Vedanta and the Bengal Renaissance

by Niranjan Dahr


Triumph of Vedanta

THUS WE see that 19th‑century Bengal, the new Italy, became the scene of the play of two fundamentally different thought‑currents—one represented by English education and the other by Vedanta. The secular English education represented the rationalist mode of thought and the Vedanta the religious mode. These two thought‑currents were, however, not only different. They were also mutually incompatible and could ill go together.

But from Rammohun to Vivekananda the religious leaders of various persuasions in 19th‑century Bengal often referred to their respective religions as rational religion. There is nothing surprising about it. The popularity of a term tends to cost it its precision of meaning. Since the European Renaissance a good deal of knowledge had accumulated in different departments as a result of the systematic application of reason. To it to‑day man owed all his powers and glories, his comforts and conveniences. So the term 'rationalism’ soon acquired an unprecedented prestige with modern man, and diverse and sometimes even incompatible thought‑currents sought to pass under this name. Thus, when a religious man referred to a particular religious standpoint as rational, the 'rationalism' of his argument lay in its attack upon another religious standpoint for the sake of what he considered better thinking.  So this might be the case of a monotheist attacking polytheism, a deist criticising the doctrine of Trinity or an intuitionist denouncing revelation. The arguments produced in such cases were all in the service of religion and not in its repudiation. It was at best only the clash of a "higher" form of religion with a "lower" form.

Religious leaders themselves gave tacit recognition to the basic incompatibility between religion and secular rationalism by weaving the theory of two‑fold truth—one truth governing the material world and the other governing the so‑called spiritual world. This theory was for the first time concocted by Averroes, the well‑known Arab scholar, when he found it difficult to pursue the newly salvaged secular learning of the ancient Greeks after retaining his Islamic faith. One or two centuries later, the Christian Fathers reverted to this theory of two‑fold truth when they, after a historic fight, conceded defeat to modem science but wanted to make the defeat only partial. [1] In our country as well, the religious spokesmen of the 19th century became the great propounders of this theory. It helped them reconcile their religious life with the pursuit of the newly imported secular learning. The tradition of India was, however, taken to be one of synthesis. Our religious leaders, while admitting at least by implication the opposed character of rationalism and religion, never became tired of speaking of striking a synthesis between the two. But this much‑vaunted synthesis meant nothing more than a compromise in the form of co‑existence, in their minds, of two basically opposed system of ideas. It amounted to accepting science merely as a tool for practical purposes without its philosophical implications. Such a compromise can in no sense be called a synthesis because no third entity came out of it.

The Brahmo movement of our country has been taken to be analogous to the Reformation of Europe because it sought to purify the Hindu religion in the light of the ancient Vedic teaching. The European formation was, however, not merely an internal feud in a particular religious camp. Basically it was the reassertion of religious interest drawing support the decadent feudal forces against the rampant secularism and skepticism of the Renaissance, the driving force of which was the rising bourgeoisie.

Properly speaking, the Reformation was in action against the Renaissance since its very inception. In Florence, the center of the early European Renaissance, Girolamo Savonarola (1452‑1498), a Dominican monk of Italy, became a precursor of Martin Luther. He felt much perturbed at the degeneration of the Papacy and began pleading for a return to the original Christianity. He forged an alliance with the Italian feudalist chiefs led by the Duke of Ferrara and preferred an appeal to the princes of Christendom urging upon them to depose the Pope as a simoniacal usurper. He further denounced the "corrupt" government of the prosperous bourgeoisie in Italy. At the same time Savonarola stood against the secular culture of the Italian Renaissance. The climax came in 1497 when the militant of the monk burnt at a public place the books and manuscripts of  the Renaissance authors. The rising tide of the Renaissance, however, proved too strong for Savonarola, and, hardly a year after the bonfire of the Renaissance literature he had to face a cruel death at the very place where the great burning took place. But what did not become possible 'in Italy happened soon after in Germany, which was comparatively a backward country, and where the influence of religion was felt more keenly. The Reformation movement started there by Martin Luther, and backed by the German princes, came to acquire an unprecedented strength and succeeded in stemming for the time being at least the liberating spirit of the Renaissance. Now if the 19th‑century Bengal was the new Italy and Calcutta the new Florence, Rammohun should be taken not as the Indian Luther but as the Indian Savonarola though of a far milder form than his European predecessor and his followers as the leaders of the Indian Reformation movement in a deeper sense of the term.

