Editorial Note

A few decades before India became free, Sri Aurobindo addressed at considerable length* the intriguing question of whether she had ever needed a renaissance and if it would differ from the European if she were to have one. He explained that the European Renaissance had not been an awakening per se but “an overturn and reversal, a seizure of Christianised, Teutonised, feudalised Europe by the old Graeco-Latin spirit”.  In contrast, India’s Renaissance was more likely to resemble the “Celtic movement in Ireland, the attempt of a reawakened national spirit to find a new impulse of self-expression”. Sri Aurobindo felt that India had suffered from the “bitter effects of the great decline which came to a head in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” and was in need of a renaissance. He further indicated that the harmful effects of a superimposed European culture had coincided inwardly with India’s “increasing torpor of the creative spirit in religion and art” at a time when “science and philosophy and intellectual knowledge had long been dead or petrified”. Sri Aurobindo was clear that India’s Renaissance had indeed already begun and that spirituality had been its “starting-point”. However, he clarified that  the renaissance was not yet general and that only “when a greater light prevails” one would be able to speak of it “not only in prospect but in fact”.

Presented below is an article on India’s renaissance that was originally published in the Sri Aurobindo Circle magazine. The 3rd article in our series entitled “Indian Renaissance : Early Phase” (1963) by Professor Sisirkumar Mitra discusses the effects of English and Western education on the Indian mind and how Indians had responded to it. Mitra proposes that the Indian reaction was the early phase of India’s national awakening and that it was inspired by Ram Mohan Roy, Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, and Tagore amongst others. He further states that all those early endeavours would ultimately be “consummated” by Sri Aurobindo.

Sisir kumar Mitra was a Professor of History of Civilization and Joint Director of Education, Sri Aurobindo International University Centre, Pondicherry. Formerly Lecturer in Cultural History at Rabindranath Tagore Viswabharati ( World University), Shantiniketan.

1) https://selforum.blogspot.com/2008/03/auroma-sons-sisir-kumar-mitra.html;

2) https://search.proquest.com/openview/cebd6638a5eb9d73a89340357d10588b/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=1820847

Further Reading: The Renaissance in India with A Defence of Indian Culture

-Editors, Renaissance

Indian Renaissance: Early Phase

SlSIRKUMAR MlTRA

THE first phase of the impact of the West on India, and its repercussions in the life of the people make a romantic story. Its effervescence having subsided, the new ferment calmed down to a new but needed force that shook off the inertia of the people and liberated their mind into an impassioned endeavour to rise and be their own selves again. Significantly enough, the onslaught of the West came upon India when her ancient ideals had faded, her people had moved away from dharma, and had lost the will and energy for any fresh effort, far less, for a new going-forth. The force that was the Western culture started working in the mind of India, particularly of Bengal, where Bharata Shakti chose to initiate the movement for a new resurgence of this ancient land.

How British political power and Christian influence spread in colonial India

In the beginning the effect was, more or less, psychological. But the pressure gained more and more in its “steam-roller heaviness’ with the expansion of Eng­land’s political power in India. There were first the Christian missionaries who had come to India long before the European traders. But “the Directors of the East India Company opposed their activities on the ground, among others, that these would interfere with the Hindu religion, which produced men of purest morality and strictest virtue.”[1] The missionaries had therefore to leave Calcutta for Serampore, then under the Danish flag. When Serampore also came under the English and the Company’s attitude changed, the missionaries spread to various parts of the country, with Calcutta as one of their main centres. In Calcutta they now began mixing freely with the people. And their exposition not only of their own religion but also of the culture and history of the West thrilled the young hearers who looked with amazement at these “new faces and other minds’ and felt an eagerness to imbibe their teachings. Similar was the case in Bombay and Madras too.

While the missionaries were trying from a sheer necessity to learn Indian languages towards the development of which, specially of Bengali, they made notable contributions, the Bengalis showed a remarkable readiness to learn English. Of the Christian missionaries the foremost was William Carey who along with his friends laid the foundation of English education and Bengali prose literature. To them also goes the credit for having prepared a Bengali grammar and a history of India, believed by many to be the first of their kinds. The author of the grammar, published in 1801, was William Carey, and of the history, J.C. Marshman. Carey in his preface to the grammar paid a high tribute to the educated Bengalis for ‘culture’ and “respectability’. Even, “husbandmen, labourers, and people in the lowest stations are often able to give that information on local affairs which every friend of science will be proud to obtain’. Speaking of the Bengali language, he said, ‘Bengali may be esteemed one of the most expressive and elegant languages of the East.’ The Bengalis were the first to show their eagerness to learn English. There were Englishmen also who learnt Bengali mainly for its excellence. The missionaries again were the first to set up a printing press at Serampore primarily with a view to serving their own ends but ultimately it served the greater cause of the growth and diffusion of the Bengali language and literature. They also started Bengali journalism on its career.

