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Summing up Bankim

Meenakshi Mukherjee

By Amiya P. Sen
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 133, Rs. 395.00

VOLUME XXXII NUMBER 12 December 2008

Three miraculous events have happened on this earth: the birth of three men of great purity of soul (mahashuddhatma), many years apart in time—and in countries far away from each other. They taught the world a mantra of immense significance. The essence of that mantra was ‘all human beings are equal’.1   The Bankim who believed that Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ and Jean Jacque Rousseau were born to redeem the human race is much less known today than the later Bankim who reflected on the philosophical implications of Hinduism. Today those who perceive Bankim as a revivalist may not know this early Bankim who was a passionate champion of egalitarianism, and influenced by John Stuart Mill, wrote strongly against gender iniquity. His views on caste were also unorthodox for his time. In an essay titled ‘Freedom and Subjugation of India’ he had wondered if the injustice the brahmans had perpetrated on the shudras for centuries was not worse than British oppression of Indians.2   Two of Bankim’s early essays remain important to this day: ‘Samya’ contributed in a major way to the formation of liberal thought in late nineteenth-century Bengal, and ‘Bangadesher Krishak’ was a scathing critique of the tyranny of zamindars empowered by the ‘Permanent Settlement’ of Lord Cornwallis. Even though in later life Bankim decided to stop reprinting ‘Samya’, because he no longer believed in these ideas, the impact of these essays probably remained more potent than his subsequent book on Krishna and his unfinished commentary on Bhagavadgita. Although conceptually distinctive, Amiya Sen tells us, ‘Bankim’s writings on religion and culture never gained a great degree of popularity’ (p. 42). In order to understand the role of Bankim in shaping Bengali modernity, both phases of his intellectual development need to be taken into consideration.   Amiya P. Sen’s biography privileges the later religious Bankim over the early radical thinker, because, as Sen states in the Preface, he has been wanting to write this book for a long time because ‘(Bankim’s) writings have sustained my interest in modern Hinduism and the self-reflexivity of modern Hindus’. As evident from his earlier work—a book on Swami Vivekananda as well as a critical introduction to an Engilsh translation of Bankim’s Dharmatattwa—religion has been Amiya Sen’s special area of study. Those interested in analysing the principles of Hinduism in the present context of India will find the book ...

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