Bal Gangadhar Tilak – The Great Thinker

The Biography of Famous Personalities of India will tell you about the controversies, the dark sides of a person that you may have never heard of.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak – The Great Thinker

Tilak was a great scholar and his researches in Indology were widely recognised by his contemporaries in the world. He tried to give a true identity to the great Indian civilization. Therefore, he wrote the monumental work called ‘The Orion’. The origin and history of the Indian civilization has been scientifically described in this book.

Tilak had realised that western scholars were not prepared to accept a high antiquity for the Vedic literature. Max Mueller in particular had assigned the Rig Veda to about 1200 BC. He had divided the entire vedic literature into four strata viz. the Chhandas, Mantra, Brahmana and Sutra.

These were placed in the chronological order in which the Chhandas were the earliest to be composed and the Sutra literature was the last, and all this was completed before the rise of Buddhism about 400 BC. Max Mueller allowed some two centuries for each stage, and thus arrived at 1200 BC as the date of the Rig- Veda. According to him the Vedic literature developed during 2400-2000 BC.

All this dating by Max Mueller and others was done on the basis of literary evidence, particularly the style which, however, could reveal only the relative chronological position and no evidence was produced in support of a calendrical date. Tilak was justified in arguing that this method was rather vague and uncertain and could at best be cited as supportive evidence. The entire gamut of Vedic literature was thus, hanging in a sort of chronological vacuum.

Tilak was deeply interested in Sanskrit literature, particularly Vedic, and also mathematics. It was at this time precisely that Shankar Balakrishna Dikshit published his Bharatiya Jyotish Shastracha Itihas in Marathi which is a shining example of Indian scholarship. It demonstrated to the world how the Indians had made remarkable progress in astronomy in ancient times.

When Tilak came across a reference in the Bhagwad- Gita that Krishna was ‘the Margasirsa of the months, (Masanam Margasirsoham) it immediately struck him like a flash that astronomy may offer some clue to the dating of the Vedas and he therefore, collected the astronomical references occurring in the Vedic literature.

To his great surprise he was proved right and he could therefore, develop his chronology of the Vedic literature. He had given two lectures on it in Pune in 1891, and later prepared his paper for the 9th Oriental Congress which was to be held in London in 1892.

But it became such a longish essay that it was later in 1893 published in the form of a separate monograph and only a short summary was included in the proceedings of the Congress. All this was done when he was fully involved in all sorts of political and social controversies. The idea first occurred to him in 1890 as he stated in the Preface to ‘The Orion’ and it took four years to complete.

Everyday the Nakshatra close to the Sun was noted, and the time it took to come to the same position was counted as one year. The beginning of the year was the commencement of the sacrifice and it continued for the whole year. According to the Vedanga-Jyotisha, new year starts from winter. This is known as the Uttaryana, which means the Sun’s movement from the south to the north.

It has been observed that the seasons lag behind by one month after every two thousand years, and this change has to be adjusted in the calendar. This can be proved by the statement that “the Sun is in the asterism of Krittikas,” which occurs in the Taittiriya Samhita.

The equinoxes are the two days of the year when the Sun is directly above the equator. As the Earth moves in its orbit around the Sun, the position of the Sun changes in relation to the equator. The Sun appears north of the equator between the March equinox and the September equinox. It is south of the equator between the September equinox and the next March equinox.

This happened in 2350 BC. With this as a fixed datum, the various stages of the Vedic literature have been dated by Tilak. According to him, the oldest Vedic calendar, the oldest Vedic hymn, was sacrificial, and therefore the sacrifice of the year commenced with Aditi at the vernal equinox in or near Punarvasu.

The tradition about the old beginnings of the year is mentioned in the Taittiriya Samhita, and the same is corroborated by the oldest traditions and records of the Parsis and the Greeks who also belonged to the Aryan race. On the basis of the evidence furnished by astronomical references in the Taittiriya Samhita Tilak developed his chronology for the Vedic literature.

This period started from the time when the vernal equinox was in the asterism of Ardra (Orion) and continues upto the time when it receded to the asterism of the Krittikas. This, according to Tilak, was the most important period in the development of the Aryan civilization. It was pre-eminently the period of the hymns which contain a record of the beginning of the year when several legends were conceived.

Pre-Buddhist period (1400-500 BC) was the period when the Sutra literature was composed. He further adds “thus we find that of all the ancient nations the Hindus alone had well nigh accurately determined the rate of the motion of the procession of the eajuinoxes.”