The spirit of the Brahmo movement was also closer to that of the European Reformation in another sense. The Reformation, as has been pointed out by  Fuller, was far more hostile to the liberating impact of the Renaissance than the Catholic Church. In England even the works of the Royal Society with which were associated such illustrious names as Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, Tyndal and Wallace were considered positively harmful by the Protestant Church. Similarly in, the new Bengal the Brahmos showed far greater hostility to purely secular European learning as such (i.e. without religious meaning) than the much‑vilified idolatrous Hindus. Incidentally it may also be mentioned here that the Muslim Reformation of the 19th‑century Bengal in the shape of  Wahhabi and Faraidi movements similarly reinforced the religious mentality of the Muslims and strengthened their aversion to secular English learning.

The idolatrous Hindus could be the pioneers of secular English education in this country because, unlike the Brahmos, they were not obsessed with religion. Their religious life went no further than the mechanical observance of certain religious rites which they had picked up at an young age by imitation and other informal methods of group‑life. As a matter of fact, the idolatrous Hindus were in a special sense  the descendants of the Buddhists.  The Vedas know no worship of images.  The image‑worship in India was a later innovation and commenced virtually with the Mahayana Buddhists, who in their turn borrowed it from the Greeks. The image‑worship, however, did not prevent the Mahayana philosophers from pursuing an intensely rational life. Sitting in monasteries bedecked with the gods, demi‑gods and goblins they went on working upon the most elaborate proofs for the total rejection of God. A latent under‑current of Buddhist rationalism probably thus ran through the consciousness of the leaders of the idolatrous Hindu society. It might be more than a mere happy coincidence that H. H. Wilson, who did so much towards reconstructing the history of Buddhist India, was all along very friendly with the idolatrous Hindus, and Ramkamal Sen, also an idolatrous Hindu, helped Wilson in deciphering proofs regarding the Buddhist period.

In 19th‑century Bengal, Buddhism was not in the picture. The main battle which the Vedanta, had to fight was against the forces released by the secular English education, sponsored by the "orthodox" Hindus. This battle partook of the same character as the old historic battle between Vedantism and Buddhism. So there is no gainsaying the fact that the "orthodox" idolaters, at least objectively, if not subjectively, played a revolutionary role in the society of 19th‑century Bengal.

Now if the Brahmo movement was the Indian Reformation, some scholars, following the same European analogy, have christened the Ramakrishna, movement as the Indian Counter‑Reformation largely because it lent support to Hindu idolatry denounced by the Brahmos. But the support of the Ramakrishna movement to idolatry should not make us overlook the fact that it was also essentially Vedantic in character and, so far as the resistance to the iconoclastic spirit of the secular modem education was concerned, it stoof on exactly  the same ground as the Brahmo movement. The contemporary leaders of the latter too did not find any meaningful difference between the two movements. We should not forget in this connection that it was Keshub who introduced the Paramahansa to the educated public of Calcutta and that for the great similarity between the religious views of the two leaders there was a controversy among their respective disciples who influenced whom. Then the Tattvabodhini Patrika extended a "cordial support" to Vivekananda's mission and prayed to God to "fulfil the good object of the Swamiji's life‑work". The Sanjivani of Krishna Kumar Mitra, belonging to the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, thought that what Vivekananda preached in the West was nothing but Brahmoism, and the journal even went to extent of declaring that the reception meeting of Vivekananda at the Town Hall after his return. from the West was a Brahmo meeting because the Brahmos mustered strong there. We find here the representative views of all the three Samajas.

We shall now try to give a bird's‑eye‑view of the titan struggle waged by the forces of Vedantism against those of rationalism unleashed by the secular English education and learning in 19th‑century Bengal.

Rammohun started working systematically against the Weltanschauung of secular English education from the very outset. In fact, no religious group could give birth to secular modern education because of its great tendency to promote scepticism, if not clear atheism. The Vedantic leaders would be again all the more averse to the very concept of secular education for to them this world was a mere self‑projection of the Brahman. So even when the reality of the world was conceded, it was assumed to have no reality apart from the Brahman.  This theory of dependent existence gave hardly any scope for an autonomous sphere of secular knowledge. It was therefore quite in the fitness of things that Rammohun started a crusade against the prevailing system of secular English education and the rationalist movement springing from it.

We know that David Hare the match‑maker was the architect of secular English education at the time of Rammohun and was the moving spirit behind the establishment of the Hindu College, the Calcutta School Book Society and the Calcutta School Society. Rammohun did not associate himself with any of these educational projects and erected a parallel set of institutions where religious instruction was given regularly along the teaching of other subjects.  Thus against the Hindu College he founded in 1822 the Anglo‑Hindu School [2] and gave effect in 1826 to his original pet scheme of establishing a Vedanta College. [3]

But while non‑cooperating with Hare, the Raja extended all assistance to the Christian missionaries to spread education in this country because religious education was given in their schools. In fact, he played a vital part in drawing the Christian missions in the field of Indian education. Rammohun, however, not only wanted to give the students a sound religious education but also wanted that the task of teaching secular subjects I should be ent to religious men.  He wrote to Rev. Henry Ware of Harvard College, United States, to send some able teachers to teach the people of this country European learning and "Christian morality." [4] And it was in response to Rammohun's appeal that the Church of Scotland sent Rev. Duff to Calcutta in 1830 with whom the former wholeheartedly cooperated in all his educational efforts. Rammohun then offered a piece of ground to Eustace Carey of the Serampore Mission for the construction of a school. [5] Further, his Anglo‑Hindu School was run more or less as a missionary agency of the Calcutta Unitarian Committee.

