Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART XIVby Nurul Kabir
HOWEVER, the Christian missionaries in question, particularly those belonging to Clapham Sect, had continuously been demanding government permission for proselytisation ‘in order to rescue the Indians from moral degradation’ and ‘civilise the savage India’.
In the process, Joshua Marshman (1760-1837), another Christian missionary, published a booklet, Advantages of Christianity in Promoting the Establishment and the Prosperity of the British Government in India, in 1813, arguing that he was ‘fully convinced that one of the most effectual means of perpetrating the British dominion in India will be the calm and silent, but steady and constant, diffusion of Christian light among the natives.’ [Joshua Marshman is cited in Amiya Kumar Samanta, Vidyasagar: Oupanibeshik Samaje Vidyasagarer Abasthan Samparke Alochana, Second edition, Progressive Publishers, Kolkata, 2012, p 203] Marshman explained: ‘Every converted Hindu or Mussalman is necessarily the cordial friend of the British, on the ground of his own interest and security, for on the continuance of their empire in India, his very existence.’ [ibid]
The colonialist British administration in London appeared to have been convinced by Marshman’s argument and, therefore, removed the bar for the Christian missionaries to initiate the proselytisation process in India the same year. Besides, the government resolved to introduce ‘proper education’ in the colony for the ‘religious and moral improvement’ of the Indians.
In the process, the famous Hindu College was founded in Kolkata in January 1817 with a view to providing education to the ‘sons of respectable Hindus, in the English and Indian languages and in the literature and science of Europe and Asia’. [Banglapedia: National Encyclopaedia of Bangladesh, Volume V, Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, Dhaka, 2003, Sub Verbo: Hindu College] Many a student of the Hindu College came under the charming intellectual influence of a secularist Anglo-Indian teacher, Henry Louise Vivian Derozio (1809-1831), and subsequently formed a group called the Young Bengal, the members of which used to denounce Hinduism publicly. While some members of the Young Bengal left Hinduism for Christianity, the case of Krishna Mohan Banerjee (1813-1885) being a famous one, the others publicly disregarded various Hindu religious practices, for example, removal of ‘sacred thread’ by Rantanu Lahiri (1838-1898), refusal to ‘swear by the holy Ganges water’ by Rasik Krisna Mallic (1810-1858), rejection of ‘marrying child bride’ by Radhanath Sikdar (1813-1870), so on and so forth. Krishna Mohan Banerjee declared, ‘We have attacked Hinduism and will preserve in attacking it until we seal our triumph.’ [Krishna Mohan is cited in Amalesh Tripathi, Italir Reneiscience, Bangalir Sanskriti, Ananda Publishers Private Limited, Kolkata, 1994, p 52] In this regard, Shibnath Shasri (1847-1919) recollects that Madhab Chandra Mallic, another disciple of Derozio, wrote in a monthly called Athenium: ‘If there is anything that we hate from the bottom of our heart, it is Hinduism.’ [Shibnath Shasri, Ramtanu Lahiri O Tatkalin Bangasamaj, (ed.) Biswajit Ghosh, Nabajug Prakashani, Dhaka, 2012, p 95] Besides, consumption of alcohol, a sin in the eyes of Hinduism, appeared to be a means of visible protest against the Hindu orthodoxy. Shastri, who was a student of the Hindu college, says, ‘The one who could publicly drink alcohol defying the established social and religious norms used to be considered as the vanguards of the reformists those days. [ibid, p 94] Moreover, many an ordinary Hindu in and around Kolkata those days started getting converted to Christianity, due to the religious efforts of the Christian missionaries.
The orthodox sections of the Hindu elite reacted sharply to the phenomenon, while the thinking sections of the same elite resolved to stand in the way of the trend of conversions by way of introducing reforms into their own religion. They, therefore, not only took up the responsibility of translating the ‘holy’ books of Hinduism from Sanskrit to the intelligible languages, but also made efforts to interpret Hinduism in the modern light and make them accessible to the general Hindu public. For that to happen they needed a language suitable to the Hindu public — English literate and non-English literate alike. Hence came the initiative for creating a modern Bangla prose from the English literate Hindu elite, Raja Rammuhan Roy being the pioneer.
Rammuhan Roy, who had written grammar of Bangla in English in 1836 to teach the Europeans Bangla, now wrote the Gouriya Baykoron, grammar of Bangla in Bangla in 1833, which came to be known as the first grammar book based on the inert nature of the Bangla language.
Ramkamal Sen (1783-1844), an English-educated devoted Hindu, who rose to become the secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, compiled a Bangla-English dictionary in 1825. Earlier, in 1820, he wrote a textbook, Hitopodesh, ‘sermons’ in other words, for the Hindu schoolchildren to pursue the young boys to remain committed to Hindu religion and morality. Later, while on the managing committee of the Hindu College, Sen managed to oust Derozio from the educational institution. However, his Bangla-English dictionary substantially contributed to the development of Bangla prose.
That the orthodox section of the English literate Hindu elite was out to save its youths from the increasing threat of proselytisation, was also evident in the intellectual activism of Ramkamal Sen’s contemporary, Raja Radhakanta Dev (1784-1867), who was also actively involved with the management of the Hindu college for three decades. Professor Muhammad Abdul Hai writes that Radhakanta Dev ‘made various efforts to save the members of the Young Bengal from the influence of Christian missionaries’. [Muhammad Abdul Hai and Syed Ali Ahsan, Bangla Sahityer Itibritto: Adhunik Jug (History of Bengali Literature: Modern Period), Ahmed Publishing House, Dhaka, Eleventh print, 2010, p 59] In a bid to regenerate traditional morality among the Hindu Bengalis, Dev, while on the Kolkata School Book Society in 1818, published Nitikotha, a compilation of 31 stories on morality, in Bangla. Besides, he also published Bangla Shikhkha Grantha, a book on Bangla, in 1821. Moreover, he founded Gauriya Samaj in 1823 to work towards the development of the Bangla language.
