The Islamization of Bengal

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The cover of Richard Eaton’s book, upon which this post is premised.

 

I just reread Richard Eaton’s book The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760, and thought I’d make some observations on the theory it purports, and some of the implications.

The entire book is available for free: Here.

The Theory

Eaton’s theory of Islamization rests on a much broader theory of how Bengali religion; both Hindu and Muslim was transmitted. It goes more or less as follows: New agricultural technologies, systems of land tenure, and legal/governing institutions were the main drivers behind the spread of both religions. Initially Brahmins, but later Sufis would head into a new region of the delta and establish themselves as local elites responsible for agricultural management (a similar pattern can be seen in the Deccan). Often the Sufi leader and his institution, or a temple institution would get a land grant from the state for this purpose, but this was not always the case. These religiously affiliated colonists brought with them new agricultural technologies from the west, which they would then implement locally. By some arrangement, religious elites became aligned with political elites. This was either because a preexisting regime sent out the Brahmins/Sufis in the first place, or because the regime sought to co-opt them once they had gained a following, and increased local agricultural productivity. Along with religion, the Brahmins and Sufis would bring in with them notions of law, languages, trading customs, etc. which brought eastern regions into the orbit of Indic civilization. In western Bengal this happened in the Epic period. In north Bengal, this happened in the historical period just preceding the Mughals. Due to its lateness, the land tenure system in the north was more primitive, relying on corvée labor rather than taxation in the form of crops or currency which existed in the west of Bengal. In the east and south of the delta however, no organized system of agriculture, government, or religion existed prior to the Mughal period. It was what we would call “aboriginal.”

The main driver of this entire pattern was the eastward shift of the Gangetic delta between ~1400 and 1800, which rendered old land less productive, and forced people to confront the task of clearing and farming the forest. This moving river system thus constitutes a frontier in multiple dimensions; ecological, political, technological, and religious. All of these frontiers long predate the presence of Islam in the subcontinent, and can be easily discerned in earlier Sanskrit depictions of the region. Most of Bengal is described as mleccha territory outside the domain of “Aryavarta” in Sanskrit texts like the Baudhayana Dharmasutra (5th c BCE). Thus, Islamization is just the most recent episode in a phenomenon, which has roots in the Bronze or Iron Age.

 

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From the book. Maps illustrating the eastward migration of the Bengal delta.

Other Theories

This general pattern explains the population drift, and the transmission of new religion and technology eastward over time. But here it might be necessary to back up a step. The broadest problem, which Eaton is trying to solve, is the uncanny distribution of Muslim populations in the subcontinent. It is striking on a demographic map that Muslims are concentrated on the eastern and western flanks of north India, but are thinly spread out in the middle. Eaton lays out the prior 4 theories to explain Islamization before presenting his own. They are as follows:

Immigration: This is a theory favored by high class Ashraf Muslims in the past, but it has long been untenable. It states that the majority of Muslims in India are descended from immigrants who arrived to India either on Arab trading ships, as Sufi missionaries, as parts of invading Turko-Persian armies, or as traders. This can explain some cases of Islamization, particularly urban trends. But it cannot explain the conversion of wide swathes of Bengali peasants. It is further rendered suspect by the genetic and anthropometric similarity between low caste Hindus and Muslim peasants, and the genetic difference between both upper caste Hindus and Ashraf Muslims from both aforementioned groups.

Patronage: This theory was also favored by Ashraf Muslims, as well as western social scientists who treat religious conversion as a proxy for political change. This theory asserts that the majority of Muslims converted to avoid excessive taxation, or to curry favor with the regime. Aside from question of whether or not Islam was so central to Mughal policies so as to encourage this type of conversion in significant numbers, it also fails to explain mass peasant conversion at the margins of the empire where taxation power was weakest, and the relatively small number of converts in the Gangetic delta. Again, it may well explain some metropolitan trends though.

