Luminaries of the Modern Indian Renaissance: Or a Commentary on Our Civilisational Amnesia

Luminaries of the Modern Indian Renaissance: Or a Commentary on  Our Civilisational Amnesia

When we reminisce about the Indian freedom movement, the year 1858 is a turning point of sorts. That was the year when the control of India passed from the East India Company to the British Crown. From 1858 onwards, for roughly 50 years, a gradual, steady and in many cases, irreversible transformation occurred in India. These 50 years transformed India and specifically, the Hindu society and culture in a manner and speed never seen in the preceding thousand years. Almost an infinite number of push-pull currents of these changes eventually took political shape as the freedom movement. In fact, the Indian freedom movement or struggle, which eventually gathered the masses became only the political face of a deeper and far more profound struggle. This struggle was the struggle to recover the battered, bruised and wounded ethos of the ancient Indian civilization, which had attracted the entire world for more than 2500 years as the global hub of education and culture–not to mention of a Bharatavarsha, the economic powerhouse.

These fifty years—roughly between 1858 and 1905—also witnessed the birth of an entirely new class of extraordinary intellectuals, thinkers, spiritual masters, writers, artists, scholars, statesmen and simultaneously transformed a new business class. All this was the direct consequence of a totally alien and brand new political system introduced in the country from outside. It was a period of great churning, activity, fervour, and passion.

We can call this period as the Modern Indian Renaissance.

Why an Indian Renaissance? Because the colonial British introduced wholly new concepts and systems and disciplines of study absent in India till then: democracy or self-rule, western systems of science and medicine, English education, newspapers, and a totally new approach to academic scholarship, especially in philosophical studies and broadly speaking, cultural studies. And so, the great Indian minds that took birth in that era were naturally exposed to all these and began to study them and think critically and analytically about them. Most importantly, these Indian minds began a totally new process and a journey of re-evaluating and rediscovering their own roots using the tools introduced by the British, and the West, broadly speaking. Gradually, as more and more Indians began traveling to Europe, they got a firsthand experience of the society and other conditions there, and were able to make comparative analyses with the Indian condition. For example, Sri Aurobindo’s education in England and his studies of its politics, society and culture are what informed his blazing revolutionary movement and his critiques of the British rule in India.

This process continued without a break for nearly a century: i.e. between 1857—1947. No area was spared: political theories and systems and activism, science, medicine, astronomy, painting, art, literature, poetry, drama, Sanskrit, Vedas, cultural studies, philosophy, archeology, epigraphy, history, geology, anthropology…when we look back at this, we’re dumbstruck with admiration and amazement at the sheer scale and scope of the work produced by these Indian luminaries during this period. More importantly, the quality of work produced during this period is truly breathtaking. First rate, unparalleled, and authoritative. Almost every book and other works produced in this period have stood the test of time, and haven’t been equaled even till this date. These are truly the giants who reawakened the glory of India to Indians. These are among the thousands of other reasons this period should be called the Modern Indian Renaissance.

It is therefore a profound tragedy that after more than 70 years of independence, none of our textbooks and other literature even mention this glorious epoch much less gives even the bare minimum details of the Indian Renaissance. There is enough material for a studious and honest researcher to write a multi-volume tract documenting this brilliant period. I’m thinking in terms of at least twenty volumes at the least. To repeat a broken record, at most, our history books only mention some well-known names like Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel, Subhas Bose, Dadabai Navroji, Lokmanya Tilak, Gokhale, etc. Even the selfsame Sri Aurobindo is referred to as an “extremist” and “terrorist” in textbooks taught to our children. I’m unaware if the situation has changed now.

While Tilak, Subhas Bose, et al served the nation brilliantly and sacrificed their lives for India, there was an entirely separate category of patriots who fought for a freedom of a far profound nature: it was a fight and a struggle to liberate the real soul or Atma of Bharatavarsha. It was a fight to reclaim the cultural core of India that had been vandalized and demoralized for nearly a millennium.   

The idea here is to offer a few broad outlines of the nature of the work that these luminaries of the Modern Indian Renaissance have done in the hope that it will motivate all interested people to engage in a deeper study.