While Radhakanta Dev’s intellectual efforts to save the Hindu youths from proselytisation to Christianity helped develop the modern Bangla prose, it is important to note that he was opposed to the idea of reforming Hindu religion as was desired by Rammuhan Roy. Instead, Radhakanta Dev founded an association of orthodox Hindus, Dharma Sabha, to oppose the liberal religious reforms preached by Brahma Samaj that Rammuhan Roy founded in 1828 as a monotheistic Hindu reforms movement. It was Radhakanta Dev and his Dharma Sabha that appealed to the British House of Commons, unsuccessfully though, for repealing of the ordinance that barred the Hindu rite of burning alive the Satis. [Krishna Kripalini, Dwarkanath Thakur: Bismrita Pathikrit, National Book Trust – India, New Delhi, 1984, p 46] Understandably, despite Dev’s significant contributions to the development of the Bangla prose, his language remained highly Sanskritised, for he also ‘did a lot for the expansion of Sanskrit education’ those days. He compiled and published a seven-volume Sanskrit dictionary, Shabdakalpadrum, between 1818 and 1851.
However, Raja Rammuhan Roy wrote and published as many as 30 books and pamphlets in Bangla. Except the Bangla grammar, all his books, particularly including Vedanta Grantha and Vedanta Sar published in 1815, were dedicated to the interpretation of, and polemics on, various aspects of Hindu philosophy. In his efforts to reform Hinduism, Roy wrote many a pamphlet on the ‘irrationalities’ of certain inhumane Hindu practices of the day, such as burning alive the widows along with their expired husbands.
Besides, in order to arrest the growing influence of Christianity among the educated Hindu youths, he wrote a few pamphlets, such as Precepts of Jesus, attacking the Trinity theory of Christianity. Rammuhan’s critique of the Trinity theory not only made many an English-literate Hindu youth think twice before getting converted into Christianity, but also made one of his English friends, William Adam, convert to the monotheistic belief system, which, in turn, exposed Rammuhan to the wraths of the Srirampur-based Baptist missionaries believing in the Trinity.
Rammuhan wrote most of his pamphlets, as mentioned earlier, in Bangla. In carrying out his religious reforms programme, particularly by way of presenting monotheistic interpretations of Hinduism before the people, Rammuhan Roy undertook the painstaking job of developing the ‘yet-unformed’ Bangla prose. In this regard, Rabindranath Tagore observed in an English language article in 1928: ‘Ram Mohun had to hew out the way, in strenuous struggle, across the unexplored region of Bengali prose, when he was engaged in developing the potentialities of his own language for the self-expression of the people of Bengal. When eager to illuminate the Bengali mind with the philosophy of spirit, he did not shrink from difficult endeavour of expounding the Vedanta in the yet-unformed Bengali prose to a reading public, some of whose learned men ventured to scoff at the Upanishads as spurious and considered Mahanirvana Tantra to be a scripture fabricated by Ram Mohun Roy himself.” [Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Ram Mohun Roy’, Rabindra Oeuvre, Rabindrasamagra (Complete Works of Rabindranath Tagore), Volume 20, Pathak Shamabesh, Dhaka, 2013, p 1212] Besides, ‘reading of Veda, worshiping of and prayers to Brahma and religious preaching at the Samaj were being conducted in the Bangla language.’ [It was Dwarkanath Thakur who ‘advised’ Rammuhan Roy to conduct worships, prayers and preaching at Brahma Samaj in Bangla. See, Krishna Kripalini, Dwarkanath Thakur: Bismrita Pathikrit, National Book Trust – India, New Delhi, 1984, p 43] In the process, Roy not only ‘infused significant amount of gravity into the Bangla language, enabling it to contain serious thoughts and polemical ideas’, but also ‘brought to the fore, inadequately though, the language’s natural rhythm by using various punctuation marks.’ [Muhammad Abdul Hai and Syed Ali Ahsan, Bangla Sahityer Itibritto: Adhunik Jug (History of Bengali Literature: Modern Period), Ahmed Publishing House, Dhaka, Eleventh print, 2010, p 57] Evidently, Rammuhan Roy produced a huge amount of polemical religious and philosophical literature in the Bangla language, but perhaps due to the fact that he analysed a lot of Hindu religious philosophy written in Sanskrit, his Bangla remained heavily Sanskritised.
That Rammuhan Roy’s Brahma Samaj movement, or in other words, the process of re-interpretation of Hinduism in Bangla with special emphasis on the inherent monotheism of ancient Hindu religious tradition, had significantly served the religious purpose of halting the wave of conversion of the English-educated Hindu youths to Christianity, and their tendency to disrespect Hinduism, gets evident in an observation made by Rabindranath Tagore in 1889. Tagore writes:
‘With the first touch of English education, the Bengali youth started getting extremely anti-national. They found it to be moral responsibility to eat beef, and considered the followers of the ancient Hindu religion to be synonymous with the four-footed animals. Meanwhile, the Brahma faith propagated by great Rammuhan Roy slowly started spreading roots in the country. The subsequently revealed fact that a pure monotheism had existed in our country in the ancient times became the prime inspiration for [the English-educated youths] to respect the national past.’ [Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Nabyabanger Andolan’ (The neo-Bengal movement), Rabindrashamagra (Complete Works of Rabindranath Tagore), Volume 17, Pathak Shamabesh, Dhaka, 2013, p 466]
To be continued.
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