The Indian National Anthem

Today India celebrates 60 years of independence from British rule.

The national anthem, Jana gana mana, an anthem in praise of God Almighty, was penned by Rabindranath Tagore in a highly sanskritised form of Bengali. Because of this, much of the anthem is not readily understood by most Indians. I think schools have failed to teach us the meaning of the words and make the anthem something that we can sing meaningfully.

However, in all the schools in which I studied, the anthem was given due respect, and emphasis was placed on respectful posture and correct pronunciation. The emotions that I feel when listening to the anthem are hard to explain and include pride, patriotism, gratitude, and nostalgia.

It has been alleged that this song was written in praise of King George V. Can this be true?

The Statesman dated Dec. 28, 1911 reported: “The Bengali poet Babu Rabindranath Tagore sang a song composed by him specially to welcome the Emperor.” Could Tagore have actually referred to the Emperor as Bhaarata bhaagya vidhaartha–the dispenser of India’s destiny?

However, we have this rather interesting record of a letter written by Tagore and published in Dec 1938 where he writes: “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 that Bhagya Vidhata [ed. God of Destiny] of India who has from age after age 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.”

I tried to do a word-to-word translation and succeeded only partly. A free translation is available, and I believe, this is Tagore’s own translation.

O! Dispenser of India’s destiny, Thou art the Ruler of the minds of all people.
Thy name rouses the hearts of Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, the Maratha country,
in the Dravida country, Utkala (Orissa) and Bengal;
It echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas,
it mingles in the rhapsodies of the pure waters of Jamuna and the Ganges.
They chant only Thy name.
They sing only the glory of Thy victory.
They seek only Thy auspicious blessings.
The salvation of all people waits in Thy hands,
O Dispenser of India’s destiny!
Victory, Victory, Victory, Victory to Thee.

The line ‘The salvation of all people waits in Thy hands’ catches my eye. I do not find this idea in the lyric itself, and wonder why Tagore added this in his translation.

Maybe, as he was translating, the wretchedness of the nation overwhelmed him, and he yearned for Almighty God to come to our aid. Tagore wrote as if it was only a matter of time before the country is saved from whatever plagued her.

But you know what? The Bible says that Jesus has done all that needs to be done for salvation. If India’s people, or any people, would turn to Him with true repentance, He would heal them of their sins. With such healing, we would see the rapid decline of corruption, casteism, and poverty that keep our people in bondage 60 years after we became free.

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age. (Titus 2:11-12)

Jesus said to him, I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except by Me (John 14:6)

But in another sense–the Himalayas and the Vindhyas, the Yamuna and the Ganges–the land itself and all creation is waiting for the time when God will bring His salvation to His people in the fullest sense.

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:20-23)

These ideas would not have crossed Tagore’s mind, but they cross mine as I look at Tagore’s translation of the national anthem and that special line The salvation of all people waits in Thy hands that I interpret as The ultimate salvation of all God’s people through the only Name under heaven–Jesus–that can save waits in Thy hands.


  1. Your writings on the Indian National Anthem was wonderful.There is a poem in Urdu called ‘Sarfaroshi Ki Tammana’- the first two lines are:

    Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai
    Dekhna hai zor kitna bajue katil mein hai

    Translation (my own)
    The desire for sacrifice is in our hearts!
    let us test the force of the enemy!
    How does one test the force of the enemy?…by wearing the Armour of God.
    There is something about people who are ready to lay down their lives so that others may live a better life.

    Here is my list of great heros whose sacrifice has inspired me:
    Joan of Arc,Father Damien,Rani Lakshmi Bai,Bhagat Singh,Mahatma Gandhi,Martin Luther King,Mother Teresa and the countless ordinary people whose names and deeds I haven’t heard.

    What about Jesus? How can I include the Sun,while we are discussing
    moons? Like how the moons of the Solar System reflect the Sun’s light,the sacrifices of these great men and women only remind me of the Greatest Sacrifice and the One who made it.

  2. Very Nice. Our National anthem is my favourite song. I see Rabindranath Tagore’s attitude in his poem “Where the mind is without fear….and the head is held high..where knowledge is free.., where words spring out from the depth of truth, ……where the world has not been broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls, ……… where the clear stream of reason has not lost it’s way in the dreary dessert sand of dead habit……where tireless striving stretches it’s arms towards perfection…where the mind is led forward by thee into ever widening thought and action…into that heaven of freedom my father, let my country awake !!!!!! A citizen of the world calling to God !!

    The words “Jana Gana mangala dayaka jaya he” apparently mean “The saving power/salvation of all people is in thy hands” The words “mangalmei ho” are traditionally used as a way of wishing another well. It seems that in some languages of India, the word “mangal” translates directly to Salvation.

    I would like to think that Rabindranath Tagore realised that salvation is the greatest need for anyone, be it an individual/family/nation/nations. Without Salvation there can be no real progress: at best an individual in the name of progress may move much faster, seemingly more efficiently, but is actually moving in circles (at a faster more efficient pace !) as the bondage of sin (that can be broken only through Salvation) ensures that real progress does not take place.
    Greetings from Kottayam. We alternate (for the present) between Kottayam and Bangalore. I came across your site through your empathetic (is there a word like that, I do not think so) on the National Anthem (India). Who’s thoughts are those ? Apart from the already covered reasons (prayer for salvation which is only through Our Lord, Him and Him Crucified), there are those of lesser importance: 1)singing of NA helps to reach out and damage the wrong perceptions about Christianity being Western, that we prefer to sing God Save the.. (though sometimes it is true in the true blue Anglican churches etc !) AND 2) it will keep at bay attempts to impose the more fundamentalist songs (Va…).
    You write very well.
    With prayers and best wishes
    Nina and Yohan John Kunnenkeril

  3. Thanks Yohan (and Nina) for your comments that I have compiled together. Please feel free to visit the blogsite and comment.

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