Sen, Keshab Chandra

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SEN, KESHAB CHANDRA (18381884), Indian social and religious reformer. Sen represented for many the prototype of the Indian intellectual who adjusted to the intrusion of the West into Indian society in the second half of the nineteenth century. He graduated from Hindu College, Calcutta, in 1856, and shortly thereafter came under the influence of Debendranath Tagore, the leader of the Brāhmo Samāj. Sen became one of the most ardent advocates of social and religious change, arguing for the eradication of untouchability, the breaking of caste barriers, the education of women, and the ending of child marriage. He was also an advocate of vocational education as a means for improving the economic condition of the people. One of his innovations was the use of cheap, popular literature to spread his ideas; he started at least a dozen journals, including magazines for women, a children's paper, and a daily newspaper. It was, however, as an orator on religious themes and as an organizer of branches of the Brāhmo Samāj throughout India that he was best known.

In 1870 Sen went to England, where he met many of the great figures of the time, including John Stuart Mill, William Gladstone, and Queen Victoria. His popularity in England rested in part on two themes that became central to his preaching and writing. One was an emphasis on Christ as the greatest of religious teachers; the other was his declaration that the British conquest of India was intended by God to help India "in the path of moral, social, and political reformation." He was, however, one of the first to suggest that the West must also learn from India: "Let modern England teach hard science and fact; let ancient India teach sweet poetry and sentiment."

Sen gradually came into conflict with Tagore and the older members of the Samāj, for whereas they insisted that it was a movement within Hinduism and did not involve a break with traditional values and customs, he argued that the Samāj was outside Hinduism and was meant to unite all people in a universal brotherhood. In 1866 he took many of its members into a new organization which he called the Brāhmo Samāj of India. In 1878 the group divided again when Sen, who had preached for years against child marriage, married his thirteen-year-old daughter to the Hindu prince of Cooch Behar, a small princely state. Many of Keshab's followers left him to form a new organization, the Sādhāran Brāhmo Samāj.

For years Sen had been studying the teachings of the world religions, and in 1881 he proclaimed what he called the New Dispensation, which was a synthesis of Hindu Tantrism, bhakti, and Christian rituals, with an emphasis on divine revelation. The New Dispensation was the successor, Sen declared, of the earlier revelationsthe Hindu, the Jewish, the Christian. Another theme of his preaching during this period was that the image of mother was a better symbol for the divine than the image of father, since a mother is "tenderhearted and indulgent."

After his death in 1884 little remained of Sen's many enterprises, but his importance is to be seen in the enormous appeal of his views to his generation, particularly young people. His vision of a new spirituality that encompassed both Christianity and Hinduism made it possible for Indians to believe, as he put it, that there could be a "European Asia and an Asiatic Europe, a commingling of oriental and occidental ideas and principles" and that he had summoned "ancient India to come into modern India."

See Also

Brāhmo Samāj.


Collections of Sen's lectures are found in Keshub Chunder Sen's Lectures in India, 2 vols., 4th ed. (Calcutta, 1954), and in Lectures and Tracts, edited by Sophia Dobson Collett (London, 1870). P. C. Mozoomdar's The Life and Teachings of Keshub Chunder Sen, 3d ed. (Calcutta, 1931) is a disciple's account. A modern study of Sen's life and time is to be found in David Kopf's The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind (Princeton, 1979). Tapan Raychaudri's Europe Reconsidered: Perceptions of the West in Nineteenth Century Bengal (Delhi, 1989) places Sen in the context of social change, as does Kenneth W. Jones in Socio-Religious Reform Movements in British India (Cambridge, 1989).

Ainslie T. Embree (1987 and 2005)

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Sen, Keshab Chandra

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