The Raja's opposition to secular education was, however, more uncompromising than that of the missionaries. In some cases the latter rendered support, even if grudgingly, to this or that concrete scheme of secular modem education in the hope that the European learning might ultimately, if not immediately,. help the European religion too. But the opposition of their Bengali ally in this respect was virtually total.

Here it may be mentioned that while in England Rammohun fell into financial distress, it was David Hare who arranged shelter for him with his family in Bristol. But in Calcutta when, a few years after, Hare died a homeless bachelor, the Christian missionary friends of Rammohun did not even permit his interment in any of their cemeteries. Man wars not with the dead, but those religious bigots did not spare this dead man.

Rammohun's attitude towards Derozio was also far from friendly. He left this country in 1830, and Derozio had joined the Hindu College barely one year ago. His teaching had just started, bearing fruit. But Rammohuns discerning eye immediately detected the danger‑spot. He called Derozio, an "atheist beast" and regarded the intellectual movement rising under his inspiration as even "more abominable" than the Hindu idolatry. [6]

In the absence of Rammohun, his associates continued the tirade started by him. They went on making a good deal of interested propaganda against the ethical beliefs, moral character and social behaviour of the Derozians. This terrified the guardians, and they began withdrawing their wards from the Hindu College. [7] Naturally the "Hindu" managers of the College became apprehensive about its future. [8] So they sought the resignation of Derozio, and he tendered it readily. The guillotine also fell upon some of the senior students of the College. Some precautionary steps were then taken to prevent, if possible, the occurrence of any such incident in future. The "Hindu" managers adopted all these anti‑Derozian measures more out of considerations for expediency than out of any real hostility to Derozianism as such because we find that only a few years after this incident they placed the Sanskrit College hall at the disposal of the Derozians for holding the meetings of the Society for the Acquisition of General Knowledge free of charge. The "Hindus" concerned had a! full commitment to secular English education, and they at least vaguely knew that some sort of Derozianism was its logical result. But the intriguing part of this dramatic episode was the conduct of Prasanna Kumar Tagore.  He gave full support to the "Hindu" managers but altogether on a different ground. He supported them because he was opposed to Derozianism. Evidently he had become a manager of the Hindu College with considerable mental reservation about the type of education imparted there.

Tagore made this clear when he became Visitor to the College. As he was much displeased with the secular character of its education and as he could not change it because of its statutory status, he, with the help of Dwarakanath ,Tagore, established a Pathsala of a high order under the Hindu College. The Pathsala was only the re‑establishment of Rammohun's Vedanta College under a different name, and Ramchandra Vidyabagish who was formerly a teacher of the Vedanta College was appointed a teacher of the Pathsala too.

The opposition of the Brahmo leaders, however, could not dampen the spirit of the Derozians. It rather emboldened them. They now be a to draw systematically the attention of the country to the oppressions of the zamindars and indigo planters and to the miserable lot of the cultivators under the Permanent Settlement.  Peasant revolts were breaking out here and there, and when one such revolt occurred in the Pabna zamindary of Dwarakanath Tagore, the Derozians championed the cause of the Pabna ryots.

Naturally the zamindars did not relish it. They were shrewd enough to see that they could destroy the movement bydrawing the angry young men towards agitational politics. Another purpose would also be served through the political movement. The Government could then be persuaded to grant a slice of power to the Indian people, and the zamindars as the most influential, vocal and organised force of the country would be able to grab a substantial amount of that power in the name of the Indian people. In fact, Rammohun, while in England, had already advocated such a transference of power to the zamindars, they being the "principal" members of the society.

Dwarakanath was a familiar name in the aristocratic circle of England. He was also the most conscientious and active member of the Landholders' Society and was personally affected by the peasant movement. So he was commissioned by their Society to undertake a journey to England. He returned to Calcutta in December, 1842 bringing with him George Thomson, a Member of the British Parliament and a brilliant orator. Thompson was a leading anti‑slavery and free‑trade advocate. The British India Society of England, to which he belonged, was an organisation which united the Manchester manufacturers and humanitarian Quakers to encourage the development of India as a market for British manufacturers and a source of non‑slave grown cotton. The British cotton manufacturers had been looking on with interest at the indigo controversy, and were in league with the Rammohun group of zamindars. [10] Thomas gladly came to Calcutta to teach its people "'politics". At the meeting of the Society for the Acquisition of General Knowledge held soon after his arrival he was introduced to its members by Dwarakanath.

