Three phases of Indian renaissance

Print edition : March 03, 2017

Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Debendranath Tagore. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Keshub Chandra Sen. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Dayananda Saraswati. Photo: The Hindu Archives

"Periyar" E.V. Ramasamy. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Iyothee Thass. Photo: The Hindu Archives


Narayana Guru. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The way to stem the increasingly declining values in society is to rethink the relationship between culture and politics in a manner in which culture is spurred by politics and politics is refined by culture. It is time to think about a fourth phase of the Indian renaissance.

IN the historiography of modern India, the renaissance is generally marked as the pre-political phase of the anti-colonial struggle, a period when Indians were mainly engaged in social and cultural preparation for participation in the more “progressive” and “radical”, political programme. The social and religious movements, popularly termed as the renaissance, which preceded the political struggles, are considered a necessary precursor to the coming of nationalism. Hence, nationalism is conceptualised as a natural outcome of the renaissance.

This teleological view of history has been dominant till recently. A departure from this view, quite critical for renaissance studies, had to wait until a strict periodisation of historical time came to be questioned. Not only broad overarching labels like ancient, medieval, modern and contemporary periods, but also thematic periodisation like the colonial, reformist or nationalist periods came under scrutiny. The challenge to this neat compartmentalisation came from different sources. To begin with, from Marxist scholars who traced the social origins of the national movement, from Dalit scholars who came out with alternative histories based on caste, and subaltern historians whose focus was on domination and subordination. This not only marked a change in the universe of analysis, but also a reconceptualisation of categories and the re-examination of analytical categories such as caste, class, community, and so on. In the realm of the history of ideas, the intellectual history, if you like, the most important departure has been the contextualisation of ideas.

Modernity and Renaissance

The relationship between modernity and the renaissance has given rise to a variety of questions. Whether the renaissance succeeded in resolving the social contradictions that existed in society is one important question. Why the renaissance did not become trans-sectional and why it remained religion-caste oriented is another. Is it that the renaissance was the expression of nothing more than an aggregation of upper-caste social and religious interests? Is it a fair assessment that the renaissance did not succeed in transgressing the limits set by the Brahmanic ideologies? Is it accidental that the university syllabuses did not contain courses on the history of Dalits and the marginalised? Why did the historical literature on the evolution of modern India treat the renaissance as an overarching phenomenon striding across the Indian society in the 19th and 20th centuries, without much sensitivity to the fortunes of the marginalised? An inquiry into the relationship between renaissance and modernity may provide answers to some of these questions.

The origin of modernity in India is often attributed to the intellectual and cultural efflorescence associated with the renaissance. The renaissance marked a period of transition in values, transformation in social sensibilities and rebirth in cultural creativity. The outcome of these processes was the elaboration, representation and interpretation of humanism and the emergence of a new man with cultural and intellectual attributes different from his past. These ideas inspired an upsurge of creative energy, leading to the works of masters in painting, sculpture, literature, music, and so on. The new aesthetic that emerged was integral to the structural transformation of social organisation and relations of production. It was the intellectual component of the rise of capitalism, which came to be christened as modern, to distinguish the present from the past—the new from the old.

With the growth of capitalism, the modern assumed different hues. Therefore, what we mean by “modern” became a matter of debate. A seminal question is whether the modernity in the former Asian and African countries is qualitatively similar to the modernity capitalism had brought about in Europe, as it is generally viewed as a phenomenon that came from the West through the instrumentality of colonial rule. A dominant opinion, initially generated by colonial rulers who prided themselves on their civilising mission, was that India was being led to the modern stage by the colonial administration, guided by the principles of liberalism. As such, the changes that were ushered in during the colonial domination—in administrative organisation, transport and communication, commercialisation of agriculture, and so on—are described as modernisation. Such changes were part of “colonial modernity” in the sense that they were undertaken in the service of colonial interest. They were essentially colonial projects and not modernising projects. It is understandable that the official readings left out the “colonial” part, implying thereby that the changes in economy, society and culture were part of progress towards modernity. The new Indian middle class, nurtured by the liberal English education, internalised this myth and gave credence to it through the example of its own “modern” life. In the event, what is considered modern today came to be identified with the type of progress achieved by the West, of which colonial modernity was in fact a caricature.

The belief in the benevolent nature of colonial modernity was not limited to the middle class alone. It filtered into all strata of society. Even a section of the Dalit leadership believed that it was the British who gave them a ray of hope to overcome the oppressive caste system. Not without reason, though. After all, the British administrative interventions gave them a break from the age-old oppressive caste system. At least some of them were enabled to breathe fresh air by the intervention of the colonial state. Such a perspective was the result of the iniquity of the caste system, which perpetrated, in the name of religion, cruelty and exploitation beyond human tolerance.

The infrastructural development that the British undertook to deepen the system of exploitation or to ensure their control over the people gave credence to the belief about the dawn of a new era. The railways, the system of communication and secular educational facilities were prime examples. But colonial rule was not an instrument of modernisation but an instrument of exploitation, which impoverished the natural resources of the colony, undermined its traditional industries and unsettled its cultural life. It also impacted adversely on the cultural, social and political life. When compared to this vast destruction, the benefits of colonial modernity were marginal.

