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Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda

The Bengal Renaissance

In 1765 the East India Company took possession of Bengal, Bihar and parts of Orissa from Shah Alam, the Mughal Emperor. As a result, Bengal and its surrounding lands became the first regions in India to experience the direct impact of British rule and the beginnings of modernization. For the remainder of the eighteenth century and throughout the early decades of the nineteenth century, the British laid the foundations for civil administration. They established communication and transportation systems, a modern bureaucracy, an army and police. They further instituted law courts, and opened schools and colleges. The nineteenth century became the high point of British-Indian interaction, particularly within Bengal. Historians refer to this era as the Bengal Renaissance—a period of intense cultural and technological advancement as well as a time of great social, cultural, and political change.

The basis of the Bengal Renaissance was East-West contact. With the spread of European colonial power around the world through the agency of the East Indian Company and similar organizations, many regions of Asia, including India, experienced tremendous upheaval to their traditional cultures. Bengal was perhaps the first region in Asia to have its culture radically transformed through this interaction with the West. In Bengal five important influences led to the Bengal Renaissance: the rise of British–Bengali commerce, the introduction of English education, British Orientalism, Christianity, and perhaps most importantly how the Bengali intellectuals themselves responded to these influences.

With the consolidation of political power in India came the rise of widespread trade and the establishment of large centers of administration and business. In particular, Calcutta became the focus of British administration, trade, and commerce. In the process a class of Bengali elite developed that could interact with the ruling British. This was the bhadraloka, a socially privileged and consciously superior group, economically dependent on landed rents and professional and clerical employment. During the second half of the eighteenth century this elite group became permanent residents of Calcutta. Some rapidly acquired fortunes by working as partners with the British. This group included such individuals as Rammohun Roy, Radhakanta Deb, and Dwarkanath Tagore. Later, in the early decades of the nineteenth century another generation of middle-income Bengalis arrived, which included small landholders, government employees, members of the professions, teachers, journalists and the like. This group included such personalities as Keshab Chandra Sen (1838–1884), Bankim Chandra Chattopadyay (1838–1884), Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda (1838–1914), Sisir Kumar Ghosh and Michael Madhusudhan Dutt (1824–1873) to name just a few.

Perhaps the most prominent member of the early bhadraloka, at least on the intellectual front, was Rammohun Roy (1772–1833). Rammohun Roy is often credited with being one of the initiators of the Bengal Renaissance and the father of modern India. While this may not be entirely accurate, it is a fact that his personality and intellect were among the primary factors that influenced the direction of Bengali thinking during the early nineteenth century.

When the British government proposed to establish education through the medium of the regional languages including Bengali, Persian and Sanskrit, Rammohun Roy vigorously protested, insisting that education should be in modern subjects and through the medium of English. In this way the stage was set for the introduction of European ideas to the bhadraloka through the medium of English education.

In 1817, personalities such as Dwarkanath Tagore, Prasanna Kumar Tagore, and other members of the bhadraloka took a major step along the path of modernization by establishing the first institution of Western education in Asia, Hindu College. English was used as the prime medium of instruction. The teaching of Western sciences, philosophy, English literature and grammar, and other Western subjects was the hallmark of Hindu College.

Accompanying the establishment of Hindu College and English instruction was the powerful influence of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1808–1831), a young professor at Hindu College. Under Derozio’s guidance the liberal writers of England and America – Francis Bacon, David Hume, and Thomas Paine – were introduced to the students of Hindu College, the more radical of whom became known as Young Bengal. Derozio encouraged his students to judge the customs, practices, and the rules of Hindu society according to the dictates of logic and reason alone. As a result, the members of Young Bengal condemned Hindu dietary laws, the authority of gurus and priests, caste divisions, women’s status, image worship, and other traditional Hindu practices. Above everything, Derozio encouraged his students to think for themselves.

Many members of Young Bengal ultimately grew to have a major influence on Bengali society. As the number of English language institutions grew, so did the number of English-educated bhadraloka. Gradually they became a strong and distinct class within Bengali society.

