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Explorations in Modern Bengal c. 1800-1900 (Essays on Religion, History and Culture)

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Item Code: NAM103
Author: Amiya P. Sen
Publisher: Primus Books, Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2015
ISBN: 9789384082345
Pages: 267
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 9.5 inch x 6.5 inch
Weight 430 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

Historically, nineteenth-century Bengal was the where the first crop of a Western-educated Hindu intelligentsia creatively and actively engaged in a two-pronged intellectual enterprise. On the one hand, there was deep introspection that encouraged the overturning of traditional categories of thought and ways of life, and on the other,a growing cultural pride that preferred suitably defending these even under perceptibly changed intellectual and material conditions. Many claimed that while the preceding centuries of Indo-muslim rule had made no difference to the Hindu mind, the Christian West had critically challenged it in intellectual and moral ways. In the course of time, this was also intimately tied to the growing desire to confront colonial modernity on one’s own terms.

This work examines in some detail, a regional culture as it was subjected to acute interpretative stress for much of the nineteenth century. This is done through an original study of three key facets of contemporary Hindu thought: new perspectives on the possible interplay between the divinely ordained and humanly enacted history, innovative extensions in the meaning of older terms like Dharma and attempts at evolving moral and cultural theories select mythical figures and traditionally revered texts. Copious writings on the figure of Krishna-in a historical vein-and the hermeneutical, as also the unprecedented popularity of the Bhagavat Gita are cases in point.

In essence, this is a pioneering contribution to the intellectual history of modern Bengal as distinct from the more conventionally political or social.

About the Author

Dr. Amiya P. Sen is currently the Heinrich Zimmer Chair at the South Asia Institute, Heidelberg. Professor Sen is on the faculty of the Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia. His special areas of interest are the intellectual and cultural history of Modern India. He has published 12 books, the latest being Religion and Rabindranath Tagore (2014).


Prima facie, this work would appear to span roughly the same time frame and speak of more or less the same historical characters as my first book, Hindu Revivalism in Bengal: 1872-1905-Some Essays in Interpretation published over fifteen years back. However, such overlaps notwithstanding, the two works are set apart from one another by significant differences in issues, arguments and orientation. It appears to me that the present work more clearly clearly falls within the ambit of intellectual history and methodologically borrows more self-consciously from related disciplines like religion and philosophy. This is largely attributable to my gathering interest in the cultural self-reflexivity of the modern Hindus for which, obviously, I have gad to employ a greater variety of analytical tools than might be necessary in a purely historical narrative.

I remain convinced as ever that the scope for writing intellectual history, even for academically so well-traversed a region as modern Bengal, is far from exhausted. My major worry though is that in the coming years, the state of preservation of source-material in our private and public libraries will make it extremely difficult to pursue serious and sustained work. My own plans for studying the ascendancy of the Vedanta (and particularly Advaita Vedanta) in modern Bengal have been frustrated not so much by the paucity of source-material, as the fact that a good part of the material listed in various catalogues were simply not available or else too brittle to handle.

My interest in the themes covered by the book goes back to the years 1993- 5, When as Agatha Harrison Fellow at Antony’s College, Oxford, I had access to the precious and seemingly inexhaustible vernacular sources at the India Office Library and the Indian Institute Library, Oxford. This is yet another occasion when I would like to recall the help, guidance and companionship of a good number of friends and colleagues offered to me at the time. I remain especially indebted to the [late] Partha Sarathi Gupta, Tapan Raychaudhuri and Gopal Krishna for their words of encouragement. Nirad C. Chaudhuri I did not the courage to personally call upon though on a sunny afternoon, he and I boarded the same bus from the outskirts of Oxford to the city centre. On that occasion, as I recall, I was more enchanted by his sartorial elegance than what I had learnt of him through his copious writings. I remain grateful to the staff of the Bangiya Sahitya Parishat, National Library [both in Kolkata], the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, the Deshbandhu College Library and of course the Nehru Memorial Museum &Library, New Delhi, where I gainfully pursued my interests after my return.

But for the Fellowship offered to me by NMML for the years 2001-4, this work might not have possible and I take this occasion to thank both the then Director O.P. Kejariwal and the present one, Mridula Mukherjee, for extending help and encouragement to this project. The present work was completed by the summer of 2004 and its resurrection after several years has been possible entirely through the interest shown by the publisher. I would be greatly remiss if I did not also thank my friends and colleagues at NMML but most of all Anirudh Deshpande and N. Balakrishnan with whom I spent many hours of endearing conversation.

The year 2010, as I recall, was a particularly productive and professionally successful year. That year there books authored by me including the present one were brought out in quick succession. I am happy to learn that Explorations in Modern Bengal is being reprinted. I am grateful to my readers who have encouraged me to envision and further explore new areas within the intellectual and cultural history of colonial Bengal.