Social Liberation: This was a theory favored by later British ethnographers who sought to portray Hinduism as brutally discriminatory, and maintains popularity amongst Pakistani and Bangladeshi historians. According to this theory the majority of converts were low caste Hindus who sought refuge from the caste system in Islam. However, this theory again may explain some regional cases of conversion, but cannot explain the vast number of converts residing in India’s eastern and western peripheries where the caste system was weakest. If this dynamic were strong, we would expect the largest number of converts to be in the center of India. Furthermore, the degree to which Islam actually liberated people from caste or caste-like structures is highly questionable.

Religion of the Sword: This was popular in the earlier British period, in which Crusades influenced historiography was popular. It was also popular amongst Turkic rulers and other Muslims who sought to portray themselves in a self aggrandizing way as victorious and virile conquerors. The theory is fairly straightforward: that the majority of Muslims are the descendants of those who were converted by state coercion. Again, this has regional applicability in places which faced severe religiously motivated violence, but it seems ahistorical to apply it to Bengal, which experienced no such waves of forced conversion of peasantry. If this was the primary mode of conversion we would expect the densest Muslim populations to be in the central Gangetic plain which was the region most subject to invading armies.

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This is the distribution which Eaton’s theory proposes to explain.

 

Even though Eaton dismisses each theory in turn, they are still worth pointing out for their applicability in specific regions, or in urban centers. Islamization was a complex phonemenon, and even though we are trying to paint a picture which accounts for the trend at the most macro possible level, local histories may have played out very differently.

 Implications for Bengali Islam’s Character

Eaton’s theory seems to view Islamization as essentially a dependent variable of the expansion of medieval state forms and agricultural techniques into the eastern deltaic frontier. In this sense, it is a patronage theory of sorts, but one much more distantly related to state power than the standard iteration. It appears as though the Mughals were merely interested in settling the new land, and in obtaining revenue from it. Furthermore, it appears as though the Mughals did delegate Zamindar status to Brahmins to settle much of the new land, but that the Brahmins delegated the task in a further level of infudation to Sufi pirs, whom had the title of Tuluqdar. Thus the patronage is not of peasants to the state, but of peasants to Sufi Taluqdars to urban absentee landlord Brahmins to the local Mughal governor, to the central Mughal state.

As a result of this bottom up process of Islamization, the character of Islam in Bengal was unique in many respects. It was not as though the population converted from aboriginal religion to something recognizable as mostly-Islamic within a single generation. The word “conversion” seems misplaced in this context. Islam was incorporated into Bengali society through a process which Eaton identifies as inclusion, identification, and displacement. First Islamic concepts were introduced and believed in along side Hindu, Buddhist, or Bengali aboriginal beliefs. For instance Allah might be worshipped as one of a number of deities and spirits, and Muhammed seen as one of a number of venerated sages. This is analogous to how in the process of Sanskritization, the major Hindu deities enter the tribal pantheon of deities (and visa versa).

Then identification takes hold. Here, local religious concepts are seen to be expressions of fundamentally Islamic ideas. For instance, Brahman might be seen as the local description of Allah. This is analogous to the Hindu process of identifying Shiva and Shakti with tribal religions who worship a divine mother and father.

Finally, displacement occurs. Here the Islamic concept is retained while the other concepts are excluded. In Bengal this was an extremely slow process, and in my view was still drastically incomplete even in the 1800s. In parts of Bangladesh it is still incomplete. Though, with modern communication technology, Salafism, and the conscious self-identification of Bangladeshis as part of the broader “Muslim World” displacement is accelerating. The Hindu parallel for this would be the homogenization and “reform” of Hindu religion which has been ongoing since the 19th century, though even the “end-state” of Hinduism after the displacement phase seems more internally diverse than that of Islam.

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The tl;dr version of Eaton’s three phase theory. The essentialization of religious traditions inherent in the theory is obvious when it is charted out this way, but keep in mind that this is just a model.

