In 1765 the East India Company took
possession of Bengal, Bihar and parts of Orissa from Shah Alam,
the Mughal Emperor. As a result, Bengal and its surrounding lands
became the first regions in India to experience the direct impact
of British rule and the beginnings of modernization. For the
remainder of the eighteenth century and throughout the early
decades of the nineteenth century, the British laid the foundations
for civil administration. They established communication and
transportation systems, a modern bureaucracy, an army and police.
They further instituted law courts, and opened schools and colleges.
The nineteenth century became the high point of British-Indian
interaction, particularly within Bengal. Historians refer to
this era as the Bengal Renaissancea period of intense cultural
and technological advancement as well as a time of great social,
cultural, and political change.
The basis of the Bengal Renaissance was East-West contact. With the spread
of European colonial power around the world through the agency of the East
Indian Company and similar organizations, many regions of Asia, including
India, experienced tremendous upheaval to their traditional cultures. Bengal
was perhaps the first region in Asia to have its culture radically transformed
through this interaction with the West. In Bengal five important influences
led to the Bengal Renaissance: the rise of BritishBengali commerce,
the introduction of English education, British Orientalism, Christianity,
and perhaps most importantly how the Bengali intellectuals themselves responded
to these influences.
With the consolidation of political power in India came the rise of widespread
trade and the establishment of large centers of administration and business.
In particular, Calcutta became the focus of British administration, trade,
and commerce. In the process a class of Bengali elite developed that could
interact with the ruling British. This was the bhadraloka, a socially privileged
and consciously superior group, economically dependent on landed rents and
professional and clerical employment. During the second half of the eighteenth
century this elite group became permanent residents of Calcutta. Some rapidly
acquired fortunes by working as partners with the British. This group included
such individuals as Rammohun Roy, Radhakanta Deb, and Dwarkanath Tagore. Later,
in the early decades of the nineteenth century another generation of middle-income
Bengalis arrived, which included small landholders, government employees, members
of the professions, teachers, journalists and the like. This group included
such personalities as Keshab Chandra Sen (18381884), Bankim Chandra Chattopadyay
(18381884), Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda (18381914), Sisir Kumar
Ghosh and Michael Madhusudhan Dutt (18241873) to name just a few.
Perhaps the most prominent member of the early bhadraloka, at least on the
intellectual front, was Rammohun Roy (17721833). Rammohun Roy is often
credited with being one of the initiators of the Bengal Renaissance and the
father of modern India. While this may not be entirely accurate, it is a fact
that his personality and intellect were among the primary factors that influenced
the direction of Bengali thinking during the early nineteenth century.
When the British government proposed to establish education through the medium
of the regional languages including Bengali, Persian and Sanskrit, Rammohun
Roy vigorously protested, insisting that education should be in modern subjects
and through the medium of English. In this way the stage was set for the introduction
of European ideas to the bhadraloka through the medium of English education.
In 1817, personalities such as Dwarkanath Tagore, Prasanna Kumar Tagore, and
other members of the bhadraloka took a major step along the path of modernization
by establishing the first institution of Western education in Asia, Hindu College.
English was used as the prime medium of instruction. The teaching of Western
sciences, philosophy, English literature and grammar, and other Western subjects
was the hallmark of Hindu College.
Accompanying the establishment of Hindu College and English instruction was
the powerful influence of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (18081831), a young
professor at Hindu College. Under Derozios guidance the liberal writers
of England and America Francis Bacon, David Hume, and Thomas Paine were
introduced to the students of Hindu College, the more radical of whom became
known as Young Bengal. Derozio encouraged his students to judge the customs,
practices, and the rules of Hindu society according to the dictates of logic
and reason alone. As a result, the members of Young Bengal condemned Hindu
dietary laws, the authority of gurus and priests, caste divisions, womens
status, image worship, and other traditional Hindu practices. Above everything,
Derozio encouraged his students to think for themselves.
Many members of Young Bengal ultimately grew to have a major influence on Bengali
society. As the number of English language institutions grew, so did the number
of English-educated bhadraloka. Gradually they became a strong and distinct
class within Bengali society.
In this way, no other institution even came close to the influence that Hindu
College exerted in bringing about the awakening of Bengal to Western thought
in the early nineteenth century. Through the efforts of Hindu College more
than a thousand young men received education in English before the Government
officially introduced its own program of English education in 1835. The influence
of these early members of the bhadraloka was indeed behind many of the great
changes in religious, literary, political, and intellectual life in Bengal
during the early nineteenth century.
