Bengal in Global Concept History: Book Response

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(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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Book Review (sort of): Poems from the Sanskrit

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Cover art from the Ellora Caves Image source: Buddhism for Vampires

“If learned critics publicly deride

My verse, well, let them. Not for them I wrought.

One day a man shall live to share my thought:

For time is endless and the world is wide”

Bhavabhuti (p.53)

I try not to saturate this blog with book reviews, but I have a justification in this case. This review contains a slew of poems excerpted from the book, which are worth far more than my review, and my numerous tangents. Hit “Continue Reading” and scroll down if you just want to check those out.

John Brough’s Poems from the Sanskrit[1], despite its confusing title, (what is the Sanskrit?) is actually a very charming anthology of translated Sanskrit poems, ranging from roughly the 4th through 10th centuries.

The translator’s stated purpose for compiling this volume is as follows: Normally Sanskrit translators, focus on conveying meaning at the expense of poetic or prosaic style. But since Sanskrit and English grammars differ considerably, meaning focused translations often come across as stilted or sometimes even unreadable. Sanskrit Poetry compounds this problem, because so much literary value is vested in the poetic structure itself (for example: The number, repetition, and weight of syllables.) This is a translation, which attempts to give equal weight to content and form.

Translating a Sanskrit poem into rhyming verse while keeping the original meaning intact is an impossible task. Perhaps a more accurate description of the book is: an anthology of English poems by John Brough, based closely on Sanskrit classics. The purist in me recoils at this prospect, but if you read the poems without wringing your hands over the potential “butchery” of the originals which preceded them, they are actually quite lovely  on their own merits. And based on the samples and explanation of his technique as delineated in the introduction, I have faith that he has amply conveyed at least the basic sense of each work.

I’ll jump right into the verses and save my criticisms for the end:

I noticed some recurring patterns:

Anti-Clericalism: There are a surprising amount of poems in here, which are highly critical of priests, focusing on their hypocrisy foolishness, or exploitation. These are mostly secular poems, but it still surprises me. One has to wonder: Were they talking about priests generally or about “the bad ones” i.e. the heterodox ones?

“‘So, friar, I see you have a taste for meat.’

‘Not that it’s any good without some wine.’

‘You like wine too, then?’ ‘Better when I dine

With pretty harlots.’ ‘Surely such girls eat

No end of money?’ ‘Well, I steal, you see,

Or win at dice.’ ‘A thief and gambler too?’

‘Why, certainly. What else is there to do?

Aren’t you aware I’m vowed to poverty?'”

Sudraka (p.79)

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According to Doniger’s theory (described later), this is a “friar” similar to the one who is under critique in the above poem. He is an Aghori, a sect which split off from the Kapalika. The Kapalika would have been contemporaneous to Sudraka. Image source: Flickr

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King Akbar’s Mahabharata, or the Razmnama (Book of Wars)

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The battle of Duryodhana and Bhima (among others.) From the 1616-1617 edition of the Razmnama. By Kamal.
Image source: Simon Ray


When I was little I used to come across prints (much less elaborate than the above) in my house of scenes from the Mahabharata—with (what I assumed to be) Urdu writing on them! It confused me. I looked it up. Turns out, the Mughal king Akbar had a copy of the Mahabharata translated into Persian. Mystery solved. I put it to the back of my mind until recently when, while trying to plug gaps in my knowledge base I found out that there is actually a pretty interesting cast of characters behind this translation. An impassioned, suicidal artist, and his apollonian counterpart! An Islamic fundamentalist tasked with translating infidel texts! A king motivated by both religious toleration, and the maintenance of his regime’s legitimacy! Plus, it’s a good focal point around which to examine Indian art history which gives me the opportunity to post pretty pictures. Swiftly onwards–

Akbar’s Translation movement:

Akbar has a well-earned reputation as the most tolerant and humane of the Mughal kings. His formal policies towards non-muslims displayed liberality, and the composition of his court bespeaks of inclusivity. The range of art and music he chose to patronize also knew no religious bounds.[1] He even founded “Din-e-Ilahi,” a new syncretistic religion that earned the scorn of the orthodox Muslim intelligentsia.

