In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Bal Gangadhar Tilak

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Tilak and Colonial Law
  • Tilak and Hindu Nationalism
  • Tilak’s Moral and Religious Philosophy
  • Tilak’s Social and Political Thought

Hinduism Bal Gangadhar Tilak
Sukeshi Kamra
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0214


Bal Gangadhar Tilak (b. 1856–d. 1920) has been one of the Indian freedom movement’s more contentious leaders. Debates then as now have focused on questions about his brand of Hinduism, his views on violence and its relationship with history, and his involvement in the nationalist movement and the politics of identity. Questions asked are: Was he a Hindu revivalist and an anti-Muslim Hindu, or was he misinterpreted patriotic nationalist? Was he an orthodox Hindu, antisocial and antigender reform, or was he against the legislating of reform by the colonial government? Was he supportive of revolutionary violence or a pragmatist looking to historical circumstance for explanations for the presence of violence in colonial India? How do we write him into the history of the nationalist movement, as originator of a program of action that later proved powerful (boycott, swadeshi, national education, passive resistance), as a divisive figure, or both? Tilak’s many speeches and editorial articles in papers started by him for the political education of the public (the Marathi language Kesari, and the English language Mahratta, both established in 1881) have been scrutinized and argued over by both sides of the divide. Tilak is associated most, in public memory, with his famously defiant statement “Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it,” and he is generally considered to be the first to realize the importance of a mass resistance movement. In his time, that is, he was lionized for his defiance of the colonial law on sedition both inside the courtroom and outside, starting in 1897, the year in which he was first charged with sedition. Poetry, songs, posters, drama, and essays transformed him into a nationalist icon in the world of popular nationalism. Tilak was written about much in his own time and in the decades following independence, when nationalist historiography emerged as a genre. The first contemporaneous works to be written on him were biographies, hagiographies, poetry, essays, and song lyrics, all intended to inspire and politicize the colonized. In the decades since India gained its independence, Tilak’s role in the freedom movement, his views on social reform and ideological platform, as these played out in the political arena of nationalist India, have dominated historiography, in no small part due to the Hindu right’s appropriation of Tilak for their version of nationalist historiography. Much of the Hindu right’s revisionary history is in Marathi, the language in which Tilak wrote extensively and in which Tilak scholarship features prominently, but Marathi scholarship is not represented in this entry. Finally, it is worth noting that Tilak’s research and writing of Hindu cultural pasts has not attracted nearly as much attention in English language scholarship as have his political and social views except as it has a bearing on his politics.

General Overviews

A balanced overview of Tilak’s political views and actions is Guha 2011. A more pointed view of Tilak’s politics is Embree 2005 and Richards 2005.

  • Embree, Ainslie T. “Tilak, Bal Gangadhar.” In Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 13. 2d ed. Edited by Lindsay Jones, 9198–9200. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.

    A short introduction to Tilak’s politics that emphasizes his promotion of Hindu cultural nationalism. Is of the view that Tilak was, unambiguously, in favor of militant nationalism.

  • Guha, Ramachandra, ed. Makers of Modern India. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.

    See “Bal Gangadhar Tilak” (pp. 107–118). On the major political figures of the nationalist movement. The chapter on Tilak is a concise political biography and is followed by extracts from an essay and a speech by Tilak, one on Shivaji as an appropriate model for nationalist India and the other on Tilak’s view of the labels and discourses (moderate versus extremist) which were in development and which positioned him and his views as extremist.

  • Richards, Glyn, ed. “Bal Gangadhar Tilak.” A Source Book of Modern Hinduism. London: Taylor & Francis, 2005.

    See “Bal Gangadhar Tilak” (pp. 86–101). A brief social and political biography, focused on Tilak’s public life and political interests. The entry presents him as an orthodox Hindu and a figure whose political actions are properly read through the lens of his orthodoxy. The entry includes extracts drawn from Tilak’s speeches, on swadeshi, the Nationalist Party, revolution, self-government, Swaraj, national education, and home rule.

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