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Editorial – September 2019

We are deep into the festival season.  In the cities and towns, the people in this part of the world are deep into the celebration of the Durga Puja and the other festivals. Nowadays it is the pomp and grandeur that have taken place over tradition and there is a mad race to woo and awe the visitors to these festivals. The Durga puja in Bengal was started by the landed gentry in Bengal was to show their obeisance to the British.  If one sees the paintings of Gaganendranath one will get an idea of the Pujas during that time.

Rammohun who had established the Brahmo Samaj had sown the seeds of this Universal religion as early as 1825. He established Vedanta College, for the teaching of the monotheistic doctrines of the Vedanta. Rammohun founded this institution because, to use the language of one of his biographers, “he saw in the Vedanta, rightly handled and rightly explained, a means for leading his countrymen out of their prevailing superstitions and idolatry into pure and elevated theism”.   It is said that that tears would roll down his cheeks, when his friends would draw his attention to the idols carried in procession through the streets of Calcutta, and he would say “Brother, brother. ours is universal religion; it is far superior to idolatry.” Debendranath recalls that as a young boy he went to Rammohun’s house to invite him for the Durga Puja. Rammohun looked at hm in the eye and asked “You are asking me to attend the Pujas” – then he said – “Brother go and invite Radhaparasad instead.

Rammohun Roy was a linguist par excellence – having read the Koran in Arabic, the Vedas and Upanishads in Sanskrit, the Old Testament and the Talmud in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. But Rammohun was more than a religious reformer. The noted historian and former Director (Hon.) Institute of Historical Studies of Kolkata – Prof Nisith Ranjan Ray, states “He was also a champion of social reforms. To draw the line of distinction between social and religious practices is more often than not a challenging task. The role of a religious reformer invariably induced Rammohun to question and condemn many of the prevalent racial practices which sought their justification in religious sanctions.”

Dr Lant Carpenter writes that whenever Rammohun went to public worship in England, he would read some of Dr. Watt’s Hymns for Children; and he frequently dwelt with great and earnest interest on the verse,

Lord! How delightful ’tis to see
A whole assembly worship thee:
At once they sing, at once they pray;
They hear of heaven and learn the way.

Rammohun breathed his last in Bristol at about 2:30AM on 27th September 1833.  A special service was held in Lewin’s Mead Chapel, Bristol, where the Rammohun had last worshipped. A funeral sermon was preached by Dr. Lant Carpenter to a densely crowded congregation on October 6th, 1833. It contains a full review of the labours, opinions and character of the Rajah, and was printed with a number of extracts from his writings, and with the Biographical Memoir. On that day in the evening the chapel yard was thronged sometime before the service commenced, not only was every pew and edifice densely crowded but also the seats in the aisles filled up. The open space was occupied with people standing. Mary Carpenter later wrote “Never, before nor since, have I beheld such a crowd in that or in any other place of worship.”

Pt. Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar was born 26th September 1820. This year is his bi – centenary. During  his childhood he had seen Bengal going through a session of turmoil in the social arena. Rammohun was then combating the evil social practices of Suttee and other dogmas.. The entire society was divided into two – one against the Suttee practice led by Rammohun and the other for the practice led by Deb’s – Radhakanta & Gopimohan of Sovabazar among others. The rich and the poor – the educated and the illiterate – chose their camps accordingly. Even the Brahmins pundits aligned themselves to these two camps – Brahma Sabha and Dharma Sabha respectively.

The period of 1830 to 1841 experienced great turmoil in the social arena. Young Iswar Chandra was a first-hand witness to this upheaval. During this period a lot of Associations were set up in Bengal like Anglo Hindu Association (1830), Jnansandipan Sabha (1830) , Sadharan Jnanoparjika Sabha (1838) and the Tattwabodhini Sabha (1839)  to name a few. These associations used to discuss on subjects like literature, science, philosophy, education, economics. Iswar Chandra owes all his impetus for his work from these associations. At the age of 22 he joined the Fort William College as the head of the Bengali department.

In 1843, on 9th February Madhusudhan Dutta embraced Christianity and on 21st December Debendranath was initiated into Brahmoism by Ramchandra Vidyabagish. The Brahmo Samaj was able to stem the influx of Christianity in the upper-class Bengali society. Akshay Kumar Dutta embraced the Brahmo religion. Vidyasagar though he was deeply associated with the Tattwabodhini Sabha had very liberal views on religion. Debendranath himself visited the houses of the educated and rich Hindus and requested them not to send their children to the schools run by the missionaries. The Hindu Hitarthi Vidyalaya was set up for Hindu students – rich contributions came from the prominent citizens of Calcutta – a total of Rs. 40,000/- was collected. An important outcome of this was that the enmity between the Brahmasabha & Dharmasabha got removed altogether.

Akshyay Kumar Dutta though being a Brahmo was a materialist with a scientific bent of mind. His friend Vidyasagar was also not very religious minded. Ever since its inception, Akshyay kumar Dutta was associated with the Tattwabodhini Sabha and was also the editor of the Tattwabodhini Patrika (estd. 16th August 1843) for a period of 12 years. Vidyasagar was also associated with the Tattwabodhini Patrika and later became the editor of the magazine. These two friends were not as ecclesiastic as Debendranath would have liked – but nevertheless Maharshi realized the potential of these two great men. The Tattwabodhini Patrika had an editorial board and one of its members was Anandakrishna Basu – the maternal grandson of Radhakanta Deb. Vidyasagar was his close associate and used to get his English education from him. Vidyasagar used to assist Anandakrishna in his editorial task and his work won the appreciation of Akshyay Kumar Dutta. Soon Vidyasagar was enrolled in the editorial board of the Tattwabodhini Patrika in 1848.

