Making Oreos: Macaulay, Bhaktvinoda Thakur and Bankim Chandra

I just finished going through the revision of the translation of Sva-likhita-jīvanī and am trying to write my introduction, but that is also leading me into various back alleyways. Quite a bit of research has been done since Shukavak came out with his book, A Hindu Encounter with Modernity. One of the questions that I have asked myself for some time is how did Bhaktivinoda Thakur, who was such a devoted Anglophile, such an avid consumer of European knowledge through the English medium, then later a devoted servant of the Raj -- putting down rebellious sannyasis in Orissa, and defending the British rule to his Vaishnava audience -- become such a committed follower of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, "the Eastern Saviour"?

In America, there is a disparaging expression, "Oreo," meant to describe African Americans who have internally totally assimilated to white culture. Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay’s famous “Minute on Education,” emphasized this purpose in the most notorious quote from that short document:
We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, -- a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population. [Para 34]
As I read it now, and think of the time and place and context, I find Macaulay's Minute rather persuasive. It gives support to those who are reacting to the modern liberal perspective of multiculturalism, even though such persons are condemned by liberals as reactionaries and "White nationalists," and worse. But there are many not in the worst fringes of white nationalism who still believe that Western culture and civilization represent the highest perfection that humanity has yet attained. That is the basic them expressed by Macaulay in another famous excerpt from his “Minute.”
[8] All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are moreover so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them. … [10] I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.
Bhaktivinoda himself took so wholeheartedly to British education that in his early career at least he could be seen as embodying the ideal that Macaulay refers to. Indeed, throughout his life he served the British Raj and defended it, even though he expressed his favourable attitude to British rule in another way than Macaulay did -- or others like Bankim Chandra..

The above quotes – which I have seen so many times taken out of context -- have been used to shock Indians at the sheer audacity of the imperialist mission, its sheer hubris. When Kipling wrote "The White Man's Burden" it was an expression of belief in the civilizing benefits of colonialism, the "Divine Burden to reign God's Empire on Earth” which had been carried by the English for centuries and was now the duty of Americans to take up. h

Ruminating on 19th century Bengal, fitting Bhaktivinoda Thakur into the landscape of the time. Bankim Chandra was born in the very same year as Kedarnath Dutt (1838), both were magistrates in the ICS, and the two had some communication over the years, as would have been quite natural, as their interests intersected, especially in connection with the "salvation" of the personality of Krishna, which both tried to do from a modernist perspective, Bhaktivinoda in Śrī Kṛṣṇa-saṁitā (1880) and Bankim in Kṛṣṇa-caritra (1885). Bhaktivinoda Thakur also seems to have been inspired to try his hand at the novel form following Bankim, who is often called the "father of the Indian novel."

In his writing Bhaktivinoda generally steered clear of political topics. Nevertheless, where he did, he showed an acceptance of the British as the rulers of Bengal, portraying them as vigorous younger brothers of the older brother India, and as such, taking the appropriate responsibilities for management of the country and leaving the older brother the opportunity to retire and pursue the spiritual mission that is appropriate role for him. He expresses this point in two articles he wrote in the Sajjana Toṣaṇi called “Briṭisa Rājya o Vaiṣṇava Vṛṇda” (“The British Raj and the Vaiṣṇavas, 1881”)4 and “Āśirvacana” (“Benedictory Words, 1885”). [Abhishek Ghosh has written extensively on this in an article in the Journal of Vaishnava Studies, "Puranic Pasts and Colonial Presence: Bhaktivinoda’s Vaishnava Historiography of India," JVS, Fall 2014, 23.1, 19-54.]

Though Bankim is often associated with the nascent nationalist movement, especially because of his novel Ananda Math [translated as "The Abbey of Bliss" by Naresh Chandra Sen-Gupta, 1906], in which the famous Vande Mātaram national hymn first appeared, and it became a popular anthem for Hindus in the Indian independence movement. Aurobindo Ghosh even translated it. This is probably his most famous book and because of the Hindu nationalist sentiments it expressed was banned by the British rulers right up to Independence.

Ananda Math is ostensibly about the Sannyasi Rebellion in the 1770s which followed a devastating famine. But Bankim does not follow history too closely, rather using the story of sannyasis fighting the British to teach a particular message, about which he is quite clear and states it at the beginning and end of the book. In his introduction he states very clearly, "The English have saved Bengal from anarchy."

And at the end, after the battle is won, Satyananda the spiritual leader of the rebels, calls off the fight. The purpose of the rebellion was to put the British in charge and put an end to corrupt Muslim rule, to make the British take up their role as rulers of India, to take up this responsibility. If he had said "White Man's Burden" he might have not been too far off the mark.

Though the Hindus sannyasis had heroically won a battle against the numerically and technologically superior British force, Satyananda saw that they could not win a war, because the Hindus were weak and the British strong. Here is the essential part of his speech:
The True Faith does not consist in the worship of 330 million deities; that is only a base religion of the masses. Under its influence, the True Faith, which Mlecchas call Hinduism, has disappeared. The true Hinduism is based on knowledge and not on action.

This knowledge is of two kinds, subjective and objective. The subjective knowledge is the essential part of the True Faith, but till you have object knowledge, the subjective knowledge can never grow. Till you know the gross matter you cannot know the subtle spirit.

It is very long now since objective knowledge has disappeared from our country and with it has vanished the True Religion too. To revive it therefore you have to first disseminate objective knowledge.

We have not now got the knowledge in this country, nor are there men to impart it, for we are not skilful in educating people. Therefore objective knowledge must be imported from elsewhere. The English are great in objective sciences and they are apt teachers. Therefore the English shall be made our sovereign.

Imbued with a knowledge of objective sciences by English education, our people will be able to comprehend subjective truths. Then there would be no difficulties to the spread of the Truth Faith. It will then shine forth of itself. Till that is so, till the Hindus are great again in knowledge, virtue and power, then the English rule will remain undisturbed. The people will be happy under them and follow their own religion without hindrance. You are wise; consider all these, desist from fight with the English and follow me."
If one reads Macaulay's "Minute on Education" in full, one cannot be help but be struck by the similarities in Satyananda's point of view and that of Macaulay. Perhaps if that was recognized by the British, they would not have banned it.

At any rate, as Abhishek Ghosh has shown in his above-cited article, Bhaktivinoda was a spiritual nationalist, who believed like many others in the Hindu nationalist movement, that (unlike the Brahmo Samaj) there was no need to be defensive about the "True Religion" or Sanatan Dharma, and that in fact, the dialectical arc of history favored the ultimate victory of Truth, which was, in Bhaktivinoda Thakur's view, best exemplified by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's expression of that religion. He also felt and tried to show, perhaps most notably in the Bhagabat and Śrī Kṛṣṇa-saṁitā, how Western historiographical methods could be used to support that very thesis.

We shall perhaps return to that in the near future.


Unknown said…
Neither Kedarnath nor Bankim belonged to the ICS as claimed. They were members of the subordinate provincial service. The ICS was created later for which recruitment was done on the basis of a competitive examination. Satyendranath Tagore was the first Indian to qualify for this.Amiya P. Sen
Jagadananda Das said…
Thank you, I actually knew this. I just did not know what to call it.

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