Swami Vivekananda and Rishi Bankimchandra as Patriots and Nationalists: A Critical Comparison
Sil, Narasingha P., East-West Connections
Swami Vivekananda (Narendranath Datta, 1863-1902) and Rishi Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya (1838-94) have been the two great cultural icons of modern India. In fact the Swami was called a "patriot prophet" by his biographer brother Bhupendranath Datta, who claimed: "truth-seeking men and young workers striving for national reconstruction will peruse [his] book on Swamiji's thoughts and utterances ... for the true ideal for their guidance" (Patriot 1993, 13). Similarly, Bankim was called a saint (rishi) as well as a "seer and nation-builder" by the admiring Aurobindo Ghosh, himself a patriot and a philosopher. (1) More recently, Chattopadhyay has been called "creator of Hindu nationalism" by the late Nirad Chaudhuri (Autobiography 1951, 188). Both Bankim and Vivekananda have been recognized as leaders of Hindu revivalism and nationalism, and by extension, as the high priests of Indian nationalist consciousness and struggle. This paper presents what must be regarded as a very brief initial report of a larger project that seeks to examine the life and work of both personalities in the context of India's modernization and anticolonial struggle with a view to assessing their impact on the revivalist-fundamentalist trend in postcolonial India.
At the outset it would be pertinent to clarify the assumptions which undergird the arguments of this paper. I consider both the saint and the Swami as representatives, par excellence, of the bhadralok class, in other words, in colonial idiom, babu, with their attitudes, assumptions, and aspirations. Second, I see both as quintessentially Bengali, whose nationalist consciousness never comprehended the complexities and diversities of India at large. Their patriotism was informed, or limited, if you will, by their class and ethnic consciousness, though they often used the rhetoric of universalism, cosmopolitanism and Indian nationalism. Most important, their secular nationalist consciousness found expansion by transforming itself into a religious consciousness, that is, religious nationalism. (2) Both Bankimchandra and Vivekananda demonstrated a remarkable penchant for the dramatic and the sensational to make their point and their triumphant rhetoric together with the former's stupendous scholarship and the latter's tremendous personal charm made them phenomenally popular and invested their logia and writings with the mystique of a supreme Nestor of India and a super sannyasi--the two aroused colonial Adams of titanic proportions. (3)
Bankimchandra and Narendranath were born in a period which could be characterized as a new era in colonial Bengal (Banglar navayuga). This new age arrived under the aegis of a foreign imperial culture which itself inherited a regime of reason and equal rights of people from the Enlightenment movement. This regime had been constructed by the geniuses of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Rene Descartes (1596-1650), fortified with global trade and commerce, and founded in a celebration of individualism. The Enlightenment as the efflorescence of Western culture was accompanied by the Industrial Revolution which began transforming economy and society. The third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century-around the period Bankimchandra and Narendranath were born-were marked by an unprecedented reforming zeal on the part of the English for the Indian subcontinent. A generation of men, especially those attending the Haileybury College, was influenced by the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), James Mill (1773-1836), and John Stuart Mill (1806-73). As a distinguished historian has written, "they saw all men, of whatever race and background, potentially similar in energy, enterprise, and understanding, if once they were liberated from deadening and constricting tradition by a combination of good government, sound law, and the framework of a proper political economy" (Brown 1985, 1994). Truly, as the Governor General of Bengal William Bentinck had candidly confessed to Bentham (1828): "I shall govern in name, but it will be you who govern in fact." (Brown 1985: 71) This utilitarian influence joined with the evangelical movement of the Clapham Sect (4) and the reforming enterprise of the Free Traders in sponsoring modernization of the Indian colony.
However, we must distinguish between Western modernity and modernity of colonial Bengal. In the West, it welled up from within the European society and hence was endogenous, whereas in Bengal it was imposed from without and was exogenous and imperialistic. The modernist movement of colonial Bengal was predicated on a reassessment of the traditional norms and value systems in the emerging polity following the disintegration of the ancient regime of the late Mughal India and the establishment of British rule. The foremost and undoubtedly the first social reformer to rise to the occasion for a reevaluation of the native culture was Raja Rammohan Roy (1774-1833), who valorized reason and pragmatism over faith and supramundane considerations. Another modernist trend in Rammohan's exertions could be seen in his unmistakable humanism.
Rammohan's social movement, especially his struggle against the practice of widow-burning (sati) went pari pasu with the Young Bengal movement (1830-45) of Henry Vivian Louis Derozio (1809-31), the young Eurasian teacher of the newly founded Hindu College (1817). Numerous important members of the Young Bengal group, including Tarachand Chakravarti (180-655), Rasiklal Mullick (1810-58), Krishnamohan Banerjee (1813-85), Dakshinaranjan Mukherjee (1814-78), Ramgopal Ghosh (1815-68), and Kishorilal Mitra (1822-73), actively enhanced the Derozian ideal of free thinking and secularism. (5) But the Young Bengalis failed to attain an enduring success because colonial India lacked the social, political, and economic framework conducive to an upheaval like the French Revolution. Then, the Bengali reformist avant garde remained tied at once to the colonial government for their livelihood and to their old customs and traditions for fear of social ostracism due to noncompliance. Thus modern Bengal remained checkmated or stalemated, suspended between a sterile and stagnant native culture (euphemized as sanatana) and an alien dynamic one not grounded yet.