The missionaries apart, Englishmen connected with mercantile firms and civil administration were freely mixing with Indians and became almost a part of the upper-class social life of Calcutta and Bombay. Englishmen smoking the Indian hooka in Bengali homes, participating in family feasts and religious festivals, were a common sight. They had not yet developed their sense of colour pride and imperialistic superiority.As this intercourse deepened, the demand for a knowledge of English became more and more widespread and insistent. There were other reasons too for this demand : easier business relations with the English, and jobs in mercantile firms and in civil administrations.

English education and the modernising of the mind of India

As this intercourse deepened, the demand for a knowledge of English became more and more widespread and insistent. There were other reasons too for this demand: easier business relations with the English, and jobs in mercantile firms and in civil administrations.

It is interesting that not only young men or those in search of jobs but mem­bers of Hindu orthodoxy as well expressed their ‘anxious desire’ to learn this new language. A letter written in May, 1816, by a Brahmana of Calcutta named Baidyanath Mukhopadhaya informed the then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that ‘many of the leading Hindus were desirous of forming an establishment for the education of their children in a liberal manner’,[2] meaning obviously English education.

That the new force was active in other parts of India is evident from the fact that a Maharashtrian statesman named Hari Damodar, Governor of Jhansi, and an elder contemporary of Raja Rammohun Roy, felt it necessary for the Indian people to acquire the science of Europe and to this end he taught himself English and started a laboratory at Jhansi. Jaynarayan Ghosal, a landlord of Calcutta and a friend and contemporary of Rammohun, who had settled in Banaras, founded there in 1818 with the help of English missionaries an English school which stands to this day. Indians in Bombay and Madras coming in contact with Europeans felt very much taken with their intellectual eminence. And it was they who along with their compeers in Bengal, were, so to say, the pioneers of the movement which was later to develop into a potent factor in modernising the mind of India.

These Indians were the first to start on their individual initiative schools for teaching English and through its medium the knowledge of the West. One such school began work in Calcutta about 1808 with an Arrnanian as Head Master. In 1816 Rammohun started a school of his own in Calcutta for free teaching of Hindu boys. In 1822 he opened another school affording free tuition to boys. Later this school came to be known as Indian Academy. In both the schools along with English Bengali also was taught, the aim being to train young minds in Indi­an and Western ideas, a combination of which was to Rammohun what he called “liberal education’. In January, 1817, that is to say, within one year of the date of the letter quoted above, was established in Calcutta the famous Hindu College by a number of prominent men among whom were the Chief Justice Sir Hyde East, Raja Rammohun Roy, Raja Radhakanta Dev, the last named being a leading member of Hindu orthodoxy. This shows that both conser­vative and liberal Indians were united in their effort to spread English education. The prime mover of this centre of European learning was that large-hearted Scotchman, David Hare who called India his motherland and chose Bengal as the field of his “selfless service to the cause of suffering humanity, irrespective of caste and creed.’

The object of the Hindu College was to teach Indian boys the English lan­guage and Western humanities and sciences. It soon proved to be a dynamo of revolutionary thought-currents that energised into impetuous movement the youthful minds nurtured by it.

Mention may be made here that the East India Company, the then rulers of the land, did not favour introducing English and modern ways of education in India. Of the two schools they established in Calcutta in 1824 for the education of the “natives’ one was for Sanskrit, and the other for Arabic and Persian, meant to be taught on traditional lines. Raja Rammohan Roy vehemently protested against this move and what he said in that connection reflected the views of ad­vanced and progressive minds of the time. Thus was it that Indians themselves were the first to introduce English education in India, and many of them, whatever their motives, became ardent champions of English and Western learning.

The products of the Hindu College did not take long to prove themselves masters of English. About Kashiprasad Ghose’s English poems composed round 1830, D. L. Richardson, Principal of Hindu College, himself a poet-critic, wrote in his famous Selections from British Poets in which he included a poem of Kashi­prasad : ‘Let some of those narrow-minded persons who are in the habit of look­ing down upon the natives of India with an arrogant and vulgar contempt read this poem with attention and ask themselves if they could write better verse not in a foreign language but even in their own.’ Kashiprasad may well be said to be the forerunner of Indo-Anglian poets.