Now politics was not anathema to the Derozians. But so far they had taken only a sporadic interest in it, their predominant interest remaining intellectual. Thomson urged the young men to "abhor expediency" and organise themselves into a regular political organisation. But winning them over to his viewpoint did not prove easy for Thomson. He began attending almost every meeting of the SAGK and exercised his oratorical skill to the utmost to influence its members to change their modus operandi. His oratory, no doubt, impressed the young men but still they were vacillating to take the jump. Sib Chandra Tagore questioned the utility of even forming the proposed new organisation as it was only to function as the political wing of the Landholders' Society. But then the clash with Captain Richardson at the meeting of the SAGK on 8th February, 1843, over Dukshinaranjan's paper criticising the British administration of justice and police, facilitated the work of Thomson much. Some two months after, a primarily political organisation called the Bengal British India Society was formed on the ashes of the SAGK. The Derozians were thus diverted from their purpose of heralding an intellectual revolution in the country. In 1851 again this new body was merged with the Landholders' Society into a common body named the British Indian Association on the specious plea that strength lay in strength. The new association, however, proved to be an uneasy union of some progressive intellectuals and conservative landlords. After this merger the Young Bengal movement ceased to exist, and with it close a glorious chapter in the annals of modern India.

The European Renaissance took place in independent states. But India was a dependent country. This largely blurred the issue. So the Derozians could at last be led to believe that India's political backwardness was the prime factor responsible for her backwardness although, as we have seen, this was not exactly the case. The diversion of the Derozians was further rendered possible because they had no ideology to hold them together. Their historic teacher breathed his last more than a decade back, and David Hare, who had since become their friend, philosopher and guide, was also no more. Naturally these young men, not yet ripened by experience, fell relatively easy victims to the wily move of the Brahmo leaders.

Moreover, the Bengal Harkaru, an unofficial Brahmo journal in its issue of 13th February, 1845, observed that "a few Deputy Magistracies, judiciously bestowed, will prevent their revival". The Government gladly acted on this suggestion and gave appointments to some of the promising Derozians as Deputy Collectors and Munsiffs. Government service killed their spirit, and they became conformists in their opinion. Here also the Brahmo cunningness got the upper hand of the young intellectuals.

So when Devendranath came to assume the leadership of the Brahmo Samaj, the Derozian movement was practically a spent force. But he, like his predecessors, was still agitated over the "bad" effects of secular English education upon the young minds. Besides, the rise of fresh rational forces represented by the Vidyasagar Akshoy combination and the Positivist movement began causing much concern to him and his lieutenants. Devendranath enjoyed a long life and was thus in a position to wage a prolonged battle against contemporary rational forces.

To strengthen the religious influence in the country the Maharshi was in favour of giving the boys religious (Vedantic) education from the age of 11 to 12 when evil impulses in them had not yet become strong. With that end in view he started the Tattvabodhini Pathasala in 1840 on the model of the Hindu College Pathsala in Calcutta. Afterwards it was transferred to Bansberia in Hooghly district. He further opened a number of Brahma Vidyalayas at different places of the country—Sinduriapati, Chinsura, Sukhsagar, Panihati and Barrackpore in Calcutta or its vicinity and another in his zamindary of Burkumpta Pergana in Tipperah district. In all these schools Brahmo theology used to be taught and questions were also set on it. [11]

The Vidyasagar‑Akshoy axis was formed within Devendranath's own camp and threw up a bold challenge to him. Devendranath founded the Tattvabodhini Sabha in 1839 to revitalise the Brahmo movement which had fallen into a moribund condition after the passing away of Rammohun and published the Taftvabodhini Patrika as its organ. The Maharshi had, however, an inflated idea of his religion. Consequently, he wanted to give his essentially sectarian organisation and journal a national character. He also sought to propagate through them modern secular ideas. Thus men from different walks of life and of different persuasions came to join the Sabha, and Devendranath appointed one or two persons in the editorial department of the Patrika because of their linguistic ability and interest in science even if their faith in Brahmoism might not be so pronounced. Vidyasagar, along with some Derozians, joined the Sabha and eventually became its secretary. He became also a member of the Paper Committee of the journal in 1848. And Akshoy became a member of the Sabha and the editor of the journal from the beginning. He was a student of science and had a rationalist bent of mind. But though at first he suffered from some confusion of thought, he became an unalloyed rationalist as a result of his continued association with Vidyasagar since their acquaintance at the house of Radhakanta Dev. The stage was thus set for a great clash of ideas.