In this way, no other institution even came close to the influence that Hindu College exerted in bringing about the awakening of Bengal to Western thought in the early nineteenth century. Through the efforts of Hindu College more than a thousand young men received education in English before the Government officially introduced its own program of English education in 1835. The influence of these early members of the bhadraloka was indeed behind many of the great changes in religious, literary, political, and intellectual life in Bengal during the early nineteenth century.

British Orientalism was another important of factor that worked to shape the Bengal Renaissance during the nineteenth century, especially on religio-cultural matters. As much as English language education brought the ideas of the West to India, so did the era of Orientalism facilitate the transmission of new cultural attitudes to the bhadraloka. British Orientalism was a unique phenomenon in British Indian history that was inspired by the needs of the East India Company to train a class of British administrators in the languages and culture of India. In essence, the idea that traditional oriental learning could be combined with the rationalism of the West was the inspiration of British Orientalism. Intellectually it was one of the most powerful ideas of nineteenth century India.

Through the researches of the Orientalists it became known that Sanskrit formed the basis of many European languages including Greek and Latin. It also became evident the ancient India had a vast tradition of linguistics, mathematics, astronomy, medicine and architecture. That the Mauryas ruled a vast empire and that classical civilization reached its peak under the Guptas, were also significant discoveries of Oriental scholarship.

The fruits of British Orientalism although intended to serve the needs of company servants and European academics had a profound impact on the bhadraloka. For the first time the bhadraloka gained a systematic overview of its Sanskritic Hindu culture, making them keenly aware of the accomplishments of their cultural past.

In direct contrast to British Orientalism came the introduction of Christianity into Bengal. In 1813 the Charter Act opened the doors to Christian Evangelicals who quickly established themselves throughout Bengal and many other parts of India. They viewed Hindu culture as backward and profane. To them the strength of European culture was its Christian foundations. Their goal, therefore, was to obliterate as much of Hindu religion as possible and to replace it with Christian values, English education, and Western ideas. They attacked the very foundations of Hindu religious culture. Thus British Orientalism lit the fires of Hindu pride, while the attacks of the missionaries created a powerful impetus to reformulate and understand past Hindu religious traditions in the light of modernity.

During those times Hindu religious life became vibrant and underwent great change. The impressive durability of Hinduism as a religion and a way of life remained unquestionable. But the educated Bengali elite felt the need of modernizing Hinduism. They wanted to clip off the superfluities and the superstitions for their own benefit. As a result, personalities such as Sisir Kumar Ghosh, Bhudev Mukhopadhyay, and Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda attempted to redefine and defend Hindu ideas in modern terms. Many of the bhadraloka wrote in a way that was patterned after the ideals of British Orientalism.

In the literary realm Bengali literature and drama took on a new vibrancy during this period. Writers such as Michael Madhusudhan Datta and Bhakim Chandra Chattopadhyay experimented with new literary forms. The Bengali novel patterned after English literature developed under the powerful pen of Bhakim Chandra and Kedarnath Datta. Bengali verse attained new heights under the inspiration of Michael Madhusudhan Datta. Bengali drama found new life through the works of Girish Chandra Ghosh (1844–1912). It is significant that traditional religious motives such as the Radha-Krishna stories continued to be used in spite of intense European influence.

In the political field a huge number of debating societies and newspapers appeared. Personalities such as Kashi Prasad Ghosh (1809–1873), Kristo Pal and Sisir Kumar Ghosh openly voiced their political opinions and would not hesitate to use their newspapers to achieve political ends, often in direct defiance to British rule. Ultimately the roots of Indian independence can be traced back to the Bengal Renaissance.

During this period it is a tribute to Bengal’s intellectual elite that they were keen enough to distinguish between the mere imitation of a foreign culture and the changes that they themselves desired to make. In other words, the bhadraloka had no desire to model their society as a copy of British or European society. Instead they wanted to build a distinctively Bengali society more in step with the prevailing trends of modernity and they did so in all areas of their religious, cultural and social life.

Shukavak N. Dasa

Copyright © 2002 Sanskrit Religions Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Kopf, David. (1969). British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance. Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay.
Majumdar, R. C. (1978). History of Modern Bengal, 1765 to 1905. Calcutta: G. Bharadwaj and Company.