17th Century Florence and 19th Century Calcutta:
– Anti-feudal bourgeoisie and semi-feudal ‘bhadraloks’
By: Kumar Sarkar
A recent short visit to Rome, Florence, Pisa and Venice has been an inspiration to reopen the much-debated historical issues comparing 17th century Italy with 19th century Bengal.
Ever since historian Jadunath Sarkar (1928) identified the flurry of literary, artistic, social and religious activities in nineteenth century Bengal as the ‘Renaissance’ and Amit Sen (Sushovan Sarkar, 1946) provided introductory but comprehensive notes on the same topic, the issue has become widely controversial resulting in an ever-increasing volume of literature on the subject.
What is presented below is an outline of a hypothesis that needs to be thoroughly researched.
A new type of middle class, which has become known as the ‘bhadraloks’ (gentlefolk), was born mostly of Hindu origins during the 19th century in Bengal. Earlier, Bengal had been de-industrialised by the East India Company. The Permanent Settlement of 1793 created a new type of Hindu landowning class, who gradually became mostly absentee landlords. As the accumulation of capital from agricultural land and from the remaining mercantile capitalism was becoming increasingly scarce and unavailable for investment in the manufacturing industry due to colonial restrictions, the new capital mostly went into urban and rural ground rent, giving birth to a rentier sub-class encompassing the bulk of the bhadraloks. A large section of the bhadraloks consisted of professional people.
Colonial rule allied itself with local feudalism to keep its hold. The bhadraloks became mostly subservient to the colonial rulers for survival. Thus, we can see that there was no scope for indigenous development of an anti-feudal independent industrial bourgeoisie, like that of Europe. The new middle class, the bhadraloks, were a diverse group of semi-feudal / semi-bourgeois elements.
The developments in 19th century Bengal were not comparable to the anti-feudal movements of 17th century Europe.
Two basic issues
Two issues have obscured a scientific characterization of the specific blend of movements of 19th century Bengal. These are:
(A) What is Renaissance?
(B) Who were the bhadraloks? What was their class-base? And what was their attitude toward imperialism?
Renaissance: According to some historians, renaissance is purely a cultural concept of historiography, irrespective of any specific socio-economic significance, e.g. classical Graeoco-Roman, twelfth century Carolingian and Byzantine Palaeologue renaissances. (1) Likewise, there was the Bengal renaissance of the 19th century. This solely cultural definition cannot reveal the historic significance attached to the specific episodes of 15th -17th century Europe known under the concept of Renaissance.
However, there are others who recognise the unique socio-economic significance of the Renaissance, but nevertheless maintain that the developments of nineteenth century Bengal were comparable to those of the 15th -17th century Renaissance of Italy and Europe.
Engels on the Renaissance:
The scientific evaluation of the Renaissance came from Engels. He defined it as follows:
“It was the greatest progressive revolution that mankind had so far experienced, a time which called for giants and produced giants – giants in power of thought, passion and character, in universality and learning. The men who founded the modern rule of the bourgeoisie had anything but bourgeois limitations. On the contrary, the adventurous character of the time inspired them to a greater or lesser degree. There was hardly any man of importance then living who had not travelled extensively, who did not speak four or five languages, who did not shine in a number of fields. Leonardo da Vinci was not only a great painter but also a great mathematician, mechanician, and engineer, to whom the most diverse branches of physics are indebted for important discoveries. Albrecht Durer was painter, engraver, sculptor, and architect, and in addition invented a system of fortification embodying many of the ideas that much later were again taken up by Montalembert and the modern German science of fortification. Machiavelli was statesman, historian, poet, and at the same time the first notable military author of modern times. Luther not only cleaned the Augean stable of the Church but also that of the German language; he created modern German prose and composed the text and melody of that triumphal hymn imbued with confidence in victory which became the Marseillaise of the sixteenth century.” (Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Moscow, 1974, pp. 20-2.) (Italics added.)
