Transculturation and Religion: Religion in the Formation of Modern India

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To put into historical perspective the multifaceted pattern of Hindu socioreligious modernism, scholars have chronicled the origins of British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance. Similar to the European Renaissance, which occurred prior to the Reformation, nineteenth-century India also underwent a period of cultural renaissance followed by an era of religious reformation.

British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance

The Bengal Renaissance occurred in eastern Gangetic Indiaspecifically, in the colonial metropolis of Calcuttafrom the year 1773, when Warren Hastings designated the city as the future capital of British India, until 1828, when Governor-General Lord Bentinck challenged Orientalist cultural policy. During this period, Calcutta operated schools using European textbooks and teaching methods. In addition, the newly created Hindu middle class had founded Hindu College, the only Western-style institution of higher learning in South Asia. The government supported newspapers, journals, and books printed in English and the vernacular languages of India. Calcutta boasted a modern public library. Perhaps most significantly, the metropolis contained native intelligentsia, whose members were familiar with happenings in contemporary Europe, fully cognizant of their country's own historical legacy, and, as a renaissance elite, hopeful about its future as a culture in the modern world.

The agents of Western colonial rule who sympathetically supported these endeavors were "acculturated" civil, military, and judicial officials of the British East India Company (as well as some missionaries) referred to as Orientalists, largely because of the cultural policy that was followed by the government. Most of these so-called Orientalists did not harbor nationalistic or imperialistic ambitions, nor did they support the increasingly bureaucratic mentality that developed after 1870. On the contrary, the Orientalists had been shaped by the eighteenth-century world of the Enlightenment, with its open-minded curiosity about other civilizations. Orientalists were encouraged by official policy to master at least one Indian language and to use that language fruitfully for scholarly research. It was no accident that the Asiatic Society of Bengal, established in Calcutta in 1784 as the first modern organization of its type to study Asian civilizations in all their aspects, was a direct result of a British East India Company cultural policy. Orientalists such as William Jones, William Carey, James Prinsep, H. T. Colebrooke, and H. H. Wilson made important discoveries in such fields as pre-Muslim Indian history, religion, and archaeology. Research into the kinship of Indo-European languages and the rediscoveries of the historic Buddha, Aśoka, and the Mauryan Empire were some of the lasting achievements of this coterie of devoted civil servants. There is no evidence that they ensconced themselves in clubs, as did the later bureaucrats, nor did they construct a barrier of racial privilege between themselves and their "subject races." Instead, the Orientalists reached out to the Bengali intelligentsia, forming relationships with them, serving as sources of knowledge about contemporary Britain and, above all, working together on projects designed to promote social and cultural change in Calcutta.

The Bengal Renaissance arose from interaction between the Bengali intelligentsia and the British Orientalists. Between 1800 and 1830, in Calcutta, the Bengali intelligentsia consisted of uncertain but hopeful people who were adopting alien values and ideas to reform indigenous traditions. They established relationships with the British, both for material gain and to use them as windows to the West. Fortunately for them, the distance between London and Calcutta was vast, and the Orientalists with whom they associated had already become sufficiently "Indianized." The Bengali's favorable view of the West during this sympathetic Orientalist period helped to maintain good rapport and goodwill between the representatives of the two civilizations.

Rammohun Roy, Father of Modern India

Of all the Bengalis in the Orientalist period, none was more influential in creating a legacy of Hindu socioreligious reform than Rammohun Roy (17721833). Long before Vivekananda laid the foundation of his Ramakrishna Mission, before Nehru wrote his monumental Discovery of India in a British prison, and before Gandhi built his nationalist ideology on the bedrock of Hindu and Buddhist morality, Rammohun had already utilized the Orientalist rediscovery of the ancient tradition, which the progressive intelligentsia readily accepted in their quest for a new identity in the modern world.

Rammohun had studied Asian religions from primary sources and met countless Europeans in Calcutta who imparted to him their thoughts on Western civilization in the nineteenth century. Missionaries at the Danish enclave of Serampore had tried unsuccessfully to convert Rammohun to their Baptist form of Protestant Christianity. Some other members of the intelligentsia who were xenophiles did become Christians, deciding that their salvation lay in copying the West or in accepting that modernization equated to Westernization. But Rammohun, supported by the scholarly evidence of Orientalist research into Hindu antiquity, contrasted the age he lived inwith its kulin polygamy, sati practices, caste rigidity, idolatry, and the abuse of womento the classical age, which was free of dark-age excrescences. For Rammohun, he and his fellow Indians did not need to surrender themselves to an alien way of life in order to accept modernistic values. Ancient Hindus were mathematical and scientific sophisticates; Brahma of the Upaniads was as superior a notion of the godhead as anything produced in the Middle East; ancient India overflowed with philosophic diversity; and ancient art, literature, and medicine flourished among Indians in classical times. Moreover, evidence existed that women were considered equal to men.

