Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART XVby Nurul Kabir
HOWEVER, in carrying forward the reforms movement of Brahma Samaj, Rammuhan Roy got multi-dimensional support of Dwarkanath Thakur (1794-1846) and his son Debendranath Thakur (1817-1905), who in 1839 formed Tattwaranjini Sabha, later renamed Tattwabodhini Sabha, to ‘disseminate the knowledge of Upanishads and promotion of religious inquiry’ in society. The largest and most influential cultural organisation of the educated Hindus of Bengal, until it was defunct in 1854, Tattwabodhini Sabha attracted many rich, educated, and influential Hindus as its members. Along with running a Tattwabodhini Pathshala (school) and compiling as well as distributing religious scriptures, the Sabha used to publish a monthly, Tattwabodhini Patrika, which became the ‘principal organ’ of Brahma Samaj. [The Tattwabodhini Patrika used to be published in five languages from different centres of India – in Bangla from Kolkata, in Tamil and English from Madras and in Hindi and Urdu from Bareilly.] Influential contemporary reformist intellectuals of the Hindu community, such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891), Rajendra Lal Mitra (1824-1891) and Rajnarayan Basu (1826-1899) were associated with Tattwabodhini Patrika, edited by Akshmay Kumar Datta (1820-1886), since its inception in 1843. The prime objective of the Patrika was, in the words of Debendranath Thakur, the ‘nestor of the Brahma Samaj’, ‘the propagation of the Vedic literature and preaching of the worship of Param Brahma’. Besides, the Patrika used to oppose the Christian practice of conversion of the Hindus by the missionaries. For example, it ‘condemned the conversion of Umesh Chandra Sarkar and his wife’ in 1845. [http://www.thebrahmosamaj.net/founders/debendranath.html, accessed on July 7, 2013] Moreover, the Patrika used to write ‘articles supporting female education, widow-remarriage, against intemperance, denouncing polygamy’, et cetera. The contents of the Patrika also included articles on contemporary science and philosophy.
Thus, in the process of combating proselytisation and propagating the monotheistic Brahma Dharma to protect Hinduism from the onslaught of Christianity, those associated with Tattwabodhini Patrika played a substantive role in developing the Bangla prose.
Editor of the Patrika for 12 years, Akshay Kumar Datta wrote quite a good number of books on moral philosophy, philology and science in Bangla. In his two volumes of Bahjyabastur Sahit Manab Prakrtir Sambandha, Datta discussed the relations of external components with the human nature, while his Dharmaniti discussed the principled way of leading human life. In his two volumes of Bharatvarsiya Upasak Sampraday, Datta offered sociological analysis on the histories of all categories of Aryan societies, Indo-European and Indo-Iranian and Indian included, and showed that the linguistic and religious emotions plays the determining role in shaping the social thoughts of any populace. Besides, his three volumes of Charupath, textbooks for schoolchildren, are said to have contributed to the spread of scientific knowledge in the society of Bengal.
Understandably, the Bangla prose started getting capable of handling various subjects ranging from history to science to ethics to linguistics in the hands of Akshay Kumar Datta. But, again, his prose remained Sanskritised.
In this phase of the history of the development of Bangla prose appeared Ishwar Chandra Sharma, popularly known as Vidyasagar, the ocean of knowledge, with his multi-dimensional social and intellectual commitments. The most principled reformist among the English-educated Hindus of his time, Ishwar Chandra was a middle-roader, with the radical Young Bengal group on the one side and the orthodox Hindu elite on the other. Born into a Brahmin family and personally an agnostic [Amiya Kumar Samanta, Vidyasagar: Oupanibeshik Samaje Vidyasagarer Abasthan Samparke Alochana, Second edition, Progressive Publishers, Kolkata, 2012, p 272], Ishwar Chandra cared little for Hinduism’s age-old dogmas. He fought vehemently against many dogmatic practices of his contemporary Hindu society, such as multi-marriages of the Brahmins, burning of the Hindu widows alive along with their dead husbands and the custom of barring re-marriage of Hindu widows. Orthodox Hindus kept such anti-human practices in vogue in the name of various scriptures of the dogmatic versions of Hinduism. While fighting against such practices, Ishwar Chandra, who had scholarly command over Sanskrit language and literature, interpreted and re-interpreted the Hindu religious texts in Bangla to refute the orthodox arguments ‘supporting’ the inhuman practices in the name of religious doctrines. In the process, he wrote a large number of books, pamphlets, essays and articles in Bangla to mobilise informed public opinion against the Hindu religious dogmas.
