Fascism …

A young scholar writes that she intends to bring forth the terrible woes of the marginalized communities in the country to invade the comfort smugness of the privileged upper caste elites, who, according to her have cornered every opportunity in the world leaving the lower castes as victims of systematic oppression. If this is research, then it is like numerous ones which preceded hers without a concern for a counter question, what if this thesis is not true and what would be the exceptions to the rule and in which circumstances? The trouble is that when I asked her about the counter question, she had no clue what it meant. As an avid opponent of fascism, this young brilliant mind fails to realize that willingly she has herself fallen to the fascist trap precisely for the absence of her counter question. Fascism, a totalitarian order finds its legitimacy in minds which seek an uncontested totality, neat, well ordered and non-controversial. Discourses which seek only one side of the question are thus the building blocks of fascism and that is exactly how, fascism lies as the final form of evolution of any government, but more so for democracy, because no other form of government is founded upon individual freedom as democracy is.

On the face of it, fascism is the very opposite of democracy; it does not tolerate opposition while opposition is the very constitution of democracy. People matter in democracy, people come last in fascism and yet, fascism is the final stage of democracy and indeed, no other form of government can snuff out opposition to itself the way democracy can yield to fascism. Fascism manifests the best in democracies. This is because fascism works the best not when leaders want it, but when people uphold it whole heartedly with their beliefs and ideologies. Against fascism, liberalism has no chance because fascism feeds on the very facts that liberalism holds as sacred without acknowledging counter facts.

A central tenet of democracy is the rule of the people and inclusion. This is an ideal because inclusion can only be genuine when there is equality among humans; in reality, the asymmetrical endowments of wealth and power, status and entitlements make equality an impossibility. Democracy’s promise of equality thus uses political power to equalize the statuses among humans what the real socio-economic situation denies. This produces a strong class resentment where those economically and socially not well off try to dominate those who are endowed. Fascism has a strong contempt for talents, if those talents emerge from long held tradition, eg; those who are good in studies because they inherit a lot of knowledge that goes in with families with long educational background. The Brahmins of India have had a long and unbroken tradition of learning and they occupy the best positions in almost all professions. The resentment of first-generation learners against those who belong to traditionally educated families translate into preferences for political parties with ideologies which though detestable to the learned is delectable to the first generation of the educated. Atrocious distortions of history, upholding superstitions as science and even a contempt for genuine learning and sciences is transported into the education system through political appointments of those who believe in the party’s ideology.

The point in fascism is not that the less qualified are appointed politically, the point is that the liberal discourse has no defense in its favour. Liberalism is a struggle for emancipation against the various non democratic forms of governments; it fights kings and monarchs through persons of exceptional capabilities and with equality because the new leaders seek equality with the kings. This goes beyond equality because the new age elite is more talented than kings. When, however, the lesser talented, the less vital, the less capable ones also demand equality with the elites, the elites cannot deny them their claims. The insistence on merit is also a dividing force in society, sparring at equality. Liberalism’s upholding of equality boomerangs against it, making it appear as elitism and hence inimical to democracy. In its quest for inclusion and equality, liberalism is forced to admit people of lesser merit and capabilities and not raise the bar of merit against them. The people of lesser capabilities will want equality, use political power to seek appointments and fill spaces in offices. Fascism thus is best held by clerks, teachers, bureaucrats, and professionals appointed politically to mask their basic incapability of incumbency.

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So Many Buddhas

The exhibition in the Indian Museum in the journey of Buddha is enlightenment because it placed Buddha in a wider socio-cultural and historical context, which greatly illuminates the mind of the general interest person, not specialized in Buddhist studies.

The exhibits are in a timeline starting with the Sunga period, a set of non-Buddhist kings who may have hailed from China, more specifically Manchuria, bringing with them the jatakas, or ideas that the Buddha has had several incarnations in which his animal twin, the white elephant, his mother Maya and the charioteer, Sunanda remain common. Along with the jatakas tales emerge symbols of the tree, the wheel, scenes from Buddha’s life as narratives find their way into the domain of art. With the Kushanas, the Gandhara art takes over where Buddha becomes more human and more Divine because he is human. Forms of the Buddha as a corporeal body are explored, as a prince, a renouncer and a universal teacher. From just being a Hegelian soul seeking perfection of the self, Buddha becomes a guru and along with that the former is depicted as the Hinayana and the latter as Mahayana.

The Mahayana brings Buddha to the world, but soon the Stupa culture takes over. We find among the displayed objects, stone tablets with Chinese writings from Sarnath. The stupa culture is part of the culture of the pyramids, more as sites marking preservation of mortal remains of kings. The stupas are common across China, Korea, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam. The tooth, pyre ashes and a foot print were part of this culture. A huge impression of his foot on stone is on display as well. From a teacher in the Mahayana, we now get him as a King in the stupa culture. The Hinayana of the Sungas pertained to the jatakas and symbols such as the peepal tree to depict the Buddha, the Mahayana inspired by the Gandhara art set him as a mortal and a Universal teacher while the stupa culture makes him into a King; together Buddha is all set towards becoming a Deity.

The Bajrayana makes Buddha, for the first time a part of the pantheon of multiple gods and goddesses. Puranic styles are followed in the Vajrayana texts where Buddha resides among other Gods and goddesses and as the Palas rule Bengal and other parts of the foothills of the Himalayan range, Buddha becomes a magical God from a metaphysical teacher, to who one could pray for rain and against epidemics. Mixed with tantric elements due to its magical powers, Buddha is fully embedded into a pantheon and becomes a regular God. This is also when, post the Pala rule that Buddha is absorbed into Hinduism. Harsha is confused between what is Buddhism and what would Hinduism be, for he breaks and builds shrines of both religions with equal vigour.

The Sahajayan Buddhism, which inheres Bengal during the Sena rule is all set to become the Sahajiya sects, those who again set Buddha back into the realm of the unseeable formless One. Here, post the Vaishnav movement, Sahajiyas mix easily with Bengal Vaishnavism while they absorb elements from the Bauls and other worshippers of the Formless One God. Buddha’s residence into Hinduism become permanent as one of its Gods, specifically as an avatar of Vishnu much like Rama.