There are certain problems with this three phase model. For one, it seems to imply that there is an “end-state” of a religion after displacement has occurred. This seems debatable. It also implies that during the identification phase, the prior religious terminology and conceptual structure is seen as subservient to the new religion’s conceptual structure. Again, this is debatable. It seems possible that the two conceptual structures might become merged, or might produce something entirely new when combined. But these are minor problems.

As a result of this slow (and still incomplete) process of transmission, Bengali Islam has adopted a remarkable number of features of preexisting Bengali religion. Preexisting tiger deities of the south have become associated with Sufi pirs, and the faces of tigers still appear on some Sufi shrines as a result. Tantric practices have entered the Bengali Sufi tradition. Ayurveda is popular. Themes of divine motherhood have been strongly carried over into Islamic characters like Amina and Fatima. In parts of rural Bangladesh, Islam seems to have barely entered the displacement phase at all, with Islamic and non-Islamic cosmologies, figures and deities being clearly present in the same religious system. Islam in Bengal is thus not an alien imposition, but a part of the organic religious development of the region, which might explain why the tradition is so deeply rooted in Bangladeshi consciousness.

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Given the existence of Tiger deities in pre-Islamic southern Bengal, and the myths of interactions between Sufi pirs and supernatural tigers, the association of Bengali Sufi pirs with tigers is likely an example of the syncretism which roots Islam in Bengali traditions. Image source.

 

 A Problem

            Obviously, I think this theory is fairly persuasive. Still, I find it incomplete in one crucial respect. Eaton goes to great lengths to explain the precise mechanics of Islamization on the ground, in terms of Sufis organizing agricultural production. What is not satisfactorily explained is why it was Islam (or more precisely, Sufi pirs), which took up this task. Eaton shows satisfactorily why it couldn’t have happened to the north in Kuch Bihar or Assam or in West Bengal where Hinduism and its associated feudal institutions was stronger, but this does not suffice to explain why Hinduism stopped spreading and Islam started. A superficial answer might be that since an Islamic regime controlled India and Bengal at the time, local (initially non-Islamic) religious leaders who administrated land were co-opted into the State’s religious paradigm. However this explanation can only explain the Islamization of truly aboriginal religious leaders. It doesn’t explain why Sufis (most of whom who were evidently acting independently of state direction) and not Brahmins were the ones to venture into the forest and administrate the practical, grassroots agricultural spread in Bengal during the Mughal period. Eaton himself points out that even under Buddhist rule, it was Brahmins who had settled amidst Bengali indigenous peoples around the 5th century AD to spread their religion and agricultural technology. Thus being part of a different religious group from the official state religion is not sufficient explanation for why Brahmins failed to colonize the delta to the degree which Sufis did. Furthermore, the presence of substantial, though not majority populations Hindus in the east shows that some Hinduization was occurring simultaneously with Islamization. What was the difference between these trends? Why was one trend so much greater than the other?

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The period of Islamization is also the period in which we first see deities like Manasha come out of the “tribal” system and into the Hindu system. Clearly Hinduization was occurring along with Islamization, but was a much less pronounced trend.

 

I have some speculations as to the answers. Perhaps Eaton underplays the role of the Mughal regime in intentionally favoring Sufis and pushing them into the delta, as opposed to Brahmins. He does briefly seem to weakly imply that this was a matter of policy in relation to Sylhet, where Brahmins received land grants, but not grants of the type useful for settling new uncultivated land. Even if Islam was separate from the state’s civic religion, a subtle bias towards Islam might have played a role in the granting of land titles. This objection breaks down though, when one considers that many Sufis were operating under the direction of Brahmins. Or, perhaps his efforts to avoid “misreading” self edifying Islamic histories extends too far in the other direction, and the effects of Turkic conversion by the sword are understated. However this objection also fails when chronology is taken into account, as most conversion took place under Mughal, not Turkic or Afghan rule).

