The Elephant and the Blind Men: In Defence of the National Anthem

The readers of a serious article can be classified into three categories. One, those who read to cherish the importance of reading and learning, which they think they ‘require’! Two, those who read with a pre-conceived mind on the subject, making the process of reading itself a ‘satire’; and three, those who read  only to ‘show the attire’. This article is largely directed at the people in the second category, who, while lacking in information, seem to have no dearth of (strong) opinion. The first group can also join the party to stop the savouring of this debate. One request: please go beyond the names of the authors. It is a trifle difficult, but you can, can’t you?

So, here is the topic: ‘Jana Gana Mana was written by the sycophant Tagore in praise of the British. It cannot be our national anthem. We must replace it’

This ‘complaint’ consistently surfaces at least once a year. Hence, it is worthwhile to share some relevant information and ascertain if the allegation is justifiable. Like any author’s, Tagore’s literary work, including this song, can be critically understood from three perspectives: the literary pieces themselves, the history associated with their creation and Tagore in personal life. Only then can we decide whether to fill our hearts with admiration or wrath.


Let’s start with ‘the accused’ – Rabindranath Tagore. Asia’s first Nobel laureate, Tagore was the most famous Indian, when Emperor George V and Empress Mary came to grandest of all the royal shows – the Delhi durbar of 1911. There was never any dearth of royalists amongst Indians, and in this context, a few of them asked Tagore to compose a song in praise of the monarch. Tagore, it is said, was quite disturbed with this proposal. After all, he had spearheaded the anti-partition-of-Bengal movement during 1905-07 and his writings, fiction and non-fiction, had been critical of the destructive British policies towards India. He decided to answer this queer request in the way befitting a poet. Describing the incident to his friend P.B. Sen, he wrote, “…A certain high official in His Majesty’s service, who was also my friend, had requested that I write a song of felicitation towards the Emperor. The request simply amazed me. It caused a great stir in my heart. In response to that great mental turmoil, I pronounced the victory in Jana Gana Mana of the Bhagya Vidhata [ed. God of Destiny] of India who has for ages held steadfast the reins of India’s chariot through rise and fall, through the straight path and the curved. That Lord of Destiny, that Reader of the Collective Mind of India, that Perennial Guide, could never be George V, George VI, or any other George. Even my official friend understood this about the song. After all, even if his admiration for the crown was excessive, he was not lacking in simple common sense…”. It was sung at the Calcutta session of the Congress that year, which coincided with the arrival of George V. In fact, on the same day, another song written specifically in praise of the British emperor was also sung. The English press, rather poor at understanding the subtlety of Tagore’s verse, messed up their reporting initiating a confusion that has since persisted.

In his lifetime, Tagore had been asked more than once about Jana Gana Mana (abbreviated, JGM) being written in praise of the emperor. His blunt reply was, “I should only insult myself if I cared to answer those who consider me of such unbounded stupidity as to sing in praise of George IV or George V as the Eternal Charioteer leading the pilgrims on their journey through countless ages of the timeless history of mankind.”