The Maharshi not merely sought to propagate Brahmoism through the Tattvabodhini Sabha. After the rejuvenation of the Brahmo, Sabha in 1843 he wanted to transform the Sabha into a branch of the Samaj. This attempt was being politely resisted by Vidyasagar, he being more interested in discussing earthly subjects than other‑worldly affairs. Thus the Sabha sat every week but worship could not be held more than once in a month. While the secular Brahmin was thus resisting the undue Brahmo encroachment upon the Sabha, he did not receive much help from his Derozian friends, not even from Ramgopal Ghose, for whom politics was then a greater attraction than ushering in a philosophical revolution in the country. In this matter Vidyasagar found support from Akshoy Kumar.

On the other hand, even the little rationalism that was then being reflected in the writings of Akshoy Kumar became intolerable to the Maharshi. He used to pen through, before publication, those portions of his writings which contained ideas contrary to his. He did not think it fit to relieve Akshoykumar of the editorial responsibility because of the latter's great literary ability and his own innate nobility of heart. But still it would not have been certainly possible for Akshoykumar alone to resist the "spiritualist” pressure of the Maharshi for long, particularly when the former was a salaried employee of the latter and this salary was his only source of maintenance.

After his appointment as a member of the Paper Committee Iswar Chandra began to lend his powerful support to Akshoykumar. He now became more inclined towards scepticism and proceeded to decide by a show of hands whether there was God or not and whether He was with or without attributes. By this time Akshoykumar coined his famous formula: Labour = Crop, Labour and Prayer = Crop. . . Prayer = 0. Vidyasagar began to go through all his writings and made them sharper. He is reported to have gone through even Akshoykumar's celebrated Bajhya bastur sahit manuser sambandha vichar from the beginning to the end. Moreover, Vidyasagar began publishing a host of articles on social reforms and other secular subjects in the Patrika, exhibiting his aversion to religious topics. It was certainly difficult even for Devendranath to override Vidyasagar in those days. His association with the Patrika had also added immensely to its prestige and he had become virtually indispensable for it, as is evident from a correspondent's letter published in the Sambad Prabhakar dated 20.4.49.

Devendranath became highly displeased at this state of affairs. His displeasure reached saturation point over the non‑publication of a lecture delivered by Rajnarain Bose at the Brahmo Samaj of Midnapore. The Maharshi came to form a high opinion of the lecture and wanted to, have it published in the Tattvabodhini Patrika. But the Paper Committee led by Iswar Chandra and Akshoykumar did not find it worth publishing. The exasperated Maharshi then in a letter dated 8th, March, 1854, wrote to Rajnarain: "Some atheists have become members of the Paper Committee. There is hardly any opportunity of propagating the Brahmo dharma, unless these members are removed from their positions". This was not, however, the first occasion that Devendranath gave vent to this anger against the “atheist" members of the Paper Committee although he then did it in a somewhat more restrained language.

The devotional heart of Devendranath became extremely tired at such continuous rational and dry debates. For sometime (1856‑1858) he therefore went for rest in the glorious silence of the Himalayas. Then when he returned to Calcutta, he found that the situation had undergone a qualitative change. In the meantime Keshub had joined the Brahmo Samaj and had introduced a good deal of fanaticism in the Brahmo movement. This, no doubt, gladdened the heart. of the Maharshi but Iswar Chandra and Akshoykumar found the atmosphere too hot for them. So both of them had to step aside. Devendranath dissolved the Tattvabodhini Sabha in 1859. He had learnt a good lesson. He was no longer in favour of maintaining any parallel organization of the Brahmo Samaj. Henceforward he wanted to make the Samaj the sole vehicle of his religious activities. The Tattabodhini Sabha then donated the Tattabodhini Patrika and all its other assets to the Samaj. Vidyasagar was the last Secretary or Tattvabodhini Sabha (Baisakh, 1780 Sak to Baisak 1781). And it was he who, at the request of the Maharshi, formally moved the proposal of its dissolution. Prior to it, Akshoykumar too had to resign from the editorship and the yearly allowance he was getting from the Brahmo Samaj was also stopped. Consequently he fell into acute financial difficulty from which Vidyasagar rescued him. He appointed Akshoykumar Headmaster of his newly founded Normal School. The latter ceased to have any social relation with the Tagore family. [12]

After setting his own house in order the Maharshi proceeded to deal with the Positivist movement outside his camp. Originally the Brahmo leaders mistook the character of this movement. As Comte called his cult of man the Religion of Humanity, they thought that it was only another "rational" religion like the Brahmo religion and became sympathetically inclined towards it. This was evident from a lecture delivered by Hurish Mukherji, a Brahmo leader, before the Bhowanipur Brahmo Samaj. [14] In fact, his was the first reference to Comte in India. But sometime after, when Rev. K. S. Macdonald, a member  of the United Free Church Mission spoke before the Canning Institute, Howrah, severely criticising Comte, the Brahmo leaders came to know of the true character of his philosophy. Henceforward the Tattyabodhini Patrika began expressing serious concern at the rapid spread of Comte's influence among the contemporary Bengali youths.

