Monday, October 1, 2007

Attainment of full humanity through the cultivation and harmonious development of physical and mental faculties

Bankimchandra: Development of Nationalism and Indian Identity
Dr. Anil Baran Ray
Bankimchandra knew that Europe was essentially political in character while India was intrinsically religious in nature and that the best and most efficacious way to move India and Indians was to appeal to the religious nature and sentiment of Indians. From this general truth Bankimchandra came to the conclusion that the most efficient way to instill in Indians a sense of nationalism was to mix it with religion, not as it was popularly understood, but as it could be. In order to appreciate how exactly he used religion to serve his purpose of rousing nationalism among Indians, it will be in order to explain first what he meant by religion by referring to the new interpretation that he gave it.
Bankimchandra took Auguste Comte’s prescription, as offered in the latter’s philosophy of positivism, that the ‘human deity’ be worshipped, but did not take Comte’s reasons for such prescription. Comte argued that since God could not be seen but only imagined and that since He was extra-cosmic and superior to humanity, man should devote himself rather to the worship of concrete humanity than an abstract God. Unlike Comte, Bankimchandra did not want to make a distinction between abstract God and concrete humanity. He wished to combine the abstract and the concrete by observing that God was the inmost essence of all human beings and that ‘worship’ of the one was worship of the other as well.
Having made God and humanity one, Bankimchandra next observed that the dharma of man lay in his attainment of full humanity through the cultivation and harmonious development (anushilan, as he termed it) of all his physical and mental faculties as also through the performance of dutiful actions in the selfless spirit of Krishna, who, in Bankimchandra’s opinion, represented the best example of full humanity in respect of both being and doing. Bankimchandra then went on to assert that man attained his full ‘maturity’ when, having developed himself after the anushilan dharma, he directed his devotion to God. God was in all beings. Therefore, devotion to God meant progressively extending one’s love for oneself and one’s family to one’s community to one’s country and finally to whole of humanity or the entire human race. Love for the whole humanity, however, was an ideal very difficult to realize in actual practice and so Bankimchandra advised his countrymen to take love for one’s country as the highest religion. As he put it, ‘Considering the condition of mankind, love of one’s own country should be called the highest dharma’ (199).
Religion of the Motherland
Bankimchandra had a purpose behind his preaching that love for the country or patriotism constituted the highest religion. But for such a theory, he could not inspire his countrymen to achieve that identification between the individual and his country which constituted the first essential element of nationalism. The religious theory of patriotism found its fullest bearing in another new coinage offered by Bankimchandra to this effect: that the motherland was every Indian’s mother herself, that she was a goddess to be worshipped, and that in such worship of the goddess or deity of Mother India lay the highest religion of the people of India. In putting forth his observation that the motherland that was India was every Indian’s mother and goddess as well, Bankimchandra asserted that such a goddess should be viewed as the combination of the three goddesses Durga, Laksh­mi and Saraswati, with Durga symbolizing national valour and conquest of evil, Lakshmi symbolizing plentifulness of national wealth and prosperity, and Saraswati symbolizing the abundance of the nation’s learning, know­ledge and wisdom. Such an imagery found its most beautiful illustration in the song ‘Bande Mataram’ (Hail Motherland), which Bankimchandra composed in 1875 (3) and later incorporated in his novel Ananda Math (The Abbey of Bliss), first published in 1882.

‘Bande Mataram’ presents the core of Bankimchandra’s thoughts on nationalism on three counts:
1) It exhorts the Mother’s children - the people of the country - to think only of their motherland as their mother;
2) It exhorts them to view their ‘motherland-Mother’ as their be-all and end-all:
Thou art knowledge, thou art conduct,thou art heart, thou art soul,for thou art the life in our body.In the arm thou art might, O Mother,in the heart, O Mother, thou art love and faith,it is thy image we raise in every temple. (4)
3) Since the Mother represented the essence of the beings of her children, it was the sacred duty of all her children to give themselves up to the service of the Mother, to dedicate themselves to the Mother and sacrifice their all for the Mother. All in all, Bankim was making the point that the national self being the same as the divine Self, it was prior to the individual self and that it is only by raising his self to the level of the national and divine Self that the individual could realize his best self - his purna manushyatva (full humanity). We have already said that Bankimchandra identified the attainment of purna manushyatva as the goal of religion. Now, in bringing about a synthesis of the individual self and the national self through the concept of the ‘motherland-Mother’, Bankimchandra brought his philosophies of religion and nationalism to converge at a single point.

This point needs some elaboration. Bankimchandra’s purpose in initiating his countrymen with the mantra of bande mataram, in presenting before them the vision of the motherland as maternal and divine power, and in asking them to worship such a Mother with their lifeblood and with all that they could offer to her in worship was to tie his countrymen up with the same thread of nationality and give them thereby a sense of unity around a common concept. Bankimchandra was keenly aware of the fact that India was a diverse land and that his countrymen suffered from differences and conflicts issuing from the multiplicity of castes, communities, languages and religions. In order to find unity in the midst of such diversity, Bankimchandra gave his countrymen a mantra, to overcome thereby their differences and find in the same motherland-Mother the identification of their interests. After all, a mother could not but be well-meaning to her children and the children therefore must find their highest fulfilment in love for the motherland-Mother. Bankimchandra’s purpose was to inspire and teach his countrymen. It was his way of asking them to overcome their differences, find their commonness in the Mother and be a nation.

Commenting on the uniqueness of Bankimchandra’s teaching on this aspect of religion-based patriotic nationalism, Sri Aurobindo observes:

The new intellectual idea of the motherland is not in itself a great driving force; the mere recognition of the desirability of freedom is not an inspiring force. … It is not till the motherland reveals herself to the eye of the mind as something more than a stretch of earth or a mass of individuals, it is not till she takes shape as a great divine and Maternal Power in a form of beauty that can dominate the mind and seize the heart that these petty fears and hopes vanish in the all-absorbing passion for mother and her service, and patriotism that works miracles and saves doomed nations is born. To some men it is given to have that vision and reveal it to others.(5)...
Sri Aurobindo’s Bhavani Mandir was clearly a product of the inspiration he received from Bankimchandra’s Ananda Math. And that Bankimchandra inspired many revolutionaries of India to embrace the gallows with ‘Bande Mataram’ on their lips is a well-documented fact of history. Many have spoken against his theory of religious nationalism and criticized him for his failure to maintain the distinction between religion and politics, without realizing that, to him, the whole of life was religion and as per such a perception and philosophy of life, man’s spiritual and temporal lives were incapable of being distinguished. As Bankimchandra himself observed, ‘They form one compact whole, to separate which into component parts is to rend the entire fabric.’ (21)

Bankimchandra’s problem, however, was that at times he was a little too aggressive in his pronouncements on nationalism and that some of the characters in his novels occasionally made observations on other communities that were not in the best interests of communal harmony.

Indeed, Bankimchandra has been charged with communalism and Muslim-baiting by some critics. Bankimchandra’s defence is that his views on the issue should not be derived from his novels. Novels depict fictional situations and characters and are not necessarily representative of an author’s views on a particular subject. His essays, asserts Bankimchandra, are more representative of his views in this regard. ‘India could not develop truly as a nation so long as there was not equal and simultaneous improvement in the conditions of Hashim Sheikhs and Rama Kaibartas of the country,’ observes Bankim­chandra in an essay. (22) Only a man passionately committed to nationalism and an Indian identity, as distinguished from communal identity, could make such an observation.

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