Bengal in the nineteenth century also had ‘giants’ like Rammohan, Derozio, Vidyasagar, Bankim Chandra and Vivekananda, to name only the principal leaders of that time. But they did not lead a ‘great progressive revolution’ i.e. a bourgeois-type revolution befitting their time, as it was in Europe.
Let us now move on to the second issue. Who were the bhadraloks?
Identification of the bhadraloks and their objective role in nineteenth century Bengal is the cardinal issue for the evaluation of that period in history.
- The bhadraloks were a unique product of early colonial Bengal of overwhelmingly Hindu origin, who had been favourably appointed as tax collectors by the Moghul rulers.
- From the mid-18th century onwards Bengal under the East India Company was witnessing continued worsening of indigenous industries. Colonial discrimination led to the demise of salt manufacturing and ship building together with downsizing of traditional cotton and silk textiles. Bengal was rapidly becoming de-industrialised from being the main part of the world’s second leading producer, India, to the bottom rank, as the following table shows (2):
India’s share of the world Manufacturing Output 1750-1938 (in percent)
Year : 1750 1800 1830 1880 1913 1938
Output 24.5 19.7 17.6 2.8 1.4 2.4
- This new class had no opportunity of investing capital in the manufacturing industry; instead they had to invest it in real estate. The new jute industry, engineering, tea plantation and coal mining, which were all growing spectacularly, were in the hands of British colonialists. (3)
- Bhadraloks were semi-feudal in their class outlook – more feudal than bourgeois. Their mode of existence was in appeasing the colonial masters for survival, sometimes struggling against them for concessions and better governance, reacting with the fear of revolutionary changes threatening their own existence.
- In the prevailing conditions of the colonial grip in alliance with a parasitic feudalism served by the bhadraloks, the birth of an independent anti-feudal bourgeois class comparable to that of 17th century Europe was inconceivable.
- The 19th century movements did not affect the lower echelons of Bengali society, which consisted of lower caste Hindus as well as the vast majority of the Muslim population, who were peasants. The Muslims gradually became the dominant section of Bengal’s population,
Census Year Muslim Population Hindu Population
1872 (first census) 17,609,135 18,100,438
1901 21,947,980 20,150,541
1941 33,371,688 25,801,724
Bhadraloks and 19th century Europe
19th century Bengal was exposed to the Scottish Reformation and Calvinism, which was the background of William Carey (1761-1834) and Rev. Alexander Duff (1806 – 1878), who together with David Hare (1775–1842) founded the modern English-oriented education system in Bengal. Hare was an atheist. David Drummond (1785-1843), a product of the Scottish Reformation, was a rationalist.
It is necessary to quote Engels again:
“In Calvinism, the second great bourgeois upheaval found its doctrine ready cut and dried. This upheaval took place in England. The middle-class of the towns brought it on, and the yeomanry of the country districts fought it out. Curiously enough, in all the three great bourgeois risings, the peasantry furnishes the army that has to do the fighting; and the peasantry is just the class that, the victory once gained, is most surely ruined by the economic consequences of that victory. A hundred years after Cromwell, the yeomanry of England had almost disappeared. Anyhow, had it not been for that yeomanry and for the Plebian element in the towns, the bourgeoisie alone would never have fought the matter out to the bitter end, and would never have brought Charles I to the scaffold. In order to secure even those conquests of the bourgeoisie that were ripe for gathering at the time, the revolution had to be carried considerably further – exactly as in 1793 in France and 1848 in Germany. This seems, in fact, to be one of the laws of evolution of bourgeois society.” (Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific)
Let us have a brief look at the various leaders of the literary, scientific, social and religious movements of nineteenth century Bengal.
Rammohan Roy was born in a prosperous orthodox Brahmin landowning family. His father acquired rentier interests investing in landed estates following the Permanent Settlement in Bengal (1793). Rammohan bought six taluks (estates) between 1799 and 1810. As a senior official of the East India Company (EIC) he had the responsibility for land assessment for the Permanent Settlement. He later became a banyan money-lender to the EIC.
