Deshbondhu Chittoronjon Dash (দেশবন্ধু চিত্তরঞ্জন দাশ)

 

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Portrait of Deshbondhu. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Recently I was reading over the “Presidential Address of Desabhandhu C. R. Das at the thirty-seventh session of the Indian National Congress held at Gaya on 26th December 1922” also known as “Freedom Through Disobedience.” I kept highlighting key passages for my own reference, but I thought that I’d post them up here for those interested in such things but who don’t have the time or desire to read the full 75 page speech. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes here come from that speech. But if you are interested in reading a lot, you could also check out this other collection of his speeches, “India for Indians” which fleshes out some of the details of Deshbondhu’s worldview which his Gaya speech leaves out. This will be somewhat relevant to the Ancient Constitution post I made earlier.
Deshbondhu (title meaning “friend of the nation”) seems like a much more lucid thinker than practically any other Indian independence leader who has risen to prominence in the historical memory of Indian independence in the west. In many ways he ends up approaching conclusions which in the west are associated with radical federalism, anarchism, classical liberalism, or proto-fascist conservatism. If this collection of ideas seems incongruous to you, you might want to check out this essay on anarchism and nationalism called Anarchist Integralism: Aesthetics, Politics and the Après-Garde which although hostile to integralism, shows how all these ideas are related to one another. Ultimately I think that Deshbondhu’s Swaraj ideology, like the preceding Swadeshi Ideology in its Bankinchandra through its Tagore forms, as well as Subhash Chandra Bose‘s unnamed ideology, and pretty much all forms of Bengali and Indian “culturalism” including Hindutva are all Indian manifestations of integralism. Deshbondhu’s iteration seems to be a more anarchic, libertarian, and internationalist iteration of Indian integralism than the average (though not as free spirited as Tagore).

Like Burke, and the liberals I mentioned in the Ancient Constitution post, Deshbondhu believed that rule of law had to be subservient to some other concept of law (shall we call it natural law?) in order to justify obedience:

Why are the Indian Criminal Law Amendment Act 1908 and the Prevention of Seditious Meetings Act 1911 to be retained on the Statute Book? For the preservation of law and order? They little think these learned gentlemen responsible for the report that these Statutes, giving as they do to the Executive wide, arbitrary and discretionary powers of constraint, constitute a state of things wherein it is the duty of every individual to resist and to defy the tyranny of such lawless laws. These Statutes in themselves constitute a breach of law and order, for, law and order is the result of the rule of law; and where you deny the existence of the rule of law, you cannot turn round and say it is your duty as law-abiding citizens to obey the law.

p. 14

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India’s Ancient Constitution, Part 1

Did India have an Ancient Constitution worth respecting, or not? Did the British uphold it, or destroy it? For a Libertarian or Burkean Conservative Hindu, these are important questions to consider dispassionately. The answer actually matters. If India had an Ancient Constitution which was destroyed when the British came, then much of India’s existing constitution, a combination of British laws and the arbitrarily imposed theories of Ambedkar, is an usurpation of the ancient rights and privileges primordial to the land and the race. The very basis of the Indian state is in question in this case. On the other hand, if India had no such Ancient Constitution, or if it was destroyed by the Mughals and restored by the British, then the period of British rule was a period of liberation from Oriental Despotism wherein India was Brought Into History as Hegel might have said. This is a somewhat false binary, but I present it anyway to show some of the dramatic potential conclusions we can come to.

Its also important to consider what such a concept as an Ancient Constitution really even means. Is it a principle of abstract justice which is universal? Or do different societies create internally valid social compacts which might differ from one another in legitimate ways? Or is this an incorrect way of framing the question?

I’m not really going to try to definitively settle the historical question in this post. I’m still doing research on the topic and will put out my full view on it later if I think I gain enough information to make such a judgement. I’ll instead just briefly discuss what the idea of an Ancient Constitution meant to a few thinkers in the context of India. I’ll look at Bose, Burke, Roy, and Naoroji.