In the Orion, Tilak has given quite a new and convincing interpretation of some eighty verses in the Rig Veda besides shedding a welcome light on many more. These verses had baffled the students of Vedic literature for long even from the time of Sayanacharya. His theory of ‘cosmic circulation of aerial waters’ properly explained the Indra-Vrtra myth.

Tilak’s dating of the Vedas to such an early period in the fourth millennium was not acceptable to a majority of western scholars, as for instance, Max Mueller who was not prepared to go beyond the second millennium BC although he had at one stage concluded that it is impossible to determine the date of the Vedic literature and that it may be four thousand or five thousand year old. But there were quite a few who agreed with Tilak.

Professor Hermann Jacobi had simultaneously, but independently, arrived at the conclusion that the antiquity of the Vedas could go back to 6000 BC. Dr. Bloomfield, an eminent American scholar, was sceptical at first but, as he read through, he was inclined to agree with Tilak’s views.

He confessed that he was convinced in all essential points and that the book was unquestionably the literary sensation of the year.

It will be interesting to examine Tilak’s theory in the light of recent archaeological research. Hundred years have passed since Tilak expounded his views. In his time, the Indus civilization had not been discovered; but now we know it in all its glory.

It most be stated that there are quite a few who identify it as the civilization of the Vedic Aryans although the general opinion seems to assign it to a post- Harappan date in the later half of the second millennium BC. It may not be out of place to mention here that the recent archaeological data have not yielded any evidence for the Aryan invasion. Moreover, the beginning of the settled life in the Indian subcontinent now goes back to almost ten thousand years as is clear from the excavation at Mehragh which is located at the mouth of the Bolan Pass near Quetta in Pakistan.

The excavated evidence points to continuous habitation starting from 7500 BC and ending around 3000 BC which marks the Early Harappan phase out of which evolved the Indus or the Harappan civilization.

The only noticeable culture change in all the four and a half millennia of continuous habitation is between 6000 BC to 4500 BC which indicates the arrival of a new group of people or new cultural influences. These are precisely the dates that Tilak has assigned to his Pre-Orion period.

Tilak is known more for his Gita Rahasya than his other scholarly works. He was once asked by his father, who was on his deathbed, to read the Gita to him. He was then a young lad of sixteen in 1872, but even at tender age he was thinking as to what was really the message of the Gita. He was pondering over it and was very much interested in writing on it but could not do so because of his multifarious activities—social and political, and had therefore to postpone it every time. Finally, when he was imprisoned in 1908 in Mandalay, he requested the government to permit him to take some books with him.

Among the ancient commentaries on the Gita, only that by Shankaracharya is available, and it is highly likely that there were others also. It is well known that the Prasthana-trayi consisting of the Upanishads the Brahma-Sutras and the Gita, constitutes the foundation of the philosophy of Hinduism.

Sankaracharya advocated Advaita and preached that only sannyasa leads to the final salvation (moksa). Tilak, on the other hand, argued that the Gita teaches us to do our duty in whatever station of life we are. The message of the Gita is thus Karma-yoga.

On the battlefield, at the very commencement of the Mahabharata war, Arjuna was perplexed that the enemy was his own kith and kin, and was in two minds about whether he should fight or not. Hence Krishna, who was also his charioteer, had to impress upon him that he should do his duty, that is to fight. What the Lord emphasizes is that one should do his ordained duty and while performing it, one should not expect any fruit. This is the niskam-karma-yoga of the Gita.

In the Gita, Tilak found that the cult of sacrifice was replaced by that of Bhakti and that it gave the message of karma-yoga and not that of sannyasa as propounded by Sankaracharya. The Gita Rahasya received numerous accolades from different quarters but the most telling was the praise showered by Sri Aurobindo who found the work “an original criticism and presentation of ethical monumental work, the first prose writer of the front rank in importance … and is likely to become a classic. ”

Tilak wrote the Gita Rahasya in Marathi, and when his friends asked him why did he not write in English, he replied that it is not a piece of research, but was written for the common man who should imbibe the karma-yoga as interpreted by him. Moreover, he said that the people in the western world are already practicing karma-yoga and that is why they have prospered; hence they need not be taught it.

When the book was first published in 1915, the first edition of six thousand copies was sold like hotcakes, and there were queues outside the Kesari office in Gaikwad Wada. Although a vast majority of the people agreed with Tilak’s interpretation of the Gita there were some, particularly in Pune, who criticized it out of sheer jealousy.