Keshub Chandra Sen – Pedestrianization of the Brahmo Samaj

Sanjiv Chattopadhyay. Dharmayuddha. Bengali. Dey’s Publication. Kolkata. 2011.

The book is a biography of Keshab Chandra Sen, a prominent social reformer of Bengal who lived between 1838 and 1884 and occupies the mind of the Bengali intelligentsia as man of gigantic proportions that Bengal would rarely see ever in its history. Keshab Chandra Sen belongs to the same genre as Prabhu Nityananda in centuries before him and Vivekananda born a generation after him. Keshab Sen was a preacher and proselytizer of the faith he followed. Aggressive and expansionist, like the men of his genre, Keshab Sen mixed the idealism of Raja Rammohan Roy with the pragmatism of Hindu beliefs, absorbed the mystic Ramkrishna Paramhansa and the atheist Vidyasagar. He moves towards the profaner stage of Calcutta, uses the theatre as public education rather than the secluded erudition of religious discussions of the Brahmo Samaj under Maharshi Debendranath. What is interesting for me is how the social background of Keshab Chandra Sen influenced his own thoughts, his attitudes and eventually the future of the institution of the Brahmo Samaj.

Unlike Raja Rammohan Roy and later Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, Keshab Chandra Sen came from the middle class. His family had no asset income and instead depended on salaried employment to meet their daily needs. For them, academic brilliance was perhaps the only weapon they had in making it big. The trouble that Raja Rammohan Roy brought upon the Bengali society was that achievement was counted in terms of cultural attainment. Hence to be successful meant to be recognised as a contributor to the cultural pool of the society. This model of upward mobility, namely through access to cultural capital and to become a culture creator dominates the Bengali society even today. The problem is that with unequal economic means, participation in the cultural field also becomes unequal despite brilliance. This anomaly, namely of brilliance and yet the lack of economic means started to constitute the foundation of a middle class in Bengal, especially among the Hindus. Interestingly, Bengali culture is founded upon the constant striving of a middle class to command resources to create a high culture, balancing precariously between a job and earning from it to pay the bills and sparing some time and money in pursuit of esoteric goals. The structure of the family that has developed in Bengal, especially among its middle classes is to balance between its cultural aspirations and to find a job to be able to bear the costs of such investments.

Reading through the family background of Keshab Sen, one immediately notices how different this is either from the family of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and of Narendranath Datta. His family is from the Baidya caste in contrast to the Brahmin and the kayastha. All of the above mentioned are salaried employees, all of the above have huge aspirations in commanding culture, namely through social reforms and setting about new trends almost akin to new faiths and yet the family structure of the Sens strike out so much like an ideal Bengali middle class family. There is much more family unity among the Sens despite the fact that there are sharp differences in opinions, especially as they stand divided over the wayward ways of Keshab Chandra Sen. There is a far greater spirit of family support, where members of the family help one another in times of distress and where the individual even one who is as rebellious as Keshab Sen stands by the decision of his family in terms of his marriage and employment. Hence when he went over to Brahmodom, he fled from home. Most Baidya families have a deeper sense of family because it is through the family that they support the aspirations of the most talented ones among them. Compared to the Sens, the Banerjees and the Dattas seemed to be more individualistic and somewhat disconnected. Can we scientifically attach family values to the Baidyas? Is any form of empirical research possible?

Baidyas appear to be a caste of recent origins, though there are references to them sometimes as Brahmins and sometimes as kayasthas and many times as shudras in ancient texts such as Manu Samhita. Manu says that they should be counted among the untouchables as they move around corpses, surely their closeness to the dead bodies also drew many among them towards tantrism. Many times, Baidyas lived in the periphery of the village as they were practising surgery on dead bodies, treated just about anybody and travelled to far flung places and learnt their trade from just about anybody. Notwithstanding such textual mentions, this caste seems to be a collection of castes with similar financial and educational means. It became soon a club class with likeminded people over issues of knowledge, who it would be acquired from, who could benefit from the dissemination of such knowledge and so on. The caste congealed around a common set of cultures those which were neither common worship nor ritual practices, but social influence, political clout and professional acumen.

