Vedanta and the Bengal Renaissance

by Niranjan Dahr


British Imperialism at Work:
Forces Behind the Vedantic Movement

THE BEGINNING of the British Empire, like that of the Roman Empire centuries back, was largely an accident of history. But. almost immediately after the acquisition of the Empire the more far‑reaching among the statesmen of Britain could realise that a vast and distant country like India could not be kept in subjugation for long without the active support of a powerful section of her population and the inactivity of the larger section of it. The problem has been pinpointed by Raja Rammohun in his letter to J. Crawford, dated 18th August, 1828. He wrote: "It should not be lost sight of that the position of India is very different from that of Ireland, to any quarter of which an English fleet may suddenly convey a body of troops that may form its way and succeed in suppressing every effort of a refractory spirit."

To get the active allegiance of an important section of Indians, the British Government created a new landed aristocracy dependent on it through the Permanent Settlement. That the Government became successful to a large measure in achieving its objective in this respect would be evident from the fact that the zamindars of Bengal not merely opposed the Mutiny of 1857 but also sent through their accredited organization,  the British Indian Association, a petition to the British Parliament calling for the introduction of the Permanent Settlement throughout the country on the model of that in Bengal, for the safeguarding of the British Empire in India.

On the other side, to keep the greater section of the people passive in the face of degradation and misery, some British statesmen in power wanted to turn them "spiritualistic". With that end in view they had the Vedanta salvaged from the granary of India's past and required the Indian people to accept the Vedantic spiritualism as the true philosophical tradition of India to which they should stick at all costs. Thus Lord Cornwallis introduced the Permanent Settlement in 1792, and only a few years after, in 1799, Lord Wellesley, the architect of a Vedantic resurgence in this country, was appointed its Governor‑General. He started working for it without any loss of time. [end of p. 27]

The question of inducing passivity in the minds of the Indian people loomed large before the British imperialists because the sting of the imperialist‑feudalist exploitation had already made the masses restive. The peasant revolt of 1783 in Rangpur, the rising of 1789 in Bankura and Bishnupur, the Chuar insurrection of 1795‑99 in Midnapore and similar other disturbances in the country indicated the direction in which the wind was blowing.

Far more serious and immediate was, however, the threat posed by the French Revolution in Europe. The peasant risings which were then taking place in the countryside were mostly blind and spontaneous reactions of some people against the local conditions. They were rather sporadic in nature. Ideas must precede actions, and revolutionary ideas must precede revolutionary actions. No revolutionary ideas were then operating behind those local revolts. They only forebode ill for the future of the British Empire in India. The French Revolution, however, threatened the Empire immediately.

The danger which came from the French Revolution was both military and ideological. The news came about the contemplated plan of Napoleon to reach India through the Middle East, and the Governor‑General was warned by the Home authorities to be on guard against all eventualities. But the ideological threat of the Revolution was even greater than its military threat because it was never easy to kill ideas.

Lord Wellesley was entrusted with the task of dealing with this double threat posed by the French Revolution. His fitness for the task was unquestioned. He was the brother of the future Duke of Wellington who was to defeat Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo in 1815. Like all contemporary British aristocrats he was a sworn enemy of the surging French Revolution. He was educated at Eton and became one of its distinguished scholars. In January, 1794 Wellesley delivered a brilliant speech at the House of Commons against the French Revolution which was mainly responsible for his Indian appointment. He had a seat at the Board of Control for four years which made him acquainted with the politics of India. The great pro‑consul came to India with a mission, and immediately on arrival he took up the task of meeting the threat posed by the French Revolution.

To cope with the military threat from the French Revolution Wellesley required the Indian princes to maintain contin [end of p. 28] gents of the British Army on their territories in pursuance of his policy of Subsidiary Alliance, and he exacted subsidies from. them towards meeting the expenditure incurred in this connection. It was simply a modified policy of Pitt who was then subsidizing the great European powers to maintain armies against Napoleon.

Wellesley simultaneously proceeded to deal with the subversive ideas thrown up by the French Revolution and took some constitutional steps to see that these ideas did not spread in the country. He clamped a strict censorship on the Indian press and adopted measures to scrutinise the credentials of all new arrivals from Europe so that no one contaminated by the French Revolutionary ideas could reach India. He further ordered the District Magistrates to clear their respective districts of all foreigners who were not covenanted servants of the Company. [1] The concern of the Home Government in the matter was conveyed to the Governor‑General by Henry Dundas, President of the Board of Control, who, in September 1800, wrote to him: "I hate Jacobinism everywhere . . . . But in India I should consider it as the devil itself." It should be guarded against "with equal assiduity" as the military incursion of Napoleon.