Admittedly, it was the Brahmos of Bengal, beginning with their great precursor the Raja himself down to Maharsi Devendranath Tagore (1817-1905), who stood up against the challenge of the Christian missionaries and started a movement of educational reform for the regeneration of the beleaguered Hindu culture. As these reformers believed, education must impart the eternal verities of Hindu tradition and thus guide students in search of truth through a divine revelation (daivotbhasan). Thus the real motive of the Brahmo movement was not really to start a new sect but actually to protect Hindu religion and preserve the Hindu identity from the missionary onslaught. Tagore's famous collaborator, Rajnarain Basu (1826-99) labored indefatigably to prove the superiority of sanatana Hindu dharma. This reformist endeavor sought to recover the lost heritage of the Hindus.
There were other reformers such as such as Akshaykumar Datta (1820-86) and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar (1820-91) who strove to eradicate antiquated social customs and traditions. Datta harbored an unmistakable contempt for religious sects and gave a clarion call for scientific reasoning. "[Francis] Bacon, India needed a Bacon," Akshaykumar proclaimed unhesitatingly. Vidyasagar staked his position in society by championing the cause of widow remarriage and by debunking the Hindu scriptures. "That the Vedanta and Sankhya are false systems of Philosophy is no longer a matter of dispute," he averred.
Unfortunately, neither the religious reformism of the Brahmos nor the reformist enterprise of the enlightened Hindu rationalists succeeded in bringing about lasting reform. The Brahmos were blissfully impervious to the deleterious effect of the imperial political economy. Rammohan's naive recipe for arresting the economic drain of India through the East India Company's exploitation (of which he was evidently and painfully aware) was to call for prosperous Europeans to settle in India and use their capital and technology to expand education among the natives who would then qualify for self-government. Such comprador attitudes were shared by the scion of the Tagore family Prince Dwarakanath, one of those elites who derived personal financial benefits through their commercial ventures. These leaders of modern India actually equated their personal economic welfare with that of the entire country; their rationalism remained suspect with the society at large. Akshay parted company with the Brahmo Samaj and lived out his life outside of Calcutta in splendid isolation. Vidyasagar abjured the society of the Bengalis and lived the life of a near anchorite at Karmatar.
The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 followed by the absorption of India into the British Empire embarrassed and enraged the pro-British urban elites of India. The Bengali babus who had been a prop of the Company raj and thus enjoyed some measure of distinction, however meagre, had no use for their new imperial master. Thus after 1857 the British lost their lobby in India. Friendly gestures were slowly but surely giving way to a rebellious attitude. The earlier religious animosities were now being transformed into nationalistic antagonisms. The influential Hindu Patriot edited by Harishchandra Mukherjee (d. 1861) publicized the atrocities of the British indigo planters toward the Bengal peasantry and helped unite the middle-class fury with the predicament of the peasants. Dinabandhu Mitra (1830-73), the celebrated author of Neeldarpan, constructed the image of an indomitable hero and a magnificent rebel. Nationalist consciousness inevitably pointed toward a mythic or imagined past--the bygone golden age constructed in the degenerate present--beaconing to an expected future. This mythic past was a Hindu past which just needed to be resurrected. Both Bankimchandra and Vivekananda deployed their vast rhetorical repertoire to this task of restoration and regeneration.
Bankim's patriotic consciousness, like that of his senior and junior contemporaries such as Pearychand Mitra (1814-83) and Rameshchandra Datta (1848-1908), was inspired actually by the counsels of the English social reformer George Thompson (1804-78) of British India Society, London. Thompson had accompanied Dwarakanath Tagore to Calcutta at the end of 1842. In his maiden speech to the Society for the Acquisition of General Knowledge (later to be reconstituted as the Bengal British India Society) on January 11, 1843, Thompson proffered four suggestions to the youths and scholars of Bengal: they ought to commit themselves to working for the welfare of their country, acquaint themselves fully with its past history and current situation, and freely express their opinion on government measures while placing their trust in the efficacy of English justice. These counsels deeply influenced Bankim and his generation (Datta 2000, 83-84).
In fact, the youthful Bankim, an avid admirer of the British, made his debut as a novelist in the English language itself. His first novel, Rajmohan's Wife, serialized in the Indian Field (1864), was a complete flop. His English prose, which matured considerably in his later essays, was singularly literal, archaic, and frankly turgid in the novel. His failure to succeed as a writer in English perhaps turned him off from the language of the foreigners and helped him achieve celebrity as the author of the magisterial novel of epic proportions, Durgeshnandini (1865). The unsavory experience with Rajmohan's Wife further channeled Bankim's passionate interest into his native history and culture. Wounded pride at the outset of the literary career of a sensitive, ambitious, and talented young man led him to ridicule the English educated babus of Bengal in a strange vein of self-contempt as "the weakest of human beings ... self-educated ... and brutalized" (Poddar 1999, 29). In a somewhat sober, albeit bitter, tone he declared in 1870:
It is degrading for the dashing young Bengali who writes and talks English like an Englishman, to be caught writing a Bengali book ... We preach in English and harangue in English and write in English, perfectly forgetful that the great masses ... remain stone-deaf to all our eloquence. (6) (Poddar 1999, 28)
Brought up in Bengal, Bankim was also influenced by the prevailing Vaishnava culture of devotion and nonviolence. Thus, though he recognized the legitimacy of occasional violence through his study of the career of Lord Krishna (Krishnacharitra, 1886), he remained convinced of the fundamental efficacy of nonviolence and bhakti. That is why he believed that political and social authorities must be accorded due respect so long as they merit it. Social cohesion called for respecting the social structure and norms. Hence Bankim enjoined his readers to be devoted and respectful to the monarch regarding him as the father and guardian of society. He cited the case of Italy and Germany to make the point that the regions that show proper respect to their monarchs are progressive.