As an alternative theory, perhaps there was something unique about the labor intensive, decentralized and local nature of medieval East Bengali rice production, or of the medieval evolution towards decentralized infudation, which favored Islam over Hinduism as a driving ideology. This theory seems suspect though, as it relies on ossified categories of Islam as outwards looking and egalitarian, and Hinduism as inward looking and elitist. The idea that any religion “inherently” pushes any concrete ideological position has gone out of fashion, but if it is true then the answer might lie in the nature of Islam itself.

As a third theory, perhaps Hinduism had already expanded to its “natural limit” on the subcontinent, and had solidified its perception of easterners as mleccha. This just pushes the question back one step further though: What sets the constraints on the “natural limit” of the expansion of a religious tradition? Most likely, there was some incentive for heading into the jungle to organize agrarian cultivation, which applied to Sufis and not to Brahmins, though I cannot discern what it was. One speculation could be that Brahmins by the Mughal period had already entirely latched onto the royal institutions they helped establish in the north and especially the west of Bengal, and so felt no economic need to dive into the forest any longer, unlike the more recent and less wealthy and influential Sufis. However, I don’t know how well this matches the empirical facts, as there always seems to be some surplus population of Brahmins in any given region whom are poor and unconnected with royal power.

 Modern Implications

            I’m a bit surprised that I haven’t seen much reference to Eaton’s work in Pakistani or Bangladeshi nationalist historiography. Perhaps I just have’t looked hard enough. It seems as though Eaton is arguing for a sort of primordiality of Bangladesh (and perhaps Pakistan as well is the general argument is carried over). In his narrative Bengal was always substantively different from the Indian core. He emphasizes the non-Aryan character of indigenous Bengalis and identifies proto-Munda speakers as the substratum population. This is not particularly controversial. He observes that despite the heavily sanskritized western region, eastern Bengalis adhered primarily to indigenous religion and Buddhism followed by Islam, with Hinduism playing a minor role. Swadeshi and Indian/Hindu Nationalist ideas of Bengali (and Indian) unity are seriously undercut by this viewpoint. Hindutva tends to frame Bangladesh as “lost” Hindu territory. Of course, if Hinduism is defined as any non-Islamic Indian religion, this is true. But if Hinduism is defined more specifically by reference to the Vedas, or worship of specific deities like Ram, Vishnu, Shiva, etc. then it is much less true (though it seems likely to me that Mother Goddess worship was always indigenous to Bengal, even in the south and east). This narrative seems to be an anachronistic projection of the 20th and 21st century killings and persecutions of Bangladeshi Hindus into the medieval past. Yet, I’ve not seen Hindutva constructions of history confronted with Eaton’s arguments. On a less antagonistic note, I am optimistic that if framed properly, Eaton’s theory could do work towards breaking the tense ossification which has set in between the two religious communities since the colonial period. After all, if Islam and Hinduism both spread according to the same pattern, and if Bangladeshi Islam has an indigenous substratum, the distance between the two traditions seems to lessen.

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Hindu Nationalism has an ahistorical notion of the scope, character, and timeline of Hinduism’s spread in and beyond South Asia, which could be undercut by the example of Bengal.

 

The theory puts Bangladeshi state ideology in an odd position as well. Bangladeshi language ideology posits all of Bengal as a primordial sociological unit, but Eaton seems to suggest that the divide between east and west Bengal is ancient. This in turn could strengthen some forms of particularist Bengali nationalism which emphasize the distance between Bangladesh and India, and assimilate ethnically non-Bengali Bangladeshis into Bangladeshi state ideology. If the logic of Eaton’s theory applies elsewhere in the subcontinent, then other South Asian Muslim nationalist ideologies could also be bolstered by it. The logic of the theory can also be carried further to justify some forms of Dalit nationalist ideology, which also emphasizes persistent historical differences between urban, agrarian Hindu society, and the societies which existed in the hills or on the margins of society. Yet surprisingly, I’ve not seen Eaton’s work mobilized to political ends.