The debate over the acceptability of nationalist songs, however, continued. And as British assisted communalism (involving treacherous groups from both major communities) intensified in the 1930s, even the legendary song –Bande Mataram (abbreviated, BM)– became more of a hindrance than of actual use. The problem lay in the latter stanzas of BM, which for example, ran thus “…Baahutetumi Maashakti, Hridayetumi Maa bhakti, Tomaripratimagadi Mandire Mandire, Bande Maataram, Tvan hi Durga Dashaprahardharini…”. It had not been a major issue for decades, but now as communalism and counter-communalism emerged as a big British ally, its ‘importance’ got pumped up. The freedom fighters would have to resist this ‘divide and rule’ tactic. So, in 1937, a committee, comprising of Subhas Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, Narendra Dev and Maulana Azad (with Tagore as advisor) was constituted to decide which songs could be sung at the convocations and in the legislative assemblies. After much deliberation, the committee recommended JGM as the national anthem. BM and other songs could be sung depending on the time, place and situation. The august intentions of the committee were best exemplified in a letter written by Tagore to Bose. Tagore wrote, “The core of BM is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it. Of course, Bankim does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end, but no Mussulman can be expected to patriotically worship the ten-handed deity as ‘Swadesh’….The novel Anandamath is a work of literature, and so the song is appropriate in it. But Parliament is a place of union for all religious groups, and there the song cannot be appropriate. When Bengali Mussulmans show signs of stubborn fanaticism, we regard these as intolerable. When we too copy them and make unreasonable demands, it will be self-defeating…” In postscript, he added “…since there are strong feelings on both sides, a balanced judgment is essential. In pursuit of our political aims we want peace, unity and good will – we do not want the endless tug of war…” It is noteworthy it was Tagore who had composed the music for the BM in 1896. It was also a song to which many of the freedom fighters had strong personal attachment. Yet, they were pragmatic enough to banish their ‘musical weapon’ rather than allow the enemy to misuse it. Evidently, the priority was to form a united front against the British.

In contrast, JGM had become increasingly popular. Certainly, the freedom fighters had no doubt over its meaning. Most importantly, it’s concept of India- that of a pluralistic yet united nation – was acceptable to all Indians. It got a further boost when Bose (by this time, known as Netaji) used it as the national anthem of the Azad Hind government. In 1946, Gandhiji observed, “the song has found a place in our national life”. Also the JGM was easier to perform by bands; an orchestra performance received accolades at the U.N. in 1947. It was finally adopted as the anthem of the republic in 1950. It was also decided that as the national song, the BM would enjoy a status equal to the anthem.

The Song

The question remains as to what made him write the song the way he wrote it. It could have been multi-factorial. The song, actually a hymn, has 5-stanzas, of which only the first one has been used as an anthem. A reading of the remaining 4 stanzas assures one that it is not addressed to any mortal, certainly not to a man (Stanza 4 actually mentions the word ‘ snehomoyeetumimaata’ i.e. caring mother; and obviously, George V was no female!). Rather, its reference to an omnipresent and omnipotent destiny maker of India is similar to the Supreme Being or Monarch – the ultimate guide and arbiter of human life – a recurring theme in scores of Tagore’s compositions, including the  Gitanjali. Any artist’s mind goes through distinguishable periods of creativity where the creative work in each period has a specific mood or thought. Since Gitanjali and the song in question are contemporary, the mood in one can be held true as the mood of the other. Another hypothesis is that the ‘…charioteer, the clarion call of whose sacred conch saves us from despair…’ (Stanza 3) draws its inspiration from the Mahabharata.

Whether there was any actual human inspiration to JGM is not evident. But, it has been postulated that Swami Vivekananda could have had an influence. Born in the same Calcutta locality, Tagore and Vivekananda had known each other in their youth. But, there was little communication, and perhaps some mutual mis-apprehension, in later life. In any case, Vivekananda was dead before long.

It was only in 1907-11 that Tagore became aware of the Swami’s contributions. Impressed, he made Vivekananda’s writings compulsory in his new school at Shantiniketan. His idea of the monk can be summed up in his famous words, “If you want to know India, read Vivekananda”. Incidentally, the ‘treacherous’ JGM was written in the same period. Hence, it is possible that the monk’s confident attitude with respect to the motherland’s greatness and destiny were inculcated into the Bharatbhagyabidhata idea.

A more detailed analysis is beyond the scope of this article. But, whatever the philosophical or historical inspiration, it is evident that Tagore’s ‘Lord of India’, is not a colonial king, but an eternal beacon for the Indian people. The ‘pro-British’ allegation turns out to be silly indeed.

Tagore in Personal Life

Tagore was enrolled in English schools, but left all of them because of his personal dislikes. He returned to India degree-less! He idealized that in order to create a nation where “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high”, the education system must be changed. So, he established Shantiniketan to work from the grassroots. A pertinent question to the doubters is why would he neither study nor implement the British system if he, as they allege, was very fond of British imperialism?