The reformist social and intellectual activism of the great man contributed not only decisively to the abolition of such inhuman social and religious practices, but also greatly to the progress of Bangla, as he infused ‘literary dynamism’ into its prose. Before Bankim Chandra Chattapadhya (1838-1894) and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), it was Ishwar Chandra Sharma who brought in profoundly qualitative changes in the forms and contents of the Bangla language and literature. In this regard, Professor Abdul Hai writes that ‘Bangla language remains Vidyasagar’s best of contributions’, for ‘it was his single-handed efforts that gave Bangla prose its dynamic lucidity and transformed it to an easy-flowing literary language’. [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 68]
Ishwar Chandra wrote a large number of essays, articles, satires on religious issues affecting social lives of the time, and published as well as edited more than forty books, including school textbooks on subjects ranging from history to language, literature, ethics and biographies. Besides, he wrote plays in light of the famous works of English and Sanskrit playwrights, Shakespeare and Kalidas for instance, composed poems and compiled a lexicon of Bangla words – Shabdamanjuri. In the process of his literary works, Ishwar Chandra was the first one to use the almost proper punctuation marks in Bangla sentences and introduce indigenous idioms into the language. Thus, as Sukumar Sen observes, ‘Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar upgraded the road of Bangla prose, constructed through translations, polemics and textbooks, to the highway of Bangla literature’. [Sukumar Sen, Bangala Sahityer Itihas (History of Bangla Literature), Volume III, Ninth impression, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata, 1418 (Bangla calendar), p 34]
Rabindranath Tagore poetically termed Ishwar Chandra in 1938 the ‘morning lustre that brought in the first ray of hope’ in the Bangla language and literature, and observed that it was Ishwar Chandra who ‘inscribed the first emblem of triumph on the forehead of Bengal’, for he freed the language from the ‘captivity of darkness’ and thus, ‘with the inauguration of a new chapter’ of the language, ‘delighted the woods of the eastern horizon of an overwhelmed sky.’ [Rabindranath Tagore, Rabindrashamagra (Complete Works of Rabindranath Tagore), Volume 18, Pathak Samabesh, Dhaka, 2012, p 13. Tagore composed the poem, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, in 1936. The lines of the poem quoted here is the paraphrase of the poetic work.] Tagore also observed that ‘Vidhyasagar softened’ the Bangla language ‘to some extent’. [Rabindranath Tagore, letter to Bijoychandra Majumder, Rabindrashamagra (Complete Works of Rabindranath Tagore), Volume 16, Pathak Samabesh, Dhaka, 2012, p 414]
Despite so much contributions made by Ishwar Chandra into the progress of the Bangla language and literature, his prose with a lot of tatsama words, and his syntax based on Sanskrit grammar, remained Sanskritised. However, a non-practising Brahmin, Iswar Chandra never in his life displayed any contempt against any religion, nor did he hurt the religious sentiment of the people of any faith, let alone the Islamic one. Professor Serajul Islam Chowdhury rightly observes, ‘There was no malice in Vidyasagar against the Muslims. He was beyond religious communalism.’ [Serajul Islam Chowdhury, Unish Shataker Bangla Gadyer Samajik Baykaran (Social grammar of Bangla prose in the Nineteenth century), Dhaka University, Dhaka, 1982, p 37]
It is now quite clear that the Bangla prose developed in the 19th century by the English-educated Hindu elite, mainly through the path of social and religious reform movements, forced upon them primarily by the European missionaries enthusiastic about converting Hindus of India to Christianity. The Bangla prose, developed in the hands of the great reformers in question, was, therefore, bound to remain influenced by the Sanskrit language and grammar, because the Hindu religious texts that the Bangla prose writers interpreted and reinterpreted were written in Sanskrit.