To be accurate to their nomenclature, baidyas are supposed to be medicine men with surgeries and text writings, so they knew a lot of Sanskrit but since they lived off grants and petty patronages, they were typically neither king makers nor feudal lords. Hence they were not quite learned in Persian though they cultivated Sanskrit fairly well. This is why when the British came, they were quick to learn English and sneak into the various posts created by the corporate counterparts of the imperial power. Baidyas are thus a caste born out of modernistic and secular impulses of the society towards professionalization and the pursuit of vocation. With the coming of the British, the Baidyas naturally flourished and did even better with the waves of social reforms that entailed the study of Sanskrit texts and arguing with the Brahmins and absorbing readings on Christianity those which were written in English. Professional ascendance, knowledge of Sanskrit and English, social reforms that attacked rituals (in which they were weaker) and attacks on Brahmins, a caste whose domination they would balk now that they were upwardly mobile, suited the Baidyas very well as they emerged into a new force, absorbing a motely combination of castes within them only on the basis of economic parity and professional attitudes. Hence, the family of a Baidya had to bear the responsibility of launching a caste and propel it right at the top of the social ladder. Families of Baidyas developed a sense of a mission where one divided time and effort responsibly towards feeding the family as well as preparing its members for jobs and also subsidizing their activities in the cultural sphere. This model of the family incidentally came to represent the ethos of the middle class family in India. Naturally then Keshab Sen’s efforts regarding age of consent, marriage and its nullification are part of the Indian Civil Marriage Act.

Keshab Sen hails from the Sens of Kolutala, a rather modest locality of Calcutta and the Sens are supposed to have descended from the last Hindu kings of Bengal, namely Ballal Sen. As with the descendants of a fallen king, the Sens lived their life in utmost poverty. Gokulchandra worked as a clerk in with a zamindar in Hooghly and earned a pittance. But he studied hard after office hours and wrote out his notes on the leaves of the banyan tree. He had six chidren, of who Ramdulal, Ramkamal and Madan did very well in life by working in the offices set up by the East India Company. Opportunities were expanding especially as stevedores and customs clerks and besides there were many Bengalis who lived by lending money to the Company. These men and women became rather rich and had huge offices in Calcutta.

Ramkamal, the second son of Gokulchandra was Keshab’s grandfather. He had a fiery desire to be a learned in modern Western education. He hopped and jumped jobs to earn some more money so that he could buy books and read. With a lucky break he was employed as a clerk in the Asiatic Society and that opened up his life, as he read voraciously and devoured intellectually its vast resources. His older brother, Ramdulal was however lucky to have read with the children of the Calcutta’s elite families. His mother, Gokulchandra’s wife used to work as a cook for Madanmohan’s family and Ramdulal got the opportunity to be educated by the best tutors who taught the children of the family. Ramdulal also helped Ramkamal to absorb much of the stuff he read as an autodidact. H.H. Wilson of Asiatic Society had a huge role to play in the advancement of Ramkamal’s career. Ramkamal earned a huge reputation as a good and a capable worker and soon he was appointed as the Dewan of the Treasury, then of Bank of Bengal and occupied posts as advisor in Calcutta Medical College, Select Committee, Insurance Committee, Savings Bank Committee and in various charitable trusts. He was enamoured by Ramkamal and saw that he was part of the expansion of the East India Company’s institutions in Calcutta. Wilson returned to England in 1833. Among his other passions, Wilson also wrote a book called The Theatre of the Hindus.

Ramkamal represented to the Government to end the custom of “Antarjali Jatra” where often the old and the sick were cast into the Ganges to drown to death. He made the Government ban many life threatening rituals in the Charak festivals. He also took up the task of compiling dictionaries in Bengali and English. Yet Ramkamal was a conservative. Perhaps out of a sense of guilt that he was transgressing his religion, he supported many orthodoxies like Sati. He was instrumental in driving Derozio out of Hindu College for his bohemian nihilism. As a member of District Charitable Society, he divided the city into two distinct areas, one for the affluent and the other for the poor and saw to it that the communication between the two were minimized. This was social distancing, which was actually a reinforcement of his class snobbery. Yet he would argue and even come to blows with the Brahmins who believed in the caste system. Ramkamal insisted on social mobility and meritocracy. While he argued against the caste system and the superstitions of the Hindus, he was a devout Hindu who lived a simple, frugal and disciplined life that no one could ever accuse him of being footloose.