The beginning of modernity was heralded not by the arrival of the West in India, but by the onset of the social and religious reforms, which is popularly called the renaissance, following the European experience. But reform is not renaissance, which, in fact, is the expression of a much larger social and intellectual awakening. Its beginning is traced to the efforts of Raja Ram Mohan Roy in Bengal to ameliorate the conditions of the life of women and to reform religious practices. In north India, it took root in the activities of Dayananda Saraswati and in Maharashtra in the Prarthana Samaj founded by M.G. Ranade and in Andhra Pradesh the movement initiated by Viresalingam. A defining feature of all these movements was that they were all upper caste–class phenomena and catered to meet the social and spiritual demands of the newly emerging middle class.

A different trajectory

The story was slightly different in south India, particularly in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In both these areas, the renaissance was a slow starter, possibly because the emergence of a middle class was relatively late in these regions. In the 19th century, the area which constituted present-day Kerala—namely, Travancore, Cochin and Malabar—was an educationally and socially backward region. So was Tamil Nadu. What distinguished the Tamil Nadu-Kerala experience was its lower-caste orientation. Most of the reform movements in this region emerged from the lower castes, unlike the north Indian renaissance, which was mainly an upper-caste preserve. The reform initiated by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in Bengal was an upper-caste–upper-class movement. Those who followed him belonged to the same group. Debendranath Tagore and Keshub Chandra Sen in Bengal, Ranade in Maharashtra, Dayananda Saraswati in Punjab, Viresalingam in Andhra Pradesh, and so on.

In contrast, the renaissance in Kerala was led by lower-caste reformers such as Narayana Guru and Ayyankali. So was it in Tamil Nadu, where the progress of the lower castes was championed by ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy and Iyothee Thass. The initiatives of these leaders were not reform movements in the conventional sense. The social activities they undertook may be termed reformist, but the ideas they propagated were radical in nature. For instance, their emphasis was not on caste reform but on the abolition of the caste system. Their role in society was more in the nature of spreading the ideas which contributed to the making of a modern society. Their emphasis was on cleanliness, education, industry and such other material issues. They were ideologues of social change who envisioned a casteless and classless society. Although they did not propound any social theory, efforts were made to conceptualise the organisation of a society on egalitarian lines. Vishnubuva Brahmachari’s Vedokta Dharma Prakasha and Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s essay “Samyo” are good examples.

The common feature that they all shared was the urge to transform the existing social and cultural conditions, ranging from irrational religious practices and rituals to the oppressive state of women’s lives. The widespread belief in idolatry, which was ranked by many as the main source of superstitions, received prime attention. The Brahmo Samaj abolished idolatry, so did the Arya Samaj and the Prarthana Samaj. Narayana Guru was more innovative in his approach. He had the foresight to realise that “surgical operations” were counterproductive in social matters. Therefore, he tried to undermine the appeal of idolatry in slow stages. To begin with, he questioned the divine character attributed to the idol by taking an ordinary stone to consecrate Siva. Consequently, he used a mirror in place of the idol and finally he abolished the idol altogether. This attempt to use the medium of the idol to negate idol worship has been misinterpreted as an endorsement of idol worship and as an example of upper-caste hegemony. Narayana Guru was in line with the 19th century Indian tradition of anti-idolatry. The irony, however, was that after his death his followers turned him into an idol.

The deplorable condition of women also agitated the reforming mind of the 19th century. Starting with Ram Mohan Roy, who championed the abolition of Sati, almost all reformers advocated the urgent need to free women from the shackles of moribund custom. This was not an expression of empathy for the type of lives they were forced to lead. The reform had a very limited but crucial purpose: the amelioration of the condition and dignity of women.

These early efforts to reform the socio-religious conditions formed the first phase of the Indian renaissance. A defining feature of this phase was its focus on reform as the sole means of regeneration. The destiny of society, it was argued, depended on how fast Indians got rid of obscurantic practices and superstitious beliefs. At the same time, renaissance distanced itself from politics. It was believed that once society was rid of irrational practices, all other dimensions of national life would be automatically solved. In their view, solving the internal social weakness was the immediate need and once it was achieved, it would not take a long time for the political problem to be solved. Although the awareness of an alien rule lurked in the minds of many and found occasional expression, albeit indirectly, a sensitivity about its deleterious consequences was lacking. Only a very few tried to address the issue of the relationship between colonialism and social liberation. And those who did, couched their criticism in liberal terms. The colonial ideology of guided modernity appears to have had a profound influence on the Indian intelligentsia at that time and it led them to rationalise the colonial domination as a divine dispensation.

Nationalism and Renaissance

Through a liberal critique of the colonial rule during the 19th century, the Indian intelligentsia was able to overcome this delusion, which led to the emergence of nationalism. At the same time, they also realised the importance of combining political and cultural activities. This connection led to the internalisation, although on a limited scale, of renaissance ideas by nationalism. The connection, however, was so tenuous that the “political” gained an upper hand and the “social” was relegated to the background. The rise and decline of the Indian Social Conference is a good example. The social conference, in the beginning, met at the same venue as the Indian National Congress, thereby recognising the symbiotic relationship between the political and the cultural. This practice was abandoned when the anti-colonial political movement became powerful. This separation had symbolic meaning, indicative of the priorities the national movement had set for itself.