There is a chart in the Museum that lists the four councils; 483 BCE, after the death of Buddha when his teachings and philosophy was documented in the textual form. The second one takes place under Kalashok in 383 BCE of the Sisunaga dynasty where the split occurs between the Theravada Buddhism and the Mahasangika, where the teachings were divided into what constituted the fundamentals and what would be the more liberal. The third council was under Asoka in 250 BCE, where Pali was established as the official language of Buddhism. Texts of the Hinayana sect, namely those which focused on personal salvation through the Hegelian refinement of the soul via repeated births. The fourth council was held under Kanishka in 72 AD where Buddha emerged into the visual space as a human who lived a worldly life. Kanishka’s contribution appears to be the most significant as he created visual images literally in stone to portray Buddha, hitherto only heard of. From here really begins the journey of Buddha from a hero, a prince, to a teacher to God.

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Dante, D’Annunzio and Tagore

“Dante, D’Annunzio and Tagore” is the name of a project that culminated into a Seminar of the same name between Prof Mario Prayer and the English Department of Jadavpur University. The focus of the scholarship was mainly around modernity and its critique. However, to understand the poets as mentioned above, we may need to be aware of a brief historical and cultural background.

In D’Annunzio’s own words, his purpose, as has been the purpose of philosophers right from Socrates and which is, to be able to see an underlying pattern among the apparent randomness of everyday life. Hence, he draws his inspiration from Dante with whom he has many worldly similarities. Both were in positions of political power, both were defeated and exiled and for both, more than defeat and exile, it was a forced rendering them as irrelevant that created the trouble. D’Annunzio took his exile badly, knowing fully well that his defeat meant the advance of fascism in Italy, focused on self-destructive passions, unnecessary bitterness, and unfounded cynicism, while writing some of his expansive poems. Dante, on the other hand, sought his metaphysical refuge in Christianity, writing his Divine Comedy in which the Inferno depicting the Purgatory constituted the lengthiest passages and acutest descriptions of human follies and temptations. Dante’s spirit then reconnected with Beatrice, his lifelong passion, his muse, who he could not marry while he was alive because of social compulsions. The Divine Comedy establishes the truth of Heaven, of romantic love and the fragility of social customs, ranks of power, desires of material wealth and so on.

Indians would find the familiar idea of “Maya” in Dante’s poem; the world of appearances being merely illusory and a celestial world that is truer than the one lived in. This is our religious belief. We would also find in the Divine Comedy, the familiar motif of Devdas, a novel written by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay in 1917, politically a most volatile period in India, where Devdas loses all meaning in life because he cannot marry Parvati, his Beatrice, sneers at the world of appearances and goes into an existential lull. Devdas, is a story of self-annihilation, like Dante’s death but without the prospect of the Catholic resurrection and instead a Protestant blankness of afterlife. Devdas is the Protestant conversation with Catholic Dante. Devdas has been the most filmed novel ever.

The other familiar motif for the Indian would be the penultimate scene of the Mahabharata where the Pandavas are on their path to Heaven, the Mahaprasthan. Each Pandav fall on the way for their human limitations and Yudhisthir is alone with the stray dog who, quite unnoticed till the final moments suddenly catches our attention. The dog is Dharma, the God who everyone searches on earth and yet He follows Yudhisthir around. Yudhisthir is beyond Dharma; he leads Dharma rather than seek or follow Him. The episode of the Mahaprasthan expresses an unlimited faith in human powers and the reality of the world rather than of the Purgatory, which is where he meets his loved ones as departed souls. Yudhisthir refuses salvation on two counts, once he refuses to ascend the chariot to Heaven because he does not want to abandon the dog who followed him and the other when he refuses to graduate from the Purgatory because for him the company of his family was far greater than the pleasures of Heaven. The Mahaprasthan is the only moment when we see Yudhisthir revealing his emotions, which are attachments to family and bonds of filial relationships.

The third motif is Hamlet of Shakespeare in which the Father, his ghost and the son are in a dilemma; the dilemma is that of a Protestant who is supposed to believe in predestination and annihilation after death now confronted with the “reality” of the Catholic purgatory and the Holy Ghost. Hamlet’s guilt is the guilt of the Protestant against the Catholic and of the Unitarian against the Trinity, a familiar guilt among religious converts of the subcontinents.

D’Annunzio does not speak of the Catholic beliefs but is essentially Greek who seeks to integrate the Latin flavour of Dante. The Greek and the Latin have been the long-standing conflicts in the European tradition; each seeking the other but, in a way, repelling too. The Greek culture is humanist and pagan and yet idealist, its metaphysics is about material hyperloops. In its materiality, it gets really close to the Protestant nihilism of Heavens. The Latin culture is transcendental and religious; spirituality is its metaphysical unity. D’Annunzio seeks the unity, a transcendence of appearances into their higher forms of cognition, a transcendence that negates the appearances. Dante has inspired great paintings through ages, namely, Classicism, Expressionism, postmodern and the futuristic. D’Annunzio has been influenced by paintings especially of Leonardo da Vinci rather than inspiring paintings. D’Annunzio’s influence is far sharper in drama, the opera, the theatre and even, unwittingly in comedy. While Dante’s transcendence, despite being other worldly is tangible, physical, and palpable while D’Annunzio is misty, intangible, illusory reaching the zone of the unknowable. A possible explanation could lie in Dante’s palpability of death while death for D’Annunzio is pure annihilation.

Tagore and Dante do not seem to meet too well because Tagore’s is not the mind of an epicist. Michael Madhusudan Dutta may be a better study with respect to Dante, Dante’s poetry seems to have some resonance in his works, especially the Meghnadbadh Kavya, a retelling of the Ramayana. D’Annunzio and Tagore are closer to each other in constantly trying to find patterns and more than that, a future in the prevalent chaos in the real life. D’Annunzio is exiled by political forces; Tagore is rendered irrelevant by his state of being in a colonized nation. Both their audiences are blind to their visions, deaf to their words. How would they make themselves hear? D’Annunzio’s poetic strategy seems to be the use of words to push the apparent away into Nature, Tagore seems to raise the smallness of everyday familiarity to a larger universal yet to be known. For D’Annunzio the world must melt away, cease to exist in the vastness of the unity of patterns; for Tagore, the smallest of existences must be infused with the contemplation of the vastest.