An admirer of monarchy, Bankim was beholden to the government of the British monarch, Queen Victoria. In his article "Bharatvarser Swadhinata evam Paradhinata" Bankim distinguished between "independence" and "liberty" and argued that a country could be politically free and yet lack liberty, whereas a country could be subject to an alien authority but could still enjoy a high degree of freedom. As he wrote:
We are a dependent nation-we shall remain dependent for a long time-we need not delve into this problem. We want to know whether or not in ancient times the free Indians were happier than they are now. We have come to the conclusion that in contemporary India Brahmins and Kshatriyas, people belonging to the upper strata of society [that is, the minority], have been degraded, [but] the Shudras, the ordinary subjects [that is, the majority], have advanced somewhat. (Bankim Rachanavali 1406 B.E., II, 214) (7)
It should be clear that Bankim's concept of liberty was not predicated upon political independence.
Even though, as early as 1873, Bankim had recognized the fact that "the English are the conquerors and we the conquered," (BR 1406 B.E., II, 810) he never opposed British administration. However, for him, anti-British sentiments (jativaira) signaled a positive trend because they goaded the Indians to strive to become like the English people. In order to be fruitful, such competitiveness called for a national identity which could be derived from something very Indian: dharma of the people. Thus, even though as a conquered people obliged to "carry out [the conqueror's] commands:"
we are not, and cannot be, submissive, because we are an ancient people. Even to this day we read the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, order our life according to the instructions and injunctions of Mann and Yajnavalkya, and taking a bath pray to God in the incomparable Sanskrit. (BR 1406 B.E., II, 209)
In fact, that constructive jativaira instigated a Hindu identity (for Bankim, jati connoted "Hindu"). As he wrote in "Bharat-Kalanka: Bharatvarsa Paradhin Kena?":
I am a Hindu, you are a Hindu, Ram and Jadu [meaning Tom, Dick, and Harry] are Hindu, and there are millions others who are Hindu, too. The welfare of these millions of Hindus is my welfare.... There are many races in the world other than Hindu. Their welfare cannot be ours. [In fact] on several counts, their welfare is our doom. (BR 1406 B.E., II, 209)
The bottom line is: the Hindu heritage of the Indians is the foundation of their national identity and well-being.
Bankim's equation of Hindutwa (Hindu consciousness) with nationalism (jatipratistha) worked as a solvent for all social, cultural, ethnic, and communal diversities of India. As he claimed in Dharmatatwa (1888):
As a matter of fact there is no conflict between love for humanity, self-love or love for one's kinsmen and love for their country.... The thing which I am explaining to you is not European "Patriotism" ... which is a monstrous vice. (BR 1406 B.E., II, 598)
Unlike European nationalism, which led to national aggrandizement, Bankim believed that Hindu nationalism was capable of combining nationalism with universal love. His conviction in religion in general, and Hindu religion in particular, as the basis of morality, led him to hope that "only Hinduism could bring about a synthesis of nationalism and love for all humanity" (Halder 1977, 103 n.).
Bankim's Hindu nationalism was derived from the same split consciousness that marked his ambivalence on social issues and problems. As early as 1879 he published his famous tract on social equality, Samya, in which he, as a true follower of John Stuart Mill, bemoaned the degradation of Indian women and vigorously championed the cause of their emancipation and education. However, he had little difficulty in holding up the patriarchal image of the sati, that is, a chaste wife, as the ideal of womanhood. Chattopadhyay squarely opposed such social legislations as the remarriage bill or the bill against polygamy. In fact he reviled the greatest social reformer and educationist of his day, Vidyasagar, by calling him a mere "Primer maker" and deprecating his essay on the Hindu practice of polygamy. (8) He was aware of the predicament of the Hindu widows as well as of the evils of polygamy, but he was convinced that these evils did not call for a sustained and organized social revolution. On the other hand, he felt certain that they were becoming obsolete precisely because they were evil. Similarly, he had little qualms arguing against equality of women simply because, as he argued, men and women were naturally (especially physically) dissimilar. "Could a man bear child or could women fight as a soldier?" he asked rhetorically. And his arguments against physical exercise for women were, to quote him again, "Each will exercise [anushilan] in consonance with his latent capacity. If women are strong enough to fight, let them cultivate that strength; if men are capable of suckling [babies], let them enhance that capability." (9)
In his article "Bangadesher Krisak" in Bangadarshan Bankim waxed eloquent on the deplorable condition of the Bengal peasantry:
I have one question to ask-whose prosperity is this? Hasim Sheikh and Rama Kaivarta, with their blunt-edged ploughshare and a pair of ricketty bullocks, work bare-footed and bare-headed in midday sun in knee-deep mud-have been well-off?.... I see your prosperity and mine, but do we represent the country [at large]? How many are we, and how many are the peasants? ... [T]he majority are peasants.... Where they do not prosper, the country cannot either. (10)
And yet, Bankim never approved of the abolition of the pernicious zamindari system that was the root cause of the plight of the peasants. Though the rationalist and the progressive in Bankim admitted that the Permanent Settlement of 1793 was a mistake, as a middle-class elite he felt that any attempt to correct that error would unleash a terrible disorder in society. Hence he declared: "We do not support social revolution." (11)
Bankim's religious sensibilities appeared to mark him off not only as a conservative but even a reactionary as well. Consequently his patriotic-nationalistic impulses turned, as has already been noted, from a rationalist (admirer of Mill, Bentham, and Comte) and pro-Western stance to a mildly anti-Western or anti-British, frankly communal posture. His anti-Muslim sentiments found their expression in his novel Mrinalini (1869). Arguably one of Bankim's weaker novels from a literary perspective, Mrinalini was composed, as its author admitted, to counter the medieval historian Minhajuddin's story "Of the Conquest of Gaud" (Bengal, in his Tabaqat I-Nasiri, 1203/4 B.E.). This account describes the rule (or misrule) of Gaud's spineless Vaishnava ruler Lakshman Sen, who submitted to seventeen Turkish cavalrymen without demur. Although this tragicomic episode of the seventeen men of the Apocalypse has not been corroborated by direct evidence, its popularity aggravated Chattopadhyay and his novel was some sort of psychic therapy. Nevertheless, Bankim's preconceived patriotic agenda in the novel affected his intellectual integrity as well as his artistic credibility adversely.