It was needless to say that the Tattwabodhini Patrika became the “best magazine in the country“ as stated by Sivanath Sastri. Debendranath had differences with Vidyasagar. The orthodox Brahmos did not like Vidyasagar’s campaign on widow remarriage on the pages of the Patrika. The matters came to pass when the editorial board of the Patrika refused to print one of the eloquent sermons of Rajnarayan Bose delivered at the Midnapore Brahmo Samaj. An angry Debendranath blames the two “atheist” members of the editorial board for this and threatened to remove them from their posts – as they were hampering the propagation of Brahmo religion. Finally in 1859 Debendranath disbanded the Tattwabodhini Sabha. The notice was issued in the month of May signed by Vidyasagar. Keshub Chandra Sen was appointed in his place. Sivanath Satri writes in the History of the Brahmo Samaj – “Perhaps it was at this time or soon after, that, under the leadership of  Babu Kanaye Lai Pyne, a prominent member of the old Akshay Kumar Datta party, some older members, including amongst them Babus Thakurdas Sen and Govind Chand Dhar, two well- known members of that party at that time, seceded from the Samaj, as a mark of their protest against what they considered to be the high-handed proceedings of Devendra Nath and established a separate Samaj of their own, called the Upasana Samaj, in another part of the town, where they began to conduct divine service according to a new form framed by themselves and revised by Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar”.  

Vidyasagar did not believe that Brahmoism was the silver bullet top stop the missionary activities of converting the educated Hindus to Christianity. His motto was you cannot prevent the disease though you are trying to cure it. He wanted to show the right path in the society to the people so that they did not go to the missionaries.

On 22nd August 1869 – Sivanath Sastry was formally initiated into Brahmoism by Keshub Chandra Sen along with 20 other young men – the day that he Bharatvvarshiya Brahma Mandir was consecrated. He was deeply associated with women education, women emancipation movements of the Brahmo Samaj. And he carried this with great gusto till the formation of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj in 1878. He became a minster of the Brahmo Samaj at the age of 21. That day he received great appreciation from Dwijendranath Tagore who was present at the occasion.  In 1874 Sivanath settled down in Bhowanipore from Harinavi and set up a Samaj in his house. This Samaj and its discourses helped shape up Sivanath for the days ahead.

After completing his MA exams Sivanath joined the Bharat Ashram under Keshub Chandra Sen. It was literally the Indian Hermitage, but practically a joint Family House, where a number of Brahmo families were invited to live together, boarding together in the fashion of a joint family, each bearing its portion of the expenses and sharing in common the spiritual and educational advantages of the institution. It was here that Sivanath started his career as a preacher of the Brahmo faith. On 24th May 1878 Sivanath started his journey as a preacher. He went to Chandannagore to get the blessings of Debendranath and then proceeded to Rampurhat, Bhagalpur, Jamalpur, Monghyr, Muzaffarpur, Allahabad etc. He led his work not only in West Bengal, but in East Bengal and even way down South. Coming back he set up a Chatra Samaj or Student’s Council to educate and alleviate the morals of the students. His second journey took place in 1879, where he covered the Western part of the country. Here he came in contact with the members of the Prarthana Samaj – Narayan Mahadev Paramanand & Dr Atmaran Panduranga. In 1880 he went to Darjeeling and set up a Samaj over there. In 1881 after the construction of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj he visited the Madras Presedency where he preached against the caste system – which was not taken well by the locals.

In his travels all over India, Sivanath realized that the all over the country there is a current of Hindu Reaction that is suppressing the spread of the Brahmo movement. He writes – “As noted by outside observers, is the greater appreciation that the members of this Samaj have shown for western ideals and methods than those which are their own as Hindus. It is thus that the Brahmo Samaj has come to be regarded by the outside public, by Hindus specially, as Christianity in another guise. There lies the root, perhaps, of the present aversion of our countrymen against the Brahmo Samaj. And with the spread of the Hindu revival movement that aversion is daily strengthening. Much of that prejudice is certainly due to an imperfect realization of the mission of the Brahmo Samaj on the part of outsiders and also to prejudice and ignorance. Men do not see that the mission of the Brahmo Samaj is to combine the East and the West. It turns to the East, to the rishis of ancient India, to find the secret of true spiritual communion, in which the soul finds itself enfolded and engulfed in the Over-soul, the atma finds itself in blessed union with the Paramatma.   The East cannot be forgotten nor can the West be neglected. Besides, the Brahmo Samaj stands on the universality of the spiritual endowment of man. Unlike all the sectarian faiths of the world, it does not limit divine revelation to special, miraculous and supernatural channels, but finds the operation of the Divine spirit in all earnest seekers after truth. Accordingly, it gives a hearing to all, and sits as a humble disciple at the feet of the great and good of all lands.“

We honour him in our hearts on his death centenary.

In this spirit of festivities let us truly remember what the Brahmo Samaj stands for.

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