The success of the private ventures in spreading English education made the rulers think of new measures for “the educational improvement of the natives’. But the missionaries and liberal Indians got the better of their slowness and started more schools and colleges for education on Western lines, and established the School-Book Society for selling English books “upwards of 31,000 of which were sold in the course of two years.’ Soon the government-appointed Committee of Public Instruction was divided into two parties, known popularly as the “Ori­entalists’ and the “Anglicists’ or the English party. The “Anglicists’ held that public funds earmarked for education should henceforth be spent only on the imparting of liberal education on Western lines through the medium of English. This party won when Macaulay as President of the Committee denounced clas­sical Indian learning and pleaded for Western education which was to produce, as Macaulay wanted, “brown Englishmen’ to man the administration. This movement culminated in the foundation of the three great universities in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras in 1857—in India’s history a significant year which witnessed the revolt of the Indian army against alien rule followed next year by the Act of 1858 which gave the British Parliament direct control over the administration of India. For England it meant an empire; for India, organised exploitation, loss of freedom and dignity as a nation; but all these, particularly the unified system of British administration, made for her unity and national consciousness.

Through the expanding work of the universities Western culture found its votaries in all important towns and cities of India and their number went on steadily increasing as educational facilities were extended to different parts of the country. The result: English language and the principal ideas of the West got woven into the texture of modern Indian culture and formed part of her life. Yet it must be said that the system of education through which this new knowledge came to India was an exotic, an imported commodity, a poor imitation of the English system, least suited to the genius of the country which being dependent had to follow it.

Budding of the Indian renaissance amid the ill-effects of occidental learning

These universities however could never have come into being had there not been before them the schools and colleges started during the twenties of the last century as private enterprises. Quite a number of such English-teaching schools were opened in different parts of Calcutta and Bengal, and in Allahabad, Agra, Delhi, and Bombay. English classes were attached to the Calcutta Sanskrit College and the Agra College. The Hindu College in Calcutta, which later became the present Presidency College, was however the most remarkable of these edu­cational institutions. It played a unique role in the Indian renaissance that began in Bengal, more correctly, within the precincts of this citadel of occidental learn­ing where the Bengali youths received their first initiation in the ideas and ideals of the nineteenth-century Europe, the brilliance of which captivated them and stirred their mind into a new upheaving. ‘A centre of intellectual revolution, a nursery for the origin and dissemination of new ideas of change in education, culture, society and politics,’[3] the Hindu College was distinguished by the personality of its teachers like Louis Vivian Derozio and David Lester Richardson, both of whom exercised a profound influence on their pupils. Wrote Peary Chand Mitra, the biographer of Dadd Hare: “Derozio gave the greatest impetus to free discussion of all subjects, social, moral and religious. He was himself a free thinker, and possessed affable manners. He encouraged students to come and open their minds to him.’ These youths were, wrote A. Duff in 1830, ‘a rising body of natives who had learned to think and discuss all subjects with unshackled freedom.’ Their college apart, the Aca­demic Association and its off-shoots, the debating societies, provided suitable platforms for these youths to give free expression to their thoughts that were then uppermost in their minds. Derozio, a many-sided genius, was the master-spirit behind these bursts of new-found freedom. He taught his pupils not only the prin­ciples of science but inspired them to think for themselves. The result was what young minds are apt to, when liberated from subjection to “old-world ideas’. Indeed, all could not make proper and effective use of such wide freedom. Though many of the alumni of the Hindu College took a leading part in the renaissance and were the only progressive elements in the country’s the then intellectual life, yet there were others of the same institution who made blatant exhibitions of how utterly intoxicated they were with the wine of new learning. They declared themselves “sworn enemies of everything Hindu’. To them the ancient heritage was an anathema; they denounced it outright as “vile and corrupt and unworthy of the regard of rational being.’ If there is anything that we hate from the bottom of our heart it is Hindooism.’[4]

Not only this, drinking of wine and eating of beef were freely indulged in by ‘Young Bengal’. ‘It was common belief of the alumni of the Hindu College’[5], writes Rajnarayan Basu, a student of the College, in the forties, that the drinking of wine was one of the concomitants of civilisation.’ They did these also to express their revolt against what to them was old and antiquated, and so, deserving of total rejection. All traditional beliefs, usages and customs were thrown to the winds and everything Western acclaimed as the sumum bonum of life. While this attitude raised a grave problem, it broke down along with many things that were good, many that were bad, and many for which there was no longer any need.

