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Debates On Theology

Sumanta Banerjee

By Amiya P. Sen
Primus Books, Delhi, 2010, pp. x + 256, Rs. 750.00


The multifaceted encounter between tradition and modernity in colonial Indian society continues to intrigue today’s historians, who discover new dimensions in the recorded experiences of that period. A little over a decade ago, Tapan Raychaudhuri, in a brilliant study called Europe Reconsidered (1988), explored the changing perceptions and attitudes among the nineteenth century Bengali Hindu intelligent-sia who came in contact with the West. He chose three contemporary representatives, through whose narratives he sought to examine the processes arising out of such a contact in the Bengali social, cultural and political environs. The responses and reactions of the three—Bhudev Mukhopadhyay, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and Swami Vivekananda—bore testimony to the transformation of modern Bengali sensibilities in those environs.In order to define this change, Raychaudhuri instead of using the term ‘westernization’, which implied submission to dominant cultural values and manners of the colonial power, chose the term ‘catalyst’ in a later essay of his (‘Transformation of Indian sensibilities’, 1999), where he expressed the view that in the socio-cultural milieu of 19th century Bengal, the contact with the West triggered off reactions resulting in new ways of thinking, feeling and action—which not necessarily approximated to the western model. The author of the present book—who dedicates it among others to Tapan Raychaudhuri, and also includes the above three nineteenth century doyens in his analysis of contemporary Bengali society—goes beyond the socio-cultural and political concerns of the period, and concentrates instead on the religious arena. Amiya. P. Sen takes up the religio-philosophical questions that no less troubled the western educated Bengali Hindu intelligentsia of that period than the social and political issues. He analyses the debates on Hinduism that animated Calcutta’s bhadralok society in those times and examines the views of the main participants like Rammohan RoyDebendranath Tagore, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Akshay Kumar Dutta, Keshabchandra Sen, Swami Vivekananda among others. He guides the reader through a finely spun web of abstract and—often abstruse—arguments that marked their discussions on three key points of controversy in contemporary Hindu thinking—one, the tensions between the traditional belief in divinely ordained history and the modern testimony of humanly enacted events making history; two, the contention over re-defining and reinventing the term dharma; and three, attempts at evolving new moral and cultural theories around a traditionally revered text like the Bhagavad Gita. On all these three points, Sen takes issue with those who contend that ...

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