Rammohan was a great scholar as well as an expert in public administration. He was well versed in several languages including English, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit and Greek. He was a voracious reader of the Times, the Edinburgh Review, missionary journals and contemporary European literature.
Rammohan became a foremost reformist champion of women’s education and freedom of the press. His successful opposition to the atrocious and inhuman system of immolation of ‘Satis’ (widows) and later founding of the Bramho Samaj put the Hindu orthodoxy in the dock for a considerable period of time.
However, Rammohan’s social reforms did not go beyond the sphere of the upper caste. He considered peasants well protected by the Permanent Settlement and advocated its extension beyond Bengal.
Rammohan came in contact with William Carey in 1796. He was influenced by the French Revolution of 1789 and 1830 and organised a celebration dinner for the latter at the Calcutta Town Hall, which was attended by several hundred people. While in England in 1832, he visited France to have a first hand experience of the postrevolution situation there.
It was Rammohan who estimated that around one-half of all total revenue collected in India was being sent out to England, but he came to the contradictory conclusion that unrestricted settlement of Europeans in India governing under free trade would help ease the economic drain crisis. In 1828, he became Joint Treasurer of the Commercial and Patriotic Association organised by the British indigo planters.
The man who celebrated the victory of the French Revolution of 1830 did not consider his homeland India deserving even of self-government. Rammohan told French botanist Victor Jacquemont:
“India requires many more years of English domination so that she might not have many things to lose when she is reclaiming her political independence.” And, “I gave up my prejudices against them (British people) and became inclined to their favour, feeling persuaded that their rule, though a foreign yoke, would lead more speedily and surely to the amelioration of the native inhabitants.” (4)
Rammohan exemplified a typical early 19th Century Bengali elitist bhadralok whose subjective leanings towards bourgeois democracy, under the influence of Scottish Orientalism and the 1830 French revolution, could not grow roots as these were not conformable to the existing material base of the colonial environment, of which he was a part.
Henry Derozio was born in a well-to-do business family in Calcutta. His grandfather was a businessman of Portuguese descent and a Protestant. His father was the chief accountant at the well known Messrs James and Scott Company. Derozio’s mother was of British parentage. Derozio attended David Drummond’s Dhurramtallah Academy from the age of eight to fourteen, when his father died. Derozio had to leave his studies and join the firm where his father worked in order to maintain the family. He did not like the job and after two years joined his uncle-in-law’s firm in Bhagalpore. Later he returned to Calcutta for a better job. At the age of 17, he was appointed Assistant Headmaster in English literature and history at the Hindu College. He was an atheist and had renounced Christianity. He encouraged his students to develop independent rationalist thinking. He was expelled from the college by its Hindu orthodox management under the chairmanship of Radhakanta Deb, who belonged to the comprador Shovabazar Deb family.
Derozio led the radical Academic Association, which regularly met within and outside the Hindu College campus, attracting several hundred people. No doubt, he was highly influenced by his teacher David Drummond (1785-1843) of Scottish Reformation background.
Derozio was a great romantic and rationalist poet.
Derozio welcomed establishment of the Hindu College and wanted to see many of them. But he recognised:
“The most superficial observer must perceive that India is maintained in subjection only by Military Force. Withdraw it, and the boasted opinion of the natives, instead of supporting, would prove the cause of the utter subversion of the empire.” (5)
Derozio was a pioneer bourgeois democrat in his ideology with a mercantile background. However, his sphere of involvement was limited to the semi-feudal bhadraloks. He only lived twenty-two years. His followers were all very well known firebrand intellectuals, ideologically democratic like Derozio, who later became known as the Young Bengals. Though a few of them sometimes expressed their concern for the peasantry, they did not have any contact with them. Some of them even became pro-colonial in their later life.
Derozio was the initiator of a nascent bourgeois democratic movement in Bengal that was nipped in the bud by his premature death.
Ishwar Chandra Bandyopadhyay, Vidyasagar’s real name, was born in an orthodox Brahmin family but povertystricken. At the age of nine, he went to live in Calcutta, where his destitute father had already been staying for some years to earn a living and finally gained the shelter of a well to do benefactor.