The abuses of such new freedom were inevitable in the circumstances that then prevailed in the country. But the positive gain was that it reinvigorated the mental climate of the country with fresh elements of a new knowledge and the dynamics of a new force : the knowledge was that of Western life and thought, of the humanistic and revolutionary ideas that were then dominating the mind of the West; the force was that of reason which Science established as the sole governing power of life,—above all, the spirit of independent enquiry. Through all these the vital energy of the West infused itself into Indian life and revitalised it.

It is not so easy to imagine how a conservative country like India bound by age- old traditions would react to this ‘new wine’ poured into her ‘old bottle’. As ‘Young Bengal’ was drinking this new wine, it was drinking in new currents of thought. And, as said before, the wine being heady, the intoxication was immediate. But the young men became converts not only to Western rationalism and Western ways of life, but, many of them, to Christianity, rendering the problem even graver. From the beginning the Christian missionaries were not at all liked by the ortho­dox Hindus who looked upon them as enemies of their religion and culture. When young men began to embrace Christianity, both liberal and conservative Hindus including many who were champions of English education, felt it their duty to face the problem and find a solution.

Progressive India rediscovered cultural strengths to meet Western challenges

Much earlier than this problem raised its head, there had happened an event of great importance with which may be said to have begun the movement for the recovery of India’s past in which lay the seed of the solution. In 1784 was founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal by Sir William Jones who along with Sir Charles Wilkins and H.T. Colebrooke reared the Society in its early phase and thus became the pioneers of Indological studies which brought to light not only for India but for the whole world the incomparable literary treasures of this ancient land. This may also be said to be the beginning of the expansive move­ment of Indian culture in modern times. But most of the European Indologists were attracted to ancient Indian literature not so much for their love of it as for their interest in its study for its own sake. Nevertheless their discovery of the sources of India’s culture acquainted them with her stupendous achievements in the past. And this was certainly one of the reasons for Indians to turn to their own heritage and try to understand its real value. Another reason for their doing so was that when they heard and read about the brilliant intellectual exploits of the West they began to ask themselves if they had no culture of their own, and if so, of what type or character.

Impelled by these circumstances and individual urges, some of the leading intellectuals began to turn towards their country’s past but from two different standpoints, liberal and conservative. One was that of Raja Rammohun Roy, that pioneer par excellence of every social, cultural and educational endeavour of the time, who found in the Upanishads what his soul was yearning for—a spiritual basis for his larger humanitarian ideal; and the other, that of Raja Radhakanta Dev to whom ancient traditions were the highest creations of India’s social and cultural endeavours through the ages. Himself an erudite Sanskrit scholar, associated with several cultural institutions, Radhakanta Dev compiled the famous Sanskrit lexicon, Sabdakalpadruma, and took a prominent part in promoting the study of Sanskrit as the literary basis of Indian culture. He even made generous donations to European scholars for the same purpose. His efforts led to a spread of Sanskrit learning on a wider scale. Anyway, the quest for a knowledge of the past began to grow, stimulated by the discovery of Sanskrit as the repository of ancient treasures, and also by the impact of the new ideas from the West. As the quest became more and more insistent and intensive there arose those institutions which had for their aims acquisition of knowledge and encouragement of learning. One such was Jnanoparjika Sabha, (Society for the Acquisition of Knowledge) with culture and history as its principal subjects of study and discussion. It adopted the scientific methods of research then followed in the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

Influenced by Western ideas, progressive Indians had already developed a rationalistic attitude. When, therefore, they delved into their country’s past they found many things no longer of any use but also many of immense value to India’s resurgence. Indians need not become sedulous apes of everything European nor should they give up their own religion—this was the finding they came to.

Happily, at this momentous hour, with the moral background thus prepared, the Shakti of India threw up high-souled personalities who, one after another, incarnated the new spirit of awakening and initiated, each in his own way, those progressive movements of India’s national being through which her people began to be conscious first of their lapses and aberrations and then of their own true self as a nation with a glorious past in which they found the roots of their great culture.

