Renaissance in India – A Fact or Misnomer

Renaissance in India

European Renaissance characterized by discovery and triumph of humanism and re-emergence of man to the center of history with sensitivity to his creative ability, reflected in his achievements in past was different from Modernity in India. Indian renaissance which had its origin not in indigenous intellectual and cultural churning but in the influences disseminated by colonial state and its agencies.

Clientele of this modernity were the newly emerging middle class linked with colonial administration and thus exposed to Western culture, which idealized west, adopted a Western-modern way of life and subjected tradition to critical inquiry and the relationship between traditional and “colonial-modern” was one of domination.

What emerged out of this dynamic were the socio-religious reforms (witnessed in 19th century India), which were an attempt to reconcile cultural world of the middle class with the demands of the new way of life. As a result, unlike in Europe, reformation took precedence over renaissance in India. Indian intelligentsia had to undergo a long period of incubation before it  could try to redefine renaissance by exploring it’s cultural and intellectual roots. Such an inquiry, however, got enmeshed in religion, leading to sectarian consciousness, which in turn undermined core value of renaissance – “religious universalism”.

What reformers such as Ram Mohan, Devendranath Tagore, Keshab Chandra Sen and Narayana Guru did to propagate monotheism and unity of godhead was indeed significant. But in a multi-religious society, invocation of Vedanta as source of inspiration adversely affected principle of universalism which all of them upheld. Imitation rather than ingenuity became dominant feature of modernity that renaissance sought to usher in.

The very term renaissance to describe what happened during colonial era is, therefore, a misnomer, not because it was far removed from European phenomenon but because most of its ideas were either borrowed from West or uncritically invoked from sectarian religious sources.

Almost all reformers referred to Vedas, Upanishads or Quran; but none of them invoked syncretism of Bhakti or Sufi movements. What Indian society witnessed was socio-religious reform, which was caught between tradition and colonial modernity, and thus could not fulfill its historic mission. The intelligentsia involved in this effort, ranging from Ram Mohan to Narayana Guru, valiantly struggled to realize their vision of a humane society but found them defeated by forces over which they had no control.

Their tragedy was that they either trusted the benevolence of colonialism, as Ram Mohan did, or overlooked it as in the case of Narayana Guru. Their inability to confront cultural ideological domination of colonialism made them increasingly irrelevant. As a consequence, when political struggles gained ground, movements for social reform were marginalized.

By 20th century, Brahmo Samaj and Prarthana Samaj increasingly lost their appeal, Arya Samaj ceased to be a social force, Satya Shodak Samaj could not sustain its radicalism, and Sree Narayana Movement had given up its concern for reform. The social space thus vacated by these movements have been colonized by conservative and obscurantist forces, giving way for the return of the socio-religious practices that reformation had tried to eliminate.

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