This kind of anti-Muslim (or hyper-Hindu) patriotism purveyed in Mrinalini reaches its acme in Bankim's most famous work Anandamath (1882). As in the former novel, in which the ascetic having failed to liberate Bengal from the clutches of the yavanas, obtains assurance from an astrologer that foreign traders (presumably the British) will visit Bengal and rescue the Bengalis from the tyranny of the Muslims, in Anandamath, likewise, an ascetic warrior sets out for the hills leaving his land at the disposal of the Western mercantile rulers, as advised by a healer-hierophant (chikitsak-mahapurus). In the final analysis, Anandamath is flawed qualitatively due to two major weaknesses on the author's part. Because of the excessive religious-moral overtones with which the plot and the personalities have been endowed, the protagonist Satyananda appears as moral titan. But, in the end, he is reduced mysteriously and rather unwarrantedly to a mere mortal with clay feet. The patriotic theme of the novel has been transmuted into a vapid salvific saga. An even more glaring weakness of the novel has to do with the author's overriding concern for placating his colonial masters. Thus he took care to change some stark anti-British references and insinuations into less troublesome anti-Muslim ones in the subsequent editions of the work. (12)
Bankim's nationalist consciousness was not only Hindu (communal) but also Bengali (parochial or in sociological terms, "vertical ethnie"). (13) Hence we notice his acute anxiety to publicize the physical prowess and power of the Bengalis. Thus he sought to construct a history of his race highlighting its valor and vitality. As Chattopadhyay wrote in "Banglar Kalanka:"
No one has ever praised the physical prowess of the Bengalees. Let the person who says that this is the typical character of the Bengalees, that Bengalees are always weak, cowardly and effeminate be struck by lightning, for he lies. History does not corroborate the criticism. On the contrary, we get ample proof of the fact that earlier the Bengalees were physically strong, upright and triumphant. (14) (Sen 1995, 20)
He admonished his readers in a particularly exhortatory essay in Bangadarshan titled "Bangalir Vahuval" (Shravan, 1281 B.E.):
Now the Bengalees are charged with a very strong urge for upliftment ... Many do not have any serious hope about the results, as the Bengalees do not have physical prowess.... If the intensity of that desire in the heart of each and every Bengalee reaches such a state that he will be ready to sacrifice his life for the commitment, then the Bengalees will surely be strong in physical prowess.... It cannot be said that the Bengalees will never attain such a mental state. Any time this may happen. (15) (Sen 1995, 20)
It is interesting to note that sometime in 1870, Bankim was heckled by Lt. Col. Duffin at Berhampore. Following an altercation, the English army officer had seized Bankim by the hand (vahu) and shoved him. (16) Though the offender later apologized to the victim publicly, the proud babu never recovered from the trauma of humiliation. His cogitations on "Bangalir Vahuval" were most probably the fallout of that unfortunate incident.
In order to make any sense of the multiple contradictions in Bankim's swadeshchinta (nationalist thought) it must be borne in mind that "nationalism" for Bankim was not a creed for ousting the British rulers from India; it was a plea for better conditions of living for his people (especially for his class) within the periphery of Hinduism and under the protective umbrella provided by the British rule of law. (17) He envisioned a glorious Hindu "ancient past" which was vitiated by the subsequent Muslim "middle ages" followed by the "early modern" Mughal domination. The advent of the enlightened and technologically advanced British heralded an intellectual ferment for the present which will, in the fullness of time, evolve into a glorious Hindu raj in the future. His principal concern was for the downfall of the Hindus and their future redemption: hence his anti-colonial invective and sometimes overt and sometimes veiled admiration for the English people.