These movements, it may be noted, were most of them characterised by the distinctive tendencies of the Indian mind that mark her evolution in history. The leaders of these movements ardently upheld the intrinsic values of Indian culture and reaffirmed them to their countrymen in a way that they might rise and be themselves again. That was how they reflected the inward bent of the racial mind and worked in the direction of fulfilling Nature’s aim in India’s awakening. The inward bent was even more explicit in the movements born of spiritual ideals. Remarkable for their catholic outlook and large vision, the inspired leaders sent forth their call to all, irrespective of caste, creed or race, to collaborate in the sacred work of realising those sublime ideals. Equally significant is the fact that they formulated those ideals from the teachings of Veda, Vedanta, Vaishnavism and Tantrikism, some giving importance to Knowledge, some to Devotion, some to Works, but in practice all showed a tendency to combine the two,’ or synthesise all the three. This was more perceptible in the later forms the movements took. This tendency the mind of India has always shown in the history of her cultural evolution, more markedly in Bengal, and its revival today is certainly in line with the synthesis that had been developing in India’s racial consciousness towards its future perfection envisaged by “the last of the Rishi”.

Sri Aurobindo will bring into being a completely New World and liberate man from the little ego-shell of his mind into the vasts of the Supermind

The leaders called upon their countrymen to dedicate themselves to these ideals for their liberation from the evils that were then eating into their individual and collective life. But the uplift of India was not their sole aim. Their vision, as indeed the eternal vision of India, was large enough to embrace the whole human race and kindle in its consciousness the light of the spiritual goal. This was how the movements developed their universal character and became more defined and effective in the upsurge of India’s soul in Sri Ramakrishna, the God-man, whose mighty mouthpiece, Vivekananda, voiced in divine accents the world-message of his Master, the message of Prabuddha Bharata—Awakened India. And humanity heard again in Vivekananda’s voice the rapt cry of the ancient Rishis proclaiming to the world the inherent divinity of man. The cry is vibrant again in the sublime utterances of Poet Tagore whose Visva-Bharati stands for India embracing the whole world. Now, the one who will consummate all these endeavours and bring into being a completely New World and liberate man from the little ego-shell of his mind into the vasts of the Supermind is Sri Aurobindo.

Rammohun Roy inspired a culture that worshipped the Ancient Mother and received from her the strength to inaugurate a new age in India

In his typically Indian synthetic mind Rammohun visualised the essential unity of the human race and he felt that it would become real in international life when there would form a larger synthesis of the cultures of the East and the West and that it would be India’s portion to initiate, nurse and foster it. In fact, the makers of New India who came after Rammohun lived and worked for this con­summation, A remarkable aspect of what they taught and did was that they recognised life as the field for the evolution of the spirit. The concept of the harmony, even the identity, of these two so-called opposite poles of existence was at the back of the movements right from the beginning and became the natural basis of their growth and expansion. One of the highest truths visioned by the ancient Seers of India, it has ever remained a dynamic element in her historic evolution, a source of strength for her cultural and collective advance­ment.

It is their spiritual motive, their universal aim, and their acceptance of life for its ultimate spiritualisation that more or less characterise the movements through which India in modern times has endeavoured to recover her true self for her own well-being as also for the well-being of the whole human race.

Rammohun Roy who was the herald of the Dawn was born at a time when India was faced with a crisis in every walk of life. Religion being the centre and soul of her existence, he chose to tackle this problem first. And he started by introducing Western ideas so that reason might prevail and rid the religious life of the “perversions’ that had crept into it. Freedom was indeed an intense passion of Rammohun’s soul; it was freedom that he wanted not only for his own country­men but for man as man.

Rammohun’s was a large heart, a vast mind, a vaster vision. The darkness he saw all around moved him to those noble endeavours for the social, spiritual and cultural regeneration of his countrymen, from which originated all later pro­gressive movements in India. The beginning was bold, broad and significant, big with promise of a great future. It was, as it were, the first stirring of India’s soul which went on upheaving till it expressed itself in a number of creative acti­vities whose fruits are some of her greatest achievements in modern times. The heroic souls that came after Rammohan and initiated or carried on those activities, could see the light that India is and worshipped the Ancient Mother and received from her the strength to inaugurate a new age in India.

[1] J. C. Marshman : Life and Times of Carey, p. 46.

[2] B. N. Bandopadhyaya : Satnbadpatre Sekaler Katha {in Bengali), Part III, pp. 195-98.

[3] K. K. Datta : Dawn of Renascent India, p. 25.

[4] Letter of a Hindu College student published in Samachar Darpan of 8.10.1831.

[5] Ibid.

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