Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-1894) was an erudite well ahead of his time. A true product of the Bengal Renaissance he embraced modernity while exhorting the positive aspects of civilizational continuity. He instilled patriotism through his tales while criticising dogmatism. What sets him apart from his peers was the fact that he wasn’t above criticising Western scholars and ideas while adopting the best practises from them. On his birth anniversary, we take a look at how Bankim Chandra Chatterjee shaped up the modern Indian thought which is relevant to the idea of India going forward.
The India of future should aim to be a society that Bankim Chandra Chatterjee once espoused which embraces modernity without blindly aping Western practices and adopts the traditions while having the strength to stand up and reject what was wrong in the past. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s mind was a fearless one which could extoll the positives of the past and present while criticising contemporary society both Indian and British alike. On his birth anniversary, we draw parallels between his world and our contemporary society
How Bankim Chandra’s World was similar to a modern aspiring India
Free from the shackles of decades of backwardness and no progression in modern technology, the natives of Bengal were fed up with the misrule of the Nawabs who couldn’t protect its citizens while they indulged in luxuries. During the battle of Plassey, the natives in Bengal along with the merchants bankrolled the British to depose the last tyrannical ruler Siraj Ud Daulah ( insert 200 years of British rule article). The misrule of the Nawabs continued for a few more years resulting in the Bengal famine of 1770 and subsequent Sanyasi revolt, which Bankim Chandra Chatterjee immortalised in his famous novel Anandamath. Finally, the British gained complete control of Bengal and started the University education system.
Bankim Chandra was one of its initial beneficiaries, being one of the two graduates of the first batch from the University of Calcutta. He was offered employment in the Provincial Civil Services and his university education allowed him to be conversant with contemporary European philosophy as well as a deep understanding of Indian history and literature. He was a man chosen by the British to interpret the Indian works for the English audience and promote their narratives to the Indian audience. Being an enlightened man, Bankim Chandra refused to do so.
While the British may have started off winning the confidence of the natives by participating in native festivals such as Durga Puja, helping pass legislation against Sati, allowing widow remarriage and starting University education system, the designs behind these became clear to Bankim Chandra when his peers were unable to see it. He was critical of evangelists who promoted false narratives of Indian civilisation as one bound by superstition and dogmatism and was equally critical about those who eulogised and fantasied an irrational past.
A classic example of the latter was his critical essay “Samya” (meaning equality), published in 1879, in which he had a critical take on artificial differences among men. The two systems he attacked were European supremacy and the caste system. In the context of 19th century India it was revolutionary thought.
Today we perceive and work towards one world and globalisation. However, back then, European colonists were considered superior to Indian natives, a narrative which Bankim Chandra challenged through his essay. He also called out the irrational puranic system in which the life of a Brahmin was considered more valuable than the life of a Shudra. He noted that for the murder of both there were different punishments, the death of a Shudra being considered a lower offence. “ No doubt this is against natural law” was his observation regarding this double standard. One of his main aspects of his essay identifying that the caste system was one of the root causes behind the degeneration of Indian society.
However, Bankim Chandra did note that such man-made divisions existed everywhere in the world. He praised those societies which rose up to fight such injustice particularly citing the example of the American Civil War to end slavery in the United States and the French Revolution. However, he concluded with the example of Gautama Buddha that more evolved societies were able to fight artificial human divisions through non-violent means. Thus, while praising his contemporaries such as Abraham Lincoln, Bankim Chandra showed his fellow countrymen that often better solutions existed right at home.
In today’s world, everyone at some point of time has witnessed a blind aping of any trend that comes up in Western society as particularly “cool” or “hip”. This was also the case during Bankim Chandra’s times. Due to increased orthodoxy, a revolt against idol worship had started both among native Indians ( such as Dayananda Saraswati) and those who were influenced deeply by Baptist Missionaries (Keshav Chandra Sen of Brahmo Samaj during his initial days). However, Brahmo Samaj during his time had started mimicking the West blindly, which Bankim Chandra heavily criticised. He was as much a beneficiary of contemporary European thought like them, yet he had the conviction to call out what was wrong.