Tagore’s contributions to the freedom struggle have been recognized by historians as being immeasurable. To cite one example, we hope that the readers are acquainted with his organizing of ‘Raksha-Bandhan’ as a symbolic unity between the two religions as a protest against the malicious order for the ‘Partition of Bengal’ by Lord Curzon. His later actions like the renunciation of the Knighthood title after the Jalianwala Bagh massacre leave no doubt of his commitment towards his fellow Indians. He remained a friend and constructive critic of the Indian leadership till the end.  In his own words: “I have loved India and sought to serve her not because of her geographical magnitude, not because of her great past, but because of my faith in her today and my belief that she will stand for truth and freedom and the higher things of life”.

Back to the Present

Unfortunately, the ‘allegation’ has refused to die down. The reason is obvious. The idea of unity in diversity – enshrined in the anthem’s lyrics, the decision of the 1937-committee, the Azad Hind and the Constitution – is exactly what the communal groups are against even today. And in this case, by deliberately ignoring the well-considered decisions that should have resolved this issue over 70 years back, they ceaselessly malign the great poet and attempt to create an inflammatory situation where a few communities can be painted as ‘anti-Indian’. Not surprisingly, there are individuals in other communities who respond in equally rabid manners. The end result is that either fanatical group thrives on the parochialism of the other. Frankly, their actions are not unexpected; one should not expect good sense from wicked men and certainly, poetic aesthetics are beyond their capacity.

The tragedy is that even well-meaning people get misled by their nefarious propaganda. And, that is because we often tend to have strong opinions without knowing the details of history. In essence, since knowledge is limitless, we are all blind to some degree towards the truth. The problem occurs only when someone does not understand the extent of self-blindness. Just as a few blindfolded men fail to comprehend or describe an elephant, similarly cursory readings and ‘forwarded e-mails’ are unlikely to be of much use in understanding Tagore (or for that matter, any genius). But, as the old maxim says, “A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing”.

Anirban Mitra (MCB)

and Souvik Bhattacharyya (MCB)


About The Voices team

Like it says, The Voices team, IISc, Bengaluru, India

Posted on October 24, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Dear Nitin,
    First of all, thanks for the post, all the more ‘cos it is not the usual ‘good article’, ‘informative’, ‘nice’ stuff that we have been (gladly) listening to over the last week.
    Here, in a point-wise manner, we have tried to answer some of your misgivings.
    1. The Voices article had focused on the origins of the JanaGanaMana (JGM) and how the‘founding fathers’decided to make it the anthem of the republic. It was in the context of the JGM that we had to present information about the other great song, the BandeMataram (BM).The BM was not the primary topic of the article.
    2. It is true that the BM has its own interesting history. But, that could be the topic of a separate article(s).However, we can make a brief summary here for your sake from what we have read.
    3. Briefly, the BM belongs to the 1882 Bengali novel Anandamatth, written by the legendary Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. It is set in the background of the catastrophic 1770 Bengal famine, where a fictional band of monk-warriors take on the British. The monks sing the BM, an ode to both the motherland and mother-goddess when they charge to battle.
    4. Naturally, while Indians were thrilled to read the first edition, the British were angry. And they ‘punished’ Chatterjee, transferring him to distant Orissa (he was a magistrate in the civil court). With hardly 25years since 1857, the memories of how the British could brutally squash any idea of dissent were still fresh. A visibly nervous author decided to alter the contents; in the 2nd edition, he removed almost all reference to the British and made the erstwhile muslim nawab of Bengal the chief antagonist to the monks. Thus, an anti-colonial struggle was censored down to a hindu versus muslim fight. In fact, the novel ends with ‘relief and happiness’ that muslim rule is over and British rule has started! And it is British governance that will finally lead to restablishment of Hindu sanatana dharma! Unfortunately, the Bollymood movie that you saw doesn’t deal with this bitter historical truth. It was made in free-India!!!
    5. Obviously, all that doesn’t reduce the inspiratory and political significance of the BM. But, sadly there also lay the seeds of a future confrontation.
    6. As regards the song, anyone who has read the novel and the full song never had any doubt that the BM’s latter stanzas are in praise of the mother-goddess. In fact, the song is sung for the first time immediately after two of the protagonists do a darshaan of the idols of the goddesses within the matth. It was best summed up by Tagore when he wrote “The core of BM is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it. Of course, Bankim does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end…. This year many of the special [Durga] Puja editions of our magazines have quoted verses from VandeMataram – proof that the editors take the song to be a hymn to Durga….’ We had omitted part of this quote from the main article due to space constraints, but we are confident that any idea to the contrary only exposes one’s ignorance with respect to language, the novel and hindu religious symbolism.
    7. We are obviously not the first to arrive at this conclusion. It is well-documented that the freedom fighters, including Bose, Gandhi, Nehru and others,agreed with Tagore and acted accordingly.
    8. Of course, anyone including you, is free to interpret the song and the entire book. But, do consider that you are questioning the combined knowledge of the finest of Indians –who were also familiar with the languages, the song, the novel and the circumstances they were in. In addition, one of them was the predominant literary genius of his day. Sure, even then no one is above questioning. But, one has also got to be extremely cautious that trust in his own interpretation has not blinded oneself into over-confidence. As we are forced to caution in the article itself, ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’.