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Brahmananda Keshab Chandra Sen

Keshab Chandra Sen (1838 to 1884) was considered, during his times, to be one of the most, if not the most illustrious members leading the Indian Enlightenment. Born into a well-established family of high zamindari officials, Keshab Sen seems to have veered into the path of finding God through intense devotion when he, still an adolescent froze in the scholarship examination and failed. Imagining this failure to pass an examination of otherwise brilliant student, his mission lay elsewhere, which is to emerge as a public figure, even if doubtful to occupy a public office. This he does, by emerging as one of the astounding speakers, inspiring Indians to emerge into expanded souls and expanded scope beyond the narrowness of beliefs. What remained confined among a few intellectuals within the Brahmo Samaj, now becomes a deluge of popular participation.

Keshab Sen leaves his religion to become a Brahmo, and yet there, within the religion of Deism, he reverses the trend towards the larger acceptance of the idol worship, in effect uniting the Hindus and the Brahmos and escalating the scope of religious reformation into a nationalistic veneer. In trying to reach the form through the formless, he meets Ramakrishna Paramhansa, whose travel is from the form towards the formless. The two come together from opposite directions into a union of dramatic opposites; Keshab, the erudite and educated, Ramakrishna the rustic and commonplace meet each other in ecstasy.

Keshab Sen helps to bring within the fold of Brahmoism, an interfaith understanding. In this, he raises the idea of interfaith harmony from the mere coexistence of multiple theologies into a mystical understanding the essence of all religions, or the meditative centres in each of these, where the possibility of a genuine dialogue may arise. It is in this spirit of dialogism that Keshab and Thakur meet.

Both Keshab Sen and Ramakrishna, albeit involuntarily let out an anxiety about Christianity. There is a felt need to deal with that religion and hence they try and unite the two together. His praise of the Trinity is both an attack against Rammohun Roy, who he feels without exactly saying so, had restricted and restrained the Brahmos into the picky and choosy intellect of conceptualizing the Formless beyond beliefs of any religion whatsoever. He is eager to point out the similarities between Christ and Paramhansa.

Keshab Sen lauds Islam too, finding within it a deeper spiritual purpose rather than it being the religion of the conqueror it is usually associated with. However, in pursuing the great mission of the interfaith understanding, as Shibnath Shastri says that Keshab had become a fundamentalist like the Prophet Muhammad, who said that he is the final word. Once the truth was discovered in his head, Keshab was pursuing it in the manner of it being absolute. Hence the schisms in the Samaj due to the agency of Keshab Sen.

Rabindranath however reads Keshab Sen a little differently; like Subhas Bose, he feels that Keshab Sen was too large to be contained in the institutional framework of Brahmos. Maharshi lauds his devotion to the cause of Devotion and awards him with the title of Brahmananda.

In Sreemati Mukherjee’s book on the Kathamrita, she articulates that Thakur wanted to become a Prophet. However, it was Keshab Sen who becomes a Prophet while Thakur remains a Divinized Guru for the Bengalis across generations. Two men mutually allergic towards each other, namely Bankimchandra Chatterjee and Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar remained unimpressed by Thakur as they found devotion to be a drag on the attainment of worldly opportunities.

In the efforts of Raja Rammohun Roy, one could work through religion too to access reason, religion could be tweaked to become a spiritual emancipation rather than blind faith and that liberation could help persons acquire material wellbeing and political autonomy; in the path of Keshab Sen, the Hindu religion could become expansive to be able to engage with any and every religion in the world. The demagoguery of Keshab Sen, his charisma, his populistic appeal through in the vehicle of religious reform anticipates the Freedom Struggle of unity in diversity which would be in place half a century later.

The Bhowanipore Brahmo Samaj convened a small gathering with three speakers namely Manjura Chakravarty, Prof Sreemati Mukherjee and Prof Sunrit Mullick on the evening of the 17th of November 2022 to discuss Keshab Sen’s ideas. Manjura spoke animatedly on the devotional aspect of Keshab Sen, his access to the title of Brahmananda, Sreemati spoke on the interaction between Keshab Sen and Ramkrishna Paramhansa with succinctly chosen details to highlight the drama pf Keshab Sen’s life with Thakur, while Sunrit spoke on Keshab Sen’s mysticism that sought a dialogical union among the essences of all religions. Arindrajit Saha conducted the panel while Prof Tathagata Sen summarized the proceedings.

The audience was so charged up with the proceedings that discussions continued beyond the meeting into late evening. Who says that discussions on Keshab Sen are passe and old fashioned?

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Kali Pujo 2022

This year, the Kali Pujo in Kolkata, though as countless as on other years, somehow seemed to be to be an exhausted and even a bored affair. The celebrations of the Durga Puja has been raised to such an extent and level that it has been able to draw out, then accumulate and concentrate all the energies of Bengalis and eventually drain these out on its conclusion with the Lokkhi Pujo. Hence, the utterly tired, spent out, depleted Bengalis, sapped of all its energies sank into a lack lustre affair. However, there is no let up in the number of pujos held as this is a matter of commitment, once you start the pujo it cannot be given up.

 Like in economics, so in celebrations, there is a process of democratization and then a process of the monopoly. The age of the CPM, notwithstanding that it was a communist regime, was also the age of democratization of the public space and its popular culture. Just as the monopoly of Uttam Kumar was compromised in the cinema, with Hindi films and a slew of other heroes entering the fray, the process seemed to have peaked in Basanta Bilap, 1977. In fact, the story is set in the Saraswati Puo Pandal.

The monopoly of the Durga Pujo was also democratized into a series of Kali pandals that fostered creativity both in the façade built by bamboo and cloth as well as in the idols of the Goddess, moulded and baked from clay. Then there was the supply of music, loud, fast paced erotic music of RD Burman and Asha Bhonsle, of Bappi Lahiri a little way down in the 1980’s and ofcourse the sensational Salil Choudhury and Lata Mangeshkar. The melody and the rhythm shook the chakras of the body releasing from it an energy where the human seeks her companions. Those were also the times of the crackers; with the upbeat music blaring on the streets and the smell of burnt sulphur enveloping the air, became intoxicating and exhilarating. But then, I was in my teens. My grandfather took to the Kali Pujo rather badly; not being one quite keen on pujos, for him any occupation of the public space, whether by way of processions or by celebrations was repulsive.