Given these tolerant and syncretistic tendencies, it is no surprise that Akbar was interested in gaining access to the literature of the non-Persian speaking world. During his reign Akbar’s scholars translated works from Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic, Greek, and Latin into Persian, and also did substantial translation work from Persian into Hindi. Though the Mahabharata was the center of his project, Akbar also had the Ramayana, the Artha Veda, the Lilavati (a treatise on mathematics), and other Sanskrit texts translated into Persian.[2] [3]

Court historian Mulla Daud writes that Akbar “ordered, that the rational contents of different religions and faiths should be translated in the language of each, and that the rose garden of the traditional aspects of each religion should, as far as possible, be cleared of the thorns of bigotry.” Akbar’s reputation for tolerance has helped this explanation for the translation movement stick.[4] However, one should treat anything explanation given by court historians as suspicious. The Razmnama’s text has an array of strangely translated passages, additions, or omissions which justify this suspicion. While I’m sure that Akbar was genuinely interested in reading Hindu texts and spreading knowledge of them amongst his nobility, I also think that the translation project had distinctly fetishistic and propagandistic elements to it.

But First—

The Translation Process:

Ok, here’s the basic process. First, Sanskrit literate Brahmans (many of whom were converts to Islam) translated a common North Indian variant of the Mahabharata from Sanskrit into Hindi both in text, and verbally. Then the Hindi text was translated into Persian by a staff of Muslim, Persian speaking scholars. [5] Then that raw translation was converted into poetic verse by the project’s head, a scholar named Abu al-Fazl. [6] So obviously “translation” is a very loose term. It’s really more of a retelling.

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A folio from a 1616 copy of the Razmnama in which: “Asvatthama Fires the Narayana Weapon (Cosmic Fire) at the Pandavas.” You’ll notice I have so far posted no images from the 1587 manuscript which is under discussion here. That is because it sits in the City Palace Museum in Jaipur off limits to all historians. So thanks for nothing City Palace Museum in Jaipur.
Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

(If on the main page, hit “Continue Reading” for more [theres pretty pictures ahead {do it}])

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Book Review: Chalo Delhi: Writings and Speeches 1943-1945 By Subhash Chandra Bose

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You have to be a huge Indian history nerd to enjoy this book. It is a waterfall of primary documents, mainly speeches by or about Subhash Chandra Bose. Its not light reading, and its probably not interesting to you if you aren’t fascinated by it’s highly focused subject matter. Even I had to remember that it is a collection of primary sources so it will get repetitive and boring at times. The pacing goes at life speed, not at the speed of a well-written novel.

Now for some interesting themes I picked up: Bose’s mission required the mobilization of Indians who lived outside of India, namely those living in East Asia. Those living abroad seemed more amenable to Bose’s brand of militant nationalism than those at home. His mission reminded me strongly of the Ghadar movement, and various modern Hindu, Sikh, and Tamil Nationalist organizations which had/have their bases of support located outside of India. Why is it that non-resident South Asians seem consistently more nationalist and militant than those living in India? (Note: I think that Bose and the Ghadars show that the linked article provides an unsatisfactory answer to this question  since this is evidently a very old phenomenon, and therefore is not attributable to the post 1960s growing NRI middle class)

However, unlike the aforementioned communalist or regionalist movements, the Azad Hind government was strongly Pan-South-Asian (Pan-Bharatvarashi? Pan-Gurkani?) and emphatically inclusory. Bose was firmly in favor of a united India (including Lanka) and opposed to regionalism, classism, and caste. I seriously doubt he would have appreciated modern India’s federal structure which leaves states a degree of autonomy.

