THE INDIAN RENAISSANCE

A Point of View

 

SISIRKUMAR GHOSE

 

History is less a matter of facts than of interpretation. Also not what happened but what we do to what happened is what makes the difference, makes history. This involves, willynilly, a subjective factor, even if objective criteria are professed. The mournful history of our days, since the Partition miscalled Independence, has caused a sharp change in mood. Today when we look back at the Elders it is usually in anger. The tradition of the new tramples on idealism as but an illusion. For the majority today the Indian Renaissance is a thing of the past. They could not care less. The metaphor is dead. But perhaps neither enthusiasm nor disillusionment is the best way to understand. And that there was nothing like a Renaissance and that the Renaissance has come to very little are quite separate propositions. If the second, the likelier version, is the truer version, there is reason for being critical no less than self-critical. If the Renaissance has come to very little the fault may be with us. That we have betrayed it, or, to put it mildly, failed to live up to it.

 

But, first, about the view that would like to dispense with the Indian Renaissance as little more than a myth. What is the argument like? To begin with, a dependant country, the critics hold, a colony cannot claim a genuine Renaissance. That is the privilege only of free nations. In any case, the devil’s advocate continues, what we call Renaissance was no more than reform and revival. There was hardly any new creation, at best some beginnings. Some, like the sociologist Motwani, feel constrained to observe that instead of a renaissance the core of Indian culture is in the process of disintegration. Further, the argument accumulates, the so-called Renaissance was almost wholly confined to the middle-class intelligentsia or Bhadralog, a tiny fraction. It did not really touch the life of the masses. (This was to be the aim and work of Mahatma Gandhi though here too one must admit a sense of future, especially in view of what has been happening since his departure from the Indian scene.) Finally, apart from a certain chauvinism and self-complacence there has been little clarification of motives, of our life-style or policies. Drift and opportunism are as rampant as ever while the elite is almost indistinguishable from the expartiate. In spite of tall talk modern India has achieved precious little and the modern Indian continues to be a schizoid, who belongs nowhere. If these be the results of the Renaissance, so much the worse for it.

 

These charges have to be met and not merely ignored. As for the first objection, about political dependence, it may be said that in a sense, the Indian had never lost his selfhood or identity. The loss of political freedom did not mean a loss of cultural self-determination. Thus, for a politically subject nation the Renaissance is not as a priori impossibility. Friendly western observers like James Cousins, John Woodroffe, Evans-Wentz and others have expressed the view that India needs no awakening because where deeper issues of life are concerned, she has always been wide awake. “Throughout the Orient the Promethean fire was never allowed to die out.” (Evens-Wentz, Tibet’s Great Yogi, Milarepa. p. I) This is a flattering thought and should be taken with a pinch of salt. Secondly, that the Renaissance was confined to social, political, religious reform and revival cannot be denied. But behind the reform and the revival there were other implications and possibilities. To be innocent of these is to be unaware of the larger, basic issue of the Indian Renaissance. As for the middle-class origin and orientation of the movement, that, again, has to be admitted. But the creative role in a society or history has rarely been shared by all classes or peoples alike. The middle- class ethos may have carried disabilities but it is not the same thing as saying that it achieved nothing. As for the incongruities of present-day India, the “crisis of India”, the fault may not be those of the pioneers but of those that have come after. It is precisely this, a scrutiny of what passes for leadership in modern India, that is called for. If the Renaissance compels us to the critical frame of mind, to be critical of the leadership, Fuhrerprinzip, small gain. Our solutions fail because the problem of India has not been grasped in its entirety, because we fait to see the “Indian problem” in the context of a world-crisis and its solution is, therefore, part of a universal resolution of the world problem (Vidyarlhi, Indian Culture Through the Ages, p. 345).

 

The Indian Renaissance was no doubt a result of the western impact. But for the British Raj there would have been no Indian Renaissance. As Sri Aurobindo has shown, the process may be analysed, logically and historically, into three processes: i) The earliest represented an uncritical reception of the western impact, a more or less wholesale rejection of ancient Indian values, ii) The second was, in many ways, the opposite of the first, and stood for an equally uncritical rejection of nearly everything that the West had brought. But in truth even behind this apparent rejection a movement of assimilation was under way and the champions of conservatism were not slow in borrowing from the enemy’s armoury, iii) The third process, an ongoing process, has been a more or less conscious attempt to master the modern needs and influences, to create a new harmony or world-culture. The first was rootless and radical; the second, though conservative, was compelled by the Time-Spirit, to modify some of its negative and irrational stances; the third, not yet over, remains tentative but integral by choice. Needless to say, each of these was needed, though what they add up to has often been missed, even by the protagonists themselves. Before turning to the latent content of the unfinished Indian renaissance or revolution, a birds’-eye-view of the prominent socio-religious revivals, the work of a numerically small family of radicals, might help us to see some lines of that emergence.