The Brahmo leaders even stooped so low as to gloat over the personal misfortune of Positivist leaders like Dwarakanath Mitra and Gurudas Chatterji. Dwarakanath had an attack of throat‑cancer accompanied by the swelling of glands which disfigured his face. At this a Brahmo leader used to publicly say that this was only a just punishment from God because in the past he had dismissed the ideas of God, soul, next world etc. with a similar expression of face. [15] In this connection it may be mentioned that Mitra did not perform the Sradh ceremony of his father since he had no faith in the next world. Gurudas, another outspoken disciple of Comte, also died a painful death, and his "'sinful" beliefs were blamed for all the agony he suffered on his death‑bed.

But the Brahmos joined issue with the Comtists on philosophical questions as well. At the instance of Lobb, Krishnakamal wrote in the Bharati two articles on Positivism—“Positivism kabake bale” (What is called Positivism) and "Pramanik dharma" (Authoritative Religion). [16] Dwijendranath Tagore wrote a rejoinder to them in his Bengali essay "Positivism o addhmyatmik dharma" (Positivism and Spiritual Religion). [17] Subsequently Dwijendra wrote to Rajnarain that Krishnakamal was "a terrible fellow” who "knows how to write and how to slight all things divine." [18]

The Brahmos however, made Bankim Chandra Chatterjee a particular target of attack. He, of course, never associated himself with the Positivist movement as such. But he, both as a writer and an editor, contributed most towards the popularisation of the ideas of Comte, with which he came to be acquainted during his student‑days. It is true that the Calcutta Review and the Bengalee published a number of articles on Positivism. But these were all written in English by a Englishman, Samuel Lobb. In the Bangadarshan, however, Bankim published in Bengali several articles either on Positivism or referring to it. Besides, he himself frequently mentioned Comte in his own powerful writings. As a result, Comte and his philosophy remained constantly before the mind of his wide reading circle. Even to‑day Bankim alone is remembered as a follower of Comte during the preceding century.

Obviously the Brahmo leaders did not like Bankim, hobnobbing so much with Comte. But the immense prestige enjoyed by Bankim forbade them to make a frontal attack upon him. At first they tried to win him over and gave him a copy of Theodore Parker's Ten Sermons to read. The book was at that time almost a Bible with the Brahmos but it left Bankim quite unimpressed. He returned it after a, week with an observation not at all flattering to the book. Kalinath Dutt has narrated this incident in his Bankim prasanga.

With the advance of age, however, the radicalism of Bankim mellowed down much. The scientific tenor of Comte's  philosophy had now hardly any attraction for him, and he became increasingly interested in his sociological and religious doctrines. He came perilously near the Hindu‑Positivism of Jogendra Ghose. Under its influence Bankim, in his later life, gave a new interpretation of Hinduism which, according to a competent authority, was essentially a re‑statement of Comte's "anti‑theocratic, humanitarian and social‑service religion". In his new interpretation Bankim depicted Krishna, not as God or His incarnation but as "the greatest of all Hindus".

When Bankim published his changed views on religion in 1884, Rajnarain immediately wrote an article in the Tattvabodhini Patrika (Bhadra issue under the title of "Nutan dharmamat" (A new religious view)) calling the author "an atheist", "a hated follower of Comte", etc. Rainarain was then the President of the Adi Brahmo Samaj. Dwijendranath, who was the editor of the same Patrika at that time, wrote another article criticising the new religious view of Bankim. He too brought the charge of atheism against the latter. The third attack came from Kailash Sinha, Assistant Secretary of the Adi Brahmo Samaj, in the Nibyabharat, [19] and the fourth attack was hurled by Rabindranath in the Bharati. [20] He was then Secretary of the Samaj. Bankim himself, however, found the instigation of Devendranath behind all these attacks although Devendranath denied it.

In the 19th century the Tagores of Jorasanko became the leading family of the country by their contribution in the fields of art, literature and music. They further taught the people to love the country and its culture. Volumes have been written eulogising the Tagores for all these things. But at the same time it should not make us overlook the fact that they particularly under the leadership of the Maharsi played the role of an inveterate enemy against all rationalist movements of the day. In this connection it may remembered that, like their opposition to the secular concept of Krishna, they also contested vigorously the secular concept of Rama woven in the Meghnadbadh Kavya of Madhusudan, a contemporary of Bankim. [21] The Brahmo Samaj of India and the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, whatever might be their differences in theological matters, were on the same ground with the Adi Brahmo Samaj, and strengthened the hands of Devendranath in resisting the rationalist forces in operation.

