this verse is: 'buddhi-yukto
jahatiha ubhe sukrta-duskrte; tasmad yogaya yujyasva; yogah karmasu
14 Tilak, p. XX.

1 5 Tilak, p. 81.

16 Tilak's translation, p. 896-7-

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THE SECULAR AS SACRED?

327

kausalam'
kausalam'
which
which
I translate
I translate
as 'Hereas
(one
'Here
possessed
(oneof
possessed
mind) gives
ofupmind) g

both
bothbad
bad
andand
good;
good;
therefore,
therefore,
prepare prepare
yourself inyourself
yoga; yogain
is yoga;
skill in yoga is
action.'
action.'
I do
I do
notnot
believe
believe
that this
that
tighter
this translation
tighter translation
contradicts Tilak's
contradicts
translation.
translation.
It isItsimply
is simply
not as not
directly
as directly
supportive supportive
of his Karma-yoga
of his Karma

thesis.
thesis.
One
One
cancan
onlyonly
speculate
speculate
that Tilak
that
tried
Tilak
to avoid
tried
possible
to avoid p

ambiguities
ambiguities
by by
over-translating
over-translating
the text the
to support
text to
his support
position more
his position
forcefully.

However, one critical problem Tilak faced in this section arose in the
49th sloka (verse couplet) where it read: 'Karma is by far inferior to the

Yoga... of reason . . .' This was Tilak's own translation and yet it
seemingly contradicted his premise that the Karma-yoga as preached in
the Gita was more important than the Jiana-yoga (i.e., the discipline of

knowledge associated with renunciation). Tilak had to solve this


problem in order to establish Karma-yoga as the supreme path
enunciated by the Gita. In Tilak's commentary on these verses he
explained this problematic section in the following manner:
The description of the nature of Karma-Yoga given in these stanzas is very
important, . . . but, the proposition of Karma-Yoga mentioned in the 49th
stanza, namely that, 'the Reason is superior to the Action', is of utmost
importance . . . Some persons try to interpret the word 'buddhi' here as meaning
'Jfiana' (knowledge), and to interpret the stanza as meaning that 'Karma is of
less importance than Jfina'; but this interpretation is not correct. Because, as
the description of Equability given in the 48th stanza is continued in the 49th

stanza and the subsequent stanzas, the word 'buddhi' must be interpreted as
meaning an 'equabilising buddhi'. The goodness or badness of an act does not
depend on the act itself, although the act may be one and the same; it becomes
good or bad according to the good or evil intention of the doer; therefore, the
Reason is superior to the Action ... Krsna says that when a man performs
Action in this way with an equable Reason, there is no neglect of worldly
activities, and at the same time, one cannot but achieve complete Perfection or
Release.17

In his commentary Tilak interpreted 'buddhi' as a special kind of reason

or knowledge, viz., 'Equabilizing Reason'. By this he meant an


unattached, balanced frame of mind. Historically, orthodox commentators have interpreted 'buddhi' as either (a) Prajfia (wisdom or insight
mystically or meditatively gained), e.g. Jnanadeva, or (b) Jnaina
(discursive knowledge), e.g. Samkara. Tilak, unlike Samkara, did not
oppose action to reason in his interpretation of these verses. Rather, he
further developed the notion that action and the reason behind the
action were separate sides of the same coin. In other words, for Tilak the
Gita did not advocate inaction or renunciation as Samkara had said, but
17 Tilak's commentary, p. 897-8.

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328

MARK J. HARVEY

urged
urged aaspecial
special
kind
kind
of of
action.
action.
ThisThis
special
special
kind kind
of action
of action
was actio
w

performed
performedwith
with
anan
unattached
unattached
frame
frame
of mind-'Equable
of mind-'Equable
Reason

Thus,
Thus, if
ifone
oneperformed
performed
action
action
unattached
unattached
to the
toresults
the results
of thatof
action
tha

they
they were
wereactually
actually
performing
performing
Karma-yoga
Karma-yoga
('skilful
('skilful
meansmeans
or use

action').
action').Further,
Further,
Tilak
Tilak
quoted
quoted
Krsna
Krsna
as saying
as saying
that anyone
that any
wh

performed
performedaction
action
in in
this
this
manner
manner
attained
attained
the highest
the highest
'Perfection
'Perfe
o

Release. 1 8

Together with these shifts in the definitions of karma and yoga Tilak
simultaneously reinterpreted the concept ofsamyasa (renunciation). He

changed it from its historical meaning of renouncing all actions in

society to meaning the renunciation of the ends or fruits of

action-'Phalasamyas.' Tilak became one of the first mass popularizers


of this interpretation and certainly the first to move it into the secular
arena of politics.
The third term Tilak thought important for a realistic and compre-

hensive understanding of the Gita was dharma. Dharma is from the


Sanskrit verb root /dh which means to uphold or to bear. For most

orthodox commentators dharma was held to mean the duties of the four

varnas which were carried out in order to maintain or uphold society.