Needless to say, the responsibility for errors of fact or argument rests with me alone.


The chapters that follow touch upon three important and interrelated aspects of Hindu-Bengali intellectual life in the nineteenth century. Broadly speaking, these may be identified as first, the changing conceptions of Man and God and of their re-location in history; second, the reformulation of traditional ethical and social theories in the new historical environment and finally, revalidating older values and paradigms, albeit with significant extensions in meaning. I have argued elsewhere that such developments could justly claim a measure of uniqueness. In the history of India thought, the intellectual challenges thrown before the Hindu in the pre-modern era do not quite match up to those confronting him in modern times, whether in respect of their extensiveness or intensity. Under Indo-Muslim rule, the upper class Hindus may have feared, whether rightly or wrongly, a palpable loss of power and religious persecution but rarely if ever, threats of being ‘intellectually swallowed up’ as a leading daily of colonial Calcutta chose to put it. The uniqueness of intellectual development in modern India, in other words, lies not merely in the new challenges thrown up but also in the altered self-perception of the Hindu upper classes. The recovery and rehabilitation of the self was thus an integral part of Indian modernism, and it is within this interrogative framework that I have attempted to situate my essays.

Between Two Cultures

In his autobiographical Fragment, Jeebonsmriti (1912), Rabindranath Tagore (1961-1941) made the perrceptive comment that in early modern Europe, the intellectual rebellion against tradition had tangible roots in local history, whereas what Bengal and other provinces of British India witnessed were changes of a fairly synthetic character. For the English-educated Bengali, Western thought or values acted more as a heady intoxicant rather than life-giving mourishment; it touched people’s lives on the outside without also producing concomitant internal social changes. What the modern Bengali believedas the ‘truth’ was something that he had merely emulated and uncritically accepted, not actually experienced in social life. This, as Tagore observed, created a wedge between inner self-reflexivity and public self-expression. What is not so clearly suggested in the aforesaid work, are the mental distances or cultural incongruities that also set apart the Hindu, the Deist and the Liberal-Protestant. Arguably, one reason why the Hindu intellectual response in the nineteenth century dwelt so largely on the external, was that allowing for certain exceptions, Western thought did not have tangible parallels in Hindu-brahminical thought which would have made way for a meaningful transference from one to the other. Sadly, such differences were sometimes overstretched, following, not serious introspection but a vacuous celebration of that which was startling in its newness. By the ‘educated’, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838-94) meant the Western educated and believed that only fifty years of British rule had so radically uprooted the Bengal intelligentsia from its moorings that ‘truth’ was no longer intelligible to it, unless expressed through Western categories of thought. Paradoxically, Bankimchandra himself was at the forefront of those Hindu-Bengali intellectuals who aggressively contested the truth-claims of the West.

Of late, the more critical historiography on the so-called ‘Bengal Renaissance’ has aptly highlighted the fact that a full-blown mental or cultural revolution was aborted in nineteenth-century Bengal for lack of a meaningful social transformation. My starting point, on the other hand, has been that ‘Renaissance’ has also been characterized by an incipient tension created by the interpenetration of two significantly different views of truth, culture and models of social relationships. A recent work that has studied this dialogic process identifies these as the ‘architectonic’ and ‘organic’ views. In the architectonic view, associated with modern Europe, the unity or cohesion of structures is entirely contingent upon human design; the elements that make up unity do not themselves bear the imprint of some potential unity. Also, the West, which takes a linear view of time, assumes that all societies ultimately share a common destiny and may even motivated by a common set of values. Sine time propels man towards progress and perfection, it has to be assumed that what arrives later in time has to be qualitatively better, For all his love of antiquity, the philologist E Max Muller took the Rig Veda as ‘the record of the childhood of our race, full of childish things...(though) also of...unexpected sparks of thought’.


Preface ix
Chapter I Introduction 1
Chapter 2 On God, Man and History: Representative Voices from Nineteenth-Century Bengal 20
Chapter 3 Hermeneutics and Ethical Theory: Re-visioning Dharma in Nineteenth-Century Bengal 121
Chapter 4 Re-locating Moral and Religious Authority: The Gita in Nineteenth-Century Bengal 165
Appendix A Part I List of manuscript copies of the Gita in Sanskrit with commentaries thereupon as found with various public libraries and private holdings in Bengal 218
Part II List of manuscript copies of the Gita in Bengali translation with commentaries [original/translated] found with various public libraries and private holdings in Bengal 221
Appendix B Printing history of the Gita in Bengali translation: 1800-1904 225
Bibliography 233
Index 245

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