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Sen, Keshab Chandra


Sen, Keshab Chandra (1838-1884) a great intellectual and a famous Brahma leader of the 19th century Bengal, who founded in 1880 a new 'universal' religion - Naba Bidhan (New Dispensation).

Born in a 'modernist' family in 1838, Keshab inherited his grandfather's organising ability and his father's 'spirit of vaisnava devotion'. His grandfather Ramkamal Sen (1783-1844) was the first Indian secretary of the asiatic society, the compiler of the earliest English-Bengali Dictionary (two volumes published in 1830 and 1834), and one of the founders of the hindu college (1817), calcutta school-book society (1818) and sanskrit college (1824).

Keshab Chandra Sen

Keshab’s father Peary Mohon Sen (1814-1848), though a student of Hindu College during the peak of the young bengal Movement (1831-1843) was never attracted to this movement. Keshab Sen’s work in the sphere of social reform left a deep imprint on the society in Bengal. As religious and social reformer Keshab Sen continually shifted his identity - from scientist of religion to exponent of Neo-Vaisnavism and Mother goddess, from revolutionary social reformer to restrained theoretician, from ardent constitutionalist to defender of authoritarianism, from an advocate of nationalism to a champion of ‘providential’ British rule.

Keshab's primary concern was the quest for universal religion. As a student of Hindu College (1854-56) he was deeply attracted to the Unitarian theological and social gospels propounded in the writings of Theodore Parker, FW Newman, RW Emerson, Miss Francis Cobbe and others. CHA Dall, the American Unitarian Missionary also convinced Keshab of the validity of the Unitarian social ideology. Under such influences Keshab established in 1857 the 'Goodwill Fraternity', a Unitarian religious society for the students, where he was the main speaker.

In one of the meetings of this organisation, Keshab first met debendranath tagore. Fascinated by monotheist Vedantism, as Debendranath propounded it, Keshab joined the Brahma Samaj in 1857 and became its central figure in 1858. Debendranath found in this brilliant orator and organiser a good leader of the Brahma Samaj. Debendranath ended his Autobiography in 1858 stating 'after that is Keshab's period'.

Keshab gave new life to Brahma Samaj introducing new ideas and activities in it during 1858 and 1862. Keshab started The Indian Mirror, an organ of the Brahma Samaj, in 1861, through which he spread anti-sectarian, universal religious ideas. He introduced regular and systematic missionary work in the Samaj. After being appointed the Acharya (Preceptor) in 1862, he concentrated on the extension of missionary work on a voluntary basis. Realising that the Samaj needed self-sacrificing souls, 'the word salary', asserted Keshab 'should be excluded from the vocabulary of the Brahma mission work'. Around 31 branches of the Samaj were established between 1857 and 1866.

As the Acharya of the Samaj, Keshab insisted on giving up some Hindu customs and practices such as caste system, untouchability, child marriage, polygamy and became the champion of widow and inter-caste marriages. Under Keshab's leadership many young Brahmas gave up the practice of wearing the paita (sacred thread). The first Brahma widow and inter-caste marriages took place in August 1862 and 1864 respectively.

Women's education was one of Keshab's greatest concerns. This became a vital agenda of Keshab-controlled Brahma Bandhu Sabha (1863). He also actively supported educational efforts of the organisers of the Bamabodhini Sabha and Bamabodhini Patrika (both founded in 1863) and guided Bama Hitaisini Sabha (1871) to improve the moral and material condition of women.

These programmes of social reform and the emancipation of women, however, became the main issues of the controversy between Debendranath and Keshab leading to a split in the Brahma Samaj in 1866. Debendranath, unwilling to hurt the national sentiment and alienate the greater Hindu Samaj on these issues, did not approve of any radical change. So the problem of 'national identity' became paramount in the altercation between them. Keshab accused Debendranath of Indianising Brahmaism, making it another Hindu sect. The young Brahmas were already sulking under the 'authoritarian' attitude of Debendranath. They tried to challenge his authority by forming the Pratinidhi Sabha (representative assembly) in 1864. Keshab led this group in the struggles for religious independence and progress in the Brahma Samaj, demanding democratic and constitutional control over the Samaj affairs. Tagore did not yield and the formal break between them took place on 15 November 1866. Keshab named his Samaj 'Bharatbarsiya Brahma Samaj' (Brahma Samaj of India) while the old one came to be known as Adi (original) Samaj.

Keshab's Samaj became immensely popular among the young generation. By 1868 practically all the 65 branches of the Samaj in Eastern India joined the new Samaj and the number rose to 101 by 1872 throughout India. This rapid growth testified the triumph of Keshab's 'universalism' over Debendranath's 'nationalism'. Keshab preached this 'universalism' in his new temple (established on 22 August 1869) built by blending in it the architectural features of Hindu temple, Muslim mosque and Christian church. According to some it showed Keshab's drift towards Christianity, which Debendranath most abhorred. However, in his lecture on 'Jesus Christ: Europe and Asia' in May 1866 Keshab carefully distinguished between 'Christ's message of universal harmony' and the institutionalised, missionary-preached Europeanised Christianity of 19th century. He never succumbed to European cultural imperialism.