Tilak also interpreted it in this manner, but he saw two implications in

this traditional understanding of dharma: dharma of this world-

simply, dharma, and a dharma beyond this world or in an

afterlife-mok*adharma. Traditional Mimamsa philosophy also had


made a similar distinction and Tilak had followed it in making his
dichotomy. However, for Tilak the dharma that was most important
was that which concerned itselfwith the everyday person in the world.19
His concern was centred here because he believed that it was in the

world that a person worked out his or her salvation:


... according to the path of Karma-Yoga, even if perfection is not reached in

one life, the Action performed is not wasted, but comes in useful in the
subsequent births, and the merit being thus accumulated from birth to birth,
true Release is reached ultimately.20
There are three additional verses from the Gita that Tilak viewed as

supportive of his interpretation, verses 17, 59 and 6o, chapter XVIII.


(I 7) Who does not possess the belief that 'I am the doer', and whose Reason is
unattached, such a person, even destroying other persons, cannot be said to
have killed them; and that (Action) does not bind him.21

18 Tilak, p. 898. 19 Tilak, p. 88.

20 Tilak, p. 885. The quoted passage is Tilak's commentary on verse 40, ch

'Here (in this path of Karma-Yoga), Action... commenced is not destro


later) protects (one) from danger.' (Tilak's translation).
21 Tilak's translation, p. 1,182.

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THE SECULAR AS SACRED?

329

In this
this verse,
verse, 17,
17,Tilak
Tilakagain
againemphasized
emphasized
the
the
relationship
relationship
betwee
betw
karma
karma and
and buddhi
buddhias
asone
oneininwhich
whichactions
actions
performed
performed
with
with
an

unattached
unattached frame
frameof
ofmind,
mind,no
nomatter
matter
what
what
the
the
actions
actions
may
may
be,be,
arear
n
binding.
binding. Such
Such ajustification
ajustificationfor
foraction
action
fits
fits
well
well
into
into
Tilak's
Tilak's
framework
framewo
political
political activism
activismwhich
whichmight
mightbecome
become
violent
violent
if if
necessary.
necessary.
The
The other
other two
two verses
versesfrom
fromchapter
chapter
XVIII,
XVIII,
5959
and
and
6o,6o,
re-emphasized
re-emphasiz
that
that by
by reason
reason of
ofbeing
beinghuman,
human,humans
humans
perform
perform
actions
actions
whether
whether
the
will
will or
or not.
not. Therefore,
Therefore,one
oneshould
shouldact
act
soso
as as
not
not
to to
become
become
bound:
bound:

(59)
(59) Your
Your egotistical
egotisticalbelief
beliefthat:
that:'I 'Iwill
will
not
not
fight'
fight'
(as(as
metaphor
metaphor
forfor
all action)
all acti
futile.
futile. Prakrti
Prakrti (that
(thatis,
is,inherent
inherentnature)
nature)
will
will
compel
compel
you
you
to to
do do
so. so.

(60)
(60) Arjuna!
Arjuna! Being
Beingbound
boundby
bythe
theaction
action
inherently
inherently
natural
natural
to to
you,
you,
youyou
willwill
hav
to perform
perform that,
that,which,
which,by
byIgnorance
Ignorance
you
you
dodo
not
not
wish
wish
to to
perform,
perform,
youyou
havin
ha
become
become subject
subject to
toanother
another(that
(thatis,is,
toto
your
your
own
own
Prakrti
Prakrti
or or
inherent
inherent
nature).
natu

Tilak
Tilak saw
saw these
these verses
versesasasan
anembodiment
embodiment
ofof
the
the
general
general
message
message
in the
in

GTta.
GTta. That
That message,
message,Tilak
Tilakbelieved,
believed,
was
was
one
one
in in
which
which
karma
karm
w

demonstrated as an inevitable concomitant of human existence. For

Tilak it was the buddhi or mental state of either desiring or not desirin

the fruits and goals of action that determined whether an act w


binding or not. To act in such a way as to not become bound, that
unattached to the fruits of one's actions, was Tilak's general theory of
action, Karma-yoga.
Tilak, however, went further than re-interpreting the terms karm
yoga and dharma. He infused them with explicit social contents an
implicit political ones. In other words, after having re-interpreted th
meanings of karma, yoga and dharma and having linked them into
single equation, Karma-yoga Dharma ('skilful use of action in the
world'), Tilak began to describe what the contents of this Karma-yoga
Dharma would be. Specifically, Tilak believed that if all Indians (an
all people) would fulfill their duty in society with a 'single-minde

purposefulness' and a 'desireless frame of mind', then, the whole society


would be liberated and prosperous.23 In general, Tilak thought that th
betterment of society through unselfish service in this world for one
fellow beings (Lokasamgraha) was the raison d'etre for the Karma-yog
as preached in the Gita.24 In particular, Tilak tried to expand the notio

ofdharma from a concept of specific varna duties to a concept of it bei

the pan-Indian duty of the Indian people to strive for 'Home Rule'
liberation from the British. Tilak's social and political activism can be
viewed as an implementation of this general and particular understand

ing of Karma-yoga Dharma.

