The Renaissance in India?
I: A Semiology of Gravestones
What I propose to do in this paper is to discuss Sri Aurobindo’s famous essay “The Renaissance in India.” I intend to do this by invoking the names of some young men who, though separated from us by almost two hundred years, died before reaching their prime. I will then compare their lives with that of some famous makers of modern India who came after them. What is more, I am going to talk of the memorials that have been erected to all these men by those who loved and cared for them. To that extent, what I propose to do today may actually be considered a semiotics of tombstones. What makes these men important to our topic today is that they were all participants, even makers, of what we call the renaissance in India. What can we learn by revisiting their graves? What story do they tell us? Can we build a narrative around these memorials? These are some of the questions that I hope to ask before I go on to discuss Sri Aurobindo’s eponymous essay, “The Renaissance in India.” In the title of my paper, I have put a question mark after “The Renaissance in India.” I do this both to underscore the doubtfulness of calling the transformation of India a renaissance and also to suggest that that we are still far from reaching the desired goal of that transformation.
I would like to begin with an account of my recent trip to Calcutta. I have of course been to Calcutta several times, but each trip reveals a little more about the Indo-British encounter. This time I made it a point to visit the cemeteries on Park Street and Lower Circular Road. The Park St. cemetery has the graves of at least two very famous people associated with the Indian renaissance. Walking through those rows of cenotaphs and memorial of the dead, one gets some idea of what happened in India two or three hundred years ago. The first thing you notice is all the people who died young, especially the women. Several of the latter died in childbirth, or on the ship, or of some disease on landing. Some men died young too, unable to bear the strain of the weather and the inhospitable conditions in India. Their graves are a silent mark of what happened to the British when they first came to India. As you walk through the cemetery, you see many graves that are in a state of disrepair. Perhaps those who lie in them have no living descendents, none at any rate to at hand to tend their remains. In some vaults, whole families are buried. The living who erected these monuments to their deceased and beloved relatives often wrote simple verses praising their fidelity, sacrifice, or nobility, some special trait or mark of character to remember them by. Many of the inscriptions record the pious hope that at the time of the resurrection the souls of all those loved ones will be saved.
Walking along the rows of graves without a guide, it is hard to locate the graves I am looking for. But then I have an idea. I have to look for graves which are well-maintained. That is how I am suddenly face to face with a tall, triangular memorial, clean and whitewashed. When I approach it I cannot but be thrilled: it marks the mortal remains of Sir William Jones (1746-1794), the founder of the Asiatic Society, Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court, and one of the pioneering Orientalists of that time. Jones was 37 when he arrived in Calcutta in 1783. During the rest of his life of roughly nine years, he not only translated Shakuntala (1789), but also Hitopadesa (1786), Institutes of Hindu Law or the Ordinances of Menu (1794), and Gita Govinda (1799). He also wrote nine odes to Indian gods and goddesses, the first example of the use of the English language for purely Indian themes. Jones’s enthusiasm for things Indian was not qualified or arrested by his Christianity. In one of his letters (to Earl Spencer) he wrote, “I am no Hindu; but I hold the doctrine of the Hindus concerning a future state to be incomparably more rational, more pious, and more likely to deter men from vice, than the horrid opinions inculcated by Christians on punishment without end” (Letters II 766). Jones died young, relatively speaking, but what is more, he died in India. When a man gives the best portion of his life to another country, whether as a colonial administrator or as a scholar, we cannot but think of him as our own. Jones is buried in India. He belongs to us forever. Sure enough, his fortunes in his own home country have dwindled considerably. Both as a writer and as a scholar, he is more or less forgotten. But can we afford to forget the man who translated Shakuntala for the first time into English?
The other grave in this cemetery is that of the young Eurasian poet, Henry Vivian Louis Derozio (1809-1931). Born of an Indo-Portuguese father and an English mother, this first of Indian English poets died before reaching the age of 22. He was a teacher at Hindu College, but was removed by the Board for preaching Atheism, a charge that he vehemently, but unsuccessfully refuted. By the time he died, he had already published two volumes of poems and several well-regarded essays in various newspapers and periodicals. What is more, he owned and edited a newspaper himself. The only known portrait of this man hangs in the library of Presidency College. There is also a hall named after him, with his bust gracing the entrance. It is ironic that the very college that expelled him now vaunts its association with him. In sonnets such as “To India—My Native Land” Derozio, though Westernized and English-educated, for the first time in India, expressed proto-nationalist sentiments in the English language.
