Swami Vivekananda and Rishi Bankimchandra as Patriots and Nationalists: A Critical Comparison

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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. …