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?