The famous grave in the Lower Circular Rd. cemetery not too far, is that of the first “modern” Bengali poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873). Madhusudan loved England and the English language as a young man. At the age of seventeen he wrote a small poem whose first line declares, “I sigh for Albion’s distant shore” (Chaudhuri 94). Writing to his friend Gour Bysak, he declared, “Perhaps, you think I am very cruel, because I want to leave my parents. Ah! my dear! I know that, and I feel for it. But ‘to follow Poetry’ (says A. Pope) ‘one must leave father and mother’” (Chaudhuri 95). He dreamed of making his mark as an English poet. He left home, converted to Christianity, and went to England. His father disowned him and had it not been for Vidyasagar’s charity, he and his family may actually have starved to death in cold and distant Europe. On his return to India, he wrote a series of wonderful literary works, not in English but in his native Bangla. These works won him fame and celebrity. His practice of law made him rich for a time but he lived extravagantly, even recklessly. He died almost a pauper.
Why have I mentioned these three men who lie buried in some of the oldest cemeteries of Calcutta? This is because they were all participants of what was at one time called the Bengal Renaissance, even the Indian renaissance. Examining their lives, works, and even their graves will convince us that what they represented was something unique and unprecedented in Indian culture. Whether we can call it a renaissance or not is debatable, but it was quite different in content, style, and substance from what was available in Indian earlier.
II: The Renaissance in India
Can what happened in Bengal in the early 19th century be called a renaissance? This question is important, even crucial to our discussions today. It is important to us not only because it is the subject of this Refresher Course, but also because a seminar was held here in December on this topic. In that sense a lot of new thinking on the idea of the “Renaissance in India” has already taken place in Rajkot over the last few months. I hope I can add to that without repeating some of the points raised earlier.
Sri Aurobindo, whose ideas I propose to discuss later today, himself discusses this question at length. His contention is that this was not so much a renaissance as a discovery of Western knowledge on the one hand and a rediscovery and therefore reaffirmation of the value of ancient Indian literature and culture. From out own discussions here, I think it is reasonably clear from all the discussions we’ve had on this topic that the idea of the renaissance in India in the 19th century was more or less a colonial idea. As Professor Kapoor says, “It was a slave’s renaissance, quite different for what happened to the free people of Europe.” If one analyses the reasons for such a naming, one quickly discovers that the term renaissance was used because it flattered the colonizers and, perhaps, the colonized too. In other words, this term projected both the Anglicizers and the anglicized in a better light. Instead of calling themselves slaves or imitators or a comprador elite, they gave themselves the exalted title of being Renaissance men and women.
The crucial question here is, of course, what was the impact of the West on India? Did this impact really create a renaissance? To understand the nature and conditions of this impact, we have to go to some of the documents of the early 19th century in India. Example: Macaulay’s minute. It was Macaulay who argued that the West could impact India the way in which the Classical languages impacted Western Europe and the Western European languages themselves civilized Russia. In other words the whole idea of the Indian renaissance comes of the discursive practices of early British colonialism. Here we see a complex interweaving of two narratives, that of the Orientalists and of the Liberal administrators. The latter, incidentally, were Liberals only because their politics back home in Britain was Whig, not Tory; they were proponents of the free market, of new ideas such as utilitarianism and positivism. But as far as India was concerned, they were rather intolerant and dismissive. James Mill’s History of British India (1858), for instance, was a sustained attempt to show the inferiority of Indian civilization and thus to justify British rule in India. The Liberals and the missionaries supplied the most uncompromising and harsh critiques of Indian society and culture. It would seem that the idea of the Indian renaissance drew support from all these dominant colonial discourses, the Orientalist, the Liberal, and the missionary. Inspired and directed by them, their Indian collaborators took up the idea too partly because it showed them in a better light. From such a standpoint “renaissance” becomes yet another mask of colonialism, a mask, ultimately of conquest and subjugation.
Also, if renaissance means rebirth, we must remember that this is a recurring process in India. We have had several rebirths, several renewals—this is the Vyasa parampara that Professor Kapoor has written about. Why should we exalt this particular renaissance, then? This is certainly one way of putting it, perhaps a somewhat extreme way. But the fact is that what happened then lay the foundations of the modern India of today, whose citizen we are. To that extent, we need to look very closely at it.