 

II

 

The first of these movements was the work of that truly capacious and comprehensive spirit, Raja Rammohan Roy. The polyglot, polemic Raja, almost a free-thinker, heralded the spirit of modern India. Though well-versed in the Hindu (as well as other) scriptures, he encouraged the New Learning. One of the first to engage in a comparative study of religions, he later founded or developed a lofty monotheistic creed, Brahmadharma, based mostly on ancient Hindu insights and speculations. The Raja personally preferred the Formless aspect of the Unknown and was severe with all forms of idolatry, bigotry and outmoded socio- religious practices. His group, or Samaj, of which he remained the informing spirit, declared itself in favour of the emancipation of women and stood against the caste system. The Brahmo Samaj which had a brief but brilliant career proved to be a major factor in steaming the tide of Christian missionary activity. In fact, at different periods Raja Rammohan Roy had to engage in debates with the Christian missionaries as well as the orthodox Hindus of the day. And yet, the leaders of the Brahmo Samaj–especially the eloquent, emotional. syncretic Keshubchandra Sen–were hospitable to a variety of religious experiences and formulations. The Raja had a soft corner for the monotheism of Islam while Keshub took generous helpings from Christianity, Vaishnavism, even the Shakti cult. The fact could not but fill the old guards of the Brahmo Samaj with misgivings. Some indeed feared his conversion. And of course he remained loyal to the Crown and sang glories to Queen Victoria. The attempts of the Samaj to bring in a modern note of social reform and its insistence on niceties of etiquette had a touch of the exotic and haute couture–so easy to parody–have helped to set this enlightened group somewhat apart from the rest of their countrymen. Paradoxically, this western accent itself might have saved many Indians from going completely West.

 

All told, the Brahmo Samaj had been an elite enterprise, a “polite society” a la europeenne. There was the need and scope for something more direct, vital, indigenous. This was the work of Swami Dayananda. A Hindu ascetic, “the Indian type”, a competent Vedic scholar, the Swami delighted in controversies. He toured all over the country trouncing the heretics and the missionaries alike. Dayananda carried the war into the enemy’s camp. With the Vedas as stand-by he opposed the inroads of both the foreign missionary and the fanaticism and intolerance of Islam (from which he himself was not quite immune). Dayananda was harsh with the leaders of the Brahmo Samaj since it did not subscribe to the infallibility of the Vedas, the doctrine of rebirth, etc. In some respects archaic, Dayananda extolled the past and turned “back to the vedas” into a slogan. This did not save him from contradictions, since he translated the Vedas–a thing not to be done–and offered individual interpretations. For the post-Vedic developments of Hinduism he was out of sympathy and his iconoclastic zeal helped to keep the Arya Samaj more or less on the outskirts of the larger Hindu society. The Arya Samaj has, however, a fair record in social reforms. It has stood for widow re-marriage and opposed child marriage and untouchability, has been active in reclaiming the Depressed Classes and in proselytizing non-Hindus (which may or not be Vedic in spirit).

 

The third important movement, Theosophy (Greek for Brahmavidya) had a somewhat curious and more colourful history. Product of the labour of non-Indians, primarily of two remarkable European ladies, Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, it found a congenial soil in the Indian climate. A Russian emigree, Madame Blavatsky was deeply interested in the occult. Drawing her material heavily from Tibetan Buddhism and other esoteric, mystical traditions, Platonic, Pythagorean, Hermetic and Egyptian, she formed a common denominator with which to fight modern, materialistic ideas. The Theosophical Society had a New York christening and premiere and, in its early days, was able to make converts in the West. At one time successful in buttressing the Hindu faith and intelligentsia–like Sister Nivedita, Annie Besant found nothing wrong with Hinduism–the Society has published translations of many Sanskrit texts, of which it has a rich library. Eclectic, the Theosophical Society has every right to be considered as part of the Indian Renaissance and the re-affirmation of ancient insights.

 

But all these movementsthe Brahmo Samaj, the Arya Samaj, and the Theosophical Society–were somewhat of fringe movements that left the core of Hindu society on the whole unaffected. The general masses continued, as always, “preferring to stand or fall by the entirety of Hindu traditions.” What was called for was a dramatic enactment of the ancient ideals and practices to which even the common people could respond but without in any way denying the demands of the new spirit, yugadharma. The twin heroes, cast in contrary moulds, of this Renaissance high drama, were Ramakrishna-Vivekananda.