We must also recall that Bankim's literary apprenticeship commenced under his chosen mentor Ishwarchandra Gupta (1812-59), whose unabashed adulation of British rule hailing it "as blissful as the rule of Ram" led him to paean to the colonial power: "Let the Goddess of British Raj remain steady ... and let us enjoy the heavenly bliss of independence forever." For Gupta independence stood for freedom from Muslim tyranny-a condition conducive to law and order and thus the perpetuation of Hindu orthodoxy-something that Bankim imbibed and inculcated (Smith 1993, 131). As Chattopadhyay declared in "Bharat-Kalanka," "the English are the greatest benefactor of India." They were teaching the Indians numerous unheard of and unseen novelties, the greatest of which were "love for liberty" and "nationalism"-something the Hindus had not been aware of. (18)
Often Bankim acted, like most people, out of pure self-interest. Thus he had some tangible reasons for doctoring the story of Anandamath. In 1886 a Bengali writer named Chandicharan Sen was denied promotion in service for having published a long satirical poem titled "Lankakanda" (meaning, a chaotic condition) depicting the state of Bengal under the British administration, and another piece titled "Maharaja Nandakumar." Even Bankim himself was transferred from his position as the Assistant Secretary in the Department of Finance within a few months after obtaining it on September 4, 1881. He was removed from his job within a few weeks after the six chapters of the second part of Anandamath were published in Bangadarshan, on January 16, 1882. It hardly needs pointing out that his circumspection in respect of making some emendations in the novel was prompted by considerations of personal job security. And yet he never ceased publishing his work. As author he craved attention and approbation of his readers; and as an Indian he did wish to inculcate among his people a sense of self-awareness and "otherness" for the foreign masters.
We also need to note that in 1882 Bankim confronted the anti-Hindu animus from Rev. William Hastie, a missionary and principal of the General Assembly's Institution (later renamed as Scottish Church College), at a post-cremation ceremony (shradh) organized by Raja Radhakanta Dev of Shobhabajar, Calcutta. There is no doubt, concludes Arabinda Poddar, that Bankim's debate with Hastie on this account "worked on him as the immediate trigger" for his Hindu consciousness. (19) This newly awakened religiosity found a fuller and clearer expression in his Letters on Hinduism (written to a Bengali Positivist, Jogendramohan Ghosh), in which he published his personal views on religion as a "philosophy of life" in theory and "in practice a rule of life" that transcended all soteriological or theological concerns and sought to view religion as "a system of social culture." In fact, as he explained in Dharmatatwa, "the substance of Religion is Culture." (20)
Bankim's ambivalence was an inevitable outcome of his own social and personal situation. Hailing from a high caste Hindu family and educated as well as employed by the British system, Chattopadhyay had a vested interest in the British raj on the one hand and, as a sensitive and perceptive educated Bengali, he felt uneasy as a citizen of a backward and colonized society. Thus, while he turned to Hindu religion in search of an Indian identity or critiqued the social and economic condition of his country as a rational and enlightened reformer, he never approved of a social revolution. His middle-class mentality and interests wanted to destroy neither the social cohesion nor the prevailing social and political order in which he and his class had a vested interest.
Kaviraj seeks unnecessarily to explain "Bankim's paradoxical and tortured reflections on the question of independence" and his exclusivist class consciousness in his use of the word "we" through an elaborate analysis of the linguistic meaning of jati in Bankim's essays as "an index of a historical difficulty of discourse." (21) Clearly, Bankim, an admirer of John Stuart Mill, echoes his mentor's middle class preferences. (22) It is hardly surprising that he wrote in 1884 in celebration of Lord Ripon's local self-government act empowering the rising middle class: "Now we implore our new leaders to guide our society slowly along the right path, taking ample care not to precipitate a revolution" (Bhattacharya 1370 B.E., 152). Truly, as Poddar observes shrewdly, Bankim, "as the product of colonial administration, was riddled with contradictions much like his illustrious Bengali contemporaries" (Poddar 1999, 9).
These had to do with their recognition of the political-cultural impact of the metropolitan West on their intellectual upbringing as well as their awareness of the moorings of their native tradition and value system. "The end-product of these two divergent and disparate inheritance," Poddar has written elsewhere, "could not but be a conflict and a contradiction, noticed in their mental attitudes and behavioural patterns." (23)
Swami Vivekananda's patriotic rhetoric followed Bankim's closely. The hagiographical literature on the Swami's life and teachings has produced a colossal mythology of a super sannyasi. It could be safely presumed that prior to his Indian pravrajya (holy peregrination) during 1887-93, Narendranath, like his cohorts in college, was familiar with Bankim's writings and no doubt influenced by them. Contrary to traditional belief that Vivekananda proclaimed an enlightened and non-partisan spirituality in the West, it is now known that he had in fact endeavored to preach the ultimate superiority of his own religion, though he wrapped it under a new name appealing to the West--Practical Vedanta, a variety of reasonable and commonsensical religiosity. However, in various speeches and conversations in the United States and the United Kingdom, the Swami presented a sanitized and utterly fantastic account of the character, countenance, and complexion of the Indian Hindus (equating them with Aryans), and admonished his audience for their benighted material pursuits which, of course, he recommended for his impoverished land wholeheartedly.