It should be evident from what I’ve just said that we must re-examine, even problematise this idea of the renaissance instead of taking it at face value. One way to do so is to look at it in a slightly different light, not so much in terms of what Western knowledge did to us, but what the discovery of ancient India did to Europe. We will realize that the latter is sometimes underplayed in conventional histories of the Western culture. One of the few books that attempts to do justice to what happened is The Oriental Renaissance by Raymond Schawb. This book, translated from the French, and published into English argues that the Europeans had two, not one renaissances. The first was the well-known one that extended from the 15th to the 17th centuries, approximately, and was triggered by the discovery of Classical texts and knowledge systems. Behind this, of course, was the Arab renaissance, and Europe’s contact with that renaissance through the Crusades and their aftermath. But Schawb argues that there was another renaissance, which hasn’t been properly assessed and acknowledged. This he calls the “Oriental Renaissance.” The impact on Europe of the discovery of the “Orient” was stupendous. In India, Sir William Jones, discovered the common origin of the Indo-European languages. Arguably, European Enlightenment was influenced by this discovery of the India and of the East. One could even argue that the non-dogmatism of the Enlightenment came out of the discovery of Eastern wisdom that was non-dogmatic. There is a similar argument that it was the European encounter with Latin American indigenous societies, like that of the Incas, which gave Europe the idea of socialism. This is evident in the way Latin America figures in a book such as Voltaire’s Candide. The impact of the discovery of India, of course, was felt as far off as in the U.S., with Emerson, Thoreau, and other members of the Boston Brahmin community.
But if renaissance is an inappropriate term, what do we call the massive reorganization of Indian society that did take place in the 19th century and onwards? Perhaps a better word for what happened is reform, not renaissance. But even the word reform has its problems. Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), for instance, was critical of it. In his address to the people of Madras he minces no words
To the reformers I will point out that I am a greater reformer than any one of them. They want to reform only little bits. I want root-and-branch reform. Where we differ is in the method. Theirs is the method of destruction, mine is that of construction. I do not believe in reform; I believe in growth.
(Complete Works, vol 3: 213)
The quotations serves to highlight a crucial point of debate in Indian attitudes to the Western impact. Elsewhere I have suggested that there are a variety of responses to this Western impact ranging from a position which begins with the insufficiency of Indian civilization to one that proclaims its total self-sufficiency. Of course, these positions were as strategic as they were actual; that is, they signified different ways of coping with the superior power of the West. Gradually, however, those who wanted a to build a new society on the rejection and destruction of the old gave way to those who sought continuity and change simultaneously. I have argued that in all these debates a constant was the desire and articulation of some form of svaraj or autonomy for Indian society and culture. At whatever point they might begin these men and women of wanted to fashion and Indian self that would not be subordinate to that of the West. What our recent history has shown is a repeated marginalization and rejection of those who were unable to imagine or strive for such an autonomy but were content with the status of mere subordination.
That is why Vivekananda holds Indians responsible for their own downfall. Like Gandhi later in Hind Swaraj, Vivekananda is unwilling to blame others for our downfall:
Materialism, or Mohammedanism, or Christianity, or any other ism in the world could never have succeeded but that you allowed them. … But yet there is time to change our ways. Give up all those old discussions, old fights about things which are meaningless, which are nonsensical in their very nature. … We are neither Vedantists, most of us now, nor Puranics, nor Tantrics. We are just “Don’t touchists”. Our religion is in the kitchen. Our God is the cooking-pot, and our religion is, “Don’t touch me, I am holy”. If this goes on for another century, every one of us will be in a lunatic asylum.
(Collected Works, vol 3: 167)
It is clear from this that to imagine that everything was perfect with Indian society or its traditions is erroneous. But perhaps it is equally important to remember that Westernization was not the answer to all our problems either. It is this third way which is the most difficult but also the most valuable.
III: “The Renaissance in India” by Sri Aurobindo
I shall now come to the text from which this paper derives its title. Perhaps it might be useful to recapitulate the basic structure of Sri Aurobindo’s argument.