The active Brahmo opposition could not, however, annihilate the Positivist movement. It was done by the Ramakrishna movement, not so much by open opposition as by silent absorption. Let us first take up the case of Dr Mahendralal Sircar's opposition from within which was analogous to Vidyasagar's in the Brahmo camp. Like Vidyasagar, he was not a believer, and yet had come to be associated With the Ramakrishna Camp. He not only gave free treatment (including medicine) to Ramakrishna, but also went in a hackney carriage all the way from Sankharitola to Baranagar daily and sometimes even twice a day. Dr. Sircar's liking for Ramakrishna as a man was so great that when he came, he passed hours together in his company even at the cost of his precious time and practice. Ramakrishna's disciples took advantage of it and publicised that even an eminent doctor and public man like Mahendralal had been much impressed by the Master's religious life and had become his devotee. The people on the whole believed it, and the doctor's opposition lost its edge.

Vivekananda's concept of Practical Vedanta further worked havoc with the Postivist movement.  In his early life he too, like many other educated youths of the time, came under the influence of Comte, and in later life he wrought vengeance upon him. Towards the close of the century the Swamiji began preachiing the ideal of seeing Siva in jiva with a good deal of fanfare, which took the wind almost completely out of the sail of the  Comtist movement. In Europe the Christian Fathers divested the concept of Humanism of its revolutionary significance by equating it with the mere cultivation of art and literature. Similarly, Vivekananda reduced the Positivist secular Religion of Humanity to a new spiritualistic religion of humanity. He could easily do it through the association of ideas traditionally connected with the term 'religion'.

Vivekananda, however, not merely killed the existing rationalist movement of the country. He also made the future assertion of rationalism impossible. This he did not so much through religious education as through preaching an aggressive religious nationalism. In this respect he stood entirely on a different footing from the Brahmo leaders and became also much more effective in achieving their common objective. The Brahmos believed only in the two‑fold truth. Vivekananda too did it but went beyond. He believed in a geographical division of the globe into two hemispheres, subject to the dominance of either of the truths and claimed the Indian region as the sphere of special influence for religion.

Vivekananda declared from the house‑top that it was religion which made India great in the past and it was again religion which would make her great. India should not therefore run after the "materialist" West. On the contrary, the West should learn "spirituality" from her, and India was on a spiritual conquest of the world. This gave rise to an aggressive Hindu spiritual nationalism. The Hindus, being an ethnic people, the Hindu religion could be easily identified with the Hindu nationalism. Their reaction against the culture of the conquering nation was almost instinctive. In Europe also we find that many peoples of Northern Europe, particularly those of Germany, at first resisted the spirit of the Renaissance which had grown so luxuriantly in the congenial atmosphere of Italy and regarded it only as a now form of Roman domination. Similarly, in Bengal, a reaction soon started against  the culture of the conquering nation, and the message of the prophet found a ready response in the minds of the people.

We have already observed that Jogendra Ghose, working on Comte's dictum that there should not be sharp break in the continuity of social dynamics, tried to discover indigenous roots of rationalism and materialism in the Hindu philosophical tradition. His was perhaps the earliest attempt to salvage and redeem the ancient rationalist heritage of the Hindus. The Swamiji's  message of India's spiritualism ran counter to the contention of the Positivist leader. What was modernisation to Jogendro became Westernisation to Vivekananda.

Now casting a cursory glance over the entire 19th century we find that the relation between the rationalist and religious forces had been largely one of concomitant variations. Both the forces started germinating during the second decade of the century. But till the departure of Rammohun for England in 1830 the Vedantic movement predominated. Then the Young Bengal movement came to dominate the scene till 1842, when the Brahmo movement regained its strength under the leadership of Devendranath The Vidyasagar‑Akshoy axis was now the only rationalist force lingering in the country, which was practically overwhelmed with the advent of Keshub, a religious fanatic, in 1857. In, the meantime the Positivist movement had risen and flown side by side with the Brahmo movement. Then the Ramakrishna movement got the upper hand of its Brahmo counter‑part. It then grew stronger and stronger and ultimately swallowed up the Positivist forces. The Positivists indeed fought the last battle of rationalism in the 19th‑century Bengal.

The history which had been enacted in ancient and medieaval India repeated itself in the Bengal region of modem India. Indian rationalist thought had played indirectly a significant. part in the regeneration of Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. Before the Greek learning attracted the attention of Arab scholars, they were much influenced by the rationalist thought of ancient India. They translated many of the Sanskrit texts of Hindu secular learning, and transmitted these to Europe. Arab attention was drawn towards Greek thought only at a later stage. It is therefore a great pity that this rich rationalist heritage of India was allowed to go by default in the regeneration of modern India. Imperialist and class forces were at work that salvaged the Vedantic philosophy from the lumber‑room of the past. Many of the ills of our present society is to be traced to this factor.