In his interesting, witty, but somewhat idiosyncratic essay "Prachya O Pashchatya" ("East and West") serialized in Udbodhan, the Bengali journal of the Ramakrishna Order, Vivekananda lambasted Western civilization:
What is the meaning of the progress of civilization of which the Europeans are so proud? Its meaning is: achievement of success by legitimating unjust means ... The European policy is "Go away, we want to come here," for example, wherever the Europeans went the natives there were annihilated by the application of that policy. This civilization has progressed by regarding lechery in London, abandoning the family in Paris, or committing suicide as mere aberration. (24)
Though following the Brahmos, especially Keshabchandra Sen and Protap Mozoomdar, the Swami praised Christ, he quickly asserted that Christianity was founded in Buddhism. Since Buddhism is derived from the Vedanta, the syllogism is unmistakable: Christ's teachings owed to the Hindu Vedanta. (25) Thus Christ was assimilated and appropriated but the soldiers of Christ were alienated and attacked vehemently by the militant monk. "You come," the Swami yelled, waving his hands and foaming at the mouth, "with the Bible in one hand and the conqueror's sword in the other.... You trample on us.... You destroy our people with drink. You insult our women." Basu and Ghosh 1969: 4) His wonderfully colorful assessment of English atrocities as contrasted with the Aryan (i.e. Hindu) and Muslim invasions of India was: "You look about India, what has the Hindoo left? Wonderful temples, everywhere. What has the Mohammedan left? Beautiful palaces. What has the Englishman left? Nothing but mounds of brandy bottles." (26)
The English are not only a nation of drunkards; they are also inordinately dirty. "Ah, the English, only just a little while ago they were savages ... the vermin crawled on the ladies' bodices, ... they scented themselves to disguise the abominable odor of their persons.... Most hor-r-ible." (27) The Hindus, on the other hand, are the cleanest people in the world because, as Swamiji declared in a conversation in Detroit, Michigan, in 1894, they use water "very freely." They take daily plunge bath and in fact the garlic eating and odorous Westerners learned how to bathe only after they had come in contact with the Indians. (28) The Hindus are also the handsomest race with regular features, dark hair and eyes, with a truly pink complexion, resembling the color of a jar of milk tinged with a few drops of blood! (29)
Finally, the Hindus are a hospitable people who build homes not for their personal comfort but for their gods and guests. A Hindu, the Swami is reported to have declared in Boston, "will serve himself last if any hungry stranger applies; and this feeling extends throughout the length and breadth of the land. Any man can ask for food and shelter and any house will be opened to him." (30) He even considered the Indian poor as superior to their Western counterparts who are lazy, foolish, and roguish. By contrast, in India "the poor fellows work hard from morning to sunset, and somebody else takes the bread out of their hands and their children go hungry." (31)
However, the greatest contrast between the Eastern and Western civilization has to do not so much with the externals as with the conception and conduct of their inner life by the people of both cultures. "You are all running after life," the Swami told the Americans in San Francisco, "and we find that is foolishness. There is something much higher than life even. This life is inferior, material. Why should I live at all?.... Living is always a slavery." (32) Vivekananda claimed that "the Hindoo's view of life is that we are here to learn." (33) And in that the Hindus exhibit their higher civilizational status for, as Vivekananda explained, pleasures of the intellect are higher than those of the senses. He thus exhorted his Western audience to strive to attain the higher by turning a renouncer; "Renounce! Renounce! Sacrifice! Give up! Not for zero. Not for nothing. But to get the higher." (34) "And mark you this, the most marvellous historical fact," roared the Hindu lion, "that all the nations of the world have to sit down patiently at the feet of India to learn the eternal truths embodied in her literature." (35)
At the same time, the Swami did not debunk the technological and scientific achievements of the West. He in fact admired the Westerners for their strength, vitality, and creativity. In stark contradiction of his negative assessment of Western, especially English, contribution to India, he admitted in a public lecture in Calcutta that "the backbone of Western civilization is--expansion and expansion." He added further:
This side of the work of the Anglo-Saxon race in India ... is calculated to rouse our nation once more to express itself, and it is inciting it to bring out its hidden treasures before the world by using the means of communication provided by the same mighty race. The Anglo-Saxons have created a future for India, and the space through which our ancestral ideas are ranging is simply phenomenal. (36)
Vivekananda harbored a curiously ambivalent attitude to Western civilization as he did to Western women. He was clearly appreciative of the power and prosperity of the West as he was of the magnanimity, humanity, and civility--not to mention the sheer physical beauty--of Western, especially American, women. (37) Yet he found Western culture devoid of divinity and spirituality and Western women artificial, unspiritual, and lustful. (38)
Vivekananda's main agenda was Hinduization or Vedantization of the Christian West, a sort of muted counter conversion of the people whose missionaries had been evangelizing and Christianizing the Hindu Orient. "India must conquer the world," the "cyclonic Hindu" announced in the West. (39) He further proclaimed that the Hindu "thought must enter into the make-up of the minds of every nation." (40) And in various sermons delivered over six years (1893-6 and 1898-1900) in the United States and the United Kingdom Swamiji claimed that he was the pioneer teacher in the world: "I was born for this, and it was left for me to do!" (41) This indeed was an audacious challenge from a colonial native to the imperial West--a powerful response to the Western "civilizing mission" in the colonial world--a dramatic reversal of the concept of the "white man's burden" into that of the "colored man's burden." (42) The Swami further proclaimed Hindu autonomy even in the field of strength and power for which he had admired the West. As he was to declare in India: "We want strength, strength, and every time strength. And the Upanishads are the great mine of strength. Therein lies strength enough to invigorate the whole world; the whole world can be vivified, made strong, energised through them." (43)