Ramkamal had four sons, Harimohan, Pyarimohan, Bansidhar and Muralidhar. But Pyarimohan died soon after Ramkamal died and Keshab, a boy of eleven years was left to be raised by his uncles. Pyarimohan had a generous disposition; he would buy the most expensive mangoes from the market and distribute among the poor. His generosity and kindness reached to such proportions that when he died young the people around him were grief stricken for days, months and even years. Keshab Sen’s father’s family were devout Hindus veering towards the Shakta and tantric traditions, but his mother hailed from a Vaishnav family. It is strange that these differences no longer exist among the Bengali Hindus but the in early 19th century, such differences were pronounced and one wonders why. It is possible that social networks existed along these affiliations those which influenced both the availabilities of social opportunities as well as their outcomes.

Keshab Sen was born on the 19th of November 1838. His elder brother, Nabinchandra was very ill and Keshab too nearly died at childbirth because of the poor ventilation and pathetic hygiene conditions of the delivery room. Keshab thus grew to be a pampered child and emerged as a spoilt brat. Soon he grew up to a sense of entitlement even when he lost his grandfather at the age of six and his father at the age of eleven. His uncles continued to pamper him. Keshab was also very brilliant, his English and mathematics were outstanding. He grew to be puritan and a vigilante. He would carry a whip in his hand to punish the offender. Since he was born in an influential family in terms of high posts, many of his friends and associates also surrendered to him. He moved about with an air of non-compromise and condescension if not an outright contempt. He would never go out to apologise, never argued, never conversed; he only spoke as if delivering a dispensation. He never participated in games, he only played those games which he invented. In other words, he played only where he set the rules and he assumed the position of the leader. If he played a dispensary then he would be the doctor, if a school then he would be the headmaster. This does not make him seem to be a very adaptive personality and instead an overwhelming man with domineering habits veering towards being a bully. His cousin, Pratap Chandra Majumdar writes that once Keshab wanted to make an English ban, the children were dressed up to seem as if they were the players, they had to play the saxophone with their mouths blowing into their fingers and the thumb while Keshab got a drum from somewhere, tied it to the back of a small boy and marched ahead beating it. There seems to be a kind of oppression and sadism in this apparently innocent description.

Wilson had taught Ramkamal the importance of the family in the education and raising of a child; interestingly, Baidya families lay a lot of importance in these matters even today. The family is the key to a child’s education and character building. Keshab thought that rigidity and obstinacy and even domination were signs of a good character. For him, life was full of temptations and to stand away from temptations was the key to a good character. Hence repressive austerity became his idea of being of a good character. In this he developed, according to Ramkrishna Paramhansa, a mind that was naturally that of a sinner.

Keshab Sen was a brilliant student; after completing his school he was admitted into the Hindu College where he continued to excel in studies. English and mathematics were his strong and the most favourite subjects. But the Hindu College became a hot bed of dissent; more than a dissent against the British, it became a point of dissent against the Hindu orthodoxy. Students rebelled and drank alcohol, ate beef and pork and led delirious lives in abandon. Keshab’s uncle, Harimohan decided to withdraw him from the college and soon the Duttas of Wellington Square opened the Metropoliton College and pleaded with Keshab to join them. Keshab was admitted to the highest class. But here the biggest catastrophe of his life happened. The standard of the class was too high for Keshab to cope and while he managed the English, he failed in mathematics. This was a shock for him; feeling betrayed by mathematics, he drew into a shell, forsook the subject altogether, sulked and felt betrayed by his own strengths. He focussed on English which continued to yield to him but mathematics remained treacherous. This shock of failing in mathematics, hardened Keshab, set him off into a depression because he withdrew from the world and hand wrote posters instigating people to leave their homes and families and become wandering seers. He stuck those at the middle of the night so that he would not be found out.

