The introduction of western education and ideas had far-reaching impact on the Indian society. The nineteenth century was a period of dynamism in Indian social and cultural history. The British conquest not only marked a change in the political frame of the country but it brought in completely new sets of ideas and social world. The exposure to post-Enlightenment rationalism that came to signify modernity brought a change in the outlook of a select group of Indians. Through the prisms of utility, reason, justice and progress these individuals began to explore the nature of their own society. There was a gradual emergence of public culture and public opinion. The debates between the Orientalists on one side, and the Utilitarians, liberal and Missionaries on the other also enabled permeation of ideas, atleast amongst the upper sections of the society. The resultant cultural change led to introspection about Indian traditions, institution and culture. The introduction of western education too fostered a new arena of learning, literary trends and ideology. While a strong literary and cultural tradition has always been a hallmark of India, the exposure to the colonial culture and ideology ushered a slightly different reaction. The socio-intellectual revolution that took place in the nineteenth century in the fields of philosophy, literature, science, politics and social reforms is often known as Indian Renaissance. An important part of this Renaissance was reforming Hinduism from within on the basis of post-Enlightenment rationalism. The Renaissance was especially focused in Bengal and is popularly known as the Bengal Renaissance. However, the use of ‘renaissance’ is slightly problematic as in European history it is used to refer to the “rebirth” or revival of Graeco-Roman learning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries after the long winter of the “dark” medieval period. But in India “renaissance” implied rediscovering rationalism from within India’s past. The focus in this section will be primarily on Bengal.
In Bengal a select group of people, having taken the advantage of western styled education, fashioned themselves along the lines of European middle class that was created out of Renaissance, Reformation, democratic revolution and Enlightenment, and formed the bhadralok. As Sumit Sarkar points out their social roots lay not in industry or commerce but in government service or the profession of law, education, journalism or medicine’ combined with connection with land on account of introduction of Permanent Settlement in Bengal. Some rapidly acquired fortunes by working as partners with the British. This group included such individuals as Rammohun Roy (1772-1833), Radhakanta Deb, and Dwarkanath Tagore. Later in the course of the nineteenth century individuals like 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, comprised the later bhadralok.
Social reforms were an intrinsic part of the renaissance and covered almost the whole of India. The religious outlook in this period was based on humanism and there is a marked lack of preoccupation with Otherworldliness and salvation. The focus was on worldly existence. A. K. Dutt and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar being agnostics refused to take part in discussions related with the supernatural world. Rammohun Roy, on the other, hand was willing to consider the possibility of the existence of otherworld but only due to its utilitarian value. Given the nature of emphasis on this-world existence, social reforms were an essential part of the programme. Then again given the interconnectedness of the religious beliefs and social practices, reformation of religion was equally essential. It was commonly agreed that Hinduism had fallen in the trap of ritualism, blind-faith, superstition and every kind of evil over the years. Worship of God had lost its real value amidst the ritualism. The priests were identified as being responsible for the current corruption of the religion. The priests, it was believed, with their monopoly over scriptural knowledge and rituals stood to benefit from imparting ritualism and blind faith to the people. Thus, to break the power and hold of the priests over the people was an important agenda. There were attempts to establish a direct connection between men and God.
Raja Rammohun Roy and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar were the earliest pioneers of Bengal Renaissance. Ram mohun Roy is infact identified as the Father of Modern India. He was an erudite scholar who worked for the regeneration of the society. He was fluent in several languages including Bengali, Hindi, Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit. However, he understood well that access to new ideas emanating from the West is necessary for regeneration. Therefore, Raja Rammohun Roy fought for the introduction of English in Indian schools and for the teaching of ‘modern’ subjects like Human Anatomy, Chemistry and Mathematics. But the western education was to be blended with Eastern learning. He extended the application of reason and utility to religion. This formed the bases of his first philosophical work, Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhiddin in 1805. After his migration to Calcutta in 1815 he was exposed to Christian Unitarianism. Claims of superiority of Christianity by the missionaries led Rammohun Roy to reform Hinduism in light of reason which he found in the Vedanta texts. Given his rationalistic approach to religion, he condemned idolatry, polytheism and mediations of the priests. To support the claim that monotheism was characteristic of Hindu scriptures he translated Upanishads into Bangla.