And then there was the immersion; the best of local bands played numbers from Hindi film songs of Laxmikant Pyarelal. The boys dressed in the latest fashion and hairstyle would dance to a frenzy making a lively spectacle on the roads. These days, however, girls have taken the role of the boys in Bengal as they dance with lithe movements, shimmying and swaying, they really claim the space for themselves.

Then came the environmentalists who complained of noise pollution and insisted on a ban on crackers; the latter also had a child labour angle to it. But these dented the excitement of the festival. Then there was the process of monopoly at play again especially with the duo of Rituparna Ghosh and Mamata Banerjee who returned to the Bengali its bourgeoise Jalsaghar and the luxury of poverty of Pather Panchali, Bengalis looked towards heritage again. And what could be better than the Durga Pujo with the huge fanfare that it has come to be.

But there was also the social media, where all kinds of discourses emerged. Some resisted the Kali Pujo by saying that the Diwali got all mixed up with it and then painstakingly, the Bengali mind was drawn into separating the two. The impact of such a sieving out is felt as the music played changes, with the weepy Ramprasadi Shyama Sangeet taking over the sizzling numbers of Asha and Lata. Then because there are no crackers, there is hardly any activity around the pandals. Pandal hopping has died down because of the been there and seen it all feeling after the hectic pandal marking during the Durga Pujo.

In short, there are two aspects to my observations; one is that the monopoly of the Durga Pujo over the community’s physical and mental energies have crashed the Kali Pujo and secondly, the multiplicity of discourses can crack up the public space; too much of critical thought can fracture the universals, the simple principle of post modernism.

P.S These days, the Chhath is celebrated with fanfare in Calcutta and across Bengal due to the rising Bihari immigration into the state. While this means that West Bengal is actually doing very well since all job opportunities appear to be concentrated here, one cannot help noticing the rise of the Jagaddhatri Pujo as a Bengali assertion over the Biharis. The Durga Pujo explodes the pandal artists, the Kali Pujo bursts the energies of the idol makers and the Jagaddhatri belongs to the lightmen. Considered as “the” pujo of the French territory of Chandannagore, the people made Jagaddhatri their Durga, celebrating her with the fanfare of lights exactly a month later.

The questions for media studies would be as follows:

  1. How should we study the phenomenon of the Durga Puja and the other public worship of images by erecting pandals on streets?
  2. Why did the Durga Pujo get so big? Does the changing politics of Bengal have something to do with this?
  3. The typical business cycles of monopoly and perfect competition and then again, a monopoly holds true also of culture. Do you agree?
  4. The choice of music, from the fast paced and excitable RD Burman to the folk and slower music shows the change in social taste in music which has a lot to do with the changing social composition of our demography and hence democracy.
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Bonedi Pujos 2022

At Home With the Bonedis on Mahasaptami Pujo

On the Saptami Day of the Durga Puja this year, i.e 2022, Madhusree bought two tickets for herself and me to take a walk into North Calcutta Bonedi Pujos. Bonedi, a Bengali term derived out of buniyadi, or one of establishment in the land, refers to families who have been rich over generations and hence translated their wealth into a substantial cultural capital to uphold the culture and convert these products into the tradition and heritage of the land they belong to. Thus, we visited a few homes such as the above mentioned. The homes were those of Badan Ray (Pal), Motilal Seal, should be written as Mutty Lull Seal, Bipin Bihari Banerjee, and Beni Madhab Banerjee, Purna Chandra Dhar, Madan Mohan Dhar, Radhanath Mallik and Charu Mallik. Among these, there was only one barowari, or a community pandal puja that celebrated the Akala Bodhon, a variation in the theme of the Durga Puja. These pujos are more than 150 years old, all of them seem to be post the Mutiny of 1857, especially 1860 when India passed securely under the Crown. These were cultural assertions of a new elite with their newfound prosperity under the new regime, having faced many vagaries of fortunes for four centuries of political turmoil in Bengal. Bengal’s prosperity ended with the end of the Hussain Shahi dynasty when Akbar attacked Bengal, led by Man Singh. Though the agrarian production increased, land under cultivation expanded, revenues and commerce grew, yet the constant political harassment of the wealthy by the Mughal militia and revenue officers remained a botheration. Akbar’s favour of the Portuguese, with who the Indian seamen often clashed in the waters did not do better. The East India Company was capricious too and it was not until the passing of the government under the Crown that the Bengalis felt safe again in terms of life and property. The Durga Puja was a celebration of safety and territorial security.

Each of the families mentioned above has a distinct origin history, which when viewed together also becomes a lively history of Bengal. The Badan Ray family immigrated from Rajasthan in about the 14th century into Benaras from where they came to Bengal in the 1600, carrying with them their trade of gold, craft of gems and stocks of silk textiles. The expanding bureaucracy and artisanship, the proliferation of trade and money through trade on the Bengal frontier in the 1600’s made this family well settled. Later they came to Calcutta, made a home in the premises of what in present times is the Calcutta Medical College and when the British acquired the land, they bought the ready-made house in the premises we visited. The plan of the earlier house was different, in the sense that it did not have a mandap, now with the new home with a distinct space for the Divine, the Pals celebrated the Durga Puja with aplomb. The courtyard also had a pond! In 1946, the idol was ransacked by Muslims in the riots, and they could not celebrate the Pujo, but since 1947, they resurrected the celebrations in new vigour. Hence, they are celebrating the 75th year of Indian Independence with fanfare.

I was particularly keen to visit Motilal Seal’s home since he was a contemporary of Raja Rammohun Roy, though closer in age to Dwarakanath Tagore, which makes him about twenty years younger to Rammohun. Despite being the “Fort William” gang and good friends with Radhakanta Deb, especially over the quest for universal primary education for both boys and girls, he supported anti Sati and widow remarriage. He must have started his Durga Puja not before 1815, at best in 1812, because that was when he came and settled in Kolkata. Motilal Seal is perhaps the biggest philanthropist known in recent Bengali history. His properties were spread all over the city and hence the home and its pujo looked simple and staid and modest compared to the wealth he possessed. Clearly this was the influence of Raja Rammohun Roy.

We visited the two Basu Mallik families; one which had the surname of Basu Mallik and the other simply Mallik. Mallik is a title of the Hussain Shahi regime, but they added Basu to their names, as per the guide to hide their identities from the Mughal revenue officers. This does not seem to be too probable an explanation; instead to my mind, the great caste reorganization of the 1860’s may have had something to do with this, as the Malliks today are overwhelmingly Baidyas, while the Basus are kayasthas.