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Portrait of Subhash Chandra Bose. Image source: quotesgram.com

Bose:

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The Anglo-Saxons Were Robbers and Pirates in Their Own Country

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Lysander Spooner. Image Source: Volokh

Wipe out, then, these feudal robbers – the whole race of kings, and queens, and nobles, and all their accomplices in every grade of life, and take possession of all the spoils which they and their predecessors have wrung from you and your ancestors. Put an end to their Parliaments and Courts. Blot out forever their statute books. They contain little or nothing else than the records of their villanies. Free England and Ireland, and thus all the rest of the empire, of the tyrants and robbers that are plundering, enslaving, and crushing, and starving you.

Sorry Anglo-Saxons, this post is not for you. It culminates in one of the most cutting anti-Anglo rants I’ve ever read. You can just skip to the last block quote if you are short on time. Its low effort on my behalf because I’m mostly just quoting Spooner, but its worth it. Lysander Spooner wrote this letter entitled Revolution: The Only Remedy for the Oppressed Classes of Ireland, England, and Other Parts of the British Empire. He is one of my favorite Anarchist writers and if you aren’t familiar with him already, well you should be.

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Company Painting

Here is an example of the style of painting which emerged in India under the British East India Company:

Great Indian Fruit Bat

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Date: ca. 1777–82
Geography: India, Calcutta
Culture: Colonial British
Medium: Pencil, ink, and opaque watercolor on paper
Dimensions: Mat size: Ht. 27 1/4 in. (69.2 cm)
W. 35 1/2 in. (90.2 cm)

“In 1777, Sir Elijah Impey, chief justice of Bengal between 1774 and 1782, and his wife, Lady Mary, hired local artists to record the specimens of Indian flora and fauna they collected at their estate in Calcutta. Over the next five years, at least 326 paintings of plants, animals, and birds were made for the Impeys. On most of these works, the name of one of three artists—Bhawani Das, Shaykh Zayn al-Din, or Ram Das—appears along with the Hindi name of the animal and the phrase, in English, “In the collection of Lady Impey at Calcutta.” Although this painting bears no such inscription, it is closely related to another painting of a bat by Bhawani Das, and it has always been associated with Impey patronage. One can imagine Bhawani Das and the anonymous artist of this painting working side by side, observing the animals, but whereas Bhawani Das’ painting depicts a tawny-colored female bat centered on the page with both wings outstretched, his fellow artist has created an asymmetrical composition in shades of gray and black of an emphatically male bat with one wing dramatically unfurled.” (Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Quite a looker isn’t he? I recently saw an interesting corner of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which I hadn’t seen before. It was a room labeled “Company Painting in Nineteenth-Century India.” For some reason I just hadn’t come across this room in prior wanderings. I decided to show you all some of the drawings and paintings I saw, with some historically related works interspersed for comparison.

The Company paintings are worthy of our notice because they reflect Indian aesthetic culture in this fascinating, relatively narrow slice of time between the Mughal state and the British state, when India was under Company rule. Mughal trained painters were able to modify their craft to suit British tastes, but this slight change  put them (generally speaking) out of the genre of imaginative, decorative court art and into the genre of scientific sketches, administrative records, or more rarely, a sort of elite tourist kitsch. The Indian artists in this collection have been forced by circumstance to depict less conventionally beautiful plants and animals, and in a more realistic style. The cultural change from luxuriant Mughal court system into the impersonal knowledge aggregating machine of the colonial period is reflected in painting. Its pretty cool.

They are also fascinating because it shows us a period in Indian history where British artists suddenly join Hindus, Muslims in a shared aesthetic genre depicting the Indic subject matter. Take a look at these scientific drawings of plants for example:

Ashoka Tree Flower, Leaves, Pod, and Seed

Date: first half 19th century
Geography: India, probably Calcutta
Culture: Colonial British
Medium: Opaque watercolor on paper
Dimensions: Page: H. 23 1/4 in. (59.1 cm) W. 17 5/8 in. (44.8 cm)
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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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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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