British Orientalism was another important of factor that worked to shape the
Bengal Renaissance during the nineteenth century, especially on religio-cultural
matters. As much as English language education brought the ideas of the West
to India, so did the era of Orientalism facilitate the transmission of new
cultural attitudes to the bhadraloka. British Orientalism was a unique phenomenon
in British Indian history that was inspired by the needs of the East India
Company to train a class of British administrators in the languages and culture
of India. In essence, the idea that traditional oriental learning could be
combined with the rationalism of the West was the inspiration of British Orientalism.
Intellectually it was one of the most powerful ideas of nineteenth century
Through the researches of the Orientalists it became known that Sanskrit formed
the basis of many European languages including Greek and Latin. It also became
evident the ancient India had a vast tradition of linguistics, mathematics,
astronomy, medicine and architecture. That the Mauryas ruled a vast empire
and that classical civilization reached its peak under the Guptas, were also
significant discoveries of Oriental scholarship.
The fruits of British Orientalism although intended to serve the needs of company
servants and European academics had a profound impact on the bhadraloka. For
the first time the bhadraloka gained a systematic overview of its Sanskritic
Hindu culture, making them keenly aware of the accomplishments of their cultural
In direct contrast to British Orientalism came the introduction of Christianity
into Bengal. In 1813 the Charter Act opened the doors to Christian Evangelicals
who quickly established themselves throughout Bengal and many other parts of
India. They viewed Hindu culture as backward and profane. To them the strength
of European culture was its Christian foundations. Their goal, therefore, was
to obliterate as much of Hindu religion as possible and to replace it with
Christian values, English education, and Western ideas. They attacked the very
foundations of Hindu religious culture. Thus British Orientalism lit the fires
of Hindu pride, while the attacks of the missionaries created a powerful impetus
to reformulate and understand past Hindu religious traditions in the light
During those times Hindu religious life became vibrant and underwent great
change. The impressive durability of Hinduism as a religion and a way of life
remained unquestionable. But the educated Bengali elite felt the need of modernizing
Hinduism. They wanted to clip off the superfluities and the superstitions for
their own benefit. As a result, personalities such as Sisir Kumar Ghosh, Bhudev
Mukhopadhyay, and Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda attempted to redefine and defend
Hindu ideas in modern terms. Many of the bhadraloka wrote in a way that was
patterned after the ideals of British Orientalism.
In the literary realm Bengali literature and drama took on a new vibrancy during
this period. Writers such as Michael Madhusudhan Datta and Bhakim Chandra Chattopadhyay
experimented with new literary forms. The Bengali novel patterned after English
literature developed under the powerful pen of Bhakim Chandra and Kedarnath
Datta. Bengali verse attained new heights under the inspiration of Michael
Madhusudhan Datta. Bengali drama found new life through the works of Girish
Chandra Ghosh (18441912). It is significant that traditional religious
motives such as the Radha-Krishna stories continued to be used in spite of
intense European influence.
In the political field a huge number of debating societies and newspapers appeared.
Personalities such as Kashi Prasad Ghosh (18091873), Kristo Pal and Sisir
Kumar Ghosh openly voiced their political opinions and would not hesitate to
use their newspapers to achieve political ends, often in direct defiance to
British rule. Ultimately the roots of Indian independence can be traced back
to the Bengal Renaissance.
During this period it is a tribute to Bengals intellectual elite that
they were keen enough to distinguish between the mere imitation of a foreign
culture and the changes that they themselves desired to make. In other words,
the bhadraloka had no desire to model their society as a copy of British or
European society. Instead they wanted to build a distinctively Bengali society
more in step with the prevailing trends of modernity and they did so in all
areas of their religious, cultural and social life.
Copyright © 2002 Sanskrit
Religions Institute. All Rights Reserved.
Kopf, David. (1969). British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance. Calcutta:
Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay.
Majumdar, R. C. (1978). History of Modern Bengal, 1765 to 1905. Calcutta: G.
Bharadwaj and Company.
Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda
The Bengal Renaissance
Michael Madhusudan Datta
Encounter with Modernity
An in-depth look at Kedarnath Datta's life and theology.
must have the
Acrobat Reader to download and read pdf files.
Datta's Family History
One of Kedarnath Datta's Autobiography
Bhagavata: Its Philosophy, Ethics and Theology
This is the text of the
famous Dinajpur speech given by Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda
in 1868. It is one of the few extant samples of English writing
that came from the pen of Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda.
An article written by Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda about the Vaishnava initiation