Brief Biography: Heramba Chandra Maitra was born in the year 1858 CE and died in 1938 CE. He was the principal of City College, Calcutta., which was founded as a school in 1879, and subsequently raised to a College in 1881 by a number of patriotic members of Sadharan Brahmo Samaj including Ananda Mohan Bose, Sivanath Shastri, Umesh Chandra Dutta and himself among others. An adoring student of Charles Tawney, he was steeped in Carlyle, Emerson and William Wordsworth. He earned the distinction of becoming a Professor of the University of Calcutta which awarded him an Honourary D.Litt. degree in the year 1831.
Heramba Chandra Maitra was a devout Brahmo and a theologian. He was a staunch puritan too. He visited the United States of America in February 1911 for delivering lectures and addresses at the Unitarian Churches and Universities of New England, New York and Chicago. According to J.T. Sutherland “Mr. Maitra, the learned Principal of City College, Calcutta, and the President of Sadharan Brahmo Samaj has rendered a valuable service to us, but I think also to India, by his recent visit to this country. India is widely misunderstood here, as also in Europe, and even in England.” According to him, ambassadors like Heramba Chandra Maitra had dispelled the misconception in the USA about the intellectual inferiority of the Indian minds that was propagated to the west first by the missionaries who went to India to convert the people from an inferior to a superior religion (according to their understanding), and secondly from the English who subjugated India and held the Indians in contempt. The erudite lectures of such men as Heramba Chandra had managed to counter such demeaning views.
Heramba Chandra Maitra also attended the Berlin Congress of Liberal Religions in 1910.
Here we are presenting a tribute to the great teacher by his pupil. It is an anonymous article published in “The Calcutta Municipal Gazette” on January 22, 1938 by the Editor Shri. Amal Home.
“To walk staunchly by the best light one has to be strict and sincere with one-self – not to be of the number of those who say and do not, to be in earnest – this is the discipline by which alone man can be enabled to rescue his life, to make it eternal.”
“a desire after the things of the mind for their own sakes and for the pleasure of seeing them as they are, … the love of our neighbours, the impulses towards action, help and benevolence, the desire for removing human error, clearing human confusion, and diminishing human misery, the noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it …. comes in as parts of the ground culture, and the main and pre-eminent part.”
These words – words of deep import – come spontaneously to our mind as our thoughts turn, in reverence and sorrow, towards Principal Heramba Chandra Maitra, who passed away in his eightieth year, on Sunday last, after a life spent in the service of God and man, to which he had dedicated himself in his early youth. If we are asked as to who among those at whose feet we sat and under whose influence we came as students, had made this definition of culture his life’s motto and had lived up to the great ideal enunciated by one of the foremost English essayists of the nineteenth century, our unhesitating answer will be – Heramba Chandra Maitra. He was Mathew Arnold’s true man of culture, who lived in an atmosphere of sweetness and light and made all men round him do the same.
As we think of our revered teacher our mind goes back more than a quarter century when we were pupils. The effect which he produced upon us was remarkable. The dignity of his presence and the loftiness of his sentiments are impossible to forget. In class, every line of his noble countenance, every shade of his manner imprinted themselves on the minds of those who had the privilege of being taught by him. Even at this distance of time we recall the awe-inspiring glance with which he looked round – through his glasses, often sliding down his finely shaped nose, – before the lecture began, and which seemed to speak his sense of his own position; the attitude in which he sat, or often stood, turning over pages of Webster’s lexicon or Roget’s thesaurus, with his eye fixed upon the student who was pausing to give an answer; the fall of his countenance with its deepening severity, the stern elevation of the eye-brows, the sudden ‘sit down’ which followed upon the reverse; and the starting earnestness with which he would check in a moment the slightest approach to levity. And as he would read to us the ‘Character of Happy warrior” –
“Who, with a natural instinct to discern
What knowledge can perform, is diligent to learn;
Abides by this resolve, and stops not there, But makes his moral being his prime care;
Who comprehends his trust, and to the same
Keeps faithful with a singleness of aim;
And therefore does not stoop, nor lie in wait
For wealth, or honours, or for worldly state;
Whom neither shape of danger can dismay,
Nor thought of tender happiness can betray;
Who not content that former worth stand fast’ Looking forward, preserving to the last’ From well to better, daily surpast – ”
our mind of itself would turn towards our Professor and Principal in whom we saw the very picture of the happy warrior depicted by his most favourite English poet.
He was a great teacher, but greater still, he was a moral preceptor. He instilled into his pupils the elements of character and principles of conduct. He would often remind them, constantly impress upon them, that what he looked for in them was, first, religious and moral principle; secondly, gentlemanly conduct; thirdly, intellectual ability. Every week he would address them, at a special class; and his speeches, clothed in stately language, choicest phraseology and purest diction – he was master of the King’s English – still ring in our ears as we recall his high-toned exhortations for the pursuit of a life of purity, – free from passion and prejudice, evil and obliquity. All that is beautiful and noble in literature and religion went to the making of those speeches. There are, he would often say, two great crises in the life of a man, – one that comes to everyone and one that comes to many; the first, death, and the second, some great moral upheaval, some great spiritual crisis. And when they come there is one light alone to lighten the darkness; then it is only in God, whom all religions – irrespective of dogmas or creeds – alike believe, that hope and happiness, peace and comfort are to be found.
Heramba Chandra Maitra had the reputation of being an unbending moralist, and this reputation had woven round him popular legends. There was no malice, however, in them. Even those who purveyed these stories – mostly apocryphal – recognized the sterling honesty of the man, – his unquestioned sincerity. He was a moralist because he believed in the supreme moral governance of the world, because he believed that he lived every hour of his life – awake or asleep – before the “great Task-master’s eye.” He was, however, no Calvinist because he was a moralist; he was no tearing divine reducing life to the dimensions of a mere funeral procession; no prancing philosopher flaunting his moral theories before the world. His delight in external beauty, in nature, was as strong as his sense of moral evil, for he felt that in a deep sense of moral evil – more perhaps than in anything else – abided a saving knowledge of God.
He was deeply religious. His faith in Divine dispensation, his surrender to the Divine will was like that of a child clinging to its mother. In health or in sickness, in joy or in sorrow, he would turn to his Creator daily for spiritual sustenance. And it was the strength that he received from the communion that sustained him through the long period of trial and tribulation when the very existence of the institution he had built up with his life-blood was threatened some years ago. We were then witness to the calm composure and the great dignity with which he bore the cruel calumny and calculated contumely heaped upon him from day to day. It was indeed remarkable.
Behind the austere exterior of our teacher beat a heart as loving as that of a Bengali mother. The weak and the poor, the diseased and the suffering had always a place in his heart. We have often seen tears in his eyes for them.
We offer to his memory to-day our tear-stained reverence and homage. May his soul rest in peace.