From 1815, when Rammohun settled in Calcutta, until 1833, when he traveled to England to meet with Unitarians (he died there later that same year), he labored intensely, keeping up with Orientalist scholarship, translating ancient scriptures, organizing meetings of the Calcutta Unitarian Society and Brāhmo Sabhā (society of God), and becoming involved in journalistic ventures and debates. As he sought to recreate the Vedantic tradition, he was often attacked by missionaries and other Christians, who ridiculed his efforts. In 1823, for example, he defended the Vedānta as containing a rational exposition on the unity of God without the superstitious verbiage that he claimed was so common in many Christian sources. Unlike the Bible, Rammohun argued, the Vedanta did not attempt to categorize the attributes of the Almighty, a gesture he found anthropomorphic and futile. He also contended that, whereas Christianity required a blood sacrifice to expatiate the sins of humanity, the Vedānta taught that the only means necessary to overcome sin is sincere repentance and solemn meditation. He asked whether popular Christianity was any better than popular Hinduism. How could the crucifixes, the saints, miracles, trinity, and holy water be justified?

Ultimately, Rammohun chose to reform Hinduism against the backdrop of a liberal faith emanating from former Christians in America and Britain who were highly dissatisfied with the same dubious beliefs and practices that troubled Rammohun and many of his cohorts in Calcutta. It is no coincidence that Rammohun established a Calcutta Unitarian Society in Calcutta in 1823, or that he died while visiting the home of the Reverend Lant Carpenter, a prominent Unitarian in Bristol, and that, had he lived, Rammohun would have traveled across the ocean to Boston and met with William Ellery Channing, the leading spokesman of liberal Unitarianism in the United States. Though Unitarianism was never a mass movement, like-minded sentiments regarding religion and society brought East and West together, with important consequences for socioreligious reform in India. Three simple but highly controversial ideas for the time (18151835) provided the link between the renaissance intelligentsia in Calcutta and the enlightened, liberal-minded elite in England and the United States.

First, a national faith would replace the predominant religions of the world, believed to be restricting the freedom of human beings by enslaving them to performing mechanical rites and rituals, listening to irresponsible anecdotes that served no moral purpose, and holding meaningless superstitions and otherworldly beliefs that served no useful purpose in improving the lot of the human race. Second, social reform would emancipate the exploited classes such as workers, peasants, and women through education and the extension of civil rights, allowing all to benefit equally from modern civilization. Finally, universal theistic progress would occur; human perfectibility could not be confined to a particular race or ethnicity but could happen worldwide.

Mindful of these three objectives, Rammohun Roy helped establish the Brāhmo Sabhā, precursor of the Brahmo Samaj, on January 23, 1830. He then left for Europe to meet with persons who shared his beliefs. Though he never returned to India, he did leave behind the outline of a program for Hindu reformation.

The BrĀhmo SamĀj and the Hindu Reformation

The work of developing the Brāhmo Samāj after Rammohun's death was taken up by Debendranath Tagore (18171903), son of Rammohun's close friend, Dwarkanath Tagore. Like Rammohun, Debendranath identified true Hinduism with the Vedantic tradition; he also fought Christian missionaries' attempts at converting members of the new educated Bengali elite. In this endeavor, Debendranath received assistance, often against his better judgment, from an American Unitarian missionary, Charles Dall, who came to Calcutta in 1855 hoping (but failing) to find Rammohun's philosophical convictions in Debendranath's leadership. Unlike his father and Rammohun, who both voluntarily traveled to England, Debendranath remained suspicious of Westerners most of his life. Dall had to wait until 1866, when a more radical Brahmo named Keshub Chandra Sen rebelled against Tagore's conservatism and founded his own Brāhmo Samāj. Dall considered Keshub to be Rammohun's true successor.

Debendranath's significant contribution to the Hindu Reformation was his intellectual preoccupation with formulating the principles of a new middle-class ethic for Brahmos and their counterparts throughout India. Debendranath had begun a process that was similar to Christian reformers of earlier centuries, transforming the religion to become more puritanical so as to serve the needs of the new European Protestant middle class. Brāhmo missionaries translated his book, published in 1855 as Brahmo Dharma (Brāhmo ethic), into the languages of other Indian peoples as they traveled throughout South Asia spreading the gospel of Hindu reform. Debendranath redefined dharma, which in ancient times had meant caste duty, as a modernized set of precepts for the true Hindu. Debendranath offered the emancipated Hindu guidance and edification in everything from family responsibilities to behavior in the workplace to being a devotee of the one true God.

