Friday, February 3rd, 2023 04:50:17

Coming of India’s Modern Age

By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee
Updated: August 18, 2022 10:26 am

Whether one argues or simply ignores, but what Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that ‘there is properly no history, only biography’, is something you will probably assign some intellectual weightage to as eminent scholar SubrataDasgupta too does in his book ‘Awakening: The Story of the Bengal Renaissance’. In particular, in today’s backdrop of the 75 glorious years of India’s independence as we all look back to those years and also how India reached the day of political emancipation on 15th of August 1947, we are forced to reflect upon not just events, but very much on the contribution and role of individual stalwarts.

Every day as I proceed towards office, my vehicle breezes past a building positioned right in the middle of the road in the Bagbazar area of north Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta). The perimeter of the two-storeyed building encases a statue of Girish Chandra Ghosh (1844-1912) – a dramatist, actor and agnostic-turned-disciple of Ramakrishna Paramhansa (1836-1886). Ghosh wrote plays chiefly based on Purana, Ramayana and Mahabharata. A few yards away from this building is the house where Sister Nivedita stayed and imparted education to girls. A stone’s throw distance from this place is the house of Balaram Bose (now BalaramMandir) which had welcomed several times, Ramakrishna Paramhansa and his wife Holy Mother Sarada Debi.

Girish Chandra Ghosh had given shape to the historic Star Theatre in the early 1880s – which still exists, a kilometre away from Bagbazar, albeit in a new refurbished avatar. And roughly in another kilometre or so, we can find the renovated residence of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). At present, the residence has been converted into a museum by the Rammakrishna Mission, founded by Vivekananda. It gives a sensational feeling when one remembers that Nivedita, Girish Ghosh, Ramakris-hna, Vivekananda et al.used to congregate, discuss and philos-ophise in this area and belonged to grossly the period called ‘Bengal Renaissance’ of the 19th and early 20th century India.

India in the 19th century witnessed a series of reform movements undertaken in various parts of the country. These movements were oriented toward a restructuring of the Indian society along modernity as understood from the European perspective. The conquest of India by the British during the 18th and 19th centuries had exposed faultlinesin India’s social institutions and as a consequence, several individuals and movements sought to bring about changes in the social and religious practices with a view to reforming and revitalizing the Indian society. However, an important question in this context is about the forces which generated this awakening in India. Was this a result of the impact of the West to which the Indian society gave a response?

Historiography (by Sugata Bose, SubrataDasgupta et al.) of this period indicates that these socio-religious movements can be viewed as the expression of social aspirations of the newly emerging middle class in colonial India. The early historical writings on reform movements have traced their origins primarily to the impact of the West, particularly to English education and literature, European science and philosophy, and the material elements of Western civilization. Also, the reform movements should be seen as a response to the challenge posed by colonial intrusion. The reform movements of the 19th century were not purely religious movements. It is pertinent to re-iterate that they were socio-religious movements. For instance, the reformers like Rammohan Roy in Bengal, Gopal Hari Deshmukh (Lokhitavadi) in Maharashtra and Veeresalingam in Andhra advocated religious reform for ‘political advantage and social upliftment’. They attempted to make use of religious ideas to bring about changes in social institutions and practices. Like Keshab Chandra Sen interpreted the ‘unity of godhead and brotherhood of mankind’ to eradicate caste distinctions in society.

Rammohan Roy [1772-1833] initiated the technique of reform from within the society. The votaries of this method wished to create a sense of awareness among the people. They tried to do this by publishing articles and organizing debates on various social problems. Rammohun’s campaign against sati, Vidyasagar’s pamphlets on widow re-marriage and B.M. Malabari’s efforts to increase the age of consent of marriage are relevant examples in this domain. However, individuals like Keshub Chandra Sen in Bengal, MahadevGovindRanade in Maharashtra and Veeresalingam in Andhra believed that reform efforts cannot really be effective unless supported by the government of the day. Accordingly, they appealed to the British government to provide legislative sanction for reforms like widow re-marriage, civil marriage and increase in the age of consent of marriage for girls.Needless to mention that the interest of the British government in social reform was linked with its own narrow politico-economic considerations. The Britisherswould intervene in the Indian society only if it did not adversely affect their own interests.