“The Renaissance in India” consists of four essays that were first published in Arya from August to November 1918. In the first and the longest essay, Sri Aurobindo discusses the appropriateness or lack thereof of the term “renaissance” for what happened in India (1-4). He refutes some common European misconceptions on the nature of Indian civilization, misconceptions that have been echoed by Westernized Indians too (5-6). In order to do so he outlines three characteristics of ancient Indian society. He says that “spirituality is indeed the master-key of the Indian mind” (6); that ancient India is marked by “her stupendous vitality, her inexhaustible power of life and joy of life, her almost unimaginably prolific creativeness” (7); and, finally, that the “third power of the ancient Indian spirit was a strong intellectuality” (9). He then outlines “three movements of retrogression” (16): first, a “shrinking of that superabundant vital energy and a fading of the joy of life and the joy of creation”; secondly, “a rapid cessation of the old free intellectual activity” (17); and, finally, the diminution of the power of Indian spirituality (17). Sri Aurobindo then identifies three “impulses” that arise from the “impact of European life and culture” (18). In the second essay, he rephrases them. The Western impact reawakened “a free activity of the intellect”; “it threw definitely into ferment of modern ideas into the old culture”; and “it made us turn our look upon all that our past contains with new eyes” (25-26). These are a revival of “the dormant intellectual and critical impulse”; the rehabilitation of life and an awakened “desire for new creation”; and a revival of the Indian spirit by the turning of the national mind to its past (18). It is this “awakening vision and impulse” that SriAurobindo feels is the Indian renaissance. Such a renaissance would have three tasks to accomplish:
The recovery of the old spiritual knowledge and experience in all its splendour, depth and fullness is the first, most essential work; the flowing of this spirituality into new forms of philosophy, literature, art, science and critical knowledge is the second; an original dealing with modern problems in the light of Indian spirit and the endeavour to formulate a greater synthesis of a spiritualised society is the third and most difficult. (19)
In the second essay, Sri Aurobindo goes on to outline the three phases of the renaissance:
The first step was the reception of the European contact, a radical reconsideration of many of the prominent elements and some revolutionary denial of the very principles of the old culture. The second was a reaction of the Indian spirit upon the European influence, sometimes with a total denial of what it offered and a stressing both of the essential and the strict letter of the national past, which yet masked a movement of assimilation. The third, only now beginning or recently begun, is rather a process of new creation in which the spiritual power of the Indian mind remains supreme, recovers its truths, accepts whatever it finds sound or true, useful or inevitable of the modern idea and form, but so transmutes and indianises it, so absorbs and transforms it entirely into itself that its foreign character disappears and it becomes another harmonious element in the characteristic working of the ancient goddess, the Shakti of India mastering and taking possession of the modern influence, no longer possessed or overcome by it.
Sri Aurobindo predicts that if the last were to happen, “the result will be no mere Asiatic modification of Western modernism, but some great, new and original thing of the first importance to the future of human civilization” (23). I will take up this point again towards the end of my paper.
In the third essay, Sri Aurobindo offers an overview of some of the movements and figures of the renaissance, all the while pointing to what lies ahead. Finally, in the fourth essay, he once again stresses that the best course of action to India lies in being herself, recovering her native genius, which is a reassertion of its ancient spiritual ideal. It only in “the knowledge and conscious application of the ideal” (53) that the future of both India and the world lies. Whether she can rise up to this task or not is a question that he leaves open.
If we were to evaluate the recent cultural history of India in the light of this essay, we will clearly see that the course of post-independence India has stressed the regaining of material, even military might, not necessarily the reaffirmation of India’s spiritual ideal. So, to that extent, Sri Aurobindo has been proved both right and wrong. Right in that the spiritual is realized not in the denial of the material but actually in the robust plenitude of the material subordinated to the spiritual ideal. We see in present day India a great effort to attain such material prosperity. But whether the spiritual idea of India remains intact is a question that is not easily answered. To all appearances, India has gone the way of the rest of the world, worshipping mammon. Our religion, too, is consumerism. To say that spirituality is the master key to the Indian psyche these days would seem more the exception than the rule.
When we re-examine Sri Aurobindo’s ideas today, we can even conclude that the true gift of the renaissance was the modern Indian nation. Despite all its drawbacks and failings, this nation seems to be the best means that we have to preserve our culture and to express our own destiny. This nation has not only survived the ravages of the partition, but every conceivable threat, both internal and external, its very existence. But having met and overcome these challenges, it seems to be poised to take our civilization to new heights. This is not an inconsiderable achievement. Can India embody the best of its unique cultural heritage and also become a modern nation? This is the question that we must wait for the future to answer.