The Muslims were quite late, compared to their Hindu counterparts, to start writing Bangla prose under the colonial rule of the British. Thanks to the mutual political mistrust between the British colonial rulers and the Muslim elite of Bengal, the latter stayed away from English education for almost a century in the first place, which, in turn, kept the Muslims unaware about the English prose that flourished through contemporary essays and novels dealing with social, political and cultural concerns of the English middle classes of the time. Secondly, the initial proselytisation attempts of the Christian missionaries in Bengal did not receive any significant response, as they did from the Hindus, from the Muslim communities for various reasons – the impact of a couple of socio-politico-religious reformist movements of the Muslims, such as Faraizi and Wahabi movements, in the same century being a major one. Muslim writers, therefore, did not require those days to write polemical books and pamphlets to defend Islam, as the Hindu reformist required to defend their religion, against the religious aggression of Christianity.
However, the Christian missionaries started making inroads into Muslim society in the last decades of the 19th century. Professor Abdul Hai says, ‘During the last decades of the nineteenth century, Muslims started getting converted themselves into Christianity in different districts of Bangladesh. Lack of education, inadequacy of conviction in Islam and temptations for material interests motivated the Muslims in question to accept the rulers’ religion.’ [Muhammad Abdul Hai and Syed Ali Ahsan, Bangla Sahityer Itibritto: Adhunik Jug (History of Bengali Literature: Modern Period), Eleventh print,Ahmed Publishing House, Dhaka, 2010, p 99]
Under such circumstances, when Hindus were exposed to proselytisation in the beginning of the 19th century, Raja Rammuhan Roy came forward with the interpretation and re-interpretation of Hindu religious texts in Bangla to protect Hinduism from the onslaught of Christianity in Bengal. In the last decades of the century, came forward Munshi Mohammad Meherullah (1861-1907], a self-educated devoted Muslim from Jessore of East Bengal, to combat the religious aggression of the Christian missionaries.
Munshi Meherullah appeared as ‘saviour of Islam in Bengal’ in 1893 with a long researched essay, Isayee Ba Khristani Dhoka Bhanjan (Solving the Christian puzzle), refuting the content of an article, ‘Asal Qur’an Kothai?’ (Where is the original Quran?), by a Muslim-turned-Christian clergyman, Padri Jamiruddin, published in 1892. Padri Jamiruddin ultimately got defeated in the polemics with Munshi Meherullah, and subsequently re-embraced Islam and became Munshi Jamiruddin. [Munshi Mohammad Jamiruddin (1870-1930) was born into Islam, but he got converted to Christianity at the age of 17 by a Christian clergyman in 1887 and came to be known as Padri Jamiruddin. Reconverted to Islam by Munshi Meherullah, he published a book, Shresthanabi Hazrat Mohammad (SM) O Padrir Dhonka Bhanjan (The greatest prophet Mohammad and refuting deception of the Christian clergy), in 1917.] Later, he devoted his life in preaching Islam together with his religious guru Munshi Meherullah.
Munshi Meherullah wrote at least 10 books between 1886 and 1908, [The list of Munshi Meherullah’s books include, 1. Isayee Ba Khristani Dhoka Bhanjan, 2. Khrishtiya Dharmer Asarata (Hollowness of Christianity), 3. Meherul Islam, 4. Bidhaba Ganjana O Bishad Bhandar (Pains and humiliations of the widows), 5. Pandenama, 6. Hindu Dharma Rahasya O Devlila (Mystery of Hinduism and Deva’s Lila), 7. Khristan-Musalman Tarkajuddha (Debates between Christians and Muslims), 8. Rodde Khrishtian O Dlaliul Islam, 9. Babu Ishanchandra Mandal and Charles French er Eslam Grahan (Embracing of Islam by Babu Ishanchandra Mandal and Charles French), and 10. Slokmala (Compilation of verses)], most of them glorifying Islam and critiquing Christianity, in order to rejuvenate the spirit of Islam among the Muslims of Bengal and foil the European missionaries’ attempt to convert them to Christianity. The language of his texts on religious discourses were reported to have been very lucid, easy for the ordinary Muslim villagers having hardly any formal education to understand, while he used many Arabic and Persian words that he had learnt in the process of his self-education about Islam.
To be continued.
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