Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda
British Orientalism (1772 to 1835) 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. This period of British Indian began in 1772 with the coming to power of Warren Hastings (1732–1818), the first and perhaps most famous of the British governors general of India. This period of British Orientalism marks the formative years of a century of intense intellectual, religious and social change in Bengal that in now known as the Bengal Renaissance.
For the most part, the British Orientalists were a unique group who reflected the eighteenth century ideals of rationalism, classicism, and cosmopolitanism. Unlike many later British officers serving in India, the Orientalists were appreciative of the ancient religious and cultural traditions of classical India. Consequently, they made significant contributions to the fields of Indian philology, archeology, and history. 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.
In 1800 Governor General Wellesley established the College of Fort William as a training center in Calcutta for those company servants who would be employed in the field. The idea behind the college was the perceived need to understand Indian culture as a basis for sound Indian administration. In the words of Warren Hastings, “to rule effectively, one must love India; to love India, one must communicate with her people; to communicate with her people, one must acquire her languages.” The College of Fort William became the effective vehicle of British Orientalism in India for the next two and a half decades.
Under the auspices of the College of Fort William, an elaborate and expensive program of literary patronage and research was undertaken. Faculty were trained, language instruction was initiated, an extensive library was established, and books were published in Bengali, Marathi, Urdu, Hindi, Persian, and Sanskrit. The college hired numerous traditional Persian and Sanskrit scholars along with European academics. Over a hundred Sanskrit texts alone were translated and published by the college. Indeed, the effects of British Orientalism on Bengal were revolutionary. The College of Fort William was the first institution of its kind in India to employ the tools of modern comparative philology, textual criticism and historical analysis on a vast scale in conjunction with traditional learning.
The fruits of Orientalism, although intended to serve the needs of company servants and European academics, had a profound impact on Bengal’s intellectual and cultural elite, the bhadraloka. For the first time the bhadraloka gained a systematic overview of its Sanskrit Hindu culture, making them keenly aware of the grand accomplishments of their cultural past.
Ultimately the success of British Orientalism was the source of its downfall. As knowledge of India’s ancient past became evident, Christian missionaries and other colonial interests soon began to wonder in whose favor Orientalism was intended, that of the rulers or the ruled. The Charter Act of 1813 opened the door to a new group of Europeans, the Christian evangelicals, who quickly established themselves throughout Bengal. This new breed of “post-Orientalist” missionaries was the very antithesis of British Orientalism. They viewed Hindu culture as backward and profane. To them the strength of European culture was its Christian foundations. Their goal was to obliterate as much of Hindu culture as possible and to replace it with Christian values, English education, and Western ideas.
By the 1820s the forces of racism and cultural imperialism had begun to overpower the ideals of Orientalism and this unique period in British Indian history began to wane. By the late 1830s British Orientalism as official policy had all but vanished from British India. The struggle that ensued eventually saw the College of Fort William effectively shut down by Governor General William Bentinck (1774–1839) in 1835 when he dissolved the College Council and began to disperse the library. The college was officially closed by Governor-General Dalhousie in 1853.
Although the British Orientalists and Christian evangelicals might seem to have little in common, their combined influence had a powerful effect on the lives of the bhadraloka. British Orientalism lit the fires of Hindu pride, while the attacks of the missionaries and other colonial interests such as the Utilitarians, inspired by John Stuart Mill, created a powerful impetus to reformulate and understand traditional Hindu religious culture in the light of modernity. The Orientalist’s idea that the critical techniques of modern scholarship could be combined with traditional learning was powerful. It is clear that many prominent members of the bhadraloka including Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891), Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838-1894) and Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda (1838-1914) employed the techniques of British Orientalism in their search for Hindu religious and cultural identity. As a result, the works of many of the bhadraloka attempted to redefine and defend Hindu ideals in the light of modern European thought. There is little doubt that the methods adopted by the British Orientalists heralded a new approach to Indian studies that influenced Bengali intellectuals and men of learning well into the twentieth century.
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.
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