The Rebels of the 19th and 20th Century: A Constructive Analysis on the Ideology of Bhagat Singh

POLS 2010 - Human Security & World Disorder

Written by: Surabhi Kaura

Professor: Mr. Christopher Irwin

Date: April 12, 2015

The topic of rebel is an ecstatic journey of eyes whilst glancing over the history. It owes a rapturous praise and homage for the rebels of the 19th and 20th century. Jonathan Glover, one of the world's leading philosophers of morality, elucidates the historical impact of 20th century of what has been coined “the decline of morality in a Westernized society”, mostly advocated by Friedrich Nietzsche in a dramatic sense. Glover reveals his twentieth century’s moral history with a presentation of what he proclaims “Nietzsche’s Challenge.” The challenge arises out of Nietzsche’s writings. Nietzsche foresaw religious morality of the twentieth century in chaos. He wrote the death of God. He believed that religion is pernicious and hence, it must be swept away. Nietzsche’s pronouncements utter that man creates his morals and that all creators have to be hard in order to leave footprints engraved in the history. Glover connects mass murder and atrocities which took place during World War I along with Nietzsche’s pronouncements with a view to comprehend the sufferings inflicted by dictators and pays attention in relation to those tormented by the apparent meaninglessness of enormous crimes.

Glover opposes Nietzsche’s idea of self-creation. There is a very thin line between a mad and a genius. Glover asserts that in the self-creation process of hard morality, a man psychologically traps himself, which clouds to see a vivid picture of morality. He believes Nietzsche’s theory of “hard” morality is vague. Glover argues that “the prospects of reviving belief in a moral law are dim,” and human beings must choose either to abandon morality or consciously re-create it. He upholds that it be re-created and that the fruit be seen as a creation. It may survive in a more defensible form when seen to be a human creation. “We can shape it consciously to serve people’s needs and interests, and to reflect the things we most care about" (Glover, 2001, pp. 41). The famous Socratic adage “Know Thyself” chimes in cadence.

The research paper encircles around the rebels of the 19th and 20th century. This paper will heedfully focus on the essay, “Why I am an Atheist” written by one of the famous Indian revolutionaries of the 20th century, Bhagat Singh. In addition, the paper will connect to a stanza from the poem, “A Psalm of Life” written by the most popular American poet of the 19th century, Henry Wordsworth Longfellow in summation. In general, the paper will provide a detailed analysis of how these selected pieces provide a serious critique of traditional morality and its basis in assumptions about human nature, religion, and the way the world ought to be ordered.

Bhagat Singh is undoubtedly one of the most beloved Indian freedom fighters. The influential revolutionist was accorded the title of “Shaheed” meaning “Martyr” after he sacrificed his life for the nation. He revolted against the British rule over India. In 1930, he along with his fellow comrades, Rajguru and Sukhdev, were convicted and sent to jail in connection with the murder of a British police officer, John Saunders. He was executed at the age of twenty-two. He mounted the gallows with a smile. He kissed his own death for the nation. He firmly believed that it is easy to kill individuals but not their ideas. While he was in prison, he penned-down his profound thoughts in his Jail Note Book. He once quoted, “Every tiny molecule of Ash is in motion with my heat. I am such a Lunatic that I am free even in Jail.” A few days before his execution, a fellow Sikh leader, Baba Randhir Singh, tried to persuade Bhagat Singh to accept God in order to mitigate his adversities. Nevertheless, he was a man of his words and a man of principles. He stood as a staunch atheist. Randhir Singh felt agitated and abused him saying, “You are giddy with fame and have developed an ego which is standing like a black curtain between you and the God”(Nayar, 2000, pp. 26). In response to this remark, Bhagat Singh has written an interesting and vivacious chronicle of the twentieth century using the prism of realism as his filter, which is also a response to the accusation of vanity. The evocative essay, ‘Why I am an Atheist’ was written in 1931 a few days before the rebel was hanged.

Before being a revolutionist, he was a free-thinker. He had no fears and was a free-thinker; albeit he belonged to a very strict religious family. It was during his college time that he grew sceptical about the existence of God Almighty. He then turned into an atheist when he saw Hindu-Muslim riots taking place. His independent spirit and ability to challenge the traditional morality makes him an iconic figure of the 20th century, as he was an embodiment of an ideal hero, a great patriot and a brilliant rebel. The element of his essay is smitten with an arrow that pierces the blind faith on religion and coerces to believe in realism. Considering the rebellious thoughts he possessed at a very young age to challenge the traditional set-up, one can easily say that he was a man of logic and reasoning. In his essay, he makes certain accounts to counter religion. There was an urge in him; a burning desire, to stand up to his opponents and convince them with his arguments. Hence, he realized that he could only do so by educating himself. He began to study in a serious manner, which shaped his thinking and enabled him to reflect.

