Monday 8 April 2024

Vande Mataram!

A littérateur par excellence whose trailblazing novels steered the Bengali literary world towards a new progressive direction and whose patriotic verses went on to be embraced as India's national song, Vande Mataram, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay was not only a luminary of the Bengal Renaissance, but continues to be a literary giant in our times. His journalistic authenticity and social satires inspired generations of writers and authors who came after him.

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay was born during the high-noon of British imperialism in 1838 at present day Naihati town in North 24 Parganas district, West Bengal and passed away passed away in Calcutta (now Kolkata) at the age of 65 in 1891 (April 8). He studied at the Hooghly Mohsin College and subsequently at the Presidency College, making him one of the early graduates of Calcutta University. He had a long career in bureaucracy and served as a deputy magistrate across several Indian states.

His youthful compositions made appearances in the Sambad Prabhakar but it was in 1858 that he published his anthology of poems, Lalita O Manas. Rajmohan's Wife (1864) was his only English literary work. Chattopadhyay, in the words of the great Bengali reformist-philosopher Debendranath Tagore, took "the Bengali heart by storm" with his novel Durgeshnandini (1865) which revolves around a Rajput hero and a Bengali heroine. In fact, it is through Durgeshnandini and subsequently, Kapalkundala (1866) and perhaps most importantly, Vishabriksha (The Poison Tree) that Bankim made a stellar case for women's rights and trenchantly criticized the evils of child marriage, caste discrimination, child widowhood. Bankim Chandra's newspaper, Bangadarshan, was first published in 1872 and ushered in a new era in journalism and literary creativity. Bangadarshan soon became the holy sanctum of Chattopadhyay's works. Several of his later novels were published in a serialized manner in the newspaper such as Radharani, Chandrashekhar, Rajani, Krishnakanter Uil, Debi Chaudhuran, Sitaram among others.
(Ananda The Abbey of Bliss Second Edition, 1883)
Almost serving as a revolutionary call to arms, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's Ananda (The Abbey of Bliss, 1882) ignited the spirits of the Indian youth. It became a clarion call for reclaiming national pride and serving the motherland even at the cost of one's own life. Today's national song, Vade Mataram, featured as a poem within the novel and almost single-handedly imagined the Indian subcontinent as a Mother. Drawing from the strong shakti tradition of Bengal, Bankim Chattopadhyay envisioned India as the profound Mother Goddess or the divine Bharat Mata. But this Mother (India) was dying under the yoke of the British rule and it was the responsibility of the sons of this soil to rise in resistance against the diabolical nature of the alien rule. Set against the Sannyasi Rebellion or the Monk Rebellion (1770-1777) that had been led by ascetics, fakirs and hermits of Bengal against the English East India Company and its rabid revenue policies, Ananda, for the first time, drove home the urgency of radical and revolutionary action for the greater good of the nation.

Vande Mataram! (I praise thee Mother!) became a clarion call during the anti- Bengal Partition or Swadeshi movement in 1905 and for the entire freedom struggle at large. Slogans of Vande Mataram rang not only in the streets of urban Bengal, Bombay or Madras but throughout India, across all its nooks and corners. The British state swiftly launched a ban on Ananda and heavily cracked down on Indian civilians who used the slogan. The very act of pronouncing the words became a revolutionary act and filled common men and women with an unprecedented nationalist pride.

A telling passage from the book that brings to the fore Bankim Chandra's idea of an inclusive India is when Mahatma Satya initiated Mahendra and 'the stranger' into the revolutionary ascetic order of Ananda to dedicate themselves to the service of Mother India. It stressed that the national identity was far above their individual community identity. In an instance from the book, Mahatma Satya upon initiating the stranger says,

"Splendid! Do you both renounce your castes? For all Children belong to the same caste. In our work we do not differentiate between Hindu or Muslim, Buddhist or Sikh, Parsee or Pariah. We are all brothers here — all Children of the same Mother India. What do you say?"

We agree to forget caste altogether. We all are Children of the same Mother.

Now I am willing to initiate you. You must never break your promises. God and Mother India are your witnesses. Hell is the only fitting punishment for those who break their word of honour.'