Indeed the leitmotif of Bankim and Vivekananda's rhetoric was strength. This hyperconsciousness of strength perhaps sprang from an innate sense of physical weakness of both Bengali babus. Since his childhood Narendranth's personal habits had been far from exemplary. He had been an addict of snuff powder and tobacco from his prepubescent years. Even as an adult he often expectorated nasal and oral phlegm everywhere and he was an incorrigible spitter. Fond of food, he was an overeater and a chain smoker. His dirty and disheveled study convinced a friend and a visitor that Naren was "oblivious of the need to please himself" (Swamiji 1397 B.E., 158). He was a patient of weak heart condition and diabetes--partly a genetic endowment and partly an outcome of his personal habits and life style. Additionally, he suffered from dyspepsia or diarrhea, liver troubles, gallstones, lumbago, and toward the later part of his life, from asthma. During the last two years of his short life, the Swami suffered from sleeplessness, breathing troubles, swollen feet, and partial blindness (due to aggravated diabetic condition) and he finally died on July 4, 1902 before he reached the age of forty. (Sil 1997, Ch. 10 and Conclusion)
Bankim, too, never possessed a healthy body. As one of his biographers has written, "he was rather weak in body and physical courage did not come to him naturally." This biographer has observed further that Bankim "appears to have been somewhat acutely conscious of his lack of bodily strength" and to acquire it followed a sybaritic regimen of gargantuan proportions: a daily diet of four chickens and eight eggs, which would have delighted the palate of his younger gourmet contemporary (Raychaudhuri 1988, 113). Awareness of personal physical weakness and of political powerlessness led both Bankim and Vivekananda to reinvent their racial character through an imagined or fantasized history of valor and heroism. In spite of their militant rhetoric, both men, especially the Swami, never took part in real political nationalist struggle. Bankim, of course, subscribed to a number of urban political and social organizations including the Indian Association and vigorously campaigned against the racist Ilbert Bill of 1882. Yet, he remained to the last an admirer of the British character though he revealed his resentment against them when it concerned his personal career as a civil servant.
Swami Vivekananda, who really did not wish to rattle the authorities, hid himself behind his saffron identity as a religious figure and advised his followers against any political involvement. He would have nothing to do with any conflict between the rich and the poor (Vivekananda 1394 B.E., 696). He was opposed to social reform. "Meddle not with the so-called social reform," he wrote to Alasinga Perumal of Madras, "for there cannot be any reform without spiritual reform first. Who told you that I want social reform? Not I." (44) Later, in his Madras lecture, he would declare: "I do not mean to say that political or social improvements are not necessary, but what I mean is this ... that they are secondary and that religion is primary." (45) Even though Bengali nationalists have derived great inspiration from Vivekananda's writings--witness the revolutionary leader Yadugopal Mukherjee's acknowledgment that Swamiji had provided a spiritual succor to the revolutionary groups--the much-publicized patriotic monk was quite hesitant about accepting an invitation to preside over the Shivaji festival in Calcutta organized by the Bengali nationalists. Few dared to participate in this festival for fear of incurring the government's displeasure. Vivekananda's response to a request by Jyotishchandra Samajpati, younger brother of Vidyasagar's grandson Sureshchandra Samajpati, was quite dramatic and revealing . The Swami began to shed tears uttering: "The woman [Mother India] is now looking for a sacrificial beast [Beti bali chay]. Please approach the editor of the Indian Mirror, Narendranath Sen, and tell him that I have asked him to preside. However, if nobody agrees to do the job, I will" (Datta 1400 B.E., 157, 164).
Both the Rishi and the Swami were masters of rhetoric and their patriotic activity was confined to their writings and speeches. Swamiji's fiery sermons were possible because he enjoyed the social and cultural respect due to an ascetic preacher. That is why he could be scathing in his remarks and retorts. Bankim's literary reputation provided him a relatively safe platform from which to express his patriotic sentiments. Ultimately both achieved distinction by lending their rhetoric to the voice of protest in the nationalist struggle. The Swami was quite right in his assessment of his own ethnic characteristic. As he wrote in "Prachya O Pashchatya":
We Bengalis and the Irish of the British Isles are races cast in the same mold--perpetual talkers. These two races are clever wordsmiths. No work but squabbling with each other for the better part of the day and night. (46)
Bankim's British employers knew him only too well. The Commissioner of Burdwan Division commented in his report on Bankim that he was "a rapid worker, but ... [he] was sometimes too wordy and diffuse without sufficient substance in work. An officer of well-known literary quality." (47) As for Vivekananda, Sarala Ghosal was right on the mark when she told Sister Nivedita in plain terms: "Swami had good idea--plenty--but he carried nothing out.... He only talked" (Basu 1982, I, 150).
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(1) Cited in Renaissance and Reaction in Nineteenth Century Bengal." Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay [English translation of Bankim's Samya], trans. M.K. Halder (Columbia: South Asia Books, 1977), p. 108: translator's Introduction. See also Bhabatosh Datta, Resurgent Bengal: Rammohun, Bankimchandra, Rabindranath (Calcutta: Minerva Associates [Publications] Pvt. Ltd., 2000), p. 87.
(2) Amales Tripathy eloquently but unsuccessfully tries to argue that Bankim was not parochial but had a vision of wider nationalist consciousness. See Tripathy 1967, 16ff. About Swami Vivekananda's nationalist consciousness there are innumerable studies, all of them saying the same thing over and over again.