While in the Hindu College, Keshab just watched a magic show by the famous magician Gilchrist and soon picked up the art so well that he would stun his friends and family with amazing tricks. Keshab was hugely talented and he could well have also been a magician. The Metropoliton College soon wound up because the Duttas lost money and Kesab returned to Hindu College, peeved to be back in the company of the Derozians, still poor in mathematics, concentrated in wider readings those which were not in his syllabus. He read Hindu philosophy and Christian theology and soon felt alienated within his family and walked over to the Brahmo Samaj to seek guidance from Maharshi Debendranath Tagore. Debendranath took Keshab under his wings and much impressed by his brilliance started to see in him a future for the Brahmos, those which were larger than what he had planned. Keshab’s family was furious, not only because the patriarch Ramkamal Sen was opposed to Rammohan Roy and supported Sati, but to become aa Brahmo was looked upon as a change of one’s faith, feared to have adverse effects on the prospects of marriage and inheritance. They soon decided to get Keshab married and though he opposed this tooth and nail, the family structure of the Baidyas operate like a closed unit, there is little scope for dissidence. His bride was a much younger woman who bore the brunt of his unwillingness to marry for Keshab tortured her physically and mentally so that she would often fall ill with violent fevers. His distaste for his own marriage made him to fervently campaign for the age of consent bill and education and employment for women so that they would not have to depend on men. Keshab felt trapped in the role of a husband whose duty was to look after his wife; women would have no need to depend on men as their succour. Men, he felt were as badly trapped into their gender roles if women were subjugated in theirs; hence the emancipation of women was the key to the genuine emancipation of man.

Soon, like Chaitanya centuries before him or Buddha in the aeons of time, Keshab also fled home to be on a ship with Debendranath, his son Satyendranath and a few others and set sail to Ceylon. Since the roots of Hinduism lay in tantra which was the foundation of Buddhism, the party decided to visit a Buddhist land to experience things first hand. Keshab was wholly disappointed with the country, found its people non transparent and slimy, ethics in public life unimpressive. On the whole, it appears through his detailed travelogues that neither Buddhism nor Ceylon impressed him. Keshab returns to India, comes back home where his family, despite their utter disapproval of his disappearance nonetheless arranged for a grand reception. Keshab fled the crowd at the port and sneaked home directly. He could not face his family with the disappointments in Ceylon.

Keshab put off by the excesses of his college mates in the Hindu College turned vegetarian. He also turned into a teetotaller. He used his vegetarianism to claim a high moral ground vis-à-vis those of the Brahmo Samaj who the elites like the Maharshi Debendranath were himself. Nabinchandra Sen was a puritan and followed the Upanishads but did not believe in the congregational worship of the Brahmos. He avoided all contacts with Keshab after he established the Sadharon Brahmo Samaj. Nabinchandra was eager to protect his individualism, which he feared would be compromised if he simply went on with the flow. So he kept himself aloof, another Bengali middle class ethos of extreme individualism, desire to stand out as lone figures on neutral grounds of ideology. Nabinchandra started an evening school to “educate” the youth away from the excesses of the Hindu College and also had a drama company where he wrote and produced plays over the need for the Hindu to reform.

Much before he formally converted to Brahmosim, Keshab had abandoned idol worship, refused to be initiated by the family priest into Vaishnavism, gathered a group of friends into a small prayer circle called the Upasana Sabha. His asceticism and the resultant spiritualism was an impulse towards his desire to reach out to the people, gather popular forces and then bring about a social change and reform. For his purposes, he included a few Christian missionaries and included a literary club as well along with the reading of religious literature. He was sold to the idea of God as Father and the community as brothers. This was a search for a Prophet and also a certain comfort into the herd of believers. It is here that I would place both Nabinchandra and Keshab Chandra as the quintessential Bengali middle class, a desire to be superman, an aloof ascetic, and a discerning individual seeking support not among others of his ilk but in the masses, who they would like to arouse as a herd in following him. These would make him unique. Would this innate model of a fascist leader be found in a social class that seeks upward mobility? Would upward social mobility necessarily seek a new religion? Or emerge out of the traditions those bind into a newer cultural space, would the new found respectability refuse to acknowledge the existing social authorities?