Narendra Nath Datta or Swami Vivekananda was another figurehead who stirred the Hindu society. His spiritual guru was Ramakrishna Pramhansa. Vivekananda gained international fame as well. He condemned preoccupation with rituals and superstitions and the caste system. Ramakrishna Mission was established by him in 1896 to forward the humanitarian and social work. He emphasized social services and opened schools, hospitals and orphanages in many parts of the country.
In 1817, people like Dwarkanath Tagore, Prasanna Kumar Tagore, and other members of the bhadralok 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 medium of instruction. The teaching of Western sciences, philosophy, English literature and grammar, and other Western subjects was the hallmark of Hindu College.
While the importance of western contribution in the emergence of this renaissance cannot be denied it is equally necessary to emphasis that individuals like, Rammohun Roy, Akshay Kumar Dutt and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar on their own account responded to the new influences. Their response was not demanded by the English but was a continuation of a strong intellectual tradition present in India. The colonial state was not interested in imparting scientific education. It was thus left on these individuals to take steps to introduce in India an education system that would focus on Western Sciences. Society for Translating European Sciences was set up in Calcutta in 1825 and in 1838 the Society for the Acquisition of General Knowledge was established. Mahendra Lal Sircar, a Bengali intellectual established the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in 1876. Development of printing press played the most important role in the dissemination of ideas and knowledge. It made possible exchange of ideas. It was responsible for revolutionizing the readership. The scientific discourse spread to other parts of the country. In 1861 Benaras Debating Club was formed and Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan founded the Aligarh Scientific Society in 1864.
The gap between the scientific rationalism and common public was bridged by the Young Bengal, a rather controversial group of students who were influenced by a Eurasian teacher of Hindu College in Calcutta, Henry Vivian Derozio. They were responsible for the establishment of Society for the Acquisition of General Knowledge. Derozio imbued the spirit of free thinking in his students. This group became infamous for their social rebellion. Their rebellion extended to the religious sphere and bitterly condemned kulin polygamy, caste taboos, child marriage, and ban on widow remarriage. They posed an intellectual challenge to the religious and social orthodoxy of Hinduism. However, their very radicalism and complete faith in everything British and Western learning alienated them from the masses.
Study of the Oriental literary works under the likes of Hastings, Halhed and William Jones renewed the interest in Sanskrit. The tracing of the connections between the Indo-European languages and Sanskrit gave a very good boost to Sanskrit studies. The efforts of the Christian Missionaries in translating the Bible into the vernacular led to the development of the vernacular nomenclature.
Western India did not lag behind the developments in Calcutta and social reforms were had a greater stronghold. Infact, the social reform movement has an older history in Bombay than in Calcutta. This was due to the efforts of the Maratha rulers of the eighteenth century who adhered to the old Hindu tradition of regulating social affairs. They displayed their reforming tendencies in allowing readmission to Hinduism of converts, intermarriage, prohibition of sale of girls, and enforcement of temple entrance to cite a few. In Bombay, young rebels were produced by Elphinstone Institution founded in 1827 for the promotion of English education. The intellectual revolt movement was started in the early decades of the nineteenth century by Bal Shastri Jambhekar (1812-46); Dadoba Pandurang Tarkhadkar (1814-82); Bhasker Pandurang Tarkhadkar (1816-47); Gopal Hari Deshmukh also known as Lokahitwadi (1823-82) and Vishnu Bhikaji Gokhale (1825-73).
Jambhekar was a pioneer in the intellectual movement in Maharashtra and wrote extensively in early 1830s. Dadoba gave the movement a more organizational shape by founding Paramhansa Sabha in 1840. Bhasker Pandurang Tarkhadkar was a militant nationalist critic of the colonial rule in India. In all probability he formulated the first economic critique of the exploitative character of the British rule in India. Lokahitwadi is famous for the famous collection of letters Shatapatren’ written by him in the period of 1848-50, which touched upon almost every aspect of the society.
