A. P. J. Abdul Kalam: Bomb in one hand, Gita in the other – S. Gurumurthy

A.P. J. Abdul Kalam

S. Gurumurthy“The national confusion about … military power started with Ashoka giving up wars after he was shocked by the scale of destruction in the Kalinga war. Ashoka, after the Kalinga war, was in the same state for mind as Arjuna was before the Kurukshetra war. One cried after the war, and the other, before the war. But Sri Krishna with Bhagawad Gita cleared the confusion of Arjuna and made him a warrior. But Ashoka did not have the benefit of a Krishna to clear his confusion. And his confusion became our national pride. We paid the price for that high-cost pride with invasions and [the] destruction of India.” – S. Gurumurthy

AshokaWe have often asked ourselves and others why India in its several thousand years of history has rarely tried to expand its territories or to assume a dominant role. Many of the experts and others with whom we had dialogue referred to some special features in the Indian psyche which could partly explain their greater tolerance, less discipline, the lack of sense of retaliation, more flexibility in accepting outsiders, greater adherence to hierarchy and emphasis on personal safety over adventure.”

This is what Dr A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, with the co-author S. Y. Rajan, wrote in the famous book India Vision 2020 A Vision for the New Millennium [1998]. Kalam had raised these profound issues that are sourced in our national confusion over couple of thousand years since Ashoka became the role model of India by giving up war altogether. Kalam is being profiled by his millions of admirers as a ‘people’s president, teacher, scientist, visionary, thinker, and patriot.’ He is certainly all these and more. He had bombs and missiles on the one hand with veena and Gita on the other. The huge bandwidth of the man brings out the complete philosopher-nationalist that he was. Dr Kalam introspected and posited for the nation critical issues which mirror the lessons our history has taught us but we have not learnt and still refuse to learn. Each of the issues raised by Kalam is profound. As we did not expand them, our territories contracted. As we were not disciplined, our tolerance was a mere vanity. Accepting outsiders at the cost of kinship has divided us. Preferring personal safety over adventures has made us victims of adventurists. How true Kalam was? Yet, there was, even now there is, no effort to reorient our education or national discourse on Kalam’s lines, even though he wrote his famous work in 1998. Even today, Kalam, the man, is being discussed—personally and anecdotally. But there is very little focus on what he said or envisioned for India. Encomiums are being paid to him as a visionary without discussing what his vision is. Kalam’s introspection should be the concern, even active enterprise, of the entire nation and its establishment—government, media, academia and intellectuals. Even now it is not too late. In the memory of Kalam, work on what he had envisioned for India can begin. But there can be no beginning unless there is honest introspection by Indians about the role and purpose of India.

Kalam’s Pokhran bomb and missiles have undoubtedly put India in a different league geopolitically and strategically. In his book Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India’s Foreign Policy, Rajiv Sikri, India’s former foreign secretary recalled how despite Jawaharlal Nehru’s well-known but little publicised attempts to get closer to the US in the 1950s, India’s relations with the US remained at a low level for 50 years. According to Sikri, it was only after India became a nuclear weapons power in 1998 that the nature of India’s relationship with the US underwent a qualitative change and the US was jolted into taking India, and indeed the whole of South Asia, seriously from a security and geopolitical perspective. Pokhran-II coincided with India’s growing economic weight and the increasingly influential role of the Indian-American community in the US. Both factors added to India’s importance in US eyes. Kalam’s bomb showed what the West-centric world respects. Power. Nuclear weapons power is indeed fearsome. When the first atom bomb was exploded, its author Dr Robert Oppenheimer, a great admirer of Hindu spiritualism, quoted this verse in Bhagawad Gita to describe its power: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, That would be like the splendour of the Mighty One… I am become Death, The shatterer of Worlds.” And this is how the Gita-studying and veena-playing Dr Kalam described the Pokhran bomb in 1998. “I heard the earth thundering below our feet and rising ahead of us in terror. It was a beautiful sight. It was a triumph of Indian science and technology.” Power is indeed dangerous. But being without it is more dangerous. A democratic India, with 1/6th of humanity, humanistic philosophies of Sankara, Buddha and Gandhi and no record of invading others, high tolerance and flexibility in accepting outsiders was not respected. It was actually trivialised. See the contrast. In the 1970s, Henry Kissinger waited in Beijing for days for authoritarian China, which had 30 million people dying of hunger and was deep in poverty to agree to meet him! Why? A hungry and poor China had hundreds of nuclear warheads. That the world respects power is what the world has taught India—which is eight out of 10 populated by Hindus whom Mahatma Gandhi had described as “gentlest” of people on the earth.