Debendranath never claimed to be creating something new, however. He began by stressing the duties that each member of the household owed to one another. He emphasized the social good from which a family can profit if its members practice sincerity, devotion, purity, forgiveness, and gentleness. In the workplace, Debendranath advocated the good Hindu to rely on one's self, persevere always, and work hard continually. He believed that poverty could be overcome by laboring in the path of righteousness. He advised doing one's own work rather than being dependent on others, and against choosing to beg.

In 1866 one of Debendranath's followers, Keshub Chandra Sen (18391884), led the militant wing of the movement to form a separate Brāhmo organization, dedicated to what they believed to be Rammohun Roy's ideological path. Keshub accused Debendranath of doing nothing as a social reformer, especially with regard to female emancipation. Furthermore, the activists saw Debendranath as a hypocrite because he attacked caste privilege but continued to wear the sacred thread as a Brahman. They also criticized Debendranath's suspicion of foreigners, such as Charles Dall, whom Keshub and his militant supporters viewed as a spokesman for liberal religion throughout the Western world. Keshub also felt that the Brāhmo mission to reach out to like-minded Hindus in Maharashtra, Gujarat, the Punjab, Tamilnadu, and elsewhere needed a more radical approach to a wide variety of issues, many of which Debendranath avoided.

Keshub's greatest influence on the course of Hindu reformation, outside of promoting female education, was probably his remarkable eclecticism. In this sense, he was very much like Rammohun, who had studied all the world's major religions, including Islam. But Keshub went much further than his predecessor, both in his quest for knowledge of comparative religion and in his attempts to understand the patterns of change and continuity in the history of South Asian religions.

In 1880 Keshub started conducting his pilgrimages to the saints. These were elaborate devotional seminars designed to trace the history of human crises and the role of ethical and religious reformers as saviors seeking to arrest the chaos. One of the saints was Socrates, who offered a practical morality and an exemplary life, in contrast to the corruption of his age. Before staging the seminar on Buddha, Keshub went to Bodh Gaya and meditated under the bodhi tree. His seminar on Jesus taught Keshub that Christ equated the love of man with the will of God. And as for Muammad, Keshub learned that the way to achieve the brotherhood of man was through practicing a rigid monotheistic faith.

Keshub's eclecticismespecially when studying Indian reformers throughout historygave him a very different perspective on Hindu classical and postclassical developments. Unlike Rammohun and most other Brahmos up to his time, Keshub did not identify with one classical tradition, such as the Vedantic. Rather, Keshub viewed the Hindu faith as a pluralistic phenomenon in which various traditions emerged in their authentically pristine forms at different times to meet a pressing spiritual need, but they became distorted later through internal institutional decay or by the effects of disruptive foreign influences.

One illustration was Keshub's positive influence on Swami Dayananda Saraswati (18241883), who proved to be the earliest modern reformer of the Vedic tradition. Most nineteenth-century Hindu reformers were ambivalent about the Vedic tradition because they associated it with caste rigidity, the subjection of women, idolatry, and worse. Dayananda repudiated these charges and spent his mature life denouncing what he called the evils of post-Vedic Hinduism. Because he argued that the true Vedas rejected idol worship, untouchability, child marriage, and the rest of the evils attributed to them, Dayananda's followers called him the "Luther of India."

Keshub also encouraged other Brahmos to research the roots of Indian sectarian faiths. Bijoy Krishna Goswami (b. 1841), a radical modernist, translated early Vaisnava songs which declared equal rights for men and women and the repudiation of caste privilege. Aghore Nath Gupta (d. 1881) conducted Keshub's seminar on the Buddha, in which he declared that the great reformer was not an atheist but a compassionate humanist who taught us how to live in a world that was false and full of illusion. Keshub also influenced Dharmapala, a neo-Buddhist from Sri Lanka, to start the Maha Bodhi Society.

Narendra Nath Dutt, better known as Vivekananda (18631902), joined Keshub's coterie in 1880. Scholars have difficulty assessing Vivekananda's contribution to the Hindu Reformation because, though he owed much to Keshub's teaching, and though his view of the Vedantic tradition came largely from Brahmo sources, he chose as the name of his own organization or mission that of a Kamakrishna, a contemporary mystic saint from Calcutta. Vivekananda was the earliest non-Brahmo to be accepted by religious liberals in the West. In fact, his talk at the Parliament of Religion in 1893, which was organized by American Unitarians, was considered to be among the best of the conference.