1. Descartes in his time advocated a two‑fold truth for an opposite end. In the midst of the wholesale domination of the contemporary thought by religion, he sought to carve an autonomous dominion for science. This Descartian dichotomy helped the growth of modern science.

2. J. K. Majumdar's Rammohun Roy and Progressive Movements, pp. 264‑265 and p. 269.

On the eve of his departure for England Rammohun handed over the charge of the school to its Headmaster, Purna Chandra Mitra, and hence it came to be popularly known as Purna Mitra's School. From 1935 the name of the School was changed to 'The Indian Academy'.

3. Collet, op. cit., p. 190.

4. A Letter on the Prospects of Christianity and the means of promoting its reception in India dated 2nd February, 1824 —Rammohun's English Works (ed. Nag and Burman), Part IV, p. 50.

5. Collet, op. cit., p. 114.

David Hare, however, donated his piece of land for the building of the Hindu College.

6. Kissory Chund Mitter's article in the Calcutta Review for December, 1845: Collet, op. cit., p. 376.

7. The College authorities seem to have somewhat overplayed the opposition Derozio's teachings had aroused in the Hindu Society. It is true that in 1829‑30 the roll‑strength of the College students recorded a fall. But it is not clear if Derozio had much to do with it. It was a period of acute economic depression and also by this period there had cropped up in and around Calcutta a few more institutions of higher English learning. Besides, withdrawals continued even after the removal of Derozio.

Here it may also be pointed out that in the past Derozio's teaching actually attracted students. Until 1824 the role‑strength of the Hindu College never exceeded 100 of whom the pay‑scholars were only 25 and the rest enjoyed free studentships. But from 1825, the number of pay‑scholars increased. In 1826 the number became 223, in 1827 it became 300 and in 1828 it further rose to 336.

The Samachar Chandrika of 26th April, 1831 reported that out of 450 to 460 students of the College nearly 200 had already left the College and many more guardians were thinking of withdrawing their sons. The report, if true, was really alarming. The same journal in its issue of 5th May, 1831 wrote that out of four to five hundred students of the Hindu College 30 to 40, i.e., 7 or 8 p.c., had turned atheists.

8. In defence of the Derozians some correspondents under the pen‑name of 'Jatharthabadinah' (those who speak the truth) wrote in the Samachar Darpan of 21st January, 1839 that before the foundation of the Hindu College the students were not free from evil practices like drinking, smoking or visiting prostitutes. Kristodas Pal, a contemporary of the Derozians but not one of their select band, testified that the Derozians were not disrespectful to their elders or the customs of the country. —The Young Bengal Vindicated (1856), p. 12.

We know of one case of Madhab Mullick, a prominent Derozian, did something which offended a pundit. But as soon as he came to realise that, he touched his feet and asked for his forgiveness.

9. Bengal Spectator dated 1st November, 1842 and 24th July, 1843.

10. Thomson also pleaded for the cases of the Mughal Emperor of Delhi and of the Raja of Santara in British Parliament.

11. Tattvabodhini Patrika of 1st Magh, 1766 Sak, No. 18.

12. Ibid., Bhadra, 1748 Sak, No. 231.

13. Bepin Gupta's Puratan Prasanga, p. 293.

14. Hurish Mookerjee's Lectures on Religious Topics, pp. 30‑46.

15. Gupta, ibid., pp. 39‑40.

16. Bharati for Sravan and Aswin, 1292.

17. Ibid., Pous, 1292.

18. Suprabhat for Aswin, 1317.

19. Nabyabharata for Bhadra, p. 225.

20. See Bharati for Agrahayana—"Ekti puratan katha" (An old tale).

21. See the author's article "Madhusudan Datta and Bengali Poetry" in Kumaran Asan birth centenary volume, 1974, pp. 93‑96.

SOURCE: Dahr, Niranjan. Vedanta and the Bengal Renaissance. Calcutta: Minerva Associates, 1977. Chapter 11, 'Triumph of Vedanta', pp. 166-184.

Note: A few textual corrections have been made.

Vedanta and the Bengal Renaissance: Contents by Niranjan Dahr

Chapter 10: Secular English Education and Learning

Science and Philosophy in Ancient India by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya

Lokayata by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya

Some Loud Thinking About the Bhagavadgita by G. Ramakrishna

Occultism, Eastern Mysticism, Fascism, & Countercultures: Selected Bibliography

Holistic Thought, New Age Obscurantism, Occultism, the Sciences, & Fascism

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Development of Philosophical Thought and Scientific Method in Ancient India

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