Wellesley was, however, shrewd enough to know that ideas had wings and artificial barriers could not prevent their movement. Only ideas could kill ideas. It was while going to meet the threat of the French Revolution on the ideological front that Wellesley was led to enunciate the theory of Vedantic spiritualism as the authentic cultural tradition of India. For this purpose he requisitioned the services of a British Indologist. We, of course, owe much to the British, orientalists for the re‑discovery of our glorious past. There is, however, no gainsaying the fact that some of them sought to give a distorted view of the cultural tradition of India mainly in the interest of British imperialism.

Wellesley founded in 1800 the College of Fort William with the avowed purpose of acquainting the fresh recruits to the Covenanted  Service of India with the languages, laws and customs of this country so that they could be more effective administrators. But there was also a deeper political motive working behind the establishment of the College. It was "to fix and establish sound and correct principles of religion and government" as a bulwark against the "erroneous principles" of the [end of p. 29] French Revolution. [2] To realise the full significance of this step it would be useful to get an idea about the ideological background of Wellesley himself.

Edmund Burke left Parliament in 1794 and had breathed his last in July 1797. But he was still the prophet of England. The great issue before him was the French Revolution. He supported the American Revolution but came out vehemently against the French. In course of his fulmination against it he, for the first time, gave a philosophical basis to conservatism. Burke was infuriated not only by the events in France but also by the eagerness of the English sympathisers with the Revolution to plunge their own country in the maelstrom. He discouraged political dreaming and spoke against a mechanical conception of the state. The state was not the product of conscious will and deliberate design. It was therefore futile to try to create a state de novo. A body politic had a character of its own, it being essentially an organic growth with its roots reaching back into an indefinite past and tendrils shooting forward into an indefinite future. So it was not possible for human reason and will to deflect it from its ordained course. A statesman should thus give due recognition to the historical continuity of a body politic and respect the elemental ingredients which constituted it. Contrary to the materialist preachings of the French Revolution, Burke further believed that religion was one of the most important of those ingredients and good citizenship was not possible in the absence of religious piety.

Wellesley, like Pitt, was a disciple of Burke and as such took an organic view of the Indian state which he had been called upon to govern. He thought that the Indian state must embody the Indian way of life and should be administered upon its own indigenous principles and not upon any principles imported from abroad, however good they might be in themselves. All the more this consideration should apply to India because it was an ancient country having a characteristic culture of its own. He thus sought to immunise the minds of his civil servants and the people of this country against the heady ideas of the French Revolution.

Following Burke, Wellesley, although himself not a devoutly religious man, was also convinced of the utility of religion as a stabilising factor and took a religious view of politics. The Fort William College was thus expected to fix in the minds of the people the correct principles of both religion and government. [end of p. 30] He even appears to have given precedence to religion over government.

While going "to fix and establish sound and correct principles of religion and government" the College eventually developed into a great centre of oriental studies and earned the designation of the "Oxford of the East". The other important centre of Oriental learning founded in 1784 under the inspiration of another Governor‑General, Warren Hastings, was the Asiatic Society. There was, however, a fundamental difference between the purposes of these two institutions. The Asiatic Society owed its origin to a disinterested love for the hoary culture of India on the part of some British civilian scholars, while a deeper political motive worked behind the establishment of the Fort William College. William Jones, the first president of the Asiatic Society and the moving spirit behind it till his death in 1794, was a universalist in outlook. He traced a common source for the Indo‑European group of languages and thus forged a link between the ancient Indian civilisation and the ancient European civilisation. The College of Fort William, on the contrary, started with the motive of establishing the speciality of Indian culture and the special genius of the Indian civilisation. Although to a certain extent the activities of the Society and the College were complementary, the intellectual impact respectively created by them was qualitatively different. As against the universalistic outlook of the Society, the College sought to prove that basically the authentic tradition of India was spiritualistic and transcendental in nature.

Sanskrit was the medium of expression of the ancient Indian culture. Naturally, therefore, the task of determining the so‑called authentic tradition of India devolved upon the Sanskrit Department of the College. Henry Thomas Colebrooke was in charge of this Department. He joined the East India Company's service in 1783 but his intellectual ability was much greater than his administrative capacity, and by 1800 he had already made a name as a classical Sanskrit scholar. His posting at Gazipur near Benares, the great center of Vedic studies, gave him a unique opportunity of getting acquainted with the Vedic literature. He built up at the library of the Fort William College a magnificent collection of Vedic manuscripts and specialised in the study of the Vedas. In 1805 Colebrooke published his 'Essay on the Vedas or Sacred Writings of the Hindus' in the Asiatic Researches. Here he contended that the Vedas, [end of p. 31] or rather the Vedanta, constituted the authentic tradition of India and that departures from this tradition which we now find were merely corruptions which had crept into it during the subsequent Pauranic period.