The third trend was spearheaded by ‘Derozians’ or ‘Young Bengal’ movement who represented a radical stream within the reform movement. Someprominent members of this group were Dakshinaranjan Mukherjee, Ram Gopal Ghose and Krishna Mohan Banerji. They advocated for a rejection of tradition and revolted against accepted social norms. A principal weakness of their method was its failure to connect to the cultural traditions of Indian society. Naturally, the newly emerging middle class in Bengal found it too unorthodox to accept.

The fourth trend was reform through social work as was evident in the activities of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Arya Samaj and Ramakrishna Mission. They believed more in social work at the ground level. Vidyasagar, for instance, was not satisfiedby just advocating widow re-marriage through lectures and publication of pamplets. He identified himself with the cause of widow re-marriage and spent his entire life, energy and money for this cause. The Arya Samaj and the Ramakrishna Mission too undertook social work.

Rise of the ‘English’

Historian SekharBandopadhyay has opined that“since the conquest of Ireland in the 16th century, the English gradually emerged as the new Roman, charged with civilizing backward peoples across the world’’. However, from 1757 to 1813, the English East India Company followed the ‘principle of least intervention’ in India. Interestingly, during this period, Company’s trading monopolies were also not curtailed. Clive had left the criminal justice system in the hands of officials of the Nawab. However, Robert Travers has argued that between 1757 to 1793, British officials in India made attempts to understand and recover India’s political past to give some coherence and stability to their chaotic territorial government. Nonetheless, it was quite natural for the Company to put on the clothes of the existing Mughal type of administration in order to gain legitimacy and acceptance.

Calcutta’s (Kolkata) Fort William college was set up in 1800 to train company’s servants: it was called Oxford of the East. William Carey and Joshua Marshman undertook an extensive study of Indian languages, writing of dictionaries, translation of manuscripts and Indian classics and examination of culture in Bengal. Henry Colebrook had undertaken a study of the Vedas and outlined the existence of a monotheistic tradition in the sub-continent. Historian Lakshmi Subramanian writes that the tenure of Warren Hastings had an explicit bias toward Oriental (Eastern) scholarship – which was driven by scholarly curiosity and pragmatic administrative consideration. Asiatic Society in Calcutta was founded (1784) by close associates of Hastings – Gladwin, Halhed and Wilkins. The Society encouraged oriental scholarship.Also, James Mill’s book ‘History of British India’ was published in 1817.

Christian missionaries and European individuals like David Hare started opening schools in all parts of India – where English became the medium of discourse.On the other hand, vernacular schools too sprang up. RammohanRoy represented a generation of Indians who believed that modernisation of India would come through English education and western sciences.Hence, the balance finally tilted in favour of Anglicists. When William Bentinck became Governor General in 1828, Thomas Macaulay was appointed the law member in his council as well as President of the General Committee of public interaction. On 02 Feb 1835, Macaulay’s famous minute on Indian education went thus:

“…..a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”

Macaulay believed that dissemination of knowledge in English medium would create “a class of persons between us and the millions we govern, a class Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and intellect”.The challenge was however, to convert the scientific rationalist mentality of an elite groupof Indians into an effective social reform agenda involving the masses.


Middle Class consciousness

Historian Sumit Sarkar writes that the colonial middle class should not be treated as a homogenized block. He opines that the trajectory of the middle class was not determined entirely by British education. By 1880s, the total number of English educated Indians were about 50,000 – based on the number of class X passed. Only 5,000 had degree in Bachelor of Arts. In 1887, there were about 2,98,000 people studying English. In 1907, the number rose to 5,05,000. Circulation of English language newspapers climbed from 90,000 in 1885 to 2,76,000 in 1905. Literacy was however low in 1911. In Bengali, literacy was 39.9 per cent among Brahmans and 4.9 per cent among Namshudras [data taken from Sekhar Bandopadhyay’s thesis]. Literacy in English was abysmally low: 1 per cent. Nonetheless, this emerging English speaking group enjoyed an importance far in excess of its size. For instance, existence of colonies of educated Bengalees in many north Indian towns enabled S N Banerjea to make successful political tours and the Indian Association to set up a large number of branches.

Furthermore, in 1883-4, only 9 per cent of college students in Bengal came from families with annual income of less than Rs 200. The tuition fees in the Calcutta Hindu College was Rs 5 per month in 1820s. Sharp regional disparities posed another problem, causing provincial tensions as English education increasingly became the only trajectory for good chakri (job). Public Service Commission Report 1886-7 found the following English educated natives getting government jobs in the British presidencies: 18,390 in Madras, 16,639 in Bengal, 7,196 in Bombay, 3,200 in United Province, 1,944 in Punjab and 608 in Central Province.

Historians Anil Seal and John Broomfield considered the English educated as elite group defined basically by their upper-caste status.84.7 per cent of Hindu College students came from Brahman, Kayastha and Vaidya castes in 1883-4. “Middle-class people are always considered the most useful group in any society. Our country’s welfare depends to a large extent on this class. “If there is ever to be a social or any other revolution in this country, it will be by the middle class”; Amrita Bazar Patrika wrote on 09 December 1869.

However, there existed narratives against education through English. This is what a prominent intellectual had to write in 1874:

“A lot has been said about the benefits of English education, but no one has written about the evils it has brought…..blind imitation of the English has derailed social reform…It would be no exaggeration to say that selfishness is synonymous with today’s civilization…educated wives no longer perform their domestic duties diligently….Europe has so much of commerce and industry: can chakri alone support so many bhadralok?


Rajnarayanbasu in ‘Sekalaar Ekal’ Aghorechandra Kavyatirtha (Calcutta 1902) wrote:

“See the course of Kaliyuga, dharma has declined/vedic ritual and customs have vanished, men and women become the same….the Shudra will place his foot on the Brahman’s head,,,the son will disobey the father/the mother will be the servant of her daughter-in-law…”


A queer incident of 1909

An upper caste householder Lalmohan Majumdar of Doyhata village in Munshiganj sub division of Dacca district (in present day Bangladesh), had invited in his home a wandering poor Brahmin sadhu, KalikumarChakrabarti, who called himself Kalachand. The sadhu claimed powers of miraculous healing. He also claimed that he was Kalki-avatar – the 10th and last incarnation of Vishnu who was supposed to appear at the end of Kaliyuga to set the degenerate world in order again, so as to restore ideal caste and gender hierarchy. Kalachand was accompanied by two untouchable disciples, Prasanna – a Namshudra, and Ananda – a Bhuimali. On the afternoon/night of 08 December 1904, Prasanna started acting his own peculiar version of the end of Kaliyuga. He killed Ananda, apparently with the latter’s consent, and with the complicity of Kalachand and Lalmohan. This killing was interpreted by Lalmohan as the killing of Yama – the God of death, so as to end all death on earth. Ananda was persuaded to believe that he would be reborn with a new divine body, whose powers would be recognized even by the British

Prasanna set fire to neighboursing houses, as if he was burning Lanka as in Ramayana. Prasanna tore the sacred thread of several upper caste gentlemen. Women of Majumdar household stripped and paid homage to Kalachand. Lalmohan’s wife was ordered to kick her husband’s forehead in an exact inversion of pronaam. All this was done to denote the general atmosphere of Yugapralay – the cataclysmic end of an epoch of Kaliyuga.

Interestingly, as Sumit Sarkar tells us, a local history of the Dacca region published in 1909 passed over the affair with a single, cryptic sentence. Surprisingly, Dacca sessions court jury had passed mild sentences on the accused. The British judge however disagreed. The Calcutta High Court later awarded stiffer sentences for all the three accused – Lalmohan, Kalachand and Prasanna. The entire episode was reported in a local newspaper.

With regard to this weird incident, Sumit Sarkar opines that Lalmohan’ssubmission to Kalachand as an expression of Bhakti belief / culture– a form of submission to God. Even Ramakrishna Paramhansa preached the same. Kaliyuga was often a term spelled by Ramakrishna. Moreover, belief in miraculous powers of healing appears to be a deep rooted culture.

Well, Vidyasagar [1820-1891] and Ramakrishna came from rather similar social worlds – from rural poor Brahmin families in an area centred around Khanakul-Krishnanagar in today’s West Bengal. However later on, Vidyasagar enjoyed excellent relations with high British officials and leading zamindars, particularly in the 1850s & 1860s. He at times had a monthly income of 3 to 4,000 rupeesfrom his textbook publishing business. On the other hand, Ramakrishna was a humble pujari-cum-mystic at Rani Rashmoni’s Dakshineswar temple. In 1886, when the latter passed away, the major daily Statesman reported that his ashes were carried by his followers – all graduates and undergraduates of the university. Interestingly, Vidyasagarspent his last days amongst the ‘unlearned’ Santhals, since he was finding himself more and more isolated among the Calcutta bhadralok (middle class elite).

SekharBandopadhyay has argued that the relative failure of widow remarriage and other 19th century social reform initiatives cannot be explained solely by the structural weaknesses of the reformist effort. Bandopadhyay writes that one needs to take into account the power of tradition that refused to be reformed. Moreover, Sumit Sarkar informs that for instance, the taboo on widow remarriage was far from being restricted to high castes alone, as has often been assumed. Census reports of the time indicate that bulk of the intermediate and even lower castes expressed inhibition on widow remarriage.


The Dialectics

Ramakrishna preached an apparently timeless message of bhakti in rustic language and claimed to have seenGoddess Kali face to face, many times. It was the diary-based conversation of Ramakrishna between February 1882 to August 1886 penned down by Mahendranath Gupta, named Kathamrita – provide a source of social history of that period. Lilaprasanga – the biography of Ramakrishna brought out by the Ramakrishna Mission in 1911, says:

“The coming of the Thakur (Ramakrishna) this time as an illiterate was to prove the truth of all the shastras”

Ramakrishna’s central message was one of bhakti. His catholic views are exemplified in his message: ‘Joto Mot, Toto Poth’ [multiple views, multiple paths]. His conception of the evil is linked to kamini and kanchan – lust, gold, and bondage in job. Ramakrishna refers to his encounter with one ShambhuMallik.

“Shambhu [Mallik] wanted to talk about hospitals, dispensaries, schools, roads, andtanks ,,,,giving just alms at Kalighat, not seeing Kali herself….so I told Shambhu, if you meet Iswar, will you ask him to build some hospitals and dispensaries?…….the bhakta will never say that…he will rather say,,,,Thakur, let me stay near your lotus-feet, keep me always near you, give me pure bhakti.”

Vivekananda on the other hand, stressed importance on organised philanthropy, serving the daridranarayan – God embodied in the poor folk, mentions Sumit Sarkar. Vivekananda, though an ardent disciple of Ramakrishna, emphasised on gyana (knowledge) and karma (social service). His tours abroad and across India raised the status of the Ramakrishna movement. He became the patriot-prophet for Swadeshi activists and revolutionaries, though he was recognised as Ramakrishna’s heir. Vivekananda helped to establish, extend, and perpetuate Ramakrishna’s own image as an apostle.

At the other end, Ramakrishna’s visit to Vidyasagar’shouse was never reciprocated by the latter. Mahendranath Gupta, the compiler of Kathamrita, had arranged the visit at Ramakrishna’s request. Gupta was then the headmaster of a North Calcutta school under the aegis of Vidyasagar. Gupta resigned from his job soon afterwards upon hearing that Vidyasagarhad made an adverse comment about his neglect of duties because of over-frequent visits to Ramakrishna’s abode in Dakshineswar Temple.

Gupta had nonetheless praised Vidyasagarfor his great learning and compassion for the poor. But Gupta extolledRamakrishna for establishing the superiority of devotion over mere learning and philanthropy. Sumit Sarkar further writes that for Ramakrishna, ignorance becomes the premise for faith and devotion, and it is folly and arrogance for men to think of improving the world. Ramakrishna believed that the Universe is beautiful because it is divinely structured in terms of hierarchical inequality, opines Sarkar. Vidyasagar on the other hand, retorted that inequality is not natural but social, and hence open to remedial action by human beings. In Kathamrita, Ramakrishna supposedly counters Vidyasagaron this aspect:“He is so learned, yet he said such a silly thing, asking whether He [GOD] could have given more powers to some, less to others.”

Such argumentation, intellectual contestation and dialectical pushes and pulls between stalwarts in the 19th century aided to usher in modernity in the Indian sub-continent. It was an age of enlightened Renaissance or re-birth of India’s glorious past – the past which we so dearly cherish on the occasion of AzadiKaAmritMahotsav.


By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee
(The writer is PhD, and is in India’s Central Civil Service. Any opinion expressed here is of author’s own.)

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