He opined when traditional thinking lacks logic, then one must question the traditions. He writes,

“It is necessary for every person who stands for progress to criticise every tenet of old beliefs. Item by item he has to challenge the efficacy of old faith. He has to analyse and understand all the details. If after rigorous reasoning, one is led to believe in any theory of philosophy, his faith is appreciated. His reasoning may be mistaken and even fallacious. But there is chance that he will be corrected because Reason is the guiding principle of his life. But belief, I should say blind belief is disastrous. It deprives a man of his understanding power and makes him reactionary” (Singh, 1931).

It is not only a powerful remark, but also an eye-opener for all those who blindly follow ‘man-made’ traditions without reasoning. In this passage, he articulates that a man who claims to be a realist has to challenge the ancient faith in its entirety in order to construct and erect a new philosophy. “Criticism and independent thinking are the two indispensable qualities of a revolutionary(Nayar, 2000, pp. 168). Bhagat Singh makes it worthy to mention that it is not easy to revolt against traditional set-up and live a life of a reasoning man. He believes it is easy to embrace consolation from blind faith, but it is our moral duty to endeavour incessantly to live the life of reason. He asserts that the idea of God assists to a man in distress. He writes with bold assertion,

“God, with his whimsical laws and parental generosity was painted with variegated colours of imagination. He was used as a deterrent factor when his fury and his laws were repeatedly propagated so that man might not become a danger to society. He was the cry of the distressed soul for he was believed to stand as father and mother, sister and brother, brother and friend when in time of distress a man was left alone and helpless. He was Almighty and could do anything. The idea of God is helpful to a man in distress" (Singh, 1931).

He points out that God and religion are the two mechanisms, enabling the helpless to grow courage. In other words, the entity exists in imagination to encourage the helpless in facing trials and tribulations boldly. He also notes that the belief brings tenderness in trials and tribulations and the helpless perceives it as pleasant and hence, the man finds consolation and support in God. He asserts that man created God in his imaginary world when he realized weaknesses, limitations and shortcomings. In this way, the man got the courage to face dangers. He challenges his argument with a scientific mindset. He says that science has grown and being realistic will change the narrow thinking of the oppressed. In a nation deeply engraved into religious beliefs and traditions, he writes with a fearless heart and also responds to the accusation of vanity,

“Society must fight against this belief in God as it fought against idol worship and other narrow conceptions of religion. In this way man will try to stand on his feet. Being realistic, he will have to throw his faith aside and face all adversaries with courage and valour. That is exactly my state of mind. My friends, it is not my vanity; it is my mode of thinking that has made me an atheist. I don’t think that by strengthening my belief in God and by offering prayers to Him every day, (this I consider to be the most degraded act on the part of man) I can bring improvement in my situation, nor can I further deteriorate it. I have read of many atheists facing all troubles boldly, so I am trying to stand like a man with the head high and erect to the last; even on the gallows" (Singh, 1931).

He challenges the orthodoxy prevalent in people by forcing them to wake from slumber; the blind faith on religion. He advocates that a man has to be a rationalist to become a realist. In this way, the need for God, the fictitious imaginary saviour, will come to termination and as such, the toil for self-emancipation will become indispensable to fight against the narrow conception of religion and the belief in God in general. In addition, he makes it clear that he did not turn atheist because of vanity. He claims it was his mysticism which turned him into a realistic man with the help of reason. He challenged the authority of God, how each religion claims be the only true religion, and how it eventually becomes the root of evil. He quotes,

“Instead of developing the ideas and experiments of ancient thinkers, thus providing ourselves with the ideological weapon for the future struggle, – lethargic, idle, fanatical as we are – we cling to orthodox religion and in this way reduce human awakening to a stagnant pool” (Singh, 1931).

He therefore forces to look into the mirror, rather than your shadow. He challenges the traditional morality by bringing ‘individualistic awareness’ within. He strongly advocates on the philosophy that “human progress depends on the domination of man over nature” and there is no supreme divine behind it. This is the philosophy he maintains. “Rebellion against any king has always been a sin in every religion” (Singh, 1931). He upholds that, blind belief is disastrous and therefore it must be swept away, and only ‘reason’ should be the guiding principle of one’s life. “He deprecated the very idea of using religion as an artificial crutch which showed a lack of self-confidence” (Chatterjee, 2007, pp. 3).

