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Brahmananda Keshub Chander Sen – Part I

Sanjoy Chanda

Raja Rammohun Roy had founded the Brahmo Samaj and in the Trust Deed of the first Brahmo mandir he had spelt out the basis of the Universal Religion he established. This seed sewn by Rammohun was nurtured carefully by Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, who compiled the book “Brahmo Dharma” and gave the fledgling religion a proper form. Keshub Chandra Sen took on the task of overseeing the growth and strengthening of the Samaj – he spread the message of monotheism of Brahmo faith all over India and made Brahmo Samaj the instrument of carrying out social service and social reforms.

We observed the 183rd birth anniversary of Keshub Chunder Sen. He was born on the 19th of November 1838 in a well-to-do and well-respected family. His grandfather Ramkamal Sen was a remarkable person. He was highly respected for his erudition and his contribution in the field of education. He had worked his way up from a humble position to become a member of the Asiatic Society. He held the position of the Dewan of the Bank of Bengal (which later became Imperial Bank and is now known as the State Bank of India). His was a devout Vaishnav family. Keshub’s father Pearymohan, died young when Keshub was only 9 years old. Pearymohan was also a kind and gentle person, known for his benevolence and sympathy for the poor. His mother Sarada Devi was also a religious person and a dutiful mother.

Though born in a rich family, Keshub, since his very childhood, shunned ostentation. He had an in-built religiosity that set him apart. He became a vegetarian at the age of 14. When he was 18 years old, a sense of detachment filled his mind. He had an inner urge to pray. He began to practice severe austerity and found solace in prayers. He established in his home a small fraternity called the ‘Goodwill Fraternity’ and preached to his friends two doctrines – ‘God is our father’ and ‘every man is our brother’. 

I quote some sections from his own description of the early struggles he encountered: “I had given up idolatry but had received no positive system to replace it. ………Through divine grace, however, I felt a longing for something higher; I felt that I had a Heavenly Friend near to succour me. God himself told me this – no book, no teacher, but God himself, in the secret recess of my heart. God spoke to me in unmistakable language and gave me the secret of spiritual life, and that was prayer, to which I owed my conversion. …….I felt profoundly the efficacy of prayer in my own experience. I grew in wisdom, purity and love. …………I felt that not only belief in God was necessary but I wanted a real brotherhood on earth. Where was this true church to be found?’ 

When this was the state of his mind, a small publication of the Calcutta Brahmo Samaj fell into his hands. He found that it corresponded exactly with the inner conviction of his heart, the voice of God in his soul. He immediately decided that he would join the Brahmo Samaj. This happened in the year 1857 when Keshub was about 19 years old. 

Next year Debendranath Tagore returned to Calcutta from the Himalayas. Two years earlier he had felt an urge to free himself of all social ties and go far away to be able to read, think and meditate in peace. He took up residence in Shimla and spent his time there in thought, contemplation and long hours of meditation and attained spiritual fulfillment. His devotional experience was so rewarding that he did not want to leave the mountains. But his conscience urged him to go back and share with others what he had achieved there. On his return he met Keshub, the new member of the samaj. 

Debendranath returned from the hills with his mind refreshed and eager to spread the lessons of truth and spirituality that he brought with him from the Himalayas. He was greatly impressed by the personality, religiosity, ability and enthusiasm of Keshub.  Keshub also recognized in Debendranath a truly devout soul, a modern age sage. The result was a true and abiding attachment between the two of them which lasted lifelong and led the way to their working together. Together they started planning and carrying out measures of far-reaching importance to the community. The 20 year old Keshub and 41 year old Debendranath found kindred spirit in one another.

After joining the Brahmo SamajKeshub launched himself with unbounded energy into spreading the word of Brahmoism and in teaching spirituality to the youth. It sems that his youthful enthusiasm infected the much older Debendranath. In 1859 Keshub started the Brahma Vidyalaya. The classes of the school used to be held every Sunday where Debendranath lectured on the attributes of God in Bengali and Keshub taught the young men in English the philosophical basis of Brahmoism and the ethical aspects of spiritual life. 

In 1860 Keshub started Sangat Sabha. While Brahma Vidyalaya was a large study circle, Sangat Sabha was a smaller, closer circle for intimate spiritual fellowship. He wrote and published a series of articles entitled “Young Bengal, this is for you”, “Be Prayerful” etc. for guiding the educated youth to constructive paths based on faith, piety and moral courage. 

Keshub Chander was a gifted orator. He spoke extempore in Bengali, English and Hindi. His speeches mesmerized the audience. The language and substance of his speeches, his voice and delivery inspired and electrified them. Not only that educated youth were attracted to his lectures, but they were also attended by the cream of society. In India his audience consisted among others the Governor General, the Lieutenant Governor, senior government functionaries, the educated and the intellectuals. When in England, people of eminence such as Gladstone, Max Mueller, Newman and others attended his lectures. Keshub’s lectures were, in no small measure, responsible for attracting many educated and idealistic young men to the Brahmo Samaj.

Thus armed with unflinching faith and devotion in God as well as leadership qualities and organizational skill, Keshub was able to generate enthusiasm among the educated youth of Bengal and consolidate the position of Brahmo Samaj. ‘Whatever he thought in his mind”, said Debendranath of Keshub, “he had the power to express in speech. Whatever he said, he had the power to do. Whatever he did, he had the power of making other men do’. Having recognized his qualities and capabilities, Debendranath made him Acharya of the Samaj and conferred upon him the title “Brahmananda”. 

(To be continued)

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