The Basu Malliks were, as the guide tells us, shippers and it is interesting that their homes are overwhelmingly studded by cast iron pillars, grills, panels and laced with glass! The glass was sourced from Italy rather than Belgium, the Belgian glass being a luxury a century later. The cast iron pillars and panels appear to have been imported as well. The Bessmer process had just started in England around the 1850’s and though there were valiant efforts by the Mysore Maharaja, an American in Madras and a Parsi cum Ethiopian trader in Chittagong to set up an iron factory for mass production, these were not too successful. It was not until the 1930’s that Alamohan Das could finally stabilize the technology of castings. However, the Basu Malliks being shippers also explains their access to imported goods.

In the Surya Sen Street, Kabiraj Lane and the entire area of Radhanath Mallik Street, we see the profuse use of iron castings for pillars and grills. These homes may have belonged to those connected with overseas trade, which helped them with currency and resources to obtain the material, especially glass. The import and use of Italian glass may be explained by the fact that Italian seafarers and craftsmen who were frequently onboard the Company ships.

Purnendu Dhar was in the Company treasury, and this is pretty clear in his version of the Abhaya Durga, who has just two hands instead of the ten, rests herself on a pair of lions, is not killing any demons, comes with her children, with her guards, Jaya and Bijaya. The fact of Mr Dhar being in the treasury tells on his search for nonviolence and a more realistic image of Durga, he is already closer to religion less totemic.

Close on the heels of the Abhaya Durga is the Akalbodhon where, not the Mahisasur but Ram lies praying at the feet of the Goddess, about to blind himself in the eye because he failed in his promise to dedicate 108 blue lotuses to the Goddess. Since the Goddess hid one and counted only 107, Ram used his own eye as a substitute for the blue lotus. The four companions of Durga are Sugriv, Hanuman, Lakshman and Vibhisan, as this is the untimely call for her, and she could not have arrived with her children as she would have been she to be worshipped in spring, the original season of her homecoming. Autumn, despite being called the untimely and exceptional season of the Goddess, nonetheless is widely worshipped and the evidence whether she was ever worshipped in spring remains a big question.

The home of Benimadhab and Bipibihari, who worked in the Company’s judiciary services us very well explained by the fact that they have rectangular Corinthian pillars with Greek sculptures cast upon them in golden coats and plaster of Paris. All homes are rectangular with a courtyard in the middle, balconies overlooking the courtyard, cut off from the world at large except through the windows in the rooms. Even then these hardly overlook the street below. Interestingly, these are the families which have the most elaborate display of photos of ancestors on their walls, though some other families have these too though not so ostensibly.

The property of the Subarnabaniks, which is of Badan Ray is the best maintained, they started off being as rich as anyone else but somehow could maintain their riches through the generations. They had been the organizers of the Subarnabanik society in Calcutta and still maintain wide contacts within the extended family networks. Those who are keen to work from the angle of caste, would do well to study the role of the Subarnabanik caste in maintaining the family wealth and hence the cultural heritage of their ancestors. It is intriguing though why in 1946, despite the presence of so many bonedi homes, only that of the Subarnabaniks were attacked by Muslim rioters; it is possible that their wealth must have attracted contempt. There was a stair gallery in the sense photos were hung along the stairway; there were photos of Queen Victoria, the Queen Consort, Napoleon on a warship, British Parliament, the group photos of the Subarnabanik Associations in full swing and ofocurse of Benaras ghats and nooks along the Ganges, nostalgia of a home they once had and now they left.

Interestingly, a few of the footpath poster and calendar art shops were open; I gasped at the presence of European, and not even American music and sports icons in pictures. Tackily drawn and gawdily printed, it had the Beatles, Smiths, Rolling Stones, T Rex, Pink Floyd and then again images of Viven Leigh, Audrey Hepburn and then images of the English cars, such as the Rolls Royce. This was along the boundary wall of the Hindu Hostel. The streets of North Calcutta were spic and span, even when they could get really narrow, the paving perfect and the sewer and storm water system impeccable, all wires underground, and strangely, homes even when the most tragically dilapidated, were neat and looked organized.

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The Anomaly of Lal Singh Chaddha

Even before the film was put on the studio floor for shooting, I knew that Lal Singh Chadha would not work. Notwithstanding that Forrest Gump is an American cult film and Lal Singh Chaddha has been ably adapted, yet the film would not have worked in India, even if there were no adverse publicity. Understandable that the propaganda against the film was politically motivated yet there was something in the film spirit that ran wholly contrarian to the Indian ethos; one who does not get this essential constitution of the Indianness, to my mind, should no longer aspire to remain a filmmaker. Hence exit Aamir Khan, he has lost his philosophical home in India especially because his ethos and that of India’s are now at variance. Here is why.

Who is Forrest Gump and how is he the innate spirit of America so that everything in the American Constitution and the constitution of everyday life must be tested against his emotional well being and material success? At the core of the character is disability and America being a Sparta in spirit requires Spartan citizens, full of physical brawn and intellectual brain, material as well as spiritual success, inclusive but also has its own religion of success and pursues its own culture of future. America is a land of the prospects, of upward mobility and here the disabled, the colored, the women and perhaps the Catholic, like in Sparta constitute formidable others. It becomes, thus a challenge to the effectiveness of America to see Forrest Gump have a normal life.

The post-Independence situation in India is different. It is a land with an ancient past, which needs to be realized in the future by way of political autonomy. But the mere politics is inadequate to grant autonomy to the middle-class intelligentsia, the social class that won the Freedom. The Indian Constitution is geared towards providing this middle-class intelligentsia its fuller manifestation. People, irrespective of social class and caste, creed and religion, language and culture are supposed to become this member of the intelligentsia in attitude, mindset, and manners. The challenge of the Indian Constitution is to help a person who may have the capabilities but not the means to attain the status of the middle class. Hence to qualify as a candidate of popular imagination, the candidate must be seen to be one superior in qualities and capabilities though poor and without means and opportunities to use those capabilities into a materially comfortable life. Forrest Gump is automatically disqualified in the popular imagination. Our mascot is Apu; he is found even beyond the trilogy of Satyajit Ray; he sneaks into the images of the heroes of our popular cinema, practically in every language; one who suffers due to lack of means when s/he deserves every bit to be at the helm of affairs in terms of capabilities.