The rise of the middle class led to a disjunction between the social and the political movements, which had long-term implications. When the national movement gained strength through political struggles like non-cooperation and civil disobedience, the social consciousness was still entrenched in caste and communal feelings. Was it a result of the inability to evolve a symbiotic relationship between the political and the cultural? Gandhiji addressed this question by his advocacy of Gram Swaraj and constructive programmes. This was the high point of the second phase of the renaissance, when nationalism tried to incorporate the renaissance values. However, the potential of this relationship was not realised in practice. Therefore, nationalism left behind a backward social consciousness, however progressive the thinking of the leadership was.

The central inspiration of the renaissance was humanism. By bringing man to the centre stage, humanism spurred the creative energy in all spheres of social existence—architecture, music, painting and philosophical thought. But the expression of humanism in different epochs differed in emphasis. During the ancient period it found expression in empathy with those denied freedom and subjected to slavery and those who had no access to justice, but in the medieval times humanist sympathy lay with those who were victims of feudal oppression. In modern times, the focus of humanism is focussed on the defence of the rights of the underprivileged and the marginalised. The different phases of renaissance carried in their baggage the changing forms of humanism.

The three phases

The first phase of the renaissance in India was embodied in the socio-religious movements, which was mainly, though not exclusively, initiated by the burgeoning middle class, which was schooled in British liberalism. But the intellectuals who spearheaded the movement were not Anglophile Indians. A defining feature of the movement was an inquiry into the past and an assessment of the strength of tradition to overcome contemporary problems. Recall Ram Mohan Roy’s use of Hindu scriptures in his debate with his opponents on Sati, or Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s widow remarriage campaign, or Narayana Guru’s advocacy of universalism. They were all groping for a way out in an “era of darkness”. That they struck at the obvious—social obscurantism, religious superstition and irrational rituals—was the natural outcome. Thus, the first phase of the Indian renaissance was predominantly engaged with social and cultural matters, a consequence of which was the relative neglect of the political. In fact, the political did not figure seriously in their thoughts.

In contrast, the second stage was characterised by an attempt to bring together anti-colonial politics and the social quest for modernity. The anti-colonial movement did not follow the renaissance, as is generally assumed; the latter elided into the former, in the sense that the national movement allowed the values of the first phase of the renaissance to form their ideological postures and enter areas where they were conspicuous by their absence. But the national movement took the precaution to keep the struggle on social issues outside its political agenda and to control it through measured interventions. Gandhiji’s role in the Vaikom Satyagraha, for instance, was that of a mediator and not a participant, even if his sympathy was with the satyagrahis.

The third phase of the renaissance, which begins with the end of colonial rule, was a result of the confluence of Marxism and the renaissance values. In fact, the renaissance values are inherent in Marxism and were part of the agenda of the communist movement, which functioned with the notion of cultural and social equality, among caste and gender. This was not a break with the past. The ideas of equality, gender justice and secularism were integral to the first and second phases of the renaissance as well. But with different humanist orientations. The aim of the Left was not so much to “reform”, but to transform the existing cultural and social practices. In doing so, it sought to create a new meaning for the renaissance. Although several leaders of the Left movement realised the importance of culture in popular struggles, they did not succeed in creatively bringing them together. The third phase of the renaissance, as represented by radical cultural activism, therefore, did not really take off, despite a very encouraging beginning in the 1930s. The deleterious effects of this failure have plagued the Left renaissance to the extent that cultural activism has almost become irrelevant in the cultural life of the nation. This is surprising as a substantial section of the creative intelligentsia are broadly left in their intellectual orientation. Many cultural activists and writers have started wondering whether a “Left Renaissance” is possible at all.

A process with changing attributes

The renaissance was not an event, it was a process and its attributes underwent changes whenever major shifts took place in society and the economy. As similar relations cannot be reproduced for a second time, it is also not possible that the values of the first renaissance could be recaptured in the changed conditions generated by capitalism and neoliberalism. Not because those values have lost their relevance, but the social context has changed and, accordingly, their content has to be refurbished. Instead of attempting to recapture the values of the first renaissance, which occurred in a colonial-feudal era, the Left has to reinvent the renaissance from the viewpoint of the oppressed, the exploited and the marginalised. Socialist humanism not only aims at an egalitarian socio-political order, it also envisions cultural and intellectual freedom. The violence and intolerance rampant in society today is not so much the failure of the first phase of the renaissance as the inability to transform its values in accordance with the demands of the present. The material world is changing, but the cultural-ideational climate remains stagnant, if not deteriorating. The way to stem the increasingly declining values in society is to rethink the relationship between culture and politics in a manner in which culture is spurred by politics and politics is refined by culture.

It is time to think about a fourth phase of the Indian renaissance.

K.N. Panikkar is former Professor of Modern History, Jawaharlal Nehru University.