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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The Modern Renunciate in Guru Dutt’s “Pyaasa” (Thirsty)

“Birth is misery, old age is misery, and so are disease and death, and indeed, nothing but misery is Samsâra, in which men suffer distress.” -Mahavira, Uttarâdhyayana Sûtra, Lecture 19, Verse 15.



Pyaasa movie poster depicting Vijay (Guru Dutt), and Gulabo (Waheeda Rahman) in the center, with Meena (Mala Sinha) looking on unhappily from the corner. This poster kind of gives away the resolution of the love triangle.
Image source: A Tangle of Wires

The full movie is available on Youtube. Click the “CC” button to access english subtitles.

This is probably the most beautiful, poetic Bollywood film I’ve seen to date. For what it’s worth, Time Magazine agrees that its one of the best in cinema history. You really should watch it for yourself, but not everyone has a 2 hour commitment. So just read the post instead. You’ll feel like you saw it. A small amount of summarization will be necessary here, but go to Wikipedia for an actual summary.

If you are just interested in the songs, they’ll be collected at the bottom of the article with the relevant Youtube links. (you might have to hit “Continue reading” if coming from the main page.)

something stirred 0 14 20

Waheeda Rahman being seductive in the song “Jaane Kya Tune Kahi.” 0:14:20

The Saraswati River Runs Dry: The film starts out in a metaphorical Garden of Eden, (or should I say the Saraswati valley?) Vijay is peacefully lying down next to a river in a garden, and celebrating the beauty of nature in song. Within the first minute, the dreamy mood is broken by an anonymous leather shoe, which crushes a bumblebee before Vijay’s eyes and shatters the serenity of the moment. As he exits the park, Vijay ends the song by rhetorically asking: “What little have I to add to this splendor, save a few tears, a few sighs?”

The Eden analogy is apt because never again (on the story’s timeline) does Vijay sing a happy word of poetry. From here on, the story inhabits the corrupt material realm of fallen man.

Socialist Pipe Dreams:

“We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell. The appointed day has come – the day appointed by destiny – and India stands forth again, after long slumber and struggle, awake, vital, free and independent.”  –Jawaharlal Nehru in the speech “A Tryst with Destiny,” August 14 1947

Impressive words right? Nehru didn’t invent this ideology. He just voiced the common sentiment that independence would harken a glorious new era for India, in which political and social structures would be overhauled for the better. Here is another such quote by a prominent independence leader you might have heard of:

“In the democracy which I have envisaged, a democracy established by non-violence, there will be equal freedom for all. Everybody will be his own master. It is to join a struggle for such democracy that I invite you today. Once you realize this you will forget the differences between the Hindus and Muslims, and think of yourselves as Indians only, engaged in the common struggle for independence.” -Mahatma Gandhi from “Quit India speech”, August 8, 1942

The fantasy of being on the cusp of a socialist golden age was integral to Congress’ nationalist ideology. When the heralded changes never materialized, disenchantment, despair, and even disgust at the state of Indian society percolated through the national zeitgeist.

Instead of this idealized future, Vijay finds a society in which one’s humanity is only worth what it can fetch on the market. A society permeated by hypocrisy and cruelty,  These characteristics are not unique to India, but given the high hopes engendered by the independence movement it is easy to see why some Indians reacted with such despair in the 1950s. Nehruvian socialism failed in its promises, and left India to bear the unmitigated social and economic realities of developing world capitalism. I would argue to the contrary that it intensified the harshness of those realities, but that is a topic fit for another post.


Actor and Director of the film, Guru Dutt looking angsty.
Despite the watermark, Image source: Bollywood Updates

Vijay the Marxist: More than anything else, the film’s social critique centers around the dehumanizing conditions of Indian “capitalism.” I refer to “capitalism” in quotations here, because India by no means had capitalism, as defenders of the free market would define it. Nehruvian socialism was quite distant from laissez-faire. The definition used here is the Marxist one: an economic system in which the means of production is owned privately rather than collectively, In the Marxist paradigm, capitalism leads to things like commodification, commodity fetishism, and the alienation of workers from their labor (and therefore from their humanity.)

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Bengali Feminist Sci-Fi: “Sultana’s Dream” by Roquia Hussain

Read the story here! If you find the writing style basic, keep in mind, English was her fifth language. Its an early work of both feminist literature, and science fiction. I think you’ll dig it.

sul·tan·a [suhl-tan-uh, –tah-nuh] (noun)

1: : a woman who is a member of a sultan’s family; especially: a sultan’s wife

2: a mistress or concubine of a sultan

3: A female sultan *


The Zenana Deodi in the middle of Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, Rajastan. This is from a royal palace, probably a tad fancier than the one Hussein grew up in.