Vivekananda has erroneously been considered a Hindu nationalist because scholars believe he defended such things as caste and icons. However, a close study of his ideological development reveals that he neither defended the negative aspects of caste nor promotes the external worship of images. For Vivekananda, there was nothing wrong with hierarchical structures, since every society on earth had one. What was wrongas happened in Indiawas the corruption of the system, which then would become oppressive. Rather than abolish caste, he wanted to democratize it. As Vivekananda would argue, if you teach the fisherman the Vedanta, he will say "I am as good a man as you are." As for images in the service of religion, Vivekananda refused to assume a rigidly iconoclastic position, such as those of Islam or Protestantism. He did not understand why worshipping a God without form was necessarily more spiritually uplifting than creating an image by which to convey the same message.

The Hindu Renaissance and Reformation Challenged

In the final decades of British Indian rule, the renaissance and reformation movements were very much challenged by forces in every direction. Orientalism, with its profound interest in all facets of civilization in India, had long since disappeared by the turn of the twentieth century. It had ceased to be the cultural policy of the British East India Company in 1835, when it was replaced by the liberal Anglicized cultural policy advocated by Thomas Babington Macaulay during the famous Anglicist-Orientalist controversy. Macaulay, who never learned an Indian language while he served in Calcutta, challenged the Orientalist belief that modernism among South Asians could be achieved by cultivating their languages and by identifying with a classical tradition. Macaulay argued that if Indians wanted a progressive future for themselves, they ought to anglicize their lives, becoming proficient in the English language and choosing Western careers and professional ethics. But the successful expansion of the British Empire after 1870 led to another shift in cultural policy. Both liberal-minded Orientalism and Anglicism gave way to cultural imperialism, or the excesses of ethnocentric self-glorification. This policy held that, except for military prowess, East was East and West was West, and never the two shall meet. The grandeur of the British Empire seemed to testify to the superiority of the British race, while the subjected state of India at that time appeared to confrm the inferiority of the Indian race.

On the Indian side, renaissance and reformation were challenged by a more radical generation of freedom fighters, who surrendered their moderate politics for an extremist form of nationalist agitation. When the British imperialists denied human equality between citizens of India and the West, a xenophobia swept over the English-educated Indian intelligentsia, which led to increased cultural apologetics about everything Indian, including popular religion. Bal Gangadhar Tilak (18561920), the Maharashtran ultra-nationalist, totally rejected what he called the Pax Britannica. He believed that the establishment of English schools and British administrative and legal institutions were an imperialist deception secretly designed to exploit the country. Though Tilak did not urge violent methods to win freedom, others did, and several British officials were assassinated as a result. Some scholars assert that had Mahatma Gandhi (18691948) not assumed the leadership of the Congress Party after World War I, with his message of nonviolence, the Indian nationalist struggle would have become a movement drenched in blood. Gandhi admired Vivekananda's approach to Hindu reform.

The Orientalist legacy of the Bengal Renaissance and the Brāhmo legacy of Hindu Reformation were kept viv-idly alive throughout the first half of the twentieth century by India's greatest writer, Rabindranath Tagore (18611941), who in 1914 became the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. As the grandson of Dwarkanath Tagore, who had started the Calcutta Unitarian Committee and Brahmo Sabha with Rammohun Roy in the 1820s, and as the son of Debendranath Tagore, who revitalized the Brahmo Samaj in the 1840s following Rammohun's death, Rabindranath struggled for decades to protect renaissance and reformation against the inroads of imperialism and nationalism.

In a manuscript compiled during World War I entitled Nationalism, Rabindranath saw the conflict as a crucial stage in the breakdown of all that was hopeful and positive in the progress of civilization. To him, the war's genocide in the trenches represented the butchery of nations feeding upon other nations. The Russian ideologue Karl Marx is reputed to have said that religion was the opiate of the people; for Tagore, nationalism had become the opiate of the people.

His opposition to nationalism did not mean that Tagore supported British imperialism. On the contrary, he attacked it vigorously, perhaps with more candor and understanding than any other thinker before him. Tagore dramatically surrendered his knighthood following the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on May 30, 1919.

In July 1921, Rabindranath inaugurated Visva Bharati University in Santineketan, hoping the institution would embody the ideals of Brahmo universalism. Three years earlier, on December 22, 1918, he had declared that Visva Bharati would carry on the efforts of scholars such as Keshub Chandra Sen, who had sought to understand the religions of India and the world by studying primary sources.

See Also

Brāhmo Samāj; Vedānta; Vivekananda.


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David Kopf (2005)

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Transculturation and Religion: Religion in the Formation of Modern India

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