The challenge to Americans and hence to Forrest Gump is to make a lot of efforts at achievements; the challenge to Indians and hence to Apu is to make many complaints to allow the society to give him the right space. America’s politics is all about hard work; India’s politics is all about reservations and distributions of entitlements. The two do not match despite both being diverse democracies looking out more into the future rather than at the past. Lal Singh Chaddha is thus the wrong model for us. We cannot have much to do with it.

The above then brings us to the question of the popular cinema if it reaches out to the nation or nationalism. It perhaps does in the sense that the politics of the nation is the final limit and hence the final possibility for the manifestation of the individual’s capabilities. The nation serves as the reality principle of the film; take that away, the cinema loses its context. The universal appeal of a film lies in its context; place the context firmly, the actor’s agency finds its higher order principles. In Forrest Gump this was the case. In Lal Singh Chaddha, the context was missing; it did show India in its palpability but missed out India in its aspirations. Therefore the Apu trilogy, now over 70 years of age finds its appeal while Lal Singh became a damp squib.

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Pablo Neruda on WhatsApp and In Genuine Translation

In medieval times, authors, or those desiring to become authors would often do quite the reverse of plagiarism. Unlike plagiarism, they would instead, reproduce holy texts and rewrite epics and ascribe those to the original authors namely saints of yore or even to some mythical and Godly figures. Thus what comes to us as Homer’s Illiad, or the tales of Bewoulf, or the epics of Valmiki or Ved Vyas are may not be the work of a single author; instead written and rewritten by many more contemporary ones who decided to contribute by way of reproducing the sacred texts and thus add to the sanctified culture of their times. Sociologists would ascertain that the self-effacing authors were in times of less developed individualism. If so, then our medieval days could not have produced self-aggrandising monarchs and princes and self-promoting gurus and spiritual leaders. Moreover, the devotional and mystic movements all over the world bear evidence to the fact that degrees of high individualism may not be the unique property of modernity though the nature of that individualistic consciousness may change.

The tendency of authors to hide behind the great and perhaps the original names might be an act of devotion, where the fan can be self-effacing to bring forth the worshipped. But there could be yet another side to the story and which is that ideologically charged individuals often alter, edit, rewrite ideas which they think should be a part of the general thinking and use big names to be vindicated. This is perhaps the case with the poem allegedly written by Pablo Neuda called “On Dying Slowly”.

I have placed both versions in the table below. On the left, we have the whatsapp version, on the right we have the version translated into English for purposes of the Noble Prize Committee. Many readers seem not to know the difference and in fact related to the fake version better than they did to the genuine translation.

Look at the portions marked in bright yellow. The one on the left starts abruptly as if to say that you die slowly if you don’t read books, you don’t travel, you don’t appreciate yourself, so if you must read, travel, appreciate yourself if you are to live well. This sounds like a life coach and by no means like a poet who has won the Noble Prize. Neruda also writes about a slow dying for those who do not read, nor travel, nor appreciate themselves, but the placement of the sentences are part of a larger picture, picture of a man who dies slowly because of an inner collapse into a routine, lack of her adventurous soul, not ready to move out of her skin to appreciate the small chaoses in her life, striving forever to expand her soul to participate in the larger life. This sense is lost in the whataspp forwards, in which one is instructing you to do a certain set of things, instead of analyzing your spirit which faces the choice of either being alive or dying slowly. The poet speaks of the efforts needed to stay alive by constant participation in life that is larger and hence read a book, travel, let others help you, have a dream are instances and examples of that outgrowing your habitual self.

Neruda The FakeNeruda The Original
you start dying slowly if you do not travel, if you do not read, If you do not listen to the sounds of life, If you do not appreciate yourself.   You start dying slowly When you kill your self-esteem; When you do not let others help you.   You start dying slowly If you become a slave of your habits, Walking everyday on the same paths… If you do not change your routine, If you do not wear different colours Or you do not speak to those you don’t know.   You start dying slowly, If you avoid to feel passion And their turbulent emotions;   Those which make your eyes glisten And your heart beat fast.   You start dying slowly, If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love, If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain, If you do not go after a dream, If you do not allow yourself at least once in your lifetime, To run away from sensible advice…   You start dying slowly if you do not follow your passion.   Do not die slowly, follow your passion, live life & stay blessed forever.  He who becomes the slave of habit,
who follows the same routes every day,
who never changes pace,
who does not risk and change the color of his clothes,
who does not speak and does not experience,
dies slowly. He or she who shuns passion,
who prefers black on white,
dotting ones “it’s” rather than a bundle of emotions, the kind that make your eyes glimmer,
that turn a yawn into a smile,
that make the heart pound in the face of mistakes and feelings,
dies slowly. He or she who does not turn things topsy-turvy,
who is unhappy at work,
who does not risk certainty for uncertainty,
to thus follow a dream,
those who do not forego sound advice at least once in their lives,
die slowly. He who does not travel, who does not read,
who does not listen to music,
who does not find grace in himself,
she who does not find grace in herself,
dies slowly. He who slowly destroys his own self-esteem,
who does not allow himself to be helped,
who spends days on end complaining about his own bad luck, about the rain that never stops,
dies slowly. He or she who abandon a project before starting it, who fail to ask questions on subjects he doesn’t know, he or she who don’t reply when they are asked something they do know,
die slowly. Let’s try and avoid death in small doses,
reminding oneself that being alive requires an effort far greater than the simple fact of breathing. Only a burning patience will lead
to the attainment of a splendid happiness.”

The whastapp forward has taken the examples of the poet and converted these into didactic and definitive sentences, and thus reducing reflections and ruminations into ideological instructions. By this, the poetic flavour which is anti-ideological because here boundaries of ideas held by concepts are repeating pushed at till words disappear into images. The WhatsApp has simple words those which are formulae for actions.

As we descend down the poem, the left hand version seems to change words with alarming defiance; here the poet’s glimmer become glisten, without even crossing the mind of the plagiarist (reverse) that the idea of the poem is to create excitement and not pathos; teary emotions are part of the ideological machinery.