A note on Purdah: This is a customary practice wherein the sexes are segregated, and the movement of females is restricted to the zenana (women’s quarters) with varying levels of severity. It also usually entails the requirement that females wear a veil, burka, or some sort of covering. This was much more common in the middle and upper class than amongst the poor populations. While it exists in both Hindu and Muslim communities, Muslim implementations are generally more severe, hence Roquia Hussain’s consciousness raising efforts.

Some Context: Muslim Reformers in the Bengal Renaissance: Calcutta 1900! A bustling early-capitalist metropolis with a sizable bourgeois and upper class– A set of intellectuals economically capable and philosophically inspired to paint, write, make scientific discoveries, and root out social evils. What a time it must have been to be alive!

Like many intellectual renaissances, the Bengal Renaissance (broadly defined: 1775-1941) entailed a simultaneous harkening back to ancient traditions for inspiration, and a striving for modernity and progress.** Hindu writers and thinkers revived and reinterpreted Vedic/Upanishadic philosophy to combat social ills like sati and the caste system. Likewise, The Muslim intelligentsia entered a period of self-criticism wherein writers looked back to their Islamic traditions for sources of inspiration, and reinterpreted their texts to liberalize Islam from the inside.

Muslim scholars like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, advocated a “continuous, unending process of ijtihad, interpretation according to the needs of the time” and wanted to overhaul the Madrassa system of education much like Hussain. The author Kazi Abdul Wadud honored the prophet Muhammed as “a great man,” and referred to him as “just like a light-house to the sea-voyagers” but denied that he was “omniscient” or an “all-pervading master.” Wazed Ali, another writer, observed “the arrival of a religious reformer is essential for the removal of filth from life. In Muslim society too, high-souled men appeared from time to time to remove filth and to make religion time-befitting.”[1] Do you see a pattern emerging?

Now examine some quotations from our author, Roquia Hussain:

“where there is much rigidity in religion, there is greater oppression of women”[2]

“[religious books are] nothing but man made code.” [3]

“Allah has made no distinction in the general life of male and female — both are equally bound to seek food, drink, sleep and pray five times a day.” [4]

“The opponents of female education say that women will become wanton and unruly. Fie! They call themselves Muslims and yet go against the basic tenet of Islam, which gives women an equal right to education. If men are not led astray once educated, why should women?”[5]   ***

A similar pattern emerges, no?


Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein

Well-intentioned scholars sometimes try to contextualize Roquia Hussain within the global or even western feminist movement.[6] I’ve seen her described as a “contemporary” of Mary Shelley, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Virginia Woolf. But in what sense are they really contemporaries? Hussain’s consciousness raising mission was extremely focused on her own social group. She wrote almost entirely in Bengali, and about issues, like purdah and zenana, which impacted the Bengali Muslim upper and middle classes. [7]  Her writing was not intended for, nor read by western audiences.

Hussain may have been more radical than most of her Bengali cohorts, but she was still firmly within their social and literary milieu. The pattern evident in her nonfiction writing is the same pattern we see in other Bengal Renaissance socio-religious reformers: Liberal reforms are advocated through appeals to religious tradition, while simultaneously jettisoning negative or outdated aspects of that same tradition. Hussein’s religion played a major role in her approach to feminism. Her opposition to purdah coexisted with her encouragement of wearing the veil.[8] She believed in universal education– so long as it was segregated by sex and included Arabic in the curriculum.[9] She believed in the earthly origins of scripture, and also in the God of the Qur’an. This is the tension, or confluence (depending on your perspective) at the heart the Bengal Renaissance.


Other cool Bengal Renaissance stuff:

Complete works of Rabindranath Tagore (Bengali) (English)

Paintings by Abanindranath Tagore 

“The Renaissance in India” a collection of essays by Sri Aurobindo (PDF direct download link)

The Torch Bearers of Indian Renissance,” a PDF detailing the scientific and mathematical minds of the Bengal Renissance


* This is an amalgam definition from,, and wiktionary. I include it because I think the name “Sultana” was intentionally chosen for it’s mixed connotations in regards to female power.

** Call me a colonial apologist but… I think its obvious that the British colonial presence in Calcutta (the capital of British India until 1911) had something to do with the Bengal renaissance, particularly in the contribution of what we conceive of as “modern” ideas. Calcutta received contact with the west earlier, and more strongly than the rest of India. British critiques of Indian culture, classical liberalism, the English language, British artistic and literary techniques, the presence of a colonial hegemon to inspire nationalist reactions– These are all indispensable parts of the Bengal Renaissance. This is not to credit the Bengal Renaissance to the British, but merely to observe that cultural diffusion and the importation of new ideas from abroad has a destabilizing, influence on existing cultural patterns.

*** In Sultana’s Dream when Sultana asks Sister Sara about religion, this is what occurs “What is your religion, may I ask?’

‘Our religion is based on Love and Truth. It is our religious duty to love one another and to be absolutely truthful.”

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