'Yes, we realise that indeed.'
'Then sing Bande Mataram.'
They sang Bande Mataram from the depths of their hearts"

(Symbol of Anushilam Samiti)
Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's political philosophy stemmed from the firm belief that Indian society must synergize the best practices of the West without acknowledging a total subservient self-surrender to Western culture. He was thoroughly interested in European literature, Enlightenment thought, Western polemic on rationality and morality. His own worldview was shaped by Comtean Positivism, Bentham's Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill's audacious take on social and gender philosophy and in fact, also by strands of French Socialism. He was a champion of modernity and progressive cosmopolitanism, yet he emphatically promoted the need to reclaim one's Indian roots.

Bankim Chandra also asserted that the lack of physical strength and will power among Indian men was causing them to continuously submit to foreign rule. The pejorative titles used by Englishmen against Bengali men in particular and Indians in general, of being armchair intellectuals and 'effiminate' outraged Chattopadhyay who countered such vile allegations through his plot-lines while simultaneously imbuing them with strong patriotic fervour.

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's novels and writings were deeply embedded in History, a case in point being his novel, Rajsimha (1881). This was primarily because he believed that one of the biggest assets of a region lay in their ability to write about their past. A fact he thought was not the case with Indians. There was a gaping hole in Indian historical traditions where memorializing one's past was never undertaken seriously and this allowed for ambiguity in narratives which was skillfully manipulated by the imperialists to dub Indians and Indian pasts as being inferior to the West.

His abhorrence for the despicable nature of English rule becomes buoyant as one recounts his interaction with Ramkrishna Paramhansa, a philosopher and preacher from Bengal. Upon meeting Bankim Chandra, Ramkrishna had endearingly quipped that what was it that had caused him to "bend" as bankim literally means 'bent a little'. To this, Bankim Chattopadhyay had humorously replied that it was the 'kick of the Englishman's shoe' that had caused him to bend.

Spiritualism and a deep sense of philosophy pervaded his literary works. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay was inspired by the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition of 14th and 15th century Bengal and it is from Bengal's 'bhakti' traditions that he coined the idea of 'anushilan' in order upend the supremacy of Western cultural domination. Here, 'anushilan' as a functional idea was predicated wholly on the traditions of 'bhakti' which in turn was divided into knowledge and duty. He writes at length about his understanding of this bhakti in Dharmattatva where he exhorts the need to combine devotion and knowledge to aspire for power and civilizational greatness.

Interestingly, Chattopadhyay critiqued the Sankhya philosophy in his essay on the Sankhya tradition, and its underlying principle of 'bairagya' or ultimate renunciation/non-attachment. He believed that this trend of philosophical understanding tended to sap the Indians of vigour and they meekly acknowledged the supremacy of other races. Instead, we see Chattopadhyay making a strident case for 'physical invincibility' of Indians, extolling the idea of self-assertion and will power, as seen particularly in his portrayal of strong protagonists in Ananda, Debi Chaudhurani and Krishna Charitra.

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay thus hoped for a spectacular national regeneration and urged the youth of his times to embrace the duties of being a son of the soil and wresting national freedom with force and self-belief from the British.  His penned words had a supreme impact on young minds. In fact, it was his Anushilan Tattva that inspired Praanath Mitra to start the Anushilan Samiti---a secret revolutionary group that was to create an unprecedented revolutionary legacy in India in the early 20th century. His works left an indelible mark upon Rabindranath Tagore who acknowledged Chattopadhyay to be his literary mentor and reverentially wrote about him:

Bankim Chandra had equal strength in both his hands, he was a true 'sabyasachi' (ambidextrous). With one hand, he created literary works of excellence; and with the other, he guided young and aspiring authors. With one hand, he ignited the light of literary enlightenment; and with the other, he blew away the smoke and ash of ignorance and ill-conceived notions.

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay was revered in Bengal and across India not only for his progressive literary style but also for being a strident nation-builder. With his words he spun a national dream of freedom from not just a foreign rule but also from the self: he championed a victory over the vices of the self and a victory over retrograde societal ideas and norms so that India could awaken to a bold and glorious future that was inclusive and assertive of its rightful place in the global stage of nations.

Source: Indian Culture Portal

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सिद्ध‌‌यसिद्धयोर्निर्विकार: कर्ता सात्त्विक उच्यते ॥१८.२६॥

Freed from attachment, non-egoistic, endowed with courage and enthusiasm and unperturbed by success or failure, the worker is known as a pure (Sattvika) one. Four outstanding and essential qualities of a worker. - Bhagwad Gita : XVIII-26

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