Since the WhatsApp forward was neither metaphoric nor philosophical, it became a shorter presentation, unable to keep pace with poetic flow because it had no flow. Neruda could have gone on writing in the same flow, the artistic beauty of works is that they become endlessly manifest; existing even when the cease to exist in their finite beings. Ideologies must end finitely, to contain the concepts into discrete contents, the abstracts into the specific. That’s why the plagiarised poem looks so shabby and crass; a humiliation to the poetry of Nobel Laureate, namely Pablo Neruda.

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Congress Redeems, Congress Ruins

The promoters and owners of the INC, its supporters, those who are naturally inclined towards the Congress have entered the mode of metaphysical faith rather than of reasoned reflection. They are wont to believe that their routing at the polls is not a result of their irrelevance but the natural process of the rise and the ebb of tides, when, as the water drains off, they will be revealed as eternal as the hills and be redeemed as India’s sacred geography. Why? Only because the good, the Congress in this case always wins over the BJP, the evil of the story. This is a faith-based discourse, medieval, irrational, and non-secular to the core. It only shows that the liberal discourse is at its journey’s end.

The problem is not about the Congress, the problem is the failure of a liberal politics to carry us any further than what it already did. In India, we may say that it lasted for less than a century, if we consider Gandhian politics to be its beginning, when liberal ideas seem to be fully formed. The reasons for its rise and the causes for its death today remain fairly the same and both lie in the final promise of modernity, which is the emancipation of individual agency.

Individualism has a long history; long because without science and technology, it cannot have a secure material base, producing wanderers, travellers, monks and nuns and ascetics before it became artists, professionals, entrepreneurs, and political leaders. We may say that the desire of the individual to be free has always lurked as a prehistorically constituted species DNA, waiting for the right environment to manifest. Whether it is a Newton or Moses, whether it is Charlamagne or Einstein, and Michael Jackson or Michelangelo, individuals live off the surplus of the society. In crass Marxist terms, the individual may well be a parasite, living off the surplus of the society for no society that does not produce a surplus can produce individuals. Thus, societies egalitarian societies fall short of producing the genius. In feudal times, the talented individual was supported by the royal courts, in monastical orders, monasteries held them. Therefore, the rise of capitalism based on science and technology that can go on reproducing its surplus also supports democracies based on universal franchises.

The rise of Gandhian politics is due to the rise of capitalism in India; the model of the Freedom Struggle was a promise of individual emancipation. This continued into the Constitution of India and hence it is life. The individual’s emancipation out of her class, caste, religion and creed, language, and region, were to be eliminated into one homogenous image, the Indian citizen. A large bureaucracy was installed to check this individual from slipping back to her social particularities. The IITs, IIMs, competitive examinations were part of this monastery, that created opportunities but also monitored should she slip back into her original categories. The promise of unity in diversity was truly respected, provided the diverse elements melted into a unity. Or there was a hierarchy of terms, unity was super built on diversity. This was wonderful for equality but where it lacked was to produce the genius through letting her access the surplus. In every institution one was guided by elaborate rules, only to control entitlements and not to facilitate through surplus. Thus, while we created able bureaucrats and technocrats, judges, teachers, and a management cadre, what we could not produce were scientists and thinkers. Scientists who drained their brains to countries abroad did far better, the writers and film makers worked wholly on private finance and the artistic awards were always “politically influenced” and “manipulated”. Iron caged bureaucracies guarded and protected mediocrity, the genius was suspected and smothered. Gate keeping the order of the day to keep the talented out. Shibram Chakarabarty in his two-volume autobiography exposes this clearly and one has only to watch the films of Raj Kapoor to understand the menace that mediocres can bring about in the society to maintain equality and unity.

Still the Congress politics would not have suffered if the system that upheld it, besides the concentration of power, also had the monopoly of economic powers. But wedded to mediocrity, our school examination system, the curriculum of colleges, the format of the competitive examinations could only select the intellectually mediocre who needed to excel in rote learning. Institutions fell because staffed with the mediocre, they pegged down the genius. Public sectors stagnated because there was not enough talent to progress technologically, education became irrelevant, judiciary became clerical, politicians lacked imagination. No wonder then the engine of economic growth slowed down, depending more on the circulation of money, separation of the physical and the financial sectors, growing speculative finance and stagnant industrial production and eventually the falling value of the INR. Unity, equality, and mediocrity of the politics of the Congress did this to us. Lies about history and raising the nation as a religion were the two horns of ideology, not of the BJP of today, but of the Congress in its heydays.

Once the economy dipped, the agent of that economy, the state had to withdraw. Public sectors were sold to private individuals, liberalism was the only way out. Congress was the chief architect of the grand privatization of the economy; once started it was a juggernaut, proceeding on inertia. Hence the Congress faced the same fate as that of the Mughal Empire post Aurangzeb, when due to the latter’s policies of incessant warfare, warlords became rich from the money that was drained out from the imperial treasury. In this case, private industrialists, swindlers, and capricious individuals became richer who started to secure their influence and power as individuals. The BJP was born with the support of this new rich. So far so good. But what about the massive populace that has joined the BJP of today?

The reasons for people joining Modi are like the people rallying behind Gandhi, personal growth, and emancipation. Gandhi fought the British because they were in power; BJP fights the Congress because it is in power. Hence Sonia Gandhi’s call to another Freedom Movement backfires. The BJP is the Freedom Struggle. The Indians fought the British as the oppressed, excluded and the inferior fights the superior. The BJP fights with those who feel the same way about the Congress. No wonder then wherever you go in the government or in deliveries of public services, you see such deterioration in efficiency, quality, and finesse. Because the “new Indians” are fighting the encumbered and entrenched “British”. Culturally this is expressed as anti-Valentine, anti-Christmas, ant jeans, demolition of Lutyens Delhi, privatization of railways and airlines and so on.

The dominance of private capital over the public sector is the single most reason, inter alia for the polarization of the society. Unemployment worries only the Congress because it is its tag line; the recent CMIE study shows that unemployment does not worry the people at all because most are not even looking for jobs. Since enterprises providing mass scale employment are no longer around, jobs are mostly part time, multi skilled, multifarious, tentative, combination of salaries, professional fees, and self-earned commissions. Such jobs need networking on the one hand and family and community support on the other. The hijab of the Muslim girl, the tika on the Hindu boy are nothing but a sinking back into their own communities, finding approval and hence support from their kith and kin to be able to network and earn. No one looks out for the MNREGA anymore as sustenance, it is better to head a Hindu outfit for networking for jobs and deals. No one is looking for that small time private sector job when one can network among Muslim brotherhood to supply aggregates in construction. And this new source of economic power has itself become the new bureaucracy, in the Foucault style, which no longer needs to exercise power from a vantage point but is spread throughout the society in capillary action, each one trying to control the other.