Iswar Chandra proved to be a great scholar and academician. He was rewarded with a number of scholarships, but to support himself and his family he had to take a part-time teaching job. He studied at Calcutta’s Sanskrit College for twelve years and qualified in Sanskrit grammar, literature, dialectics [Alankara Shastra], Vedanta, Smruti and astronomy. He received the title Vidyasagar for his academic performance at the Sanskrit College. In the year 1839, Vidyasagar passed his law examination. Two years later, at the age of twenty-one, he joined Fort William College as head of the Sanskrit department. After five years, in 1846, Vidyasagar left it and joined the Sanskrit College as ‘Assistant Secretary’. Later he became Assistant Inspector of Schools.
Modern elegant Bengali prose literature is greatly indebted to Vidyasagar. Vidyasagar was an academic educator, writer, translator, publisher, philanthropist and social reformer. His greatest achievements were in the field of education for which he became a household name. He reconstructed the Bengali alphabet and simplified Bengali typography.
In Derozio’s tradition, Vidyasagar was a rational secular thinker and was an atheist. He devoted his time in writing and contributing to many radical journals of his time. As a social reformer his main contributions were his tireless efforts towards uplifting the status of women in Bengal. He conducted a courageous and remarkable fight for widow remarriage, confronting the Hindu orthodoxy. Associated with this was also his opposition to the polygamy practised by the Kulin or the top-ranking Brahmins. However, widow remarriage and polygamy were predominantly upper caste issues. The struggle did not lead to other reforms of women’s oppression, though of course in the field of their education Vidyasagar’s pioneering contributions were unparalleled.
Since he did not extend the fight against broader social issues, Vidyasagar did not achieve any far-reaching social progress. The Hindu reactionary forces, which were re-grouping themselves under his successors, i.e. Bankim Chandra and later Hindu revivalism as preached by Vivekananda, succeeded in isolating Vidyasagar. This probably accounts for his withdrawal from urban life during his last twenty years. Living afterwards with the indigenous people could have given Vidyasagar a rare opportunity of generating a meaningful social struggle, but presumably it was outside the class limits of the bhadraloks.
Bankim Chandra (1838-1894)
Bankim Chandra Chattopadhya was born in an orthodox Brahmin family. He was appointed as a deputy collector of revenue like his father. He served the British for almost thirty-two years and eventually became a deputy magistrate. He was awarded the Order of the Indian Empire in 1894.
Bankim Chandra was a writer and journalist. He modernized the prose form of Bengali literature. He is regarded as the father of the Bengali novel. He was the first writer to use the Western form of the novel successfully in an Indian language.
In the first part of his life he was influenced by the first and second French revolutions, contemporary democratic revolutions in Europe and the American civil war. The Pabna peasant uprising of 1873 and the famine in the same year provoked Bankim to come close to agrarian problems. He wrote a series of scathing essays under the title, ‘Bengal’s Peasantry’(1873), to highlight the misery of the peasants. He recognised that ‘Just as surgery is used to remove gangrene, an operation was needed to eliminate a social evil and improve society.’ But he did not go further than equality of rights. In his once famous article, Samya (Equality) (1879), he referred to the ideas of Rousseau, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, St Simon and Fourier. Referring to “land belongs to everyone” as a seed sown by Rousseau, he recognised “a gigantic tree” “to bear all kinds of new fruit” like socialists, communism and even the ‘International’, but never mentioned Marx by name! However, in the same breath, he opposed those who were against the zamindars, who, according to Bankim, had often performed good deeds.
Understandably, this flirtation with socialism was very short lived. Only a few years later, Bankim returned to his original class base and completely changed his hitherto liberal stance as he openly disclosed his fear of a revolutionary social change. Unashamedly, he advocated that the peasants were being well looked after by zaminders, that most zaminders were helping the peasants. The colonial rule was good for India and the Permanent Settlement was only a mistake! Bankim publicly withdrew his article ‘Samya’ in 1881.
