The New Indian Renaissance as a Guide to Decolonisation

The New Indian Renaissance as a Guide to Decolonisation

A little-studied period of recent Indian history is the Golden Age of the New Indian Renaissance spanning the mid 19th to the mid 20th century. The jaw-dropping contribution of this period to Hindu decolonisation is a sure shot guide for our own time.

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The New Indian Renaissance as a Guide to Decolonisation


Even as the British were busy tampering with our traditional and social institutions and impregnating the Macaulayite model of education, a parallel development was occurring.

This was the Indian response to such social engineering efforts.

It took two major forms.

The first was the backlash that English education received. It began in Bengal because it was the first laboratory of the British colonization of the Hindu mind. When the Hindu society realized what English education was doing, it hit back furiously. Mass campaigns were launched to discourage Indians from attending British schools, colleges and universities. British educational institutions were branded as Gholam-Khanas or factories producing slaves for the British Empire.

The second response forms the crux of this essay series. This was the birth of the Modern Indian Renaissance, a unique epoch in our civilizational history. It is truly the Golden Age of an India under British enslavement. The fact that Hindus were able to spawn such an age in such an oppressive climate is perhaps one of the greatest testimonies to and the immeasurable worth of the cultural continuity that our people so dearly valued. This period strides roughly over an entire century – from the second half of the 19th to the second half of the 20th century.

In fact, the Indian freedom struggle, which eventually became a mass movement, was only the political facet of a deeper and far more profound struggle – a struggle to recover the battered, bruised and wounded ethos of the ancient Hindu civilization, which had attracted the entire world continuously for more than two thousand years as the global magnet of education, culture and wealth.

The New Indian Renaissance also witnessed the birth of an entirely new class of extraordinary philosophers, spiritual masters, intellectuals, thinkers, writers, artists, scholars and statesmen.

This class began to chart a completely fresh process and a journey of re-evaluating and rediscovering its own roots using the tools introduced by the British (the West, broadly speaking). Gradually, as Indians began traveling to Europe in greater numbers, they got a first-hand experience of that society and its conditions. They were able to produce fine, comparative analyses with the Indian condition. One major finding was that the so-called “modern,” “scientific,” “rational,” and “progressive” British society was after all, none of these on the ground. The 19th and early 20th century British society was a deeply status-conscious society and London for example, was notorious for rampant teenage prostitution. But back in India, the same British had already compiled voluminous treatises about the inherent evils of the “caste system,” which they declared was the primary reason for the Hindu society’s backwardness.

Armed with these findings, the luminaries of the New Indian Renaissance began broadcasting these foreign truths to their own countrymen.

The result was nothing short of an all-encompassing explosion of civilizational reawakening and cultural renewal helmed by the brightest minds endowed with the most compassionate hearts that beat and bled for Bharatavarsha.

Today, it might be astounding to learn that these luminaries were household names in their own time. For example, Jadunath Sarkar was primarily a scholar of history but he had become a household name because he was something far higher and profounder than a mere historian in the limited sense of a professor teaching a class or writing books.  

They were also luminaries in the sense that they exuded a light which re-cultured the Indian society both in parts and the whole. The other notable feature of these stalwarts was the fact that they knew one another, appreciated each other’s good work, and actively sought out each other. A substantial corpus of correspondence – both personal and scholastic – among them is still available to the patient researcher. Often, all it took to initiate the first correspondence was a scholarly paper, a new research-finding or even a straightforward request for help on a knotty problem. These would sometimes lead to lasting friendships and camaraderie. One only needs to read the acknowledgements section of say, P.V. Kane’s volumes on the Dharmasastra or R.C. Majumdar’s volumes on history. What bound all these giants together was Bharatiya culture.

THUS, IF WE NEED TO SEEK GUIDANCE and inspiration for decolonization in our own time, we inevitably need to study the legacy of these seminal decolonisers. They emerged at a time when they had no past masters to guide them in their respective fields. They had to build their own tools and methods through trial and error and by the dint of their sheer determination, hard work and perseverance. Aurangzeb consumed more than a quarter of Jadunath Sarkar’s life. Dharmasastras devoured more than half a century of P.V. Kane’s life.

These were truly original minds who combined talent, scholarship, courage, selflessness, and virtuous conduct. They were exalted patriots driven by a sense of purpose, undaunted by failures, inwardly aloof from fame and distinguished by a glaring absence of pettiness.

Here is a brief list of names I’ve selected at random: Raja Rammohun Roy, Swami Nārāyaṇa, Debendranath Tagore, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Keshub Chandra Sen, Chattambi Swamikal, Sri Narayana Guru, Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo, Jadunath Sarkar, G.S. Sardesai, V.S. Rajwade, R. Narasimhachar, M. Hiriyanna, V.S. Agarwal, D.V. Gundappa, S. Srikanta Sastri, Govinda Pai, R.C. Majumdar, S. Krishnaswami Iyengar, P.V. Kane, P.K. Telang, U.N. Ghoshal, A.S. Altekar, C.S. Srinivasachari, V.V. Mirashi, B.A. Saletore, B.C. Law, R.D. Banerji, Motichandra, D.C. Sircar, Ramachandra Dikshitar, S. Srikantayya, R.N. Saletore, G.S. Dikshit, C. Hayavadana Rao, Radhakumud Mukherjee…

Apart from the aforementioned virtues of their character, only sheer madness can explain the treasure they have bequeathed to us.  To borrow a quote that John Kenneth Galbraith stated in a different context, “if there must be madness, something may be said for having it on a heroic scale.” 

To be continued

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