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Rammohun Roy Barely Remembered, 22nd May 2022

Today, i.e., on the 22nd of May 2022 Raja Rammohun Roy’s existence completes 250 years. He died on the 27th of September 1833 in Bristol. His contributions can be measured by the extent of our forgetfulness of him; he must have been very successful that he has created conditions for us so comfortable that we no longer need his services. He would indeed have taken this to be his greatest achievement; so effective, so effectual, so vital that he is no longer needed to run the show. His success can also be measured by the fact that he has made the world which he inhabited wholly incomprehensible to us, so deep are the changes he brought about. That is why there are absolutely no celebration of the Rajah’s life and contributions worthy of note. The various outfits of the Brahmo Samaj are putting up poorly rehearsed songs, factually incorrect and incoherent talks and all the wrong prayers on the occasion.

Rammohun is an interesting person, far too big to be comprehended in a consistent and coherent frame. That he knew many languages, that he wrote religious books as well as legal, administrative and even school texts, that he raised Bengali to the level that Bankim Chandra and Tagore could write about it and infused Hindustani classical music to the Bengali song and was a social reformer who changed Hinduism to such an extent that even the Sanghis cannot return to conservatism and that he was sought by Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Macaulay, Robert Owen in England, by Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Emerson in the US, that the Cadiz Constitution in 1812 was especially presented to him, that the German institutions translated his works on Christianity and that Louis Phillipe threw a dinner in Paris in his honour, also do not help us to understand the man holistically as he single handedly wrote the script of modern India as the later generations was to imagine it, Constitutionalize it and live in it.

If Rammohun must be resurrected today it is due to the polarization that is happening in the Indian society. Interfaith harmony should at least be pursued if not interfaith unity. Let us examine Rammohun’s ideas on religion.

I think that the book Tuhfat ul Muwahhidin which he wrote at the age of 16 and did not publish till he was 32 because he did not wish to annoy his father any further than he was already angered by his views on religion. The source of this book was his education in Patna where he was sent at the age of 9 for “higher studies” which meant Persian literature and Arabic texts. Here he passed the examinations of the Koran and earned the title of Zabardast Maulavi. He had learnt a smattering of Sanskrit at home because of his caste and priestly professions of his family before they came into Imperial Services of the Mughals. Rammohun went to the nawabi school and because of this he had also learnt Bengali better than most. In village schools, Sanskrit was taught, and Shubhankari was the only way that Bengali was instructed; Bengali was a rude language and hence looked down upon. The knowledge of Bengali stood in great stead when later he developed this language to the present high point. Persian learning was quite common as it was the English of the times, necessary to obtain a government job. But his learning of Arabic was important for he read in this language, translations of Greek works of Aristotle and Euclid, Heraclitus and Aurelias, Plato and Socrates; in short, those texts which had created the European Renaissance that generated thinkers like David Hume, Francis Bacon, Lucretius, and others. Rammohun did not learn English till he was in his 30’s; he could not have been influenced by Western liberalism. He was the western liberalism, teaching the Mintos and the Hamiltons, the Middletons and Tylters, the importance of reason over religion.

Tuhfat must be read by modern sociologists and anthropologists for published in 1804, it preempted the ideas of Emile Durkheim and Claude Levi Strauss who were to write a hundred years later. He writes that religion is an invention of the human mind, universal to all societies to mark as sacred those which are incomprehensible, unattainable, unreachable, and uncontrollable. As science progresses and magic develops for the stage as entertainment, the scope of the comprehended, attained, and controllable expands, pushing the sacred to ever more newly discovered areas of the unknown. The beauty of reason is that it not only knows but also can mark what is there to be known but is presently not known. Hence, reason’s language crashes religion. So far, Rammohun speaks like Europe. But where he diverges his path is his recognition that religion is an innate need of the human. Wars and violence brace the human society when religion vacates leaving a moral vacuum. To fill this, one must raise reason to the level of religion, with its ideology, its principles, cannons. Thus, was born liberalism, in his hands through his various publications and the Atmiya Sabha. Western liberalism spoke only of the redemption of the individual, refashioning polities that guaranteed such freedom of action; Rammohun’s liberalism lay upon a contract between the ruler and the ruled, and among the people to respect each other’s freedom and hence to desist from thinking one as wholly free willed and without responsibilities. This thought has been the primary focus of Bollywood since the birth of the star in its movies; many scenes and dialogues of Deewar are directly from episodes of the Rajah’s life. This is what makes us as Indians, freedom to exercise responsibility, freedom to realize the higher opportunities in politics and society through taking on roles of responsibility. When eventually the Congress went to Gandhi, the imagination of the free citizen became this; in the Constitution of India, the imagination of the individual is also this.

The intellectual source of the Raja unfortunately not noticed by most, lay in Ain I Akbari. He was particularly close to the Mughals as his family was, inhering most of the Mughal values in institutions and as his notes show, in the system of their justice. For this reason, he hated the British in his youth. But later as he came to know them and despite his tiffs and arguments with the Christian missionaries, he admired the new civilization and saw in it a path to escape into the future. Hence, he delves into our homes, packs up our bags, leaving behind the baggage of superstitions, suspicions for other faiths, useless rituals in Hinduism, buys a ticket for us in the Upanishads and helps us evacuate the now irrelevant medieval institutions into the land of the modern and rational. That’s why, his stay in Varanasi where he learnt Sanskrit in a structured manner and read the Upanishads and classical music is such an important part of his life. It is this journey that we are now on to, it is a new land that he has brought us into; the land of the yore lies far beneath us, we are above the clouds of medievalism.

Rammohun’s religious views were split between Debendranath and Keshub Sen; the former took God as the manifestation of the natural laws of the Universe to be deeply realized within us and help us align to such rules and eventualities while Keshub Sen opened the New Dispensation to worship of all faiths, Islam, Christianity, Jews, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, and others. For the 250 years of the Rajah, we perhaps need the New Dispensation again.

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