(3) Unfortunately, the most recent study on the Swami's achievements by a distinguished scholar fails to rise above his personal admiration for "an outstanding fellow Indian" possessing "vivacity and compassion" and remains just another panegyric punched with some careful and modest reservations. See Sen 2002.
(4) A group of prosperous evangelicals who lived at the village of Clapham some three miles from London. They interested themselves a great deal in the social, moral, and religious needs of the industrial poor. Their most eminent leaders were William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and Henry Thronton (1760-1815).
(5) For brief biographical sketches of these and other Derozians see Datta 1996.
(6) Bankim's lecture titled "A Popular Literature for Bengal" at Bengal Social Science Association.
(7) Henceforth referenced as BR.
(8) Bhattacharya 1982, 32, 42-5. Vidyasagar's essay was titled Vahuvivaha Rahit Howa Uchit Ki Na-Etadvisayak Vichar (Kalikata: Pitambar Bandyopadhyay, 1873). Bankim's critique "Vahuvivaha" appeared in Bangadarshan (Asad, 1280 B.E.). See BR, II, 272-6.
(9) BR, II, 596.
(10) BR, II, pp. 288-9 cited in and translated by Ray, "Ambivalent Genius," p. 216. Ray's translated passage is cited with some editorial changes by this author.
(11) BR, II, 309-10 cited in Ray, "Ambivalent Genius," p. 217.
(12) Anandamath underwent five editions from 1882 to 1892. Of these the third (1886) and the fifth (1892) editions registered maximum emendation. See Sen-Bhattacharya, 1403 B.E.: 79.
(13) Smith 1991, 53. Professor Smith defines a "demotic ethnie" as a type of nationalism based on movements of compact and popular ethnic self-renewal (pp. 36, 41, 53-4, 61-4).
(14) BR, II, 288.
(15) BR, II, 184-7.
(16) See Bhattacharya, Bankimchandrajivani, pp. 110-11.
(17) Halder, Renaissance and Reaction, p. 117. Smith has commented on "anti-colonial" nationalism's "westernizing orientation," 1993: 108.
(18) BR, II, 210.
(19) Poddar 1999, 62. The Bankim-Hastie exchange was played out in a series of letters to the editor of The Statesman in September-October 1982. However, Anandamath had already begun its serialized publication in the Bangadarshan five months earlier, from March onward. The controversy appears to have influenced the later part of the novel.
(20) BR, II, 531.
(21) Sudipta Kaviraj, The Unhappy Consciousness: Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and the Formation of Nationalist Discourse in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 128-9.
(22) See Sil 1983.
(23) Arabinda Poddar, "A Rationalist's Predicament" in Bhabatosh Datta, ed. Bankimchandra Chatterjee: Essays in Perspective (New Delhi: Sahitya Academy, 1994), pp. 432-3.
(24) Swami Vivekananda, Vani O Rachana, 10 vols. (8th-12th ed. Kalikata: Udbodhana Karyalaya, 1401-3 B.E.), IV (1402), 165.
(25) Shailendranath Dhar, A Comprehensive Biography of Swami Vivekananda, 2 vols. (1975-6. Second ed. Madras: Vivekananda Prakashan Kendra, 1990), II, 845, 1084.
(26) Marie L. Burke, Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries, 6 pts. (Third ed. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1983-7): His Prophetic Mission, 2 pts. (1983-4); The World Teacher, 2 pts. (1985-6); A New Gospel, 2 pts. (1987). Hereafter cited with subtitles only. Present citation is to Prophetic Mission, I, 32-3.
(27) Ibid., 31.
(28) "Prachya O Pashchatya," 132.
(29) Prophetic Mission, I, 445-6.
(30) Boston Evening Transcript (April 5, 1894) cited in The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 8 vols. (Mayavati Memorial ed. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1990), IV, 199-200. Hereafter cited as CW.
(31) CW, VIII, 86.
(32) CW, IV, 232.
(33) CW, II, 499.
(34) CW, IV, 242-3.
(35) CW, III, 444.
(36) Ibid., 441.
(37) CW, VII, 474-5; Letters of Swami Vivekananda (Sixth impression. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1986), p. 76.
(38) Prophetic Mission, I, 98; New Gospel, I, 272.
(39) Cited in Swami Vivekananda and His Guru with Letters from Prominent Americans on the Alleged Progress of Vedantism in the United States (London & Madras: Christian Literature Society for India, 1897), p. ii.
(40) CW, IV, 311.
(41) New Gospel, II, 190.
(42) See Ursula King, "Indian Spirituality, Western Materialism: An Image and Its Function in the Reinterpretation of Modern Hinduism," Social Action, XXVIII (January-March 1978).
(43) CW, III, 238.
(44) CW, V, 74.
(45) CW, III, 289.
(46) "Prachya O Pashchatya," p. 167.
(47) Halder, Foundations of Nationalism in India, p. 15.…
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Publication information: Article title: Swami Vivekananda and Rishi Bankimchandra as Patriots and Nationalists: A Critical Comparison. Contributors: Sil, Narasingha P. - Author. Journal title: East-West Connections. Volume: 4. Issue: 1 Publication date: Annual 2004. Page number: 147+. © 2007 The Asian Studies Development Program's Association of Regional Centers. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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