The reform movement in western India in the second half of the nineteenth century was dominated by the likes of Vishnu Parashuram Shastri Pandit (1827- 76); Jyotiba Phule (1827-90); Ramkrishna Gopal Bhandarkar (1837-1925); Narayan Mahadev Permanand (1838-93), M. G. Ranade (1842-1901), K. T. Telang (1850-1893) and so on. Vishnu Parashuram Shastri Pandit began by advocating against the ban on widow remarriage and became a leading figure in female emanicipation. He started Vidhawa Vivaha Uttejaka Mandal (Society for Encouragement of Widow Remarriage) in 1865. He married a widow in 1875. Born in a Mali caste, he also advocated upliftment of the depressed sections of the society and was the first Indian to start a school for untouchables in 1854. In 1851 he and his wife started a girl’s school at Poona. Ramkrishna Gopal Bhandarkar due to the extent of his scholarship was also known as the Maharshi’. He advocated widow remarriage and arranged the marriage of his widowed daughter in 1891 in face of tough criticism. He was also a strong promoter of Hindu-Muslim unity. Narayan Mahadev Permanand was a strong constructive critic of the British administration aside from being a social reformer. Ranade, a product of Elphinstone College, was a judge of the Bombay High Court during 1891-1901. He combined social reform movement with the religious reform movement. To this end he reorganized Paramhansa Sabha into Prarthana Samaj in 1867 which preached monotheism and denounced the domination of the priests and caste distinctions.
The nineteenth century was marked by the transformation of the Indian society and the initiative for such reforms came from individuals who revolted against the prescribed rules of the society. These reformers though gained from western education were not West-sponsored but they themselves created the reforms and promoted them. It is also undeniable that the reform movements had a strong intellectual base which kept them aloof from the masses and were thus confined to the educated sections of the society. The reforms were not meant to structurally reorganize the whole society for the benefit of the underprivileged or the depressed sections of the society. The aim of the reforms was to infuse a new life into the existing social structure. As Heimsath points out ‘society would be preserved while its member would be transformed’.
It has been noted by most historians that the issues dealt with by the social reformers in the early part of the nineteenth century were applicable and common to the higher classes of the Hindu society and had no meaning for the lower classes. The movements of the later part of the nineteenth century along with those of the twentieth century were the ones that reached across to the wider society including the lower and depressed sections of the society.
Emancipation of women was another common plank in agenda of almost all social reformers. The sad plight of women in society seemed to have stirred all social reformers. The women were subjected to every form of limitation on their free movement. They had no rights so to speak- no property rights, lacked a voice in choice of marriage and consummation, lacked education, their status was recognised by the identity of their husbands and they were also badly treated. Child marriage was a widely prevalent practice and the age difference between the husband and child wife was often profound. The kulin polygamy was widely practiced in Bengal. Kulin comprised certain castes amongst the Brahmans and Kayasthas of Bengal who were considered to be the purest and hence few in number. Often fifty or sixty kulin girls were married off to just one person. Widow’s life was rather miserable and sati was commonly observed though more for the reasons of property settlement and to escape the social stigma than virtue. Female infanticide was quite rampant. Influx of western ideas highlighted the low position of women. By nineteenth century the position of women in the society was a marker of the overall development of the society. This parameter was the contribution of the western ideas. The social reformers thus realized that emancipation of women had to be at the heart of any attempt at reforming the society at large. This is why emancipation of women was a common feature of all the social reform movements. Interestingly, the emancipation of women was confined within patriarchal parameters. For example, as no reform could be really effective without changes in the domestic domain as it was the first sphere of socialization for men. Even the emancipated woman continued to work within the patriarchal fold. The hold of the male- member over the woman was in no way lessened by the social reforms.
Denunciation of the caste system and discrimination on its basis was another common feature of the social reforms. Action against the prevalence of the caste system was infact seen to be of utmost importance. It was not only morally and socially abhorrent but was also seen as against the democratic ideals. While Rammohun Roy did raise a voice against the caste system it was carried forward in action during the course of the nineteenth century, especially towards the closing of the century. In the twentieth century the movement for the emancipation from the caste system reached new heights to include participation of the depressed classes in the political workings of the Government.