Bankim soon appeared as an energetic reactionary ideologue against the then rising tide of anti-orthodoxy initiated by Derozio and later followed by Vidysasagar. He emerged as the inspirator of sectarian Hindu Nationalism directed against the Muslims. Of his thirteen novels, at least three were directed against the Muslims. He wrote in Bangadarsan (June 1880) opposing Vidyasagar’s campaign for widow remarriage on the pretext that they were becoming obsolete precisely because they were evil. An unashamed supporter of zaminders and apologist of colonialism, his Hindu nationalism has existed within India’s independence movement as a continued central or a parallel force, often in disguise of Indian nationalism. Bankim’s Hindu nationalism became Political Hinduism during the anti-partition movement in Bengal in 1905, which spread all over India like a prairie fire. His Hindu nationalism has continued with rejuvenated new life in the ideology of today’s Hindutva.
Naredra Nath Dutta, Vivekananda’s pre-monastic name, was born in an aristocratic Hindu upper caste (Kayastha), but in an unorthodox family. His grandfather was a Sanskrit and Persian scholar. His father was an attorney at the Calcutta High Court.
In his early youth Narendra joined a Freemasons Lodge and his early beliefs were shaped by Brahmo Samaj concepts of formless God and deprecation of idolatry. Once, he even embraced atheism.
Narendra’s introduction to Ramakrishna was in the General Assembly Institution, when Professor Hastie mentioned him as the person who experienced “trance” to exemplify the meaning of the word as used in one of Wordsworth’s poems (Wikipedia). Narendra’s association with Ramkrishna started in November 1881, when he was only 18. After his second day’s experience, Narendra considered him as a “monomaniac” and a hypnotist. He could not accept worship of the goddess Kali as a follower of Brahmo Samaj. It was Ramkrishna’s state of ‘Samadhi’ that influenced young Narendra very much. There are medical scientists who consider that this so-called Samadhi could actually have been ‘temporal lobe epilepsy’.
Following his father’s sudden death in 1884, bearing the entire burden of the family, Narendra had to try very hard to find work and often distressfully questioned the existence of God. Eventually, he found great comfort in Ramakrishna, whose populist advocacy of all religious paths leading to the same destiny impressed young Narendra decisively. Narendra became Vivekananda and followed Ramakrishna till his death in 1886.
Vivekananda did not advance the legacy of Derozio and Vidyasagar or even Rammohan, but rather moved in the opposite direction. Travelling all over India for five years from 1888, when he was 25 years old, till 1893, as a Hindu wandering monk, brought him into direct contact with harsh social reality. He passionately reacted to the pathetic state of the lower echelons of Hindu society, but was torn between his rational ‘bhadralok’ youth base and Ramkrishna’s divine theology.
At the age of 35, twenty-eight years after the legislation of the ‘Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act’ (1856) following Vidyasagar’s social campaign for the same, he was still only skirting the issue. While recognising justly that most of the social reforms being advocated during his time did not touch the “poor masses”, he however reached the opposite pole by virtually rejecting the basic rights of women and widow re-marriage and supporting the society’s “right to dictate whom you shall marry and whom you shall not” because “by the producing of children, you are contributing to, and are responsible for, the future good or evil of the society.” (Modern India) (6)
Being confronted with questions from the American audience on the status of women in India in 1900 (7), he glorified Hindu womanhood, subordinating it to motherhood. He upheld the necessity of child marriage for the society (which he had opposed before) and caste divisions despite recognising:
“Then, again, there is caste. Each caste has become, as it were, a separate racial element. If a man lives long enough in India, he will be able to tell from the features what caste a man belongs to. Then, between castes, the manners and customs are different. And all these castes are exclusive; that is to say, they would meet socially, but they would not eat or drink together, nor intermarry. In those things they remain separate. They would meet and be friends to each other, but there it would end.” (1900) (7)
And all these issues were presented in the name of a ‘socialistic’ Indian Hindu society!