In today’s world, we should aim for such a society where we learn and educate ourselves with the best technologies and ideas that are developing globally, while rejecting irrational thought practices and ideologies which do not fit in the Indian context. In terms of philosophy, today the Western society certainly isn’t at par with the 19th century. Technology is now global and no longer a monopoly of the West. Hence, it is imperative for the present day youth in India to take full advantage of the age of information and globalisation. Yet we must have the civilisational connect with our roots to reject any attempts to appropriate our culture. One such example can be seen in Yoga which has been promoted as a “secular” practise “developed independently” despite it being a truly Hindu tradition. We don’t see Michaelangelo’s art as mutually exclusive from Christianity, so why should we accept the whitewashing of Yoga?
Such attempts at whitewashing aren’t new, it was prevalent during colonial rule as well. Bankim Chandra was deeply disturbed by the refusal of Evangelists and Colonialists to understand India from an Indian’s point of view. This may have prompted his refusal to translate much traditional Indian literature into English. Idol worship was termed as superstition by Evangelists and they were unwilling to listen to the Hindu interpretation for the same as being a manifestation of one universal cosmic force. That the idea of a universal creator existed in Hinduism was simply not acceptable for the Western intelligentsia of 19th century.
Bankim literature: Blend of progressiveness, tradition
Bankim Chandra has become primarily famous for his work Anandamath and the song Vandemataram. While he is always seen as a nationalist figure his works reflected that they were far beyond patriotic novels and poems. They included an eclectic blend of romance, history and strong female characters. While he is usually associated with Bengali literature, his work Rajmohan’s Wife was the first English novel written by an Indian. It was indeed path-breaking for those times when the country was under the yoke of British rule. He attempted to stimulate the minds of the Bengali speaking population by writing his novels in Bengali so that much of the education system that benefitted him reached his fellow countrymen. One may view him as a man the English chose to benefit them, but instead, he used his English education to benefit his country.
This is something the present day youth can aspire for with a host of opportunities existing at world-class universities. Following Bankim Chandra’s footsteps, a lot of knowledge can be spread in Indian languages to those who are lacking access to it. He was the first person to prove that language should not be a barrier to access knowledge. Unfortunately, his successors in the subsequent decades and policymakers after India’s independence seem to have lost that message.
Bankim reflected a deep understanding of Indian history with tales from Rajput valour to Mughal-Pathan conflicts and Sanyasi uprising against the Nawabs of Bengal. Today, there is a general discussion globally on how women are portrayed in movies and TV shows. In this aspect, he was well ahead of his time. His novels Kapala Kundala and Devi Choudhrani were centred around women who were fierce and unconventional without compromising their femininity. His romantic novels such as Raj Singh and Durgesh Nandini were set in the backdrop of historical conflicts during Mughal era ( viz the Rajput revolt during Aurangzeb and Mughal-Pathan conflict in Odisha during Akbar’s rule respectively) and became popular among female readers.
Bankim never shied away from the Hindu roots of his nationalist discourse as reflected by his work Anandamath. We see politicians today trying to “secularize” Vande Mataram, while Bankim Chandra had clearly connected the motherland with various forms of the Goddess Shakti in explicit terms. While one must not be over boastful about their roots to the point of jingoism, one shouldn’t shy away from it to either to please the worldview of others. The world respects those who can respect their traditions and identity. Despite what Vande Mataram has come to mean today, the fact remains that mother India as envisioned by Bankim Chandra was a manifestation of the Goddess Shakti and her forms depending on abundance or famine. His work reflected a deep understanding of India’s roots and needless to say it inspired many revolutionaries during their freedom struggle against the British.
Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay was a man who advocated conservative thought and liberal thought at the same time. A staunch proponent of women’s education he also believed that a woman’s loyalty and devotion towards her husband should be the same as her devotion towards God. He was modern and traditional at the same time, vernacular and global. Lessons from his life and literature can shape the mind of the youth today. It is imperative that his novels are translated into all Indian languages and English and taught as a part of the school curriculum. It will go a long way in building a modern progressive society which adopts the best practices of the present day and the past while rejecting dogma, false failed ideologies and fad trends.