The gulf between Debendranath and Keshab widened with the enactment of the Native (Brahma) Marriage Act III of 1872. The Act was considered as the culmination of Keshab's social reform activities. It sanctioned most of the reforms advocated by the liberals like iswar chandra vidyasagar since 1850s, like inter-caste and widow marriage, prohibited child-marriage, bigamy, polygamy and allowed separation and divorce. The older generation considered this 'Godless' civil marriage Act anti-national and also as a reflection of Keshab's Eurocentric views. They also condemned this as undue state intervention in religious and social matters.

Keshab's reforming zeal became stronger after his visit to England (March-September 1870). While trying to rouse Victorian England's interest in social condition of India Keshab became deeply influenced by its reform activities and 'improved' family life. Shortly after coming back from England, Keshab formed the Indian Reform Association (November 1870). Its activity had five aspects: Charity, temperance, improvement of women's material and social conditions, mass education through mother tongue and cheap reading materials. Under this Association, Keshab set up social service committees, Temperance Society, schools for girls, night schools for adults, industrial arts schools for vocational training, and medical centres in Calcutta and its suburbs. He also started publishing Sulabha Samachar (Cheap News), a weekly costing just a pice, from November 1870. Its circulation reached its peak in February 1872 (27,202) and till 1877, it had the largest circulation in Bengal. The paper carried articles such as: 'Distress of the Tenants', 'Lamentation of the Poor',' 'The Sufferings of the Calcutta Workers'. The paper also stressed the responsibility of government in the economic and intellectual regeneration of the people.

The year 1872 is considered to be the zenith of Keshab's social reform activities. Since then he gradually became more involved in the comparative studies of major religions and in meditation. The opening of Sadhan Kanan as a form of hermitage in 1875 and the assignment of the task of studying the Islamic, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Christian scriptures in the original and translating them to some Brahma scholars pointed to this change.

Keshab established Bharat Ashram in 1878 to foster Brahma community life for the quest of universal religion. Dependence on Divine Messages or Adeshas for taking decisions in the works of the Samaj became a basic feature of his religious belief at that time. Keshab had close personal association with sri ramakrishna in the period between 1875 and 1884 and possibly under Ramkrishna's influence he introduced the concepts of yoga, vairagya and motherhood of God in the Brahma Samaj.

The decline in Keshab's reform activities became more pronounced in his later views regarding women's emancipation. Once champion of the cause, Keshab began to argue against the higher education and social liberty of women. He now stressed on the development of womanly virtues rather than high level education preparatory for a career in the outside world.

This new form of Keshab's conservatism and his absolute authority on the Brahma Samaj led the dissenters in the Samaj to form Samadarshi (liberal) group in 1874 and Samadarshi Sabha in 1877 under shibnath shastri which demanded constitutional rights. The growth of nationalist spirit in late 19th century Bengal and the involvement of the progressive section in it, drew the progressive section further away from Keshab. When this section started organised criticism of British rule through their organ, the indian association (1876), Keshab was reluctant to join it. Though he expressed his deep agony about the subjection of Indian race as early as in 1866 and encouraged growth of nationalist spirit 'in a national way' in 1870, the loyalty to British rule remained the basic component of his political thinking. He stressed the 'providential' and 'sacred nature' of the British till the end of his life.

The public announcement of the marriage of Keshab's minor daughter with the Maharaja of Kuch Bihar in February 1878 widened the hostility between the two groups. To the utter dismay of the rationalist Brahmas, Keshab contravened the Brahma Marriage Act of 1878 and justified his daughter's marriage as 'providential'. So the split became inevitable and the progressive splinter group formed the Sadharan Brahma Samaj on 15 May 1875 on a constitutional basis. Keshab did not name his Samaj till 1880.

In the meantime, keen on retaining his image as social reformer, Keshab revived his reform activities by establishing Arya Nari Samaj in May 1879. But as its very name suggests, it tried to inspire Brahma women to make Maitreyi, Lilavati, Sita, Draupadi and some others their role models. Pursuit of knowledge for its sake was not recommended there.

The search for a universal religion, once again, became his main preoccupation. In 1881 Keshab officially instituted Nava Bidhan (New Dispensation), a new syncretistic religion based on the union of East and West, and the mouthpiece of his new religion, New Dispensation, was started in March of that year. In this new religion he wanted to combine the 'pantheism' and 'mysticism' of Asia with 'positivism and science' of Europe. The basic idea of Nava Bidhan was eclectic. It proclaimed 'the harmony of all scriptures and prophets and dispensations'. According to Keshab it was a religion of catholicity that embraces all space and all times.

In 1883, Keshab compiled Nava Sanghita as a 'comprehensive law and guide to daily religious life' of his Samaj. The central point of all his experiments was the quest for a universal religion. In his last public lecture, 'Asia's Message to Europe', on 20 January 1883, he reiterated the need of the New Dispensation on the basis of 'scientific unity' to end sectarian and national strife and bring 'harmony' between Indian nationalists and British imperialists.

But in spite of his best attempts the New Dispensation did not become popular. Internal discord and Keshab's failing health hampered its activities. After Keshab's death (8 January 1884) it nearly became defunct for lack of a guiding spirit behind it. Keshab left a few followers. But 2000 people from all communities attended his condolence meeting to mourn the loss of one of India's 'greatest sons'. [Tripti Chaudhuri]