Vedanta and the Bengal Renaissance

by Niranjan Dahr


BASICALLY THE HISTORY of man's social thought is the history of a conflict between his rationalism and religion. The presuppositions underlying these two currents of thought and their implications for human destiny are not only different but also quite opposed to each other. Since this theme provides the theoretical framework of our present study, we shall perhaps do well to clarify here the issues implicit in it.

In the history of philosophy a rationalist philosopher is one who takes the view that reason alone, unaided by observation. can give us true knowledge. In contrast, the two basic assumptions of scientific rationalism are in the belief in the capacity of reason to solve problems and aims at establishing a system of philosophy and ethics verifiable by experience and independent of all arbitrary assumptions or authority. By rationalism we mean here this scientific rationalism.

Rationalism takes a particular view of the reality. For it the visible order of nature which is accessible to us through our sense‑organs and which is invested by positive sciences constitutes the total realm of reality. The ultimate end of human life is thus taken to fulfil human nature which is also conceived in purely naturalistic terms. Man being an evolved product of nature and circumscribed by its laws, he cannot possess any supernatural powers to comprehend the so‑called transcendental reality. Rationalism takes an Epicurean view of life, and not the :suppression of desires but their fulfilment become the summum bonum of human life. It further enables man to acquire knowledge about the physical and chemical properties of material objects which is indispensable for the development of productive forces and the fulfilment of his desires.

Religion, on the other hand, is based on a transcendental view of reality and human nature. It assumes a transcendental order of existence which goes beyond man's visible nature. This transcendental order is then taken to be the primary form of reality to which the empirical order of reality otherwise known as nature is subservient. The ontological duality is reflected within human nature as well. According to the religious view, man thus not merely possesses the urges and faculties belonging to the realm of nature but he is also equipped with the aspirations and powers to bring him into intimate relationship with the transcendental reality. The fulfilment of this allegedly higher side of his nature is the greatest goal of human life. Religion thus fosters a morbidly negative attitude towards life which damps all incentives to material progress. Besides, it assumes the existence of one supranatural entity or more to explain the diverse phenomena of nature. But what is supernatural will necessarily remain beyond the ken of man who is by no means a special creation of God. In religion reason has therefore to make room for faith, its presuppositions being not generally capable of empirical verification. Now as soon as the phenomenal world is placed beyond the rational comprehension of man, the world itself becomes incomprehensible to him, and the solution of life's problems goes beyond his power. The liberating significance which the rationalist‑materialist thought has is thus totally absent from its religious‑idealist variety.

The two divergent thought‑currents—rationalisrn and religion—are arrayed against each other since the dawn of human civilisation. After the collapse of the Greco‑Roman civilisation Europe fell under the prolonged spell of Christian theology. A fresh spurt of rationalism at last rose in Northern Italy under the inspiration of the rising bourgeoisie and trading class to deliver the European mind from the bondage of religion and paved the way for the birth of modern science. In history it has come to be known as the Renaissance—a term first used by Jules Michelet, the famous historian of the French Revolution. The term has since acquired a tremendous popularity and has now largely lost its precision of meaning as a result of uses in diverse senses. Essentially, however, Renaissance signifies the re‑assertion of man's inherent rationalism after liquidating the prevalent religious mode of thought, and it is in this sense that we have used the term here. Viewed in this perspective, the Renaissance (with the capital R) movement is essentially an iconoclastic movement and aims at bringing about a revolution in the realm of ideas and a revaluation of old values. Jules Michelet has thus rightly pointed out that "the historian's first duties are sacrilege and the mocking of false gods".

In contrast, the Reformation (again with the capital 'R) should be taken to represent the religious mode of thought. It was not primarily a call for the reform of any particular religious camp but a re‑assertion of religious interest. The Reformation rose in Germany, a comparatively backward country, to counteract the resurgent tide of the Renaissance, and the driving force behind it was the decadent feudal class.

In the 19th century the Bengal region of India became the scene of a historical battle between the forces of rationalism and those of religion—between the Renaissance and the Reformation. The forces of the Renaissance were released mainly by the newly introduced secular English education, and those of the Reformation were salvaged from the granary of India's past. The Vedanta which, as we shall see, was the historical enemy of the Indian rationalism and the traditional ideology of the Indian feudal lords and was utilised for the purpose. The story of the awakening of the 19th‑century Bengal has been told and re‑told but this aspect of the story remains so far practically unnoticed by scholars because of their lack of a rationalist perspective. For the first time thus an attempt has been made in the following pages to analyse the Bengal awakening from the viewpoint of a rationalist and bring into clear relief the two mutually contradictory trends inherent in it. The present work has, however, grown out of a number of essays on the Vedanta which I wrote in course of the last few years in some of the learned journals of the country.

In this connection I must place on record my deep sense of gratitude to my esteemed friend, Sri Sushil Mukherjea, for taking an immense interest in the book and making a speedy arrangement to bring it out. In fact, he is never found sparing in his efforts to spread enlightenment in the country.

Calcutta.                                                       Niranjan Dhar
December, 1976.

SOURCE: Dahr, Niranjan. Vedanta and the Bengal Renaissance. Calcutta: Minerva Associates, 1977. Preface, pp. v-vii.

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