A corollary was drawn from. this assumption that the authentic tradition should serve as a model for the resurrection of India in future. The obvious implication of this theory was that revolutionary ideas foreign to this tradition should have no relevance for India. In this connection we may mention that the rich materialistic heritage of India, which was more conducive to the popular interest and aspirations, was completely disowned by Colebrook. It was not that this heritage was unknown to him because he incidentally mentioned it and also gave an account of it in his 'Essay'. He, however, deliberately underplayed its importance for glorifying the idealistic tradition of India.

The misinterpretation of Colebrooke became reinforced with the support of another famous Indologist. This was Max Mueller known to be a great friend of India. He was so much impressed by the researches of his predecessor that he wanted to have a statue of the latter erected in England in recognition of his service to the Indian learning and British interest in India. Max Mueller was a Vedic scholar in Germany, home of the European Reformation. But he shifted to England in 1847 and joined the Cambridge University as a Professor. Henceforward England became his home. He remained there till his death in 1900 and virtually became an ideological spokesman of British interest in India. He too spoke of the political importance of the Oriental learning. Thus, again and again, he demanded the establishment of seminaries for Indian languages in England. He saw the political influence of England threatened in India due to the absence of the knowledge of Indian languages among the English officials, tradesmen and missionaries. He attributed the great uprising of 1857 to the growing estrangement of the English rulers from the Indian people because the former did not mostly understand the local languages. He emphasised the need of studying Indian philosophy for its political importance and joined his powerful voice with Colebrooke in declaring that “spiritualism” was the message of India. He wrote the biography of Ramakrishna as a modern exponent of that message. Like Colebrooke, Max Mueller was also rewarded amply for his services towards the “Indian Empire." Queen [end of p. 32] Victoria herself recommended his name to her Government for bestowing on him an order, and a few years later Lord Salisbury made him a Privy Councillor. Lord Derby, the then Secretary of State for India, declared that such scholars as Colebrooke and Max Mueller rendered a service to the Government of India more valuable than several regiments of the army. [3]

The role of the British Government in encouraging the obscurantist ideas of India would come out in a clearer relief if we remember how at the same time it exhibited a keen interest in patronising the obscurantist practices and customs prevalent here. "It is undoubtedly the policy of our Government", wrote the Court of Directors to the Governor‑General, "to abstain interfering with the religious opinion and prejudices of the Natives" (Bolds added). The Governor‑General too in his turn informed the Government officials accordingly.

What then came to be the position has been testified by J N Farquhar thus: "Even cruel and immoral rites, such as hook‑swinging, practised in the worship of gods, and the burning of widows were carried out under British supervision." The Government further spent a large sum of money "for sacrifices and festivals and for the feeding of Brahmans". To be able to pay for all these things it imposed a pilgrim tax which "not only recouped the Government [f]or their outlay, but brought them a handsome profit as well”. [4]

The mentality which prompted the Government to reinforce obscurantist ideas and customs was also responsible for its reluctance to introduce English education at this stage even though there was a good deal of internal demand for it. The Government was very much apprehensive lest the English education should open the eyes of the people thus rendering exploitation impossible. As one of the influential men of Leadenhall Street observed, America had been lost to England through the sanction given to the establishment of seminaries and colleges there and "we must in India avoid the rock on which we split there.”

The policy of the local Government in encouraging a reactionary religious movement here was, however, nothing but an application of the policy pursued by the Home Government in respect of the Home country. Wellesley followed not only the policy of the Home authorities but also their cultural policy. Britain was then on the threshold of the Industrial Revolution, and there was brewing much dissatisfaction among [end of p. 33] the people due to the oppression and exploitation of the rising capitalism. According to an estimate of Patric Colquhoun published in the year 1814, the working class comprised nearly three‑fourths of the population but yet they “received less than one‑third of the national income" and occupied the lowest rungs in the social hierarchy. Naturally they began ventilating their resentment against the richer section of the society and sometimes even plundered and pillaged them. At first these protest movements were rather blind and sporadic in nature and took the shape of riots against individual oppressors. After the break‑out of the French Revolution, i.e., in course of the period between 1790 and 1830, however, the working‑class consciousness started developing, as we can see from the uprisings like the Luddite revolt of 1811‑13 and the massacre of Peterloo in 1819. The very system of exploitation and oppression now became the target of attack.

