Religion and Nationalism

There came into being, in the second half of the 19th century, a thinking on Indian nationalism which was based on religion. It was leaders like Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Dayanand Saraswati, Vivekanand, and Arbindo Ghosh who made Hindu religion and its ideas the motivating force behind Indian nationalism.

They looked upon the British presence in India as an attempt by the Western civilization to dominate the Indian civilization. They were completely opposed to this domination.

These leaders were convinced that although the British had succeeded in conquering India, the Eastern civilization was superior to the Western one. Bankim Chandra argued that although the British had conquered India with the help of military and technological superiority, Indians should not start blindly following it. He argued about the uniqueness of the Indian society where the ideas of Western civilization could not be applied.

These leaders understood the Western civilization to be based on the ideas of individualism (rather than spirituality) and found them to be completely unsuitable for India. Vivekanand believed that the Western ideas had to be remodelled according to the Indian situation. He said: "In Europe, political ideas form the national unity. In Asia religious ideas form the national unit."

These leaders derived their inspiration not from the Western texts and other sources but from the traditional Indian texts like Vedas, Upnishads and Gita. They criticized the British colonial rule mainly on the ground that it was trying to impose an inferior
material system on India which was a land rich with spiritual resources.

This understanding of nationalism based on religion had a political aspect also. Leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak wanted to take the idea of nationalism to the people. They knew that religion was a very important moral force in the Indian society. Hence, they decided to use religion in the propagation of nationalist ideas. In order to be able to speak to people in their language, i.e. religious language, Tilak introduced the Ganapati festival in Maharashtra in 1893 to create a religious platform from where nationalist idea could be preached and spread.

This understanding of nationalism based on religion led to two different kinds of political mobilizations in the 20th century. On the one hand, leaders like Mahatma Gandhi welcomed the use of religion for nationalist mobilization. But they did not confine this approach only to Hindu religion. They used the symbols and language of Hinduism, Islam and other religions too. Thus, they tried to bring members of different religious communities into the national movement and also promote unity among them.

The second approach was more exclusivist in nature and was reflected in the activities of organizations like Hindu Mahasabha and Muslim League. Whereas the leaders of Hindu Mahasabha confined their activities only to Hindu, those of the Muslim League appealed only to Muslims. They also did not develop any understanding of Indian nationalism either by contributing to the unity of the Indian people or by engaging in persistent opposition to British colonial rule.