Eaton’s theory is the most plausible one for explaining the distribution of Islamic populations, though it needs further elaboration to be a truly complete theory. It has the strength of being in step with the most ancient and persistent trends in Indian history, especially at a time when Indian historians have eschewed such “big picture” explanations. The theory’s continuity with long run patterns makes it compelling, but this only leaves the discontinuity (i.e. the halting of Hinduism’s expansion and the dawn of Islam) even more puzzling.

How Rammohan Roy Broke Into Liberal Discourse

A bust which Roy actually had the patients to sit for (unlike many portraits of him). Image Source

A bust which Roy actually had the patients to sit for (unlike many portraits of him). Image Source

The Problem

When entering the realm of European liberal discourse, Rammohan Roy was faced with a double sided problem. Firstly, liberal thought at the time considered India to be in a state of backwardness, and therefore inherently unfit for political autonomy. Secondly, it was thought that a culture lacking a tradition of liberty couldn’t produce individuals worthy of entering the public discourse. Thus, Roy had to simultaneously challenge liberalism’s notions of civilizational advancement and backwardness, and also convince his opponents to stop seeing him as a primitive who lacked the right to participate in the intellectual arena.

Roy’s solution to this (consciously formulated or not) was to create a new paradigm within liberalism based on some concept of “class” instead of race or culture. In this paradigm elites across cultures have more in common with one another, than they do with their respective sets of commoners. This is why elites everywhere practice forms of religion closer to monotheism, and also why idolatry and trinitarianism are practiced by the masses of ignorant commoners. Based on this logic, the British elites in India should support and cooperate with their Indian counterparts, as they constitute the same in-group. Educated and mercantile elements of both societies should engage in commerce and cultural interchange, and work for the upliftment of the ignorant underclass of both British and Indian populations. In this new model, the relationship of liberal upliftment is shifted from something akin to the “white man’s burden,” to something more akin to the “bourgeois monotheist’s burden.”

Liberalism was indeed universal in regards to the equal capacities of all human beings. However, liberals saw those who came from “despotic” societies as inherently primitive in social development, and therefore unworthy of political representation. Furthermore, liberals looked for certain social indicators, which would identify people as worthy of political inclusion, and deserving a voice in the public sphere. These indicators included language, dress, education, and religion which were easily recognizable as civilized by Europeans.1

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Subversive Hindu Thought

“In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent….If a wife obeys her husband, she will for that (reason alone) be exalted in heaven.” –Manu Smriti[1] ***

“I have nothing to do with the husbands of this world”- Akka Mahadevi

Akka Mahadevi. Image source.

Akka Mahadevi in samadhi, nude but draped in her flowing hair.  Image source.

I’ll try to reserve most of my comments for the end of this post. The following is a collection of verses by female, often low caste Bhakti (devotional) poets which I’ve collected from various books and journal articles. They challenge the way we normally think about women in Hinduism. Caste rules to gender norms, and even the Vedas and Brahmins all are opened up for fiery criticism. This is a part of the Hindu tradition, which often doesn’t get much press. You normally read about how caste is inherent to Hinduism, and how if one Brahminical texts says it, then it is the official, textually certified Hindu position on the matter. Not so. Hinduism is a much more anarchic tradition than that.

The Role of Women:

By Akka Mahadevi (12th century AD):

“The preceptor became the giver;

The Lord Linga became the bridegroom;

And I became the bride.

All this the world knows

The innumerable devotees are my parents

Hence Chenna Mallikarjuna is my husband,O Prabhu,

I have nothing to do with the husbands of this world” [2]

 This is an inversion of Manu’s claim that a woman should treat the husband as God. She treats God as her husband.