In his last days, just before his execution, he was advised to devote to God Almighty and pray for a better life in the next birth. He calmly replied that he would never pray with selfish motives and would rather take the matter in the light of ‘reward’. To conclude, he mentions,

“Let us see how steadfast I am. One of my friends asked me to pray. When informed of my atheism, he said, “When your last days come, you will begin to believe.” I said, “No, dear sir, Never shall it happen. I consider it to be an act of degradation and demoralisation. For such petty selfish motives, I shall never pray.” Reader and friends, is it vanity? If it is, I stand for it” (Singh, 1931).

The great martyr, Bhagat Singh, stood his head erect with a smile on his lips, even to the gallows, and challenged the oppressors that a man is mortal, but ideas are immortal. He was a great rebellion who logically challenged the traditional morality and went to the gallows cheerfully. It is noteworthy to mention that people in India still pay homage to this great hero who readily sacrificed his life for the independence of his nation from British rulers. India celebrates his birth anniversary every year with great pride and ardour.

Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s stanza from the poem, ‘A psalm of life’ chimes in cadence. He writes,

“In the world’s broad field of battle
In the bivouac of life
Be not like dumb, driven cattle
Be a hero in strife!” (Longfellow, 2000).

The poetry rhymes and awakens the rebel hidden inside. The poet vividly articulates that strife and battle has a same meaning to ‘fight.’ A bivouac is a military encampment made with tents without a shelter or protection from enemy fire. It is used by armies in war. Pursuant to the war metaphor, in the toil of life, we should not stand in a row, instead we should excel and stand overhead. The rebels, such as Bhagat Singh and Nietzsche are apt examples to the stanza cited above. In fact, Nietzsche had a similar viewpoint as Bhagat Singh. Nietzsche attacked the foundations of traditional morality and of Christianity. In The Twilight of the Gods (Götzen-Dämmerung, 1888) he wrote,

“I call Christianity the one great curse, the one enormous and innermost perversion, the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means are too venomous, too underhand, too underground and too petty — I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind... The only excuse for God is that he doesn't exist” (Nietzsche, 1888).

He believed in the realities of the world in which we live and exist rather than the man-made traditional values. He was of the belief that creativity lies in knowing realism and eschewing orthodox belief of religion which blurs the vision.

To this effect, Longfellow’s stanza commands and urges the reader not to follow the set beliefs and tradition, but to create a history and find your own path instead of following the crowd. It coerces the soul to become a valiant hero, a rebel and be unique. Bhagat Singh has indeed created a history and has left his footprints for generations to follow. The urge to rebel is a voluntary action, which must be taken fearlessly despite worrying about the set belief and man-made traditions. Nonetheless, the action must be moral in nature to which revolt can be justified.

In conclusion, Bhagat Singh has shared a Marxist approach in his rebellious essay. After reading his essay, I am in such an emotional turmoil that how at a very young age he fearlessly challenged the traditional mindset enshrined in the religious books, despite the fact that he was from a nation deeply rooted in religion. I pay my utmost respect to his ideology of challenging the odds with realism. I am truly enchanted. It is fair to say that force used on a moral ground has its moral justification. Realism used to rebut orthodox mentality has its moral justification. Atheism used to counter religion with logic has its moral justification. In summom bonum, challenging the traditional morality as a rebel to openly defy unfair powerful authorities has its moral justification.

~ Copyright © Surabhi Kaura 2015


Glover, D. (2001). Humanity: a moral history of the 20th century (pp. 11- 17). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Nayar, K. (2000). The Martyr: Bhagat Singh - experiments in revolution (pp. 26). New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications.

Singh, B. (1931). “Why I am an Atheist.” (essay)

Retrieved from

Chatterjee, M. (2007). “No God, Even at the Gallows.” (pp. 3). The Times of India

Longfellow, H. (2000). Psalm of Life. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Selected Works (Lit2Go Edition).

Retrieved from ://

Nietzsche, F. (1888). The Twilight of the Gods (Götzen-Dämmerung)

Comments 2 comments

Sukhdeep 20 months ago

Hello Surabhi!!! You are a woman of grace. Thanks for writing this.

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Surabhi Kaura 19 months ago from Toronto, Canada Author

Hi Sukhdeep,

Glad you like reading it. My pleasure!

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