Like all the middle class Bengalis, Keshab too had to draw a salary to run the kitchen. He was employed in Bank of Bengal, where his uncle, Harimohan used to be the Dewan. While at work, whenever he would get some spare time, he would write frantic notes. Soon his colleagues complained about him to his boss, but when the British officer found out what Keshab would jot down in his spare time at the desk, he promoted Keshab to more than double his salary. Keshab was also spared to sign a non-disclosure agreement with the bank which he refused; the Bank did not force it on him and instead qualified him for a further promotion. Despite the promise of a great career at the bank, Keshab left his job to devote full time to the cause of spreading Brahmoism. He had to prove to his family that he could if he wished to, to hold the supreme position in his career, but now left that for a larger purpose of becoming a Prophet. The impulses which worked in Keshab also worked for Swami Vivekananda, Subhas Bose and even for Uttam Kumar, the same individual, the same Prophet, the inaccessible celebrity, the discerning individual, the unique. Uniqueness would mean that he is a “swayambhu”, one who cannot be placed against his family nor be seated with his peers, he would be superior to all, pure enough to claim that superiority, unblemished by “influences”, so unprecedented that he would be comparable only to himself.

Keshab showed the typical traits of representing an upwardly mobile culture. He admired the Christians and their influence and the organization of the missionaries, imitated and incorporated them into his own understanding of One God and eventually when he preached in Krishnanagar, he lambasted the faith of Christ. When in the Brahmo Samaj, he too changed the faith, divided the Samaj, mixed its purity with the elements of Vaishnavism and Shakta and tantric mysticism and brought it closer to the people. He thought that the pristine form of Brahmos which Maharshi Debendranath following the footsteps of Raja Rammohan Roy was too elitist and over the top. He desired to make Brahmo religion more open to all and reach out to the larger populace. He interpreted the exclusivity of the Brahmos to be “cruel” and a lack of closeness or love for the people.

Keshab Sen campaigned against the sacred thread and Bijoykrishna Goswami supported him in this. Maharshi Debendranath also started working around the Hindu rituals so as to eliminate kanyadaan and other rituals that appeared as idol worship in sraddhas. Such efforts were converted into the Civil Marriage Act so that those would not be construed within the purview of Hindu marriage. The elders of the Brahmo Samaj did not take to this kindly. Debendranath was against the abolition of the sacred thread. Keshab used this as an issue to rile in his seniors in the Samaj. He convinced Bijoy Krishna Goswami to be his aide in this matter and the latter created problems as he did not want to share the podium with a priest who retained his sacred thread. Closely following this act of defiance and indiscipline came another when Keshab uttered some nonsense words in lieu of the mantra while ceremonizing the marriage of one Nibaran Chandra Mukhopadhyay from Bhagalpur. Debendranath wrote a note on a chit in pencil warning Keshab to mend his ways while dealing with the affairs of the Brahmo Samaj.

Expectedly it was not meant to be a formal note but Keshab wrote back to say that he took offence since the note did not contain the usual “affection” of the Maharshi towards him and hence he was hurt. He then set out to write that should Debendranath decide to expel him from the Samaj, he would not only let the post go, nor severe the connection with the Samaj; instead twine around it like a poisonous snake and spit venom to kill the organization. In short, he threatened suicide bombing. On the one hand he provokes Debendranath and on the other expects to be forgiven and indulged and when reprimanded even in the lightest of all ways, he becomes vengeful and threatens to blow up the edifice. Shibnath Shastri, however chose to be with Keshab and the Samaj split. The Adi Brahmo samaj remained with Maharshi Debendranath while Keshab Sen created the Bharatvarshiya Brahmo Samaj where most of the tenets of the Brahmos were brushed aside like study of scriptures. Mysticism and bhakti were incorporated in a major way and Ramkrishna Paramhansa got a lot of prominence in it.