Three years before his death, in 1899, in his famous and most celebrated article, ‘Modern India’ (6), mentioned earlier, written in Bengali, he made it very clear that he was against the abolition of the ‘original caste system’, which he believed had rendered a great service to society! Despite witnessing himself the caste barbarity during his long India tour, he points out,
“From the time of Upanisads down to the present day, nearly all our great teachers have wanted to break through the barriers of caste, i.e. caste in its degenerated state, not the original system.”
Faced with another issue, amidst reformist movements during his time, of intermarriage between different nationalities, Vivekananda could support intra-caste marriage, between their subdivisions, but definitely not with ‘alien’ religions, presumably referring to Christianity and Islam.
Vivekananda failed the test of history to counter the issue of religious communalism that was so vital for the democratic development of India. In fact, he fostered it by a total negative presentation of the historical role of Islam. Vivekananda wrote:
“The Prophet Mohammed himself was dead against the priestly class in any shape and tried his best for the total destruction of this power by formulating rules and injunctions to that effect…… To the Mussulman, the Jews or the Christians are not objects of extreme detestation; they are, at the worst, men of little faith. But not so the Hindu. According to him, the Hindu is idolatrous, the hateful Kafir; hence in this life he deserves to be butchered; and in the next, eternal hell is in store for him.” (Modern India, 6)
And, later, he could comfort himself saying:
“Again, it is an undoubted fact that if there had not been the advent of Kabir, Nanak, and Chaitanya in the Mohammedan period, and the establishment of the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj in our own day, then, by this time, the Mohammedans and the Christians would have far outnumbered the Hindus of the present day in India.” (Modern India, 6)
It could not have been unknown to Vivekananda that it was the ideology of human brotherhood of those great personalities that kept the bitterly oppressed lower caste Hindu population at a ‘safe distance’ from the attractions of Islamic teachings of equality.
M N Roy in his famous article on Islam (1939) explained the specific attitude of the Hindus towards Islam very aptly:
“No civilized people in the world is so ignorant of Islamic history and contemptuous of the Mohammedan religion as the Hindus. Spiritual Imperialism is an outstanding feature of our nationalist ideology” (8)
Vivekananda was the father of this Spiritual Imperialism, which he developed in the process of countering the influence of western democracy. It can be argued that the notion of ‘Spiritual Imperialism,’ originating from Vivekananda, together with Bankim before him, must bear some responsibility for the sectarian communal attitude of the “average educated Hindu” and its overriding formative role in ‘Indian’ nationalist ideology that Roy referred to.
Bankim’s Political Hinduism received a spiritual boosting in Vivekakanda’s Hindu revivalism. The two trends together constituted the dominant socio-political ideology of the time, manifested in the first political explosion in the anti-partition movement of Bengal in 1905 – the democratic movement that rocked India but was soon to become, inevitably, a deformed phenomenon for the remainder of its life.
Like Bankim before him, Vivekananda was also influenced by contemporary democratic revolutions and working class struggles in Europe and even called himself a socialist. His stance on many burning issues of the time reflects the Narendra-Vivekananda dichotomy. His writing of ‘Modern India’ is a crystallisation of his philosophy, an amazing piece of self-contradictory assertions and analyses, often passionately exposing harsh historic reality, sometimes appearing so close to some basic tenets of historical materialism and making prophetic predictions, only to get buried soon after with unexpected end-products, rationalised at best and reactionary at worst. ‘Modern India’ requires a thorough critical study in the context of the present political situation in India.
Continuing with his life-long dichotomy, Vivekananda tried his best to reconcile his own version of Sanatan Hinduism with the historical materialist view of human social development. All his energy was diverted to liberating Hinduism from its worst degeneration in 19th century Bengal via revivalism of traditional Hinduism, or rather his imagination of the latter – a glossy or apologetic version of a rotten system.