“On a frame of water, raising a roof of fire,

Spreading the hailstones for the bridal floor-bed,

A husband without a head, married a wife without legs,

My parents gave me to an inseparable life,

They married me to Lord Chenna Mallikarjuna” [3]

Verses such as these can be read as conservative, but remember that this poet, like many others Bhakti sants, did refuse to get married to any man. This wasn’t just talk. Given the stigma attached to unmarried women in Indian society, this was a radical statement. In Akka Mahadevi’s case, she rejected a Jain king named Kausika rendering it an even more powerful act of defiance.

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Kurukshetra

“I warned you once that

Duryodhana’s mischief

Would be the cause of

The annihilation of the kingdom.”

–Vidura in Mahabharata (207.30)[1]

This post will be shorter than normal.

I was shocked to discover that there didn’t exist online any approximate charting of the opposing alliances which fought at the battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata, according to the mythology. I’ve decided to fill that gap. This map is based on the information in F. E. Pargiter’s article called “The Nations of India at the Battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas,” and the “Races, Tribes and Castes” section of the Samsad Companion to the Mahabharata.[2] I used the map located on AncientVoice as the basis image.

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Let me be clear that the position of several of these names, particularly those outside the subcontinent, and the “borders” themselves are speculative. Not to mention that the historicity of the war’s events are questionable, though the story is most probably based in fact.

The most useful section of Pargiter’s article lists the alliances as follows (unfortunately I could not include his diacritical marks):

“We may sum up these results in the following way, leaving out of account all the insignificant tribes which merely furnished contingents to the larger kingdoms, that were near them and that claimed some overlordship over them.

“On the Pandava’s side were these: ––

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The Westernization of Hinduism and its Alienating Consequences

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,  –a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” -Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay

“Sexual pleasure is not pleasure. Sex-pleasure is the most devitalizing and de-moralizing of pleasures. Sexual pleasure is not pleasure at all. It is mental delusion. It is false, utterly worthless, and extremely harmful.”  -Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Kali. Image Source.

An old painting of Kali in Kalighat painting style. This is a blend of traditional Bengali folk styles, and European painting. An in-between version of this scene, not as sexualized as ancient depictions, but not as tame as modern ones either.  Image Source.

Westernized or Anglicized Hinduism describes the religious system which is adhered to by most Hindus living in the United States and Britain, as well as by those in the modern Hindu urban elite, middle class, and urban working class. Essentially, any Hindu population which has experienced the impact of a modern education system for a few generations now subscribes to a Westernized variant of the belief system.

Initially I was planning on titling this piece “The Anglicization of Hinduism,” as that is what the bulk of this article pertains to, but that would entail a slight misnomer. This is because aside from morphing under British pressure, the most ancient substratum belief of the Hindu philosophical tree– namely Tantra– has been under a far longer lasting, but less severe morphing due to the influence of Vedic Brahminical tradition which arose in the Western part of the Indian subcontinent. Then, in the British period orthodox Vedic Brahmins eagerly collaborated with the colonial regime. Using it as their vehicle, both the Brahminical and Victorian worldviews, began to permeate the Hindu cultural landscape in unison.

Thus, Hinduism has been “westernized” in two senses: Recent, and rapid influence from Britain, and ancient, gradual influence from Western India. Anglicization and Sanskritization.

Basic Characteristics of Westernized Hinduism in Hindu terms: Modern, Westernized Hinduism is essentially a modified form of Advaita Vedanta, though ISKON (a dualist sect), the Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Gandhian Hinduism, and indeed nearly every major Hindu religious movement since 1800 can be characterized as Westernized Hinduism, Anglicized Hinduism, or Neo-Hinduism. It is normally highly monistic, and places an emphasis on Bhakti and/or Karma Yoga. Tantra, especially left-hand path Tantra is conspicuously absent. Most Neo-Hindus see Hinduism both as a specific religion, and also as a meta-religious framework, which encompasses all religions. The most popular text in this branch of Hinduism is the Bhagavad Gita.  More on all of this later.