    9. Another point. Besides pragmatism, there was one more reason to be ‘ok’ with removing the BM. The freedom-fighters, having come a long way through their struggles, had realized that the diversity of Indian culture itself dictated that there could be Indians who believed in the mother-goddess and others who didn’t; yet both were equally Indian. Prioritization dictated that both these sets of Indians remove all bickering and fight the main enemy. Moreover, what finally mattered was the actual welfare of the people, not the status of the song. It was (and is) perfectly possible for someone who didn’t believe in the ‘idea of a mothergoddess-motherland’ to strive for the betterment of fellow-Indians, while those who could chant the hymn several times, maybe doing nothing beyond chanting. After all, the song was for the people of the nation, not the opposite.

    Well, that is where we conclude. I must confess I have doubts if this will be convincing – particularly when the best of Indians have failed. I’ll end with a last observation.

    10. Actions speak louder than words. To cite only one example, five years after this issue had been ‘settled’, in 1942, almost all the men who had ‘favoured JGM over BM’ were in British jails for taking part in the Quit India movement; one of them had escaped to Germany and was organizing a struggle unique in India’s history. In sharp contrast, the ones who had locked horns for-and-against the BM had formally decided not to join this intense battle against the British. Now, that does tell us something, doesn’t it?

  2. I remember reading a similar article published in the weekly Hindi newspaper ‘Panchjanya’ many years back. I don’t remember the exact texts of the article, but it was in the same spirit as this article of yours has. As far as I remember, in that article the author had said that the controversy was actually started by some contemporary newspapers like ‘The Statesman’ and others just to defame Tagore and confuse the general public. On the other hand, I don’t remember anything discussed about “Vande Matram” in that article.
    I think the controversy regarding the “Vande Matram” is also unnecessary and some anti-Indian people started it. After reading the comments of Tagore about the “Vande Matram” mentioned in your article, I feel that Tagore has understood the song in an absolutely wrong way and with his comments he has only strengthened the completely unnecessary and divisive controversy about the sacred song written in praise of the motherland. The song is never about the goddess Durga as claimed by Tagore. I don’t understand how come a person so advanced in literary skills misunderstood it. Any person who has a little knowledge of Bangla and Sanskrit can easily see that the song is in appreciation of the motherland. It starts by mentioning the natural resources available here. Then it goes on to explain the beauty of the motherland, the giver of all happiness. Then it says that our motherland is mighty too as she has a large group of her sons/daughters who are always ready to protect her. It goes on to say that the mother herself is vidya, dharma, etc for her offspring. In temples we worship none other than our beloved motherland. After that it says that Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati, i.e., Power, Prosperity and Knowledge (note that it’s not only Durga as claimed by Tagore and others) are all different forms of the same you and we salute you, the unique, sacred, … motherland. I think anyone who understands the song properly and is honest too will out-rightly reject the controversy created by some anti-Indians!!