 

Ramakrishna or Gadhadhar Chatterji’s life had little to show from the outside. Perhaps its strength lay precisely there. A humble, unlettered (but not unintelligent) village lad, with an astonishing insight into folkways, the officiating priest of a Calcutta suburban temple, a man of moods as of racy, homely speech–that is what the world saw and knew. Till the charisma could not be contained and took Calcutta by storm. Ramakrishna’s career, a story of “religion in practice,” was a kind of summing up of India’s and the world’s religious evolution before the spirit in man takes another saltus or leap. That inner meaning has, however, been little understood or acted upon. In the meantime Hindu orthodoxy has not been slow to capitalize upon his extraordinary career.

 

But Ramakrishna’s greatest work, or proof of genius, lay in the choice of Narendranath or Swami Vivekananda as his St. Paul. A trail-blazer, the young Swami’s resounding speech at the Chicago Parliament of Religions went round the world. It gave Hinduism a boost such as it had never before and many have cashed in upon it since then. A fiery, moody, sensitive, patriotic soul, Vivekananda is the spirit of eternal youth whom we have learned to venerate rather than emulate. But Vivekananda was more, much more, than a meteor that flashed across the Indian sky. We do him wrong by looking upon him as only a royal rhetorician of “aggressive Hinduism,” the “redeemer of India’s honour” or as one who added evangelism to modern asceticism and set in motion a chain of international Vedanta centres. His vision of India and the future is still unfulfilled.

 

III

 

And now to sum up nearly a century’s unfinished work.

 

Reform movements like the Brahmo Samaj, the Arya Samaj, Theosophical Society, etc., the lives of saints and sages known and unknown to fame, above all, the complimentary-contradictory genius of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda form a remarkable chapter in national recovery. The question: “Is India civilized?” has perhaps been answered once for all. The men and women of the Indian Renaissance brought back self-respect and self-confidence when it was sorely needed. But for them we would have gone under long back. The warrant of her high civilization, wrote Sir John Woodroffe, which may yet bear fruit not only in India but throughout the world, justifies her claim to be the Karmabhumi.

 

In the nature of things the nineteenth century left certain areas of life and thought untouched. In an objective survey these have to be noted. They have a moral for us who have come after, provided we are willing and capable of learning.

 

The men behind the reform and religious activity no doubt represented the cream, “the ascending element in humanity.” Exceptional characters, they were easily raised into cult figures. But in most cases there was no apostolic succession worth the name. Behind the glorification of sects and individuals little of the progressive spirit was left, except as an exercise in nostalgia. Is it surprising that the Renaissance has so little relevance in present-day India? The secret of creative continuity was not fully grasped and we allowed the Renaissance to be a still-birth.

 

Why and how did this happen?

 

As we have said, there were areas where the religio-theological movements did not penetrate. In the religious experience the inner life is no doubt of the first importance. Unfortunately, it also tended to be other-worldly. Maharshi Devendranath, a cultured landlord, speaks of his spiritual experience thus: “Now He reveals Himself to my spirit within; I beheld him within my soul.” In the soul rather than in the world outside, where his poet son would seek Him, among the tillers of the soil and the roadmenders. Our religious bent has often blunted the revolutionary social ardour. On his part Shri Ramakrishna did not believe in doing good, the popular forms of philanthropy, though Vivekananda would give the Mission a tremendous pull towards social service. “Up India, and conquer the world with spirituality!...Now is the time to work….There is no other alternative, we must do it or die.”

 

This of course is not a child’s work. It calls for long and subtle preparation, for energy and understanding, not only of the situation in India but of the world. Essentially, it is a problem of education, for wholeness and the future. Here, except some theorising, the Renaissance has little to show. True, the Arya Samaj and the Theosophical Society took up educational work in keeping with their tenets. But the Arya Samaj was, and still is, orthodox, while the Theosophical Society’s schools and colleges, psychologically and aesthetically much sounder, seemed not to have made much mark in the nation’s life. This may not be the Society’s fault. In its earlier days the Ramakrishna Mission was more concerned with organising monastic orders than schools for the young. No wonder Ananda Coomaraswamy had cried: National education is our top priority. For all the tall talk it still isn’t.

