Radhakant Deb

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Radhakant Deb

Radhakant Deb (1783-1867) was a Bengali reformer and cultural nationalist who dedicated his life to the preservation of orthodox Hinduism.

Historians have generally looked upon Radhakant Deb with disfavor, chiefly because he defended sati (suttee), the immolation of widows on funeral pyres of their dead husbands. Recent studies which focus on the psychology of Indian nationalism in opposition to British cultural imperialism have prompted a reevaluation of figures like Radhakant, Vivekananda, and Dayananda who, while ambivalent to forms of Westernization, were nevertheless modernizers of the Indian traditions.

Radhakant was a member of the Calcutta Hindu elite, which owed both its wealth and social status to profitable relations with Europeans. In the sophisticated atmosphere of the metropolis, Radhakant learned Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Sanskrit, Bengali, and English.

In 1816 Radhakant's father, Gopi Mohun Deb, contributed a large sum of money toward the establishment of Hindu College, the earliest institution of higher learning in Asia organized along European lines, and served on its first managing committee with members of the prominent Tagore and Mullick families. Some years later, Radhakant took his father's place on the committee.

Radhakant's intellectual development with respect to Western learning seems to have begun when he joined the newly formed Calcutta School Book Society and School Society in 1817-1818. He took an active role in the institutional operations of the School Society by becoming its "native" secretary and by personally supervising the reform of Calcutta primary schools.

His new cultural attitudes, intellectual development, and deepening social consciousness in the 1820s are best reflected in his publications for the School Book Society. His Bangla siksa-grantha (1821) was a small encyclopedia for student use and included an elementary analysis of language structure, spelling rules, geographical terms, and basic arithmetic. Also in 1821, Radhakant collaborated with J. D. Pearson in bringing out the first edition of the Nitikatha (Moral Tales), which drew on both Christian and Hindu traditions and was designed to inculcate a feeling of morality without sectarian bias. In 1822 Radhakant was coauthor of a book called Strisikhar bidya, which advocated female education. He also translated Western textbooks on the natural sciences, such as Jyotibidya (Astronomy), and on history, such as Pracin itihaser sammacchay (Essence of Ancient History).

Radhakant's dubious image as orthodox leader of Bengali Hindus began in 1830, when he and his followers founded the Dharma Sabha (Association in Defense of Hindu Culture) in opposition to Lord Bentinck's decree abolishing sati. Since the Sabha organized its defense of the indigenous culture against alien intrusion and used collective political means to articulate its position, it became modern India's first protonationalist movement. The founding of the Sabha proved to be the turning point in Radhakant's life, and for the next 30 years until his death, he increasingly sought ways and means of reconciling reformism with the demands of cultural nationalism.

Further Reading

Radhakant is briefly referred to in most surveys of modern Indian history, and there is abundant material on his activities in articles on the Calcutta School Society, the British Indian Association, and the history of printing in Bengal. An evaluation of Radhakant's role in the 19th-century Bengal renaissance is in David Kopf, British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance: The Dynamics of Indian Modernization, 1773-1835 (1969). See also Nemai Sadhan Bose, The Indian Awakening and Bengal (1960), and Ramesh C. Majumdar, Glimpses of Bengal in the Nineteenth Century (1960).

Additional Sources

Sengupta, Syamalendu, A conservative Hindu of colonial India:Raja Radhakant Deb and his milieu (1784-1867), New Delhi: Navrang, 1990. □