The gap between the masses and the social reformers, who were essentially rooted in Western thought, was bridged by the tendency from the second half of the nineteenth century of the social reformers to deny the Western culture. The movements this time were not only influenced by Western post- Enlightenment rationalist ideas (though this influence was often denied) but were formed in response to challenges posed by the Western civilization to the Indian society and their criticism of Hindu civilization. This contradictory approach was matched by an equally one-sided understanding of Indian historical development. To rise to the occasion, social reformers towards the late nineteenth century looked into India’s past and generated a sense of pride in everything Indian. This, as Heimsath has pointed out, led to revivalism marked by conceptualization of a glorious Hindu past which had degenerated under the Muslim rule and was threatened by the British rule. The reforms of this time had strong revivalist tendencies. The most important backlash of the revivalist predilections was denunciation of Islamic contribution to India and over-glorification of Hindu civilization over Islamic and Western. This led to attempts at rationalizing certain Hindu practices and institution to such a degree that voices were raised against positive reforms. For example, while the first Act passed against child marriage in 1860 was welcomed but during the passing of Age of Consent Act in 1891 huge uproar was voiced from Hindu orthodox sections. Sasadhar Tarkachundamoni, to cite another example, began to find, rather invent, precedents in ancient India for every scientific discovery by the West. This he undertook inorder to evoke respect for Hinduism among a Western-educated middle class devoted to the goddess of reason’.
The revivalism was not confined to hindering social development mentioned in the above example, but it had very strong political overtones. This combination was to create inter-religious tensions as the Indian National Movement evolved. The revivalist tendencies were largely responsible fostering the identification of India with Hinduism. The group known as the Extremist in the Indian National Congress was, infact, of this mould. Their brand of nationalism was based on the pride of Indian culture and drew inspiration from India’s ancient past. For this reason they can be alternatively called Neo-Nationalists.
The revivalist trend was most vocal in the formation of Arya Samaj by Dayanand Saraswati in 1875. He claimed Vedas as the most authentic Indian religious text and then set about to purge all post-Vedic additions to Hinduism. He attacked idolatry, polytheism, caste system, child marriage, ritualistic Hinduism dominated by the Brahmans and advocated widow remarriage, inter-caste marriage and female education, all on the basis of Vedas. While he denounced caste system, he did not disclaim the four-fold varna system. In 1882 Dayanand Saraswati established Gaurakshini Sabhas which gained foothold in Bihar, Benaras division, eastern Allahabad, Awadh, Bengal, Bombay, Madras, Sind, Rajputana and the Central Provinces. The cow protectionist sentiments were now organised at an all-India level by the Gaurakshini Sabhas. It is worth noting that in this context protection of cow was primarily aimed at the beef eating English and also to a degree at the muslims. Part of their aim was to petetion government to stop cow slaughter. These efforts received a new burst of energy when by the decree of High Court of NWP in 1888 cow was not recognised as a religious object and thus its slaughter could not be held as violation of the law.
There were spurts of attacks by non-Muslim on Muslim during the celebrations of Baqr-ld starting from 1893 in Azamgarh, Ghazipur, Ballia, Shahabad and Gaya, etc. As Rafiuddin Ahmad noted the question of the ritual slaughter of cows came to occupy the politics of the late 19th cenutry ‘not so much because the Muslims loved to sacrifice cows as because the militant Hindus made it an issue’. What was unique about the issue of a ‘cow’ was that it formed a common ground for personal activism and personal religious practice and in Dr. Sandria Frietag’s words it bridged the gap between Great and little traditons, between urban searches for community identity and rural values’. The cause was further taken up by smaller communities like Ahirs in their struggle to upgrade their status. Like a fire that feeds itself the over-emphasis on the ban of cow slaughter produced a counter reaction from the Muslim groups. The movement solidified the boundaries of various communities and succeeded in alienating the Muslim sections. At the level of upper calss politics what later complicated the issues was that some members of Congress were also part of this cow protection movement.
Another example of revival trend was the adoption of Hindu religious and historical symbols by leaders for public mobilization. The most important example at the popular level is of Lokmanya Tilak who used the festival from 1893, formerly a private festival, to strengthen the community. Set up as a challenge to the commonly participated Mohorrum so that the Indians (Hindus) could have a festival of theirs, it added to the process of carving out spaces by different communities Similarly, Tilak evoked the image and patriotism of Shivaji from 1895 onwards. Another example is that of Aurbindo Gosh who believed that the masses are not only disconnected from the elites but also are capable of being formed, as politically viable options but need an accepted medium to round-up support. And the most basic medium that can call upon the inner string of the people was identified as religion. What one observes here is how the revivalist strain corresponded with the desire of nationalism to carve out a sphere of sovereignty and that this desire was necessary as it provided the means of challenging the colonial state and its policies.