A. P. J. Abdul Kalam as a studentThe geopolitical stature of India which started to rise with Pokhran has been on the escalator ever thereafter. The National Intelligence Council attached to the Central Intelligence Agency [US] reported [Dec 2012] that India will be among the three world powers in 2030 along with the US and China. But for Kalam’s bomb and missiles India would never have been seen as a candidate for a global power. Japan has trillions of dollars of assets. But that does not make it a world power. Power is comprehensive. Mere economic power is no power. Merely being an economic power without being a military power will invite invasions, like India did. We were the leaders of the world economy for 1,700 years, according to Angus Maddison who studied the world economic history on behalf of the OECD nations. But our wealth only invited invasions of barbaric peoples. We were conquered because we had no sense of the importance of power. We even detested power as uncivilised.

The national confusion about, even bias against, military power, started with Ashoka giving up wars after he was shocked by the scale of destruction in the Kalinga war. Ashoka, after the Kalinga war, was in the same state for mind as Arjuna was before the Kurukshetra war. One cried after the war, and the other, before the war. But Sri Krishna with Bhagawad Gita cleared the confusion of Arjuna and made him a warrior. But Ashoka did not have the benefit of a Krishna to clear his confusion. And his confusion became our national pride. We paid the price for that high-cost pride with invasions and destruction of India. Kalam’s Pokhran explosion cleared the confusion and transformed India into a global power, though it is yet to be internalised by our elites and intellectuals. The Economist magazine [March 30, 2013] in its cover story asking “Can India become a great power?” answered it at the end of its editorial: “That India can become a great power is not in doubt. The real question is whether it wants to be.” This is what the nationalist-philosopher Dr A P J Abdul Kalam wanted this nation of 1.25 billion to say in once voice: “yes we want to be”. Instituting an in-depth study of our history to learn and internalise the lessons from it is the greatest tribute to this great man. – The New Indian Express, 26 July 2015

» S. Gurumurthy is a chartered accountant and columnist for The New Indian Express.

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam at Pokaran

A.P. J. Abdul Kalam

4 Responses

  1. Dr A. P. J. Abdul Kalam’s speech in Hyderabad prior to his being sworn in as the President of India on 25 July 2002

    I have three visions for India.

    In 3000 years of our history, people from all over the world have come and invaded us, captured our lands, conquered our minds. From Alexander onwards. The Greeks, the Turks, the Moguls, the Portuguese, the British, the French, the Dutch, all of them came and
    looted us, took over what was ours.

    Yet we have not done this to any other nation. We have not conquered anyone. We have not grabbed their land, their culture, their history and tried to enforce our way of life on them.


    Because we respect the freedom of others.

    That is why my first vision is that of FREEDOM.

    I believe that India got its first vision of this in 1857, when we started the war of independence. It is this freedom that we must protect and nurture and build on. If we are not free, no one will respect us.

    Years we have been a developing nation.

    It is time we see ourselves as a developed nation.

    We are among top 5 nations of the world in terms of GDP. We have 10 percent growth rate in most areas. Our poverty levels are falling. Our achievements are being globally recognized today.

    Yet we lack the self-confidence to see ourselves as a developed nation, self-reliant and self-assured.

    Isn’t this incorrect?

    I have a THIRD vision.

    India must stand up to the world. Because I believe that unless India stands up to the world, no one will respect us. Only strength respects strength. We must be strong not only as a military power but also as an economic power. Both must go hand-in-hand.

    My good fortune was to have worked with three great minds. Dr. Vikram Sarabhai of the Dept. of Space, Professor Satish Dhawan, who succeeded him and Dr. Brahm Prakash, father of nuclear material. I was lucky to have worked with all three of them closely and consider this the great opportunity of my life.

