There is always a light

There is always a light
Don't be afraid if you are alone or surrounded by darkness. In some part of the world, the day has just begun. There is a always a light waiting for you to find your way to touch its radiance.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Bengal Renaissance

By Bina Biswas
Secunderabad, India

The Battle of Plessey fought in 1757 was of extraordinary importance not only to the East India Company but it demonstrated the utterly corrupt political life in Bengal.  It also showed that the Hindus were absolutely dissatisfied with the Muslim rule in the province.  But still it cannot be maintained that the battle of Plessey firmly established the British rule in India or in Bengal.  The British had still to fight for another fifty years or more to secure that position.
 Mir Jafar remained the Nawab of Bengal after Siraj-ud-Daula and when the latter died in 1765, the Calcutta Council put his son named Najam-ud-Daulah on the throne of Bengal.  However, all the powers passed into the hands of the English Company.  
At this time, the condition of Bengal was chaotic.  There was anarchy, confusion, bribery, corruption and extortion everywhere.  Such was the state of affairs when Clive came to India in 1765 as the Governor of Bengal for the second time.  Clive was sent second time specifically to reform the entire government of the company.  Lord Clive was the founder of the British Empire in India, was also the architect of the ruin of the people of Bengal.  Warren Hastings was appointed as the Governor of Bengal in 1772.  He was succeeded by Lord Cornwallis and he remained the Governor General for seven years.  The Permanent Settlement of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa was one of the achievements of Cornwallis. This settlement created a limited proprietary right of the Zamindars.  Magisterial powers were taken away from ZamindarsPathuriaghat Tagores were also affected by this settlement.  Here, it will be interesting to note an excerpt from Tagore’s essay The Religion of Man:
       "I was born in what was once the Metropolis of British India. My ancestors came floating to Calcutta upon the earliest tide of the fluctuating fortune of the East India Company. The unconventional code of life for our family has been a confluence of three  cultures, Hindu,   Mohammedan and British. My grandfather belonged to that period when amplitude  of dress and courtesy and generous leisure were gradually being clipped and  curtailed into Victorian manners…I came to a  world in which the modern city-bred spirit of progress had just triumphed over the lush green life of our ancient village community. Though the trampling process was almost complete… something of the past lingered over the wreckage."

Lord Wellesley was appointed as the Governor-General of Bengal.  Lord Hastings succeeded him and completed his work.  Lord Amherst took over from Lord Hastings.  The most important events of the reign of Lord Amherst were the First Burmese War and the capture of Bharatpur.  The arrival of Lord William Bentinck marked the beginning of a new era in many ways.  Bentinck’s social reforms were remarkable.  He was responsible for the abolition of Sati and Thugee.  Both these customs involved death.  The death in the case of Sati took place voluntarily whereas in the latter the death occurred for ransom.  Nobody knows the origin of the custom of Sati. Although the practice was absolutely voluntary, one finds a mention of this custom in the Mahabaratha too where Madri had become Sati with Pandu. 

Undoubtedly, it was an old custom which prevailed among the higher castes.  It was considered to be a privilege and honour and that is why it was accompanied by the recitation of sacred hymns. The widowed woman burnt herself along with her husband.  She was made to put on all her expensive clothes and ornaments and after the act of burning was over the Brahmins were able to put all the gold into their pockets.  This created vested interests and hence the custom continued in spite of protests from time to time.  It is interesting to note that, “Even Mughal Emperor Akbar tried to suppress the custom of Sati.  William Bentinck made Sati a penal offence.  He was helped in the task by Raja Rammohun Roy.  By a regulation in 1829, Bentinck declared the practice of Sati as illegal and punishable as culpable homicide.”

No discussion on the Bengal Renaissance is ever complete without the mention of Henry Louis Derozio, and his students of Hindu College with whom he helped start Young Bengal in early 19th century. He was one of the pioneer teachers who brought about emancipation of thought in his students. The proponents of the Young Bengal movement had a deep impact on the society at large.  Another name worth mentioning was Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, the great educationist and a social reformer who was primarily responsible for Widow Remarriage.  Vidyasagar was a philosopher, academic, educator, writer, translator, printer, publisher, entrepreneur, reformer, and philanthropist. His efforts to simplify and modernize Bangla prose were significant. He also rationalized and simplified the Bengali alphabet and type, which had remained unchanged since Charles Wilkins and Panchanan Karmakar had cut the first wooden Bangla type fonts in 1780.

The renaissance in modern Indian literature, in culture and spiritual awakening began with Raja Rammohun Roy.  He was the first of the Indian masters of English prose, but he was so great in so many other fields that he belongs to Indian history more than to Indo-Anglian literary history. 

The Brahmo Samaj was founded in 1828 by Raja Rammohun Roy.  He aspired to establish a strict monolatrous worship of the Supreme Being and the Brahmo Samaj advocated the worship of One God and the brotherhood of man.  After the premature death of Raja Rammohun Roy the Brahmo Samaj was left without organization, constitution, membership, covenant or pledge.  It was revived byMaharshi Debendranath, father of Rabindranath Tagore, and he put a new life into the organization and introduced a regular form of church service, including thanksgiving, praise and prayer.  Debendranath did not formally become a Brahmo until 21 Dec 1843.  There was a profound influence of Raja Rammohun Roy on him, who was, according to Tagore, “the best friend of my grandfather.” Roy was a phenomenal linguist who drew upon sources written in Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Greek, English, French and Bengali.  He was also the greatest Indian Intellectual of the nineteenth century.  

Tagore placed Raja Rammohun Roy amongst the greatest Indians.  Today Roy is known mainly for his stand against Sati and widow remarriage.  Roy aimed to rid the contemporary Hinduism of inauthentic traditions.  After years of debate with Christian missionaries, Roy founded the Brahma Sabha, around 1830, a monotheistic Hindu society which opposed idolatry, rituals, Sati and casteism. For the Brahma Sabha, idols, rituals and caste were blasphemy.  It developed on Roy’s interpretation of the Vedas.  After the death of Raja Rammohun Roy- this Society became a movement, the Brahmo Samaj became the post influential movement of religious and social reforms in the nineteenth century India.  One of its pillars was Prince Dwarkanath’s son Debendranath Tagore.     
(Renaissance in Bengal had started long before Tagore's advent on the literary scene.)

I acknowledge:
Rabindranath Tagore : Religion of Man: A Poet’s School, Towards Universal Man,(New Delhi, Rupa & Co., 2005)
V.D.Mahajan: India Since 1526 (New Delhi, S.Chand & Co., 2001)
Visva- Bharati Quarterly: Ideals of Education (Shantiniketan, Visva-Bharati, April-July 1917)Krishna Dutta & Andrew Robinson: Rabindranath Tagore : The Myriad Minded Man, (New Delhi, Rupa & Co.,2003)