22 Tilak's translation, p. 1,202. 23 Ashby, p. 96-7, and Tilak, p. 690-7

24 Ashby, p. 97.

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MARK J. HARVEY

330

Although
Although
Tilak
Tilak
believed
believed
that the
that
central
the path
central
presented
path by
presented
the Gita by the Git
was
wasone
one
which
which
advocated
advocated
activism
activism
or Karma-yoga,
or Karma-yoga,
he thought he
thatthought
the
that th

paths of Bhakti, as developed by Jnanadeva and Ramanuja, and


Jnana-Samyasa, as put forth by Samkara, had had a valid message in
the past. However, Tilak believed that historical circumstances and
needs had changed. Today's world was active and lively, ensconced in
an 'age of Karma',25 and needed a path to release or liberation which
was in accord with these changed circumstances. Moreover, Tilak
thought that many of the orthodox commentators, Samkara especially,
have had self-interest or sectarian bias in their interpretations of the Gita.

Tilak said, 'once a man's vision has become doctrinal, he naturally


adopts that method by which he can prove that the cult which he follows
is the cult established by authoritative treatises.'26 But, he exhorted, 'the
Gita is not such a pot ofjugglery, that anyone can extract any meaning
he likes from it.'27 Tilak thought himself free from such self-interest and

sectarianism and thereby enabled to make a systematic unbiased


analysis of the work.
In his 'value-free' analysis Tilak made use of the Gita to prove that (a)

the main thrust of the work was to elaborate a theory of activism,

Karma-yoga, as particularly opposed to the orthodox theory of


renunciation (Samyasa), and (b) the highest good for all people,

Lokasamgraha, was the best end of such action.28

In conclusion let us recall that Tilak had three main concerns in

writing the GIta Rahasya: (i) to revitalize his tradition, (2) to supplant
the hold of Western philosophy in India, and (3) to legitimize political
activism. To varying degrees all of these were accomplished, at least t
Tilak's mind. By reinterpreting the major concepts of his tradition an
by investing them with socio-political content, e.g., Lokasamgraha and
Home Rule, Tilak believed he had revitalized his tradition. He also
asserted the universal applicability of the path of action (Karma-yoga)
to all cultures and societies. This made his theory seem to have the same

kind of power or authority enjoyed by the various Western social


philosophies that had come into India. More importantly, with the
tradition invested with political content, political activism was not only
legitimized as an activity in itself, but this activism became a religious

activity, nay obligation (dharma), for all Hindus in pursuit of a


universal salvation which would be gained by striving for the highest

good for all people (Lokasamgraha). In effect, Tilak made


25 Brown, p. I99. 26 Tilak, p. 33. 27 Tilak, p. 28.

28 Brown, p. 198. 'Lokasamgraha', to Tilak's mind, was best translated into social
political action against the British.

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THE SECULAR AS SACRED?

331

Lokasamgraha the equivalent of Moksadharma in this world (soci


Finally, in Tilak's reinterpretation of the Gita he was able to legitim
new norms and values in orthodox garb: broadly speaking, political
as religious ones. These new norms and values provided both inspira

and guidance. Further, they served as the 'philosophical bas

universal action' and helped to 'underwrite and rationalize' the polit


activism of the Indian Nationalist Movement.29

However, this type of rationalization had a dark side because with


rationalization based on Hindu texts and symbols Tilak alienated ma

non-Hindus, especially Muslims, who rallied around the British


security. On the one hand, Tilak utilized a powerful vehicle for
propaganda, the reinterpreted Hindu tradition. While on the other,
lost support from non-Hindus by not making an appeal to more no
sectarian or secular symbols.30

29 Brown, p. 203.
30 Karunakaran has an excellent discussion of this on p. I04 and p. 174. This w

problem which continued to haunt the Indian Nationalist Movement and espe

Gandhi. The best discussion of this with reference to Tilak and Gandhi isJudith Bro
Gandhi's Rise to Power: Indian Politics I915-I922 (Cambridge University Press, I972).

problem's tragic consequences have been demonstrated time and again in t

communal violence of 20th century India.

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Brown, D. MacKenzie, I958. 'The Philosophy of Bal Gangadhar Tilak: Karma

Jnana in the Gita Rahasya'. Journal of Asian Studies. February, pp. 197-208.
Cashman, Richard I. 1975. The Myth ofthe Lokamanya. Berkeley: University of Cali
Press.

Embree, Ainslie (ed.). I966. The Hindu Tradition. New York: Vintage Books.
Hopkins, Thomas. 1971. The Hindu Religious Tradition. Encino, California: Dicke
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Isvaradatta (translator). I930. Ramanuja's Commentary on the Bhagavadgita. J
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Tilak, Bal Gangadhar. 1971. Gita Rahasya or Karma Yoga. Poona: Tilak Brothers.

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All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms