Jump to: navigation, search

Bengal Renaissance


Bengal Renaissance refers largely to the social, cultural, psychological, and intellectual changes in Bengal during the nineteenth century, as a result of contact between certain sympathetic British officials and missionaries on the one hand, and the Hindu intelligentsia on the other. The setting for the Bengal Renaissance was the colonial metropolis of Calcutta.

Before 1830, earlier than any other Asian city, Calcutta already had a school system using European methods of instruction and textbooks. On their own initiative, the urban elite had founded Hindu College, the only European-style institution of higher learning in Asia.

Newspapers, periodicals, and books were being published regularly in English and f Babga. The city had a public library in European style. Calcutta also boasted a native intelligentsia conversant with events in Europe, aware of its own historical heritage, and progressively alert about its own future in the modern world.

The representatives of the British in India who were mainly responsible for these positive aspects of modernization were a group of "acculturated" civil, military, and judicial officials (and some missionaries) historiographically identified as Orientalists. They were neither nationalists nor imperialists in the late nineteenth-century Victorian sense. On the contrary, they were products of the eighteenth-century world of rationalism, classicism, and Enlightenment. Unlike later Europeans serving in British India, they mastered at least one Indian language and used it as a vehicle for scholarly research. Many Orientalists-notably William Jones, HT Colebrooke, William Carey. HH Wilson, and James Prinsep- made significant contributions to the fields of Indian philology, archeology, and history. Moreover, these Orientalists did not ensconce themselves in clubs or build a Chinese wall of racial privilege to keep the" inferior races" they ruled at a distance. On the contrary, the Orientalists formed enduring relations with members of the Bengali intelligentsia to whom they served as sources for knowledge of the West and with whom they worked to promote social and cultural change.

It was the Orientalist training centre for British civil servants in India known as the College of Fort William, established in Calcutta by Governor General Wellesley in 1800, which seemed to offer the most perfect institutional setting for studying the results of British Indian contact and accommodation. The College was the first European-created institution of higher learning in India to welcome Indians as faculty members and to encourage cultural exchange between Europeans and South Asians. By enlisting the support of qualified Orientalist scholars to improve its education program, this College also transformed the famed Asiatic Society, Calcutta and William Carey's Xerampore Mission into highly effective agencies for the revitalisation of Indian culture.

Between 1800 and 1830, in Calcutta, as a consequence of the Orientalist impact, the Bangali intellectual was a confused but optimistic individual striving to reconcile partially digested alien traits and unsatisfactory indigenous traditions. He established relationships with British civil servants, businessmen, and missionaries both for profit and to use them as windows to the West. It was his good fortune that the distance between Britain and India was great and that the Orientalists with whom he associated had become "Indianized. The Bangali view of the West during the sympathetic Orientalist period helped to establish good rapport between Europeans and Indians offering hope for the future.

It should be noted that the movement known as the Bengal Renaissance, regardless of the good relationships established between the British and Indians and the accomplishments resulting from such interactions, the Bangali intellectual of the early 1800s was insecure psychologically. The renaissance vision was in its early stages often painful because of the contact and confrontation between two civilisations and the awareness of a newly discovered historical dimension. The Orientalists imparted to him their evocation of an Indian golden age while the Serampore missionaries transmitted a Protestant concept of the European medieval period as a dark age. Both inspired in the Bangali a belief in the perfectibility of the whole humanity. On the one hand, the intelligentsia regarded them as the product of an exhausted culture and on the other, as representatives of a culture disrupted by negative historical circumstances but capable of revitalisation.

There were four aspects of the Renaissance movement, which the Bangali intelligentsia developed systematically throughout the nineteenth century. First, there was the modernization of the Bengali language and the simultaneous birth of a new Bangali literature. Secondly, there was the rediscovery of, and identification with an Indian classical era hailed as a golden age which placed South Asian civilisation on a par with the grandeur of Greece and Rome. Thirdly, there was the Serampore missionary interpretation of the Protestation Reformation, which Indians applied creatively to their own historic situation. And finally, there was the secular view of universal progress on which India's hope lay not in resurrecting the past but in projecting the golden age into the future.

When the College of Fort William hired the Baptist missionary, william carey, in 1801, as head of the Bangali Department every available kind of financial, technological, and human resource was put at his disposal. With an unlimited budget and a capable staff of Brahman pundits, Carey found himself in a most enviable position. His dream of creating a cadre of cultural intermediaries, who would disclose to him the secrets of indigenous culture while also being persuaded to disseminate Christianity to their own countrymen, seemed closer to realisation.

Carey's first textbook (which would go through five editions) was the Bengali Grammar, completed in 1801. Also in 1801, Carey helped to edit a reader for the Bangali students entitled Kathopakathon or Dialogues. This book is perhaps the first by a European that did not concern itself with the Hindu high culture. For the first time, the idiomatic language, manners, and customs of merchants, fishermen, women, day laborers, and other common folk were given the dignity of minute and sympathetic observation. It would not be farfetched to call Carey, as a result of this work alone, India's first cultural anthropologist.

Greatly influenced by Carey's work was Ram Comul Sen, the earliest known Renaissance scholar among the Bangali intelligentsia. Born in a Hughly village in 1790 as the son of a father who was proficient in Persian, Sen moved to Calcutta at the age of seven and while there learned English, Sanskrit, and Persian. It was Persian, which most helped him establish his credentials as an indigenous member of the Asiatic Society, Calcutta. He interacted with the Orientalists and worked on their publications. Sen was especially friendly with HH Wilson who helped promote the Bangali as an intellectual entrepreneur who left an estate of 1,000,000 rupees when he died in 1844.

'It was Ram Comal who published the first modern Dictionary of the English and Bengalee languages in 1834. In the introduction to the second volume that year, Sen expressed sympathy for the generation of Englishmen who had responded favorably to his own language and customs. He not only singled out Carey as a selfless, devoted father of the new Bangali language, but predicted that the language would come to be the equal of any in the world.

Why Ram Comul Sen correctly foresaw a brilliant literary future for Bengali we may never know but that the literature in that language did undergo a renaissance there can be of little doubt. Writers such as michael madhusudan dutt (1824-73) and rabindranath tagore (1861-1941) wrote beautifully in English but that they also chose to express their literary genius creatively in Bangali certainly helped shape the renaissance of that literature. Dutt's Meghnadhbadh Kabya and Tagore's geetanjali for example, were renaissance masterpieces in the manner that tradition was modernized. It is of no small importance that Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, one year after he published an English translation of Geetanjali (Song Offerings).

Of all the Orientalists seeking to reconstruct the ancient history of India, none was more successful as a scholar than HH Wilson. In 1818, the President of the Asiatic Society supported Wilson, its Secretary, in new measures to enhance the effectiveness of the institution as an agency for historical investigation. It can be said that the primary function of the Society as historical and archaeological repository and headquarters for all India really began in 1818. HH Wilson's close friend, Ram Comul Sen, was hired to coordinate these activities.

One of Wilson's most formidable tasks was to demythologize the legendary heroes of the Hindus. Wilson, as leading Indologist working in Calcutta, constantly reviewed the most recently acquired historical data and the various interpretations of the data. In the preface to the Sanskrit dictionary of 1819, for example, he praised those who had `rescued' Xankara from mythology and had transformed him into a historical figure. Wilson had already performed this difficult feat with Kalidasa in 1813 and after doing the same for Sankara, he hoped to demythologize and give historical substance to the sacred figure of Buddha. Thanks to Wilson and the Orientalists, Buddha ceased to be conceived of solely as a god and became historicized as a human being with a life story in the manner of Jesus Christ.

Wilson worked feverishly on different projects. He drew great satisfaction discovering manuscripts as he did in 1825 when he published his report of the Rajataribgini, a history of Kashmir to 1027 AD It constituted the first Orientalist-inspired regional history of India. Wilson also brought out a book on Hindu drama in the classical period and a systematic history of Ancient Indian medicine.

By 1833, when Wilson set sail for England, he had himself brought to light or inspired in others to bring to light so many original historical disclosures that he might well be considered the father of classical Indian historiography. Under Wilson, the first authentic histories of Nepal, Orissa, and Rajasthan, as well as Kashmir were written.

It should be pointed out that with the exception of these regional studies, which do include the Hindu Middle Ages, Orientalist scholarship was largely focused on the pre-medieval classical past. This is probably the primary reason why Islamic scholarship was not pursued and why the Bangali scholars who were affiliated with the Asiatic Society later in the century were for the most part Hindus. And when one considers the wealth of diversity and profundity of what was rediscovered in ancient Indian science, philosophy, medicine, the arts and literature, society, and polity, one can understand why Hindus would be so immensely proud of their ancestral achievements, which they hailed as their own traditional heritage.

If the Bengal Renaissance produced one outstanding progenitor who imbibed the Orientalist contribution as effectively as he did linguistic and literary modernization and the effective defense of Hindu theism against the double-edged challenge of Christianity and secularism, it would be rammohun roy (d. 1833).

Roy seems to have lived in Calcutta for the first time between 1797 and 1802. He came from a family with a vested interest in the old established order and his father, a small landowner of the traditional ruling class in Bengal, lost his property in 1800. Rammohun's `professional' activity in Calcutta between 1799 and 1802 was to loan money to civil servants presumably in or near the College of Fort William. His civil service employer, Johan Digby, was among the earliest College of Fort William students (1801-1803) and Rammohun acquired his knowledge of the Engilish language from Digby, who presumably provided him with his first `window to the West'.

After Rammohun settled in Calcutta and published his translation of the Vedanta in 1815, he committed himself to a view of Indian culture that he would defend in private and public debates until his death in 1833. He spent much time and effort resisting Christian missionaries such as Jon Clark Marshman on the one hand and fought a long struggle with fellow Bangalis in his effort to reform Hinduism of its contemporary abuse.

In The Abridgement of the Vedant, Rammohun argued that image worship as then practiced in India was and aberration from the authentic monotheistic tradition. Worship of the true and eternal God left no room for idolatry. Whether his knowledge of Islam influenced him in this regard we do not know. We do know that in the manner of Orientalists such as William Jones and HT Colebrook, Roy divided Indian history into a Vedantic period that was the authentic model for the whole body of Hindu theology, law, and literature, and a later period of `Hindu idolatry' with its innumerable gods, goddesses, and temples which have since been destroying the texture of society. Misguided Brahmans in their priestly functions preferred to conceal the wisdom of the Vedanta within the dark curtain of the Sanskrit language, argued Rammohun, rather than transmit the truth to the people in their own vernacular languages. For this reason, he had himself translated the Vedanta and other classical sources into Bangali. Rammohun stressed again and again that in the Hindu Middle Ages the wisdom of classical literature and philosophy vanished as society embraced the absurdities of an idolatrous religion. In a book on the Upanshads that Rammohun brought out in 1816, he argued that the true Indian faith was no different than the true Christianity and Islam in that all three had developed a notion of the unity of the Supreme Being as the sole `Ruler of the Universe'.

As a proponent of renaissance and modernity, it was not merely religious reform, which Rammohun advocated but social reform as well in the name of religion. His eloquent Defense of the Vedas in 1817 is a striking case in point of his attitude. He maintained that there was nothing in the scripture, for example, to authorize sati or the burning of widows and yet widows were being immolated. He wrote against dowries, sati and kulinism.

Secularism, the fourth aspect of the Bengal Renaissance, was the least influcenced by British Orientalism, and its appeal to that segment of the intelligentsia who sought the true Hinduism in remote ages of gold. The so-called `Young Bengal Movement' made up of a coterie of students at Hindu College, rejected the idea of seeking answers to India's decadence in the historic dimension instead of advocating cultural change by looking to the future. Originally nurtured by Henry Derozio, a teacher at the College in English literature during his brief but influential tenure between 1828 and 1831, Young Bengal imbibed the secular progressive spirit of the contemporary West, which they interpreted as entirely future-oriented.

derozio, a Eurasian with a Portuguese father, shared with Rammohun Roy and advocacy of popular sovereignty for all nations of the world but was far more Westernized in his religious skepticism and unyielding rational spirit. On the other hand, Derozio shared with the Orientalists and Rammohun a faith in the eighteenth-century ideal of universality. Whether it is William Jones linking Europe and Asia through a common linguistic source, the Indo-European languages, or the Xerampore missionaries de-Westernizing their Reformation model to accommodate Asians, or Rammohun arguing for the universality of monotheism, each position rested on a common cosmopolitan base.

Derozio, who died a victim of cholera at twenty-two after a brief period of meager literary activity, has left nothing to suggest Byronic cynicism or post-Napoleonic nationalism. Instead, he held steadfastly to his faith in the eighteenth-century concept of human perfectibility. His legacy to his students, which became their contribution to the Bengal Renaissance, was his conviction that the way to revitalise India was not to revere ideals and values long gone, but to open Indian minds to the cultural offerings of the West so that India might join in the race for a hopeful future.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Calcutta was Asia's most notorious repository for diverse sources of knowledge, both ancient and modern, from all corners of the world. In this renaissance atmosphere, tracts, journals, and newspapers helped produce a feeling of cultural identity among the intelligentsia through the transmission of cultural attitudes.

Alongside the intellectual aspect of the Renaissance there developed a social identity and solidarity among professionals who had emerged largely as a result of close European contacts, special training, and European-style occupational status. The new Bangali elite boasted a library in every home and an ardent record of patronage of printed works. Bookstores had multiplied throughout Calcutta and education had become a sought-after commodity. The socio-intellectual adventure would not be confined to Calcutta or to Bengal, but culture would spread to other metropolitan centers with different linguistic and cultural backgrounds such as Bombay and Madras. [David Copf]