This inclusory spirit is evident in the composition of his organization. The majority of the soldiers in his army were Muslims, and the variant of Hindustani used by the organization was heavily slanted towards Urdu for their benefit  Tamils played a huge role in his organization as well due to their large numbers in Southeast Asia. Females were also included in combat roles (As a side note, the U.S. just got on board with this 4 days ago.) Sometimes Bose goes a bit overboard in the pursuit of unity. For example: at the time there was a conflict over the Hindustani language. Should the new government use Devanagari script, or Persian script? Or retain both and have the resultant communication problems and social fragmentation? Bose proposed solving this by ditching both Devanagari and Persian script in favor of Latin script, in a conscious imitation of Ataturk. This is why all Indian National Army documents were written using Latin characters.

His passion for a united India informed his stance on Jinnah and the Muslim League. Needless to say, he was virulently and morally opposed to the notion of Pakistan and seems to have disliked Jinnah as a person. This is exacerbated by what Bose identifies as Jinnah’s traitorous behavior at the Simla conference, wherein the Muslim League allegedly promised to support the British war effort in exchange for Pakistan.

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There were a few select essays, such as “Gandhiji’s Part in India’s Fight” which are great examples of Bose’s rhetorical abilities and skill in propagandizing. In that essay he repeatedly praises Gandhi’s character and dedication, referring to his many prior interactions with the man while never commenting on his diametrically opposed tactics. He thus associates himself with Gandhi’s personality cult while obfuscating Gandhi’s opposition to the Indian National Army’s violent strategy. Then in the last paragraph he throws in a direct Gandhi quote “If India has the sword today, she will draw the sword”, and asserts that Gandhi was only opposed to revolution in the past because the time wasn’t right. Now the time is right, so Gandhi supporters should listen to their hero and join the Indian National Army. Clever, no?

Another clever rhetorical tool, which I noticed, was his persistent use of vague religious language. He often refers to his revolution as a “holy war”, a vague enough term to fit into the paradigm of Islamic Jihad, Hindu Dharmayudha, or Sikh divine command to defend the innocent.

It is difficult to say how accurate his impressions of World War 2 were, given that these speeches were intended for a general audience and are thus necessarily propagandistic. Morale, to Bose was a more important military factor than technology or supplies. This is probably his most important misapprehension since it governed his military strategy. He continued to claim that Germany’s victory was obvious until the Red Army was almost in Berlin. The same claim was bade about the Japanese until late in the British-American re-conquest of Burma. However, his predictions about the post-war situation were pretty good. Bose understood that it would be an “American Century” and that the Soviets and the west would not remain allies for long. A notable error was his mistaken assumption that Britain would never “voluntarily” India after the war. Perhaps it is unfair to call that a “mistake” though, because Bose’s own actions led to the British losing faith in their Indian troops, a contributing factor to their peaceful withdrawl from the subcontinent.

One can imagine that if Hitler died prior to World War 2, or if Stalin had died while fighting the Nazis their modern reputations would have been greatly improved. In that sense, it is wonderful for Bose that he died before ever achieving a position of power. Those who admire Bose (and I am one of them) might want to acknowledge is that he was basically a Fascist. He repeatedly speaks glowingly National Socialism, Italian Fascism, Communism and the Japanese imperial state. He clearly indicates that he has no problem with dictatorship, and that India’s government should not be a democracy, but would rather be a state blending the positives of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. If Japan had won the war and Bose’s army had actually made it to Delhi, India would probably have been a Fascist dictatorship with Neetaji as the head autocrat. Judging by his harsh actions when his army faced the stressors of defeat and retreat, political freedom would not exist and political purges would have been the norm. Based on his economic theories, starvation would have been widespread as the result of central agricultural planning. For the sake of his legacy, Bose is lucky he died early.

I picked this up in Calcutta for 500 rupees  but its a lot more expensive to buy in the west. Anyway, if this review interested you then you are probably this book’s target audience.