This frightened the propertied classes. As they were organised and the universal adult franchise had not yet been introduced, the Parliament was still their hunting ground. The policy of the Government was then largely identified with their interest. Faithful to their interest the Parliament found the remedy of their current wide‑spread discontent in a religious revival. There was thus what Elie Halevy, the renowned French historian, has called the rebirth of Protestant religious movement. The evangelican movement rose within the established church, and outside the establishment sects like the Methodists and the Baptists made their appearance. An excessive dose of protestant spirituality dampened the socio‑political aspirations of the working‑class people who were taught not to seek "the reform of their material conditions" but to resign themselves "amid the painful chaos of a world so made to serve the inscrutable purposes of God". [5] So there is no wonder that historians have seen in the new religious movements the basis of Britain's political and social stability. [6]

The Town Labourer, 1760‑1832 by J. L. and Barbara Hammond said that "Parliament voted a million of public money for the construction of churches to preach submission to the higher powers", and in the House of Lords, Lord Liverpool “laid stress on the social importance of guiding by this means the opinions of those who were beginning to receive education." But the rich people soon realised that the people would be more liable to such guidance if they themselves set an example for them to [end of p. 34] follow. So steps were now taken to observe the Sundays properly. The Annual Register for 1798 observed that "it was a wonder to the lower orders throughout all parts of England to see the avenues to the churches filled with carriages". In fact, almost all the churches of England came to be soon monopolised by the rich and new churches had to be built for the poor. The first day of meeting of the House of Commons was postponed from Monday to Tuesday lest the re‑assembling of Parliament should require the members to travel and to be seen travelling through London on a Sunday. The opening of the New Market Races was similarly changed from Easter Monday to Tuesday.

The same set of people who conducted the domestic policy of England laid down also the outline of her colonial policy. Hence there is hardly any wonder that the latter would be a replica of the former. The religion which the authorities concerned could encourage for India must not, however, be an imported religion like Christianity because it would only add fuel to fire by wounding the religious susceptibilities of the people and would not give the intended result. The religion which could serve the purpose of British imperialism must be of an indigenous variety and must enjoy a great prestige among the colonial people. Its choice thus fell upon the Vedanta.

Although fighting the French Revolutionary ideas provided the immediate occasion for conco[c]ting the spiritualistic tradition of India, it was meant to serve as a blockade against all revolutionary ideas, foreign as well as indigenous. This was initially worked out by British imperialism in its own interest during the very first decade of the 19th century but it soon came to be accepted by the feudalists as their ideology because they were the partners of British imperialism in its career of loot and plunder and their interest too dictated that the people must be kept inactive. The marriage that was contracted between British imperialism and Bengal feudalism towards the close of the 18th century found its consummation on the ideological level a few years after. Foreigners, however, could only provide the clue but the popular support must have to be mobilised behind it by the powerful indigenous interests through a movement.

The initial leadership of the indigenous Vedantic movement was assumed by Raja Rammohun. Certainly there could be no more deserving person for the task.


1. Letter from William Carey to Baptist Mission Society dated, 17th July, 1799—J. C. Marshman's Life and Times of Carey, Marshman and Ward, Vol. I, pp. 118‑120. [—> main text]

2. Wellesley's Minute on the Foundation of a College dated 10th July, 1800.

In this Minute Wellesley stated that "to fix sound and correct principles of religion and government in their minds at an early period of life was the best security which could be provided for the stability of British power in India." [—> main text]

3. Autobiography, p. 300.

Colebrooke started his career as a writer but after his service at the Fort William College, he was appointed a Judge of the Sadar Dewani Adalat and a member of the Supreme Council.   [—> main text]

4. J. N. Farquhar's Modern Religious Movements in India, pp. 8‑12. See also Marshman's History of the Serampore Mission, Vol. I, p. 157. [—> main text]

5. J. L. and Barbara Hammond's The Town Labourer: The New Civilisation 1760‑1832, Chapter XIII, pp. 231‑245; Arthur Young's An Enquiry into the State of Mind amongst the Lower classes (1798). [—> main text]

6. Elie Halevy's The Birth of Methodism in England (translated and edited by Bernard Semmel), p. 51.

G. M. Trevelyan, the famous author of English Social History, wrote: "But when these classes (enjoying classes) saw their privileges and possessions threatened by Jacobin doctrines from across the Channel, a sharp revulsion from French atheism and deism prepared a favourable soil for greater seriousness among the gentry. Indifferentism and latitudinarianism in religion now seemed seditious and unpatriotic, and a concurrent change in manners took place, from license or gaiety to hypocrisy or to virtue. Family prayers spread from the merchant's household to the dining room of the country house. 'Sunday observance' was revived . . . ."—Trevelyan's English Social History, p. 493. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Dahr, Niranjan. Vedanta and the Bengal Renaissance. Calcutta: Minerva Associates, 1977. Chapter 2, 'British Imperialism at Work: Forces Behind the Vedantic Movement', pp. 27-36.

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