    I see four milestones in my career:

    ONE: Twenty years I spent in ISRO. I was given the opportunity to be the project director for India’s first satellite launch vehicle, SLV3. The one that launched Rohini. These years played a very important role in my life of Scientist.

    TWO: After my ISRO years, I joined DRDO and got a chance to be the part of India’s guided missile program. It was my second bliss when Agni met its mission requirements in 1994.

    THREE: The Dept. of Atomic Energy and DRDO had this tremendous partnership in the recent nuclear tests, on May 11 and 13. This was the third bliss. The joy of participating with my team in these nuclear tests and proving to the world that India can make it, that we are no longer a developing nation but one of them.

    It made me feel very proud as an Indian.

    The fact that we have now developed for Agni a re-entry structure, for which we have developed this new material. A very light material called carbon-carbon.

    FOUR: One day an orthopaedic surgeon from Nizam Institute of Medical Sciences visited my laboratory. He lifted the material and found it so light that he took me to his hospital and showed me his patients. There were these little girls and boys with heavy metallic callipers weighing over three kg each, dragging their feet around.

    He said to me: Please remove the pain of my patients.

    In three weeks, we made these floor reaction orthosis 300 gram callipers and took them to the orthopaedic centre.

    The children didn’t believe their eyes. From dragging around a three kg. load on their legs, they could now move around! Their parents had tears in their eyes.

    That was my fourth bliss!

    Why is the media here so negative?

    Why are we in India so embarrassed to recognize our own strengths, our achievements?

    We are such a great nation. We have so many amazing success stories but we refuse to acknowledge them.


    We are the first in milk production.

    We are number one in remote sensing satellites.

    We are the second largest producer of wheat.

    We are the second largest producer of rice.

    Look at Dr. Sudarshan, he has transferred the tribal village into a self-sustaining, self-driving unit.

    There are millions of such achievements but our media is only obsessed in the bad news and failures and disasters.

    I was in Tel Aviv once and I was reading the Israeli newspaper. It was the day after a lot of attacks and bombardments and deaths had taken place. The Hamas had struck. But the front page of the newspaper had the picture of a Jewish gentleman who in five years had transformed his desert land into an orchard and a granary.

    It was this inspiring picture that everyone woke up to. The gory details of killings, bombardments, deaths, were inside in the newspaper, buried among other news.

    In India we only read about death, sickness, terrorism, crime.

    Why are we so NEGATIVE?

    Another question: Why are we, as a nation so obsessed with foreign things?

    We want foreign TVs, we want foreign shirts. We want foreign technology.

    Why this obsession with everything imported.

    Do we not realize that self-respect comes with self-reliance?

    I was in Hyderabad giving this lecture, when a 14 year old girl asked me for my autograph.

    I asked her what her goal in life is?

    She replied: I want to live in a developed India.

    For her, you and I will have to build this developed India.

    You must proclaim. India is not an under-developed nation; it is a highly developed nation.


    Lets do what India needs from us.


  2. a factual and nicely written article ;
    i don’t remember who said it , and whether the saying is relevant ;
    it goes that the west is predominantly ” rajasic ” in spite of the saattvic teachings of Christianity
    and India is predominantly “saattvic – tamasic ” despite the exhortation by S’riKr.shna’ to be rajasic ;
    this nation sincerely worships De’vi ; the boon of power should be asked of Her !
    thank you , Gurumurti garu !


  3. I totally agree with Mr. Gurumurthy who beautifully explained the points raised by Mr. Kalam. Patriotism is not enough. How we are going to inculcate courage and self- respect, pride, etc., in the people when majority of the people are in utter poverty struggling for 1 meal a day?
    For them, these lofty ideals, qualities have no meaning. We have to go the rock bottom and uplift them economically, give them value and respect, otherwise things will remain the same.


  4. Gurumurthy’s observations about Ashoka and independent India are very true.

    Sita Ram Goel also felt that independent India had made a mistake by identifying itself with Ashoka’s assumed non-violence and by claiming Ashoka’s lion pillar as its own national emblem.

    (There are anecdotal stories that Ashoka did not give up violence after adopting the Buddha’s way. He allegedly had a great hatred of Jain munis and gave a gold coin to every boy who brought him a muni’s head. For more details of this anecdote, go to Koenraad Elsts’s blog).


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