It is interesting that Keshab Sen, unlike Debendranath lived in a vacuum and this vacuum could be labelled as a cultural vacuum. Though his family was well educated in the scriptures, surrendering to those would mean to acknowledge the superiority of likes of Tagores; defiance against the Tagores translated into a defiance against the scriptures. He also created some unnecessary enemies with his close friends like the Christian missionaries who he may have also befriended to taunt the Brahmos as they had arguments with the Church. Later he fought the Christians openly and drew close to Ramkrishna Paramhansa, who, despite being an idol worshipper was also a mystique. Keshab was constantly changing allies and realigning himself by once siding with the Christians and then opposing them, once attacking everything Hindu and specifically Vaishnav and then embracing those, once fleeing home to be with Debendranath and then defying his authority and splitting the institution. The above show the instability of his social positon which seeks power, once by appropriating power through alignment and then overpowering everything by dissent. This could be the power dimension to upward social mobility.

Keshab Sen was a demagogue with attractive looks and charismatic personality. He may have thought of himself as Lord Krishna. The role of Krishna was explained thus to him by Swami Brahmananda as one who creates a bridge between the world of humans and the world of Gods. However, Keshab’s brand of Brahmoism was based more towards Protestant ethics where the concept of the sinner seeking redemption was strongly underscored. This later created many more splinters in the Brahmo Samaj especially those who leaned towards Vaishnavism seeking a mystic and erotic union with God.

Just as Keshab found himself at the core of disagreements with the Brahmo Samaj and split it, he also split with his family, whereupon his share of the wealth was given to him and he moved away to southern Calcutta where he purchased a huge bungalow from an Armenian. The property used to house orphan girls run by Christian missionaries. Since these little girls were under the shelter of Christians, he did not wink an eyelid to dislocate them. His share of the property was purchased by his younger brother and so the family property remained intact and he got some money with which he purchased substantial land for his Brahmo Samaj. Friends like Pratapchandra Majumdar donated some money and so did a few of the petty zamindars. Meanwhile a gentleman called Jadumani Ghosh, a Bengali from Orissa donated his lifetime savings for the Brahmo Samaj. Keshab Sen seeing that the man was on the anvil of parting with the savings of his life time decided to use the money, not as a donation but as a loan. Till such a time his money was repaid, Keshab housed him in his Kolutala property. Unfortunately when Keshab was unable to repay the loan, Jadumani raised rabble and accusing of Keshab’s wife trying to poison him went to the press and splashed the story that Keshab was bankrupt and a cheater. This had a very bad effect on his reputation.

Keshab married off his minor daughter to the princely family of Coochbehar, unable to resist his greed for upward climbing. He not only disregarded the same age of consent which he so passionately campaigned for but he also followed each and every Hindu ritual. This too was splashed in the news. Keshab’s charisma was so widespread that the newer members of the Brahmo Samaj especially from Monghyr and Patna would touch his feet and worship him like a Prophet. His close associates like Bijoy Krishna Goswami and others including the newspaper conglomerate of Amrita Bazar Patrika were so put off by such adulation that they left Keshab’s company. So, personal glorification, cheating of a debt repayment and the direct flouting of Brahmo Samaj rules in his personal matters made Keshab look like a hypocrite and an impostor. Keshab was finally dismissed from all matters pertaining to Brahmo Samaj and the office bearers put a lock on its gates. Keshab moved in with a few of his cohorts and put another lock on the temple and occupied the grounds. When the office bearers moved in to clear the grounds, Keshab came to blows and the police had to be called to tackle what became a law and order problem.

He was soon shunned by one and all among his older associates. Shibnath Shastri was the only one who stood by his side and together, he helped put up the Sadharon Brahmo Samaj with Ananda Mohan Bose, Umesh Chandra Dutta and himself. Maharshi Debendranath Tagore and Rajnarayan Basu both blessed the new venture and donated Rs 7000 unconditionally though the initial promise was only of Rs 2000. The last days of Keshab was spent at Dakshineswar under the care of Ramkrishna Paramhansa.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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