Vivekananda depicted Roman expansion and imperialism as the Kshatriya in action, the British mercantile aristocracy as a demonstration of the ascendancy of the Vaisyas, and the American democracy representing the Sudrocracy of the future! In the same vein, he posed British imperialism in India:
“Conquering another country is very bad; foreign domination is also very bad; but sometimes good comes out of evil. British conquest of India is an amazingly novel occurrence. They were a new and strange power. Their flag was the chimney of a factory; their force consisted of commercial ships; their equipment of war was the world’s merchandise… Such a powerful and all-pervasive system of Government had never before taken over the administration in our country. Consequently peace, discipline and rule of law have been established.” (9)
So close to unravelling imperialism and so frustrating to obscure it at the end!
In ‘Modern India’ (1899) (6) Vivekananda describes the international background of his time (1863-1902):
“But from a careful study of the history of the world, it appears that in conformity to the law of nature the four castes, the Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra do, in every society, one after another in succession, govern the world.”…………..
“Again, at all yet, a time will come when there will be the rising of the Shudra class, with their Shudrahood; that is to say, not like that as at present when the Shudras are becoming great by acquiring the characteristic qualities of the Vaishya or the Kshatriya, but a time will come when the Shudras of every country, with their inborn Shudra nature and habits — not becoming in essence Vaishya or Kshatriya, but remaining as Shudras — will gain absolute supremacy in every society. The first glow of the dawn of this new power has already begun to break slowly upon the Western world, and the thoughtful are at their wits’ end to reflect upon the final issue of this fresh phenomenon. Socialism, Anarchism, Nihilism, and other like sects are the vanguard of the social revolution that is to follow.”
Narendra foresaw a Shudra revolution, but Vivekananda failed to welcome it. Instead, he was apparently concerned by the prospect of such a revolution “by their inborn Shudra nature and habits” – ”the thoughtful are at their wits’ end to reflect upon the final issue of this fresh phenomenon“. He took refuge in a strange administrative solution to caste oppression, even describing its cruel hereditary bondage as conducive to social advancement:
“In modern India, no one born of Shudra parents, be he a millionaire or a great Pandit, has ever the right to leave his own society, with the result that the power of his wealth, intellect, or wisdom, remaining confined within his own caste limits, is being employed for the betterment of his own community. This hereditary caste system of India, being thus unable to overstep its own bounds, is slowly but surely conducing to the advancement of the people moving within the same circle. The improvement of the lower classes of India will go on, in this way, so long as India will be under a government dealing with its subjects irrespective of their caste and position”! (Modern India, 6)
Fifteen years after Vivekananda’s death, the October Revolution of 1917 shook the world.
We have seen that the episodes of 19th century Bengal are not comparable to the anti-feudal 17th century Renaissance. The roots of the former can be seen partly in the bourgeois democratic revolutions of Europe in the 19th century, whose democratic ethos could not generate a direct parallel in 19th century Bengal for reasons outlined above. The democratic bourgeois elements were ill developed, lacked a solid material base and thus were too weak to unite with the peasantry, which could have opposed feudalism and the caste system and challenged imperialism.
Such was Bengal’s (and India’s) bourgeois democratic revolution that never was.
1. Renaissance and renaissances: Europe and Bengal, Sukanta Chowdhuri, University
of Cambridge, South Asian Studies, Occasional Paper No1, 2004, p1.)
2. Globalization and the Poor Periphehry before 1950, Jeffrey G Williamson, The MIT
Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England. From: Table 3, Source:
Simmons 1985, Table 1, p. 600, based on Bairoch 1982, Tables 10 and 13, pp. 296
and 304. Note: India refers to the total sub-continent.
3. Bengal industry and the British industrial revolution (1757-87), Indrajit Roy.
4.,Essays on Modern India, page 33, Dr Raj Kumar
5. The Keledoscope (1829): “On the colonization of India by Europeans”:
6. Modern India, Internet
7. Women of India : Delivered at the Shakespeare Club House, in Pasadena,
California, on January 18, 1900
8. Historical Role of Islam, p5-6, Renaissance publication
9. Quoted in ‘Rammohan Roy, Vivekananda and Tagore on British rule’, Romit
Bagchi, Internet, 8 February, 2015.