To my mind, the most important contribution of Sri Aurobindo to the discussion on the Indian renaissance is, as is often the case with his work, in what is yet to be realized. Sri Aurobindo says that the rise of India is necessary for future of humanity itself. The third and most difficult task for the Indian renaissance has been the new creation that will come from a unique fusion of ancient Indian spirituality and modernity. This fusion will be instrumental in spiritualizing the world and in brining about what many have called a global transformation. In our present times of the clash of civilizations, such an idea may seem utopian, but the very survival of the planet depends on a hope and belief that something of this sort is not only possible but inevitable.
I started this paper by referring to a visit to the graves of some of the famous men of the Bengal, nay Indian renaissance, of the 19th century. I should end by invoking them once again: Sir William Jones, Henry Derozio, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, but to this list let me now add the names of the even more illustrious Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobinodo. If we place them in chronological order, we notice a peculiar progression from the British to the Indian and from Indian to the international. Jones was English, Derozio Eurasian, Dutt converted to Christianity, Vivekananda reversed this trend, converted Westerners to Vedanta, and finally Sri Aurobindo brought about what might be called a new creation in that he fused the modern Western with the ancient Indian.
From the Park Street and the Lower Circular cemeteries, we shall have to move farther inland to pay our homage at the samadhis of Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo. Swami Vivekananda’s mortal remains are enshrined at the Belur Math, on the banks of the Hoogly. The Math itself is a of modern structure, built in the last days of the British empire. Across the river, we can see the more traditional structure of the Dakshineshwar Kalibari, which Rani Rasmoni built in the second half of the 19th century and where Sri Ramakrishna came as the temple priest. Sri Ramakrishna’s lilaprasanga, as his great biographer, Swami Saradananda characterizes his life, was played out mostly inside the compound of that temple. The Belur Math was inspired by Swami Vivekananda, his foremost disciple, who also founded the order named after him, the Ramakrishna Mission. The Mission was a wholly new and modern phenomenon, but one which was inspired by the deepest springs of tradition and which had its roots in the soil of spiritual India. Swami Vivekananda’s samadhi has many visitors, who bow before his image and visit his room upstairs. The shrine is immaculately clean and there is daily worship conducted there by the designated priests of the Ramakrishna Order.
Sri Aurobindo’s samadhi is even farther away, in Pondicherry, in South India. You can reach it from Madras by taking a bus or a taxi. Inside a fairly unostentatious French style villa, you come across a raised platform which houses his remains. This is always covered in flowers and beautifully decorated. Above it, there is a white canopy to keep off the bird droppings. The courtyard of the house has many trees and is surrounded by buildings. In one of these, Sri Aurobindo lived most of last twenty-five years his life, confined to a few rooms on the first floor. He never left those premises and showed himself only rarely to people for a darshan. What he was trying to accomplish was nothing short of a transformation of human consciousness. His partner in this endeavour, The Mother, who outlived him by almost twenty-five years, is also buried next to him in that twin samadhi. The shrine is the hub of all the activities in a very modern ashram. It is, indeed, a living space, integrated into the lives of thousands of ashramites and visitors. As such, of all the graves we have visited, it is the most active one. Thousands of people queue up to visit this samadhi each day, to bow or kneel before it, to offer it flowers, to meditate around it. Those who believe claim that they feel very palpably the force of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother emanating from it.
From William Jones to Sri Aurobindo is a long way. In the 150years or more that elapsed from the death of the former to that of the latter, India itself changed irrevocably. When Jones died, the challenge before India was nothing short of a cultural death or subjection, besides material and mental subordination under colonialism. But by the time Sri Aurobindo left his body in 1950, many of these challenges had been met and exceeded. India reengineered itself on an unprecedented scale, even becoming a modern nation in the process. That this nation is functioning democracy that feeds about 20% of the world’s population is only one aspect of its achievement. That it has survived culturally and spiritually, in addition to prospering materially and scientifically is even more remarkable. Whether we appreciate it or not, there was a widespread turmoil and alteration of Indian society in the 19th century that paved the way to this transition. Whether or not it was a renaissance is questionable, but it did open up the avenues to the progress of Indian society so that India itself has moved ahead to recapture the means to study and disseminate its own culture. From colonialism to nationalism and beyond—such is the trajectory of our ongoing journey. The future beckons to us, inviting us to be the protagonists of our own narratives. This is certainly one of the legacies of the Indian renaissance.
- Note: An earlier version of this paper was delivered as the Hamid Lakhani Lecture, Department of English,Saurashtra University, Rajkot, on 20th March 2003 and published as “Sri Aurobindo’s ‘The Renaissance in India’” in Critical Practice, 10.2: (June 2003): 74-86.
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