    • वन्दे मातरम्
      सुजलां सुफलां
      मातरम् ।

      सुहासिनीं सुमधुर भाषिणीं
      सुखदां वरदां मातरम् ।। १ ।। वन्दे मातरम् ।

      अबला केन मा एत बले ।
      बहुबलधारिणीं नमामि तारिणीं
      रिपुदलवारिणीं मातरम् ।। २ ।।
      वन्दे मातरम् ।

      तुमि विद्या, तुमि धर्म
      तुमि हृदि, तुमि मर्म
      त्वं हि प्राणा: शरीरे
      बाहुते तुमि मा शक्ति,
      हृदये तुमि मा भक्ति,
      तोमारई प्रतिमा गडि

      त्वं हि दुर्गा दशप्रहरणधारिणी
      कमला कमलदलविहारिणी
      वाणी विद्यादायिनी,
      नमामि त्वाम्
      नमामि कमलां
      अमलां अतुलां
      सुजलां सुफलां मातरम् ।। ४ ।।
      वन्दे मातरम् ।

      श्यामलां सरलां
      सुस्मितां भूषितां
      धरणीं भरणीं मातरम् ।। ५ ।।
      वन्दे मातरम् ।।

      No words to say! I hope we meet in person and discuss this issue. I would like to learn a thing or two about the song. But, before that, Let me ask you a question: Do you have any reference? Did you read Anandamath? Or are you an expert in literature? A literary piece may have multiple number of interpretations, agreed. But, I would be happy to know how did you come to the conclusions you said above. Was it your own interpretation? Did you read it from somewhere else, from some expert of some sort? I am no expert. But, I read and I talked to some experts. They disagree with you. Hope this is a discussion only and not a outrage. You belong to the second category (it seems). So, our article has hit atleast one reader successfully. Cheers!

      • Do you have any reference? Did you read Anandamath? Or are you an expert in literature?
        I have not read the novel ‘Anandmath’. But yeah, I have watched the movie by the same name and based on the same story. If you want, you can also watch it here:

        And what do you mean by “expert” in literature? As I have already said, one does not need to be a so called “expert” to understand this very simple and beautiful song. Any person who knows Bangla and Sanskrit a little, can understand it easily. (Perhaps, I should replace “Bangla and Sanskrit” by “any Indian language” as there is not much grammar, be it Bangla or Sanskrit, in the song. Almost all of the song is just adjectives which are present in almost all of the Indian languages!). A rational person does not always need a person whom he reveres as an expert (or perhaps I should say his/her political master) to explain each and everything. In Sanskrit, there is one proverb “प्रत्यक्षं किं प्रमाणम्?” which means one does not need a proof for things which are evident. Just try to read the whole song without any preconceived notion, you will agree with my comments and will not need any reference or an “expert” advice 🙂

        A literary piece may have multiple number of interpretations, agreed. But, I would be happy to know how did you come to the conclusions you said above. Was it your own interpretation? Did you read it from somewhere else, from some expert of some sort?
        I just read the song and stated whatever I understood from it. And I just want to clarify that in my previous comment I never meant that my interpretation of the song is just an alternate interpretation other than that given by Tagore (assuming it was indeed Tagore who gave this interpretation). In fact what I said is that the interpretation given by Tagore (again assuming that it was indeed Tagore 😛 ) is absolutely wrong! Anyone can verify this by reading the whole song once again (without any preconceived notion 😛 ).

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