Formation of Westernized Hinduism: That covers the Hindu lineage, but there is of course a Western lineage as well. it is also the product of a violent and rapid change in the Indian social order– namely the advent of British colonialism, and eventually modern capitalism. The British Raj accorded a privileged role to Christian values and Western concepts. Starting in about 1858, when the British East India Company was forced to transfer power to the British monarchy, the British began to more actively inject their civilizational model into the subcontinent. The imposition of British political institutions and laws on Indian society, the state the support of British missionaries, the state encouragement of convent education and other forms of British education, and the selection of conservative, orthodox Brahmins for use in writing and interpreting what became “Anglo-Hindu law,” and the uniform application of that law to all of Hindu society, are all examples of this sudden change in traditional Hindu society.

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Gandhi Was Not a Theorist

Mahatma Gandhi portrait, 1931. Image Source: Wikimedia

Mahatma Gandhi portrait, 1931. Image Source: Wikimedia

In much of what I’ve recently read on Gandhi, there exists the impulse to find a unifying structure which underlies his thought. Most recently I’ve been reading Faisal Devji’s The Impossible Indian, and various essays by Akeel Bilgrami on Gandhi, which exhibit this trend.[1]

I think this recent impulse might be a reaction against an older mode of thought, which is now perceived as either outmoded, or unsophisticated. In the old paradigm, Gandhi was framed either as a shrewd politician, or an irrational mystic. Both these stereotypes lend themselves to portraying a disunified view of Gandhi’s thought in which either he is inconsistent for political or philosophical reasons.

The problem for me is that the old way of thinking about Gandhi, passé and rigid though they may be, contain much which is valuable. Given his triple identity as a political philosopher-politican-mystic, I’m not sure that we, even under charitable conditions, should expect a consistent system out of Gandhi.

Gandhi was a philosopher-politician: This is perhaps the most obvious fact about Gandhi. But as of late, he seems to be treated differently from other philosopher-politicians. Consider the following names: John Stuart Mill, Woodrow Wilson, the American Founding Father, Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin. It is completely normal for academics to acknowledge that these people had contradictions between their political theories, and their stated/enacted policies. Rather than doing intellectual gymnastics to explain how Gandhi can simultaneously support and decry fighting in World War 2, fighting in Kashmir, and a hypothetical Indian civil war, can we not just acknowledge that Gandhi often wrote with an eye towards political strategy?

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Bengal in Global Concept History: Book Response

9780226734941

Purchasable on Amazon

(Skip the first 4 paragraphs if you don’t care about the book, and just want the general narrative of how Bengali culturalism evolved and declined)

For those who are tempted to pick up this book as a primer on Bengali cultureput the book down. This is really a book not on culture, but culuralism, that is to say the social and political ideology that encompasses most of the Bengal Renaissance.

Without reservations I applaud Andrew Sartori for making good on his promise to deliver a explanation of the rise of Bengali culturalism and related thought systems such as Bengali classical liberalism, and to a lesser degree, early Bengali Hindu nationalism, Bengali Muslim nationalism, and Bengali Marxism. His analysis is grounded in the particular local intellectual and economic changes taking place in Bengal. He does not place a disproportionate weight on formal chains of intellectual influence, nor does he fall into the vulgar Marxist trap of economic determinism. Kudos!

However, in the first two chapters of the book, he lays out (in excruciatingly jargon laden and difficult to read prose) several other promises, which are either unelaborated and/or left unproven. I’ll zero in on one illustrative example, which he phrases as a sort of thesis for the whole book: Sartori claims to show that Bengali culturalism is rooted in a fundamental “misrecognition” of the structures of global capitalist society.

This perplexes me, as the main thrust of his work seems to imply the opposite. He broadly argues that culturalism was in essence, a rational permutation of Bengali liberalism, in response to the altered conditions of capitalism in Bengal after the collapse of the native bourgeois class. How could such a natural ideological evolution rest on fundamentally misrecognizing the surrounding economic structures? The following is his basic narrative, with my own interpretive spin put on it of course:

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