But before I begin, I’ll say a few words about the kind of people they were and the common characteristics they all shared. Indeed, if time is a soil, it was at its fertile best in this era, supplying to India and the world such resplendences as Pandurang Vaman Kane, Mysore Hiriyanna, Jadunath Sarkar, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya, Parashuram Krishna Gode, Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, Ananda Coomaraswamy, D.V. Gundappa, Shama Shastri, Devudu Narasimha Sastry, Ganganath Jha, Govind Chandra Pande, S. Srikanta Sastri, Moti Chandra, Acharya Chatursen Sastri, Radha Kumud Mukherji, Gopinath Kaviraj, Kashi Prasad Jayaswal, Govind Sakharam Sardesai, R.D. Ranade, Surendranath Dasgupta, Ramakrishna Kavi…the list is breathtaking both in number and attainment.

While each of these scholars distinguished himself in seminal, exhaustive, and penetrating research in one area, they also distinguished themselves for their solid multidisciplinary grasp. A few examples may suffice.

P V Kane is most notable for his authoritative work, the multi-volume History of the Dharmashastras; Jadunath Sarkar for his volumes on Aurangzeb, Shivaji and the Military History of India; Surendranath Dasgupta for his five-volume History of Indian Philosophy; P.K. Gode wrote several volumes on the cultural and literary history of India, and Sanskrit – English dictionaries; R.C. Majumdar for his numerous volumes on Indian and Bengal history; V.S. Sukhthankar who undertook the unparalleled Yajna of producing the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, a fifty-year-long endeavour involving hundreds of Pandits and scholars all over the world; S. Shama Sastri, an obscure librarian who brought to light the long-buried Arthashastra of Kautilya; Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri who was among the earliest Indian scholars to warn his students that the Aryan Invasion Theory was phony, and gave us the pioneering work on the sources of Karnataka History, among other brilliant works…as I noted, the list of these luminaries is as long as it is magnificent. Additionally, these stalwarts had attained extraordinary proficiency in multiple languages (both Indian and foreign), could decipher epigraphic sources, literary texts, numismatics, sculptural nuances, and so on. This is a truly dazzling accomplishment by any standard. Small wonder that all of them contributed to learned and scholarly journals and publications like the various Gazetteers, Indian Antiquary, Epigraphia Indica, Journal of the Bombay Asiatic Society, and numerous other independent journals and magazines. Dr. S Srikanta Sastri could contribute to these scholarly journals and to a popular Kannada newsmagazine like Prajamata with equal felicity. These scholars were household names in their own time. Some eminences like D.V. Gundappa and Prof Ashutosh Mukherji were great institutional builders and groomed at least three generations of first rate scholars and writers.

And that is the additional tragedy of our time, which can be called the Internet Regime in which almost all information is free, and is available literally on our palms. All information, including the works of the aforementioned luminaries. Yet, how many educated Indians are even aware that such scholars actually existed in flesh and blood just forty years ago? Think about it: R.C. Majumdar died as recently as 1982. Yet, not one “mainstream” publication carried a tribute to this stalwart of Indian history. At best, R.C. Majumdar’s death was just a “news item.” Another example: why aren’t our children told the fact that D.V. Gundappa wrote a beautiful poem titled Swatantrabharata-Stava [A Paean to an Independent India] as the clock struck 12 on August 15, 1947, even as Nawab Nehru was incoherently pontificating on the Red Fort about some tryst in the language of our colonizers? Why isn’t this poem part of any Kannada language-literature syllabus?

Educational syllabi apart, who are all the folks celebrated as the “makers of modern India,” “freedom fighters,” “intellectuals,” “democrats” and “liberals?” One needs to look no farther than the perfumed version of Kavita Krishnan, Mr. Ramachandra Guha as a representative sample. He has authored entire books profiling these people. A partial list includes the following phonies and charlatans (excluding his wet-dream givers, viz, Gandhi and Nehru): Eric Hobsbawm, Benedict Anderson, Andre Beteille, Amartya Sen, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Syed Ahmed Khan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, E.V. Ramaswami Naicker, and Verrier Elwin.

This then is the bigger tragedy: that these works continue to dominate the Indian public mind-space while the real makers of “modern” India, the aforementioned luminaries of the Modern Indian Renaissance have long been forgotten by three generations of Indian parents in a continuing nightmare of cultural amnesia. And we wonder why and when the Ram Mandir will get built.

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