Book review: Dharmatattva

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ISBN-10 0195656113  ISBN-13978-0195656114  Publisher Oxford University Press Publication date April 3, 2003 Language English

by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay

By Habib Siddiqui     14 June 2023

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (also spelled Chatterjee) (1838-1894) is an Indian author who is credited for establishing prose as a literary vehicle for the Bengali language. He was a member of an orthodox Brahmin family and was educated at Hooghly College, at Presidency College, Calcutta, and at the University of Calcutta, of which he was one of the first graduates. From 1858, until his retirement in 1891, he served as a deputy magistrate in the Indian civil service.

His novels are considered exciting to read but structurally faulty. His achievements, however, outweigh these technical imperfections. His first notable Bengali work was the novel Durgeshnandini (lit. Daughter of the Fort). It was written in 1865, which critics say was modelled somewhat after Scottish historian, novelist, and playwright Sir Walter Scott’s 3-volume historical novel Ivanhoe, written in 1819. Admirers have mistakenly claimed that with this work of Bankim the Bengali novel was fully born. [The fact is: the first Bengali novel was Karuna O Phulmonir Bibaran (lit. Description of Phulmani and Karuna), written in 1852 by an English woman, a Christian missionary, by the name of Hannah Catherine Mullens. She wrote the book for converted Christian women as a handbook to lead a good Christian life in India.]

Concerned and worried that he was and many others of the Arya Samaj in the 19th century, with the British Raj in power in India, and the proselytizing power of the Abrahamic faiths to convert caste-ridden Hindus to monotheistic religions, esp. to Islam, Bankim used his writings, government position, and literary talents to promote hatred against the ‘others’ who were non-Hindus, esp. Muslims. More problematically, he weaponized religion and abused history to divide the fragile Indian society as never before.

To his contemporary Hindus, however, Bankim’s voice was that of a visionary; his valiant Hindu heroes aroused their patriotism and pride of race. In him, nationalism and Hinduism merged as one; and his creed was epitomized in the song “Bande (also spelled Vande) Mataram” (“Hail to thee, Mother”)—from his novel Anandamah—which later became the mantra (“hymn”) and slogan of Hindu India in its struggle for independence and a rallying war cry to terrorizing people of minority religions. It is important to note that this hymn, composed originally in 1857, is daily sung in its entirety in all the shakhas (branches) of the Hindu supremacist RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) of which the ruling BJP is a member organization. Any change in the abbreviation is forbidden since the song symbolizes pre-partition, undivided India or Akhand Bharat. As soon as the BJP came to power in India, it made the song compulsory in all state-run schools.

In his 1882 novel Anandamath (lit. Abbey of Bliss), written in highly sanskritized Bengali, Bankim infused “mother cult” (personifying Bengal as a mother goddess) and as an opportunistic British civil servant with Christian superiors, portrayed the only other outsiders, Muslim rulers, as enemies. In so doing, he spread lies, venom and bigotry against the Nyarhe (or circumcised) and Jobon (a derogatory term) Muslims. (For a more thorough analysis, see this author’s book: Bangladesh: a polarized or divided nation?) Sadly, other bigoted Hindus would later copy his chauvinistic lead to polarize not only the Bengali society but also entire India.

Not surprisingly, Bankim is regarded by most Hindutvadis as the grandpa of Hindutva, the toxic ideology of Hindu supremacism that is espoused by the ruling BJP and the Sangh Parivar in India today. As I have also noted in my forthcoming book on India, the very word Hindutva, the concept of Bharat Mata and the Bande Mataram slogan were all products of Bengal in which Bankim’s influence can be traced back.

As rightly noted by Ahmed Sofa (1943-2001), a legendary public intellectual in Bangladesh, none influenced Bengal’s society and politics as much as Bankim did, and the influence of Ananda Math in Bengal’s socio-political life is comparable only to that of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract in France. In Shotoborsher Ferari Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Sofa stressed that it was Bankim’s thoughts on nation building that earned him a distinct place. Sofa wrote, ‘He was the first to dream of establishing a Hindu Rashtra’, and added, ‘If a single person is to be blamed for the Partition of Bengal, it is Bankim Chandra’.

It is worth quoting here Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of nation of Pakistan. Jinnah in a speech made on April 23, 1943, said: “I think you will bear me out that when we passed the 1940 Lahore Resolution, we had not used the word ‘Pakistan.’ Who gave us this word? The Hindus fathered this word on us …” Truly, it won’t be an exaggeration to state that Pakistan could not have come about as a separate state in 1947 if it had not been for the hatred Bankim and his Hindu supremacists spread against the Muslim population! Many of the pogroms faced by Muslims and Christians in the BJP-run India owe such to the trends that he had set in motion.

Although the work – Dharmatattva – first appeared in 1888 as a series of separate articles in Bengali periodical, published from Kolkata, it traces both the development of Bankim’s Hindu-centric ideas and the impact of Western thought on Hindu religion and philosophy in the 19th century. This work is set out in the form of a question-and-answer dialogue between a guru or teacher and his student. The ideal of the human being, according to the teacher, is humanism, which is filled with universal love and stands in the greatest possible closeness to God. Interestingly, as his literary works would reveal, instead of spreading universal love, understanding of and tolerance for each other, as required for breeding true humanism, Bankim is guilty of not only adding fuel to the fire but also kindling the fire of xenophobia, hatred and intolerance against Muslims and non-Hindus. He proved to be a chauvinist and not a compassionate soul who understood the true meanings of humanism. Truly, Bankim’s literary talent paved the path to lay the very foundation of the monstrous organizations like the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS (and by affiliation, today’s ruling BJP of India) that killed M.K. Gandhi.

There is an old proverb: when a bird looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. Bankim Chatterjee was a bigot who epitomized bigotry and intolerance. He was an evil genius.

I don’t recommend his work, including this one, to anyone; for surely, his work is no better than Mein Kampf of Hitler. Our world needs less and not more of those monsters whose poisonous works, writings and hymns continue to provide the oxygen to murderous Hindu supremacists to marginalize, kill and destroy others for their ‘otherness’.