 

Another serious gap, or lacuna, of the nineteenth century movements was that they could do little to improve the lot of the people, except to watch helplessly, the calculated ruin going on all round. Or make fervent appeals, like Dadabhai Naoroji’s patient and prolific memoranda on the “drain” of India’s wealth and resources. As for the rising middle-class, its eye on the main chance, it was not too bothered, at least not while the going was good. As a result interest in economic affairs tended to be minimal or favoured the status quo. In this respect the Indian Renaissance was not rational or revolutionary enough. Religious revivalism and middle-class opportunism could provide no cure for the decay of Indian economy. The people themselves left it to fate.

 

Also while in religion liberal view prevailed, generally speaking outmoded rituals and superstitions continued, as they do to this day. Whether India is the land of cultural synthesis or not, it takes the cake for cultural co-existence, which may or may not be creative. We tolerate even intolerance.

 

The biggest gap in the Indian Renaissance lay perhaps in that most intractable area of human behaviour or misbehaviour called politics. For the next fifty years let politics be your only religion,” the speaker was a world-renouncing young ascetic. If only he could have seen what fifty years of a religion of politics would bring to India, what bitter harvest! It is here, under the most mistaken leadership, that the Indian Renaissance has gone down the drain. For our present wretchedness we cannot hold the Indian Renaissance responsible. It is our so-called leaders who are the wanted men of history. The debacle of the Indian National Congress is its latest Q. E. D.

 

But in spite of the chaos and the loss of self-confidence there is no reason to lose heart. “Never should we think of failure.” (Sir John Woodroffe, Is India Civilized? p. 275). We have not seen the last of the Indian Renaissance. It is more a matter of the future than of the past tense. Its essential, animating ideas wait their hour. Among these essential, animating ideas of the Indian Renaissance the following may be singled out that spirituality is wider than any religion; that spirituality without body and mind is not the ideal that the earthly life is not a vanity; that nationalism is not enough and that a world community, visva-samaaj, is the answer to our time of troubles. Unless we can see the Renaissance in the light of these forward-looking ideas we do it injustice.

 

And when we do so we find there is work for us to do. In keeping with the vitality and sense of order of the old Indian culture we have to learn once more that man is more than reason, more not less, that he is not exhausted by externalities, by manipulation of superficial factors which is what science has to offer. This Vedantic psychology or image of man has no quarrel with science or reason. In fact, it is itself a science, the science of the self. It is only by utilising, simultaneously, a science of self and a science of things that we can hope to build a supra-national culture which is the cry of the world’s unborn soul. India, we love to say, is the Guru of the world. But the Guru will have to learn a few things. Among these is the nature of an industrial society. It will have to provide for a trans- and not a sub- or anti-industrial order. You can’t put the clock back. This search for a new world of freedom–or gnostic society, saadhunaam raajyam, shall we say?–is in keeping  with the Indian attempt down the ages, it is to carry the age-long effort of man towards a new consciousness and race, an age of the Spirit. This is the heart of Indian wisdom, the Indian experiment, not of course of “India as she is today but of India as an idea,” “It is this India that needs to be discovered by every man for himself.” (Kewal Motwani, India: A Synthesis, p. 4) This, we repeat, is the latent content of the Indian Renaissance as well. “A greater India shall be reborn for self- fulfilment and service of humanity,” that leitmotif can never be forgotten. The recognition of such a purpose is likely to give us the power to use the present crisis as an opportunity. This is a task for the young and adventurous in spirit, to carry on the unfinished renaissance or evolution.

 

The idea that “All Life is Yoga” has not yet gained firm ground except here and there. But precisely this may be the key to the Indian Renaissance, that will unlock the future of her potential creativity. In the words of Arnold Toynbee, to give a fair chance to potential creativity is a matter of life and death for any society. Fortunately, as James Cousins (The Renaissance in India, Preface) and others had seen it, the Indian renaissance is not retrospective and finished, but contemporary and therefore happily incomplete. Truly speaking, there has been but one renaissance since man began his chequered history, the Vedic Dawn. The Vedic cry, Jallaya daivyam janam, create a divine race, points to that noon of the future. The bungling of a few decades or generations does not matter and cannot alter the workings of the larger law. The new India can, “if she will, give a new and decisive turn to the problems over which mankind is labouring and stumbling, for the clue to their solutions is there in her ancient knowledge. Whether she will rise or not to the height of her opportunity in the renaissance is the question of her destiny”, of “a higher history than any history hitherto.” We have not seen the best of her yet.

 

So long as we have pride in the past and faith in the future it is better to believe that, appearances notwithstanding:

 

The journey of our history has not ceased…

The metaphor still struggles in the stone.

 

–Courtesy Sri Aurobindo Action

 

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