Reforms in India
I thankfully appreciate the kind words with which you have introduced me to this meeting. They embolden me, however unworthy I may feel I am of the position which I occupy tonight. It is interesting to observe the present religious and social condition of India. The eye and no less the heart, loves to expatriate on the solemn sublimity of the spectacle of an ancient nation advancing under the enlightening and civilizing influences of the present day. In that remote country and in the vast peninsula wee see the union of the East and the West – the union of the past and present. It is this which invests the subject with peculiar interest, and, I may add, renders it profitable and instructive to us all
In that great country, we find the results of an ancient civilization lying side by side with the achievements of modern thought and refinement. The mists of superstition and idolatry are vanishing before the light of modern science. We see schools and colleges multiplying throughout the length and breadth of the land. Idolatry and caste are being imperceptibly undermined by the effects of English education. The people are hankering after, and in many cases successfully achieving, a better and more improved social and domestic economy. Thus intellectually, morally and religiously, the country is making great strides, to say nothing of material improvement – for we see already, spread over the length and breadth of the country, a vast network of railways and telegraphs, and neglected wastes are being converted into smiling fields, and inter communication with distant races is being established.
But is not all this, one may ask, “the baseless fabric of a vision?” Is it not the false glitter, the temporary gloss of a mere outward and borrowed refinement? Is the work of reformation that is going on in India really abiding and permanent, or is it only the innovation of a moment? A few individuals may have received education; but may they not one day go back to the ancient system of things, forget the effects of education, and obliterate the influence of modern civilization? I would not for a moment rejoice in the work of Indian reformation were it but the importation of foreign customs and manners – if it were merely the outward and temporary gloss of borrowed civilization. It is certainly interesting to see a number of flower-pots, but the question is – are the beautiful flowers that we see, permanent – have the plants struck roots deep in the country’s soil? Is civilisation an indigenous growth in the country, or has it been forced upon the people of India?
Anything forced upon a nation, however good and grand it may be, does not and cannot last long. True reformation, in order to be lasting, must come from within. The English people are trying to carry into India the machinery of the present day with the view of more effectually and rapidly developing the physical resources of the country; and thus able and efficient teachers are going forward with a view to cultivating the intellectual and moral resources of the country. The results already achieved are indeed wonderful; but still the question stares us in the face, whether after all we have succeeded in planting in the country a radical and abiding civilization.
Many are apt to congratulate themselves on anything that is new and good; but we natives of the country, must look into the depths of the matter. We cannot congratulate ourselves upon those excellent things which float always on the surface of society. We must go down in order to see there are pearls below. It is true that to-day India sits in state of abject humiliation at the feet of modern nations and is content to receive lessons which she ought to receive, which she cannot reject for her own interest. But yesterday, what was she? Though in her infancy in relation to modern civilisation, she was in ancient times the parent of a more grand and sublime civilization. When your ancestors were enveloped in the darkness of ignorance and barbarism, my ancestors boasted of really grand civilization.
The ancient Hindus had a better literature, better scientific ideas, and better and purer social and domestic customs and manners. They had better education and enlightenment amongst themselves, at least amongst the higher classes. They had no idolatry – no idol worship – no caste distinctions to fetter them – no priest-craft to keep them down in a state of spiritual destitution and slavery. My countrymen in ancient times were famous for their philosophy and even theology. But today, India’s face is changed. She is not now what she was centuries ago. Superstitious and idolatrous notions crept in. It was found that the people could not be made to climb up to the true conceptions of a personal and spiritual God, and hence idol-worship was invented by crafty priests. Distinctions of caste were established. The liberty which was accorded to women were withdrawn under the rule of the Mahometans, so oppressive and tyrannical they were. And so in the course of time, under an ignorant and bigoted priesthood, and under Mahometan misrule and oppression, even the last vestiges of the ancient civilisation of India seemed well nigh obliterated. So today India is looking forward to you, and to all civilized nations in the world for help, in order that she may regain her former greatness.
In regard to India, therefore, you must not look only into her condition today, but travel back in imagination thousand of years, and see what she was in ancient times of primitive Hindu simplicity and purity. Even in the earliest books of the Hindus, the Vedas, which must be regarded as the earliest record of Aryan faith – even in them you find glimpses of high moral and religious truths which are unmistakable – not duly formed and organised religious thought, but the crude instincts and aspirations of the human mind in the state of religious infancy, seeking the Deity. “Who knows says the Rig Veda, “whence this manifold creation sprang? The gods themselves came later into being. Who knows from whence this great creation sprang? He from whom all this great creation came, whether His will created or was created, the Most High Seer that is in the highest heaven, He knows it or perchance He knows it not.”
It has been said that the Vedas teach nature-worship and polytheism; but it is clearly proved in many passages that the One True God was worshipped under many different names – under the names of the various deities presiding over the different departments of physical nature, but still the same God. This will be evident to you from such passages as these:- “They called Him Indra, Mitra, Varuna and Agni;” “That which is One the wise call by diverse names.” Later on we find crude instincts and institutions taking form, and assuming definite shape; and coming to the later books called the Vedanta, which contain simply the philosophy of the ancient Vedic Scriptures, we find the Hindu mind had already attained much clearer notions of the One Creator of the universe.
In the early theological state of Hinduism we see only vague ideas scattered about here and there; but in the later books of the Upanishads we find clearer notions and a more developed system of theology. I do not think there is anything in any other book which can be compared to this:- “Let us endeavour to know the Ruler of the universe, who is the God of gods, the Deity of deities, the Lord of lords – above all, who manifests Himself, and is worthy of his reverence.” Passages like these are clear and unmistakable proofs that the Hindus, at one time in the history of their religious development, did worship One True God of the universe, and not only theoretically but practically protested against and denounced all manner of idol-worship. If, therefore, you wish to accuse my countrymen of being idolatrous and superstitious, you should lay the charge at the doors of modern Hindus. So far as my ancestors are concerned, I may say the charge does not belong to them.
The ancient Hindus possessed a high standard of ethical rules, and always tried to carry out those principles into practice. Everybody knows that the Hindus are celebrated for their meekness, for their simplicity of character, their devotion to God, their resignation to His divine will, their deep faith in immortality, and constant endeavour to lay up provision for the future life. Everyone knows, whatever shortcomings the Hindus may have, he is ever endeavouring to serve God in a gentle, pious and devout spirit, and to perform the duties of social and domestic life according to His will. “Every householder must be devoted to his God. Whatever work he does, he must do unto the glory of God.” If you admit that there was pure religion and pure morality among the Hindus, you must also admit that the system of caste distinctions was not known to my ancestors. It is said, - “This is my friend, - that is not, - so counteth the man of narrow heart; but to men of large hearts all mankind are kinsmen.”
I hope I have conclusively shown there are truths, sublime and practical, in the Scriotures of the Hindus, which we cannot but revere. These constitute the precious legacy which our ancestors have bequeathed to us for our enjoyment and use, and he is a traitor to his country and to his noble ancestry, who being an Indian, would cast away such precepts – such noble and deep principles of morality and religion. Thus in the early books and institutions of the Hindus, there is a substratum for future reforms as strong and firm as a rock. We find unmistakably the principles of pure Theistic religion and morality; and the duty of all those who trying to enlighten, educate, and civilise that great country ought to be to establish modern civilization upon a firm and enduring national basis. The country will reject any other basis. Foreign customs a few of my countrymen may admire: a few addicted to apishness, may adopt them; but after a time, all that will be gone – it will be altogether effaced. But if you succeed in establishing the work of a reformation on the platform of national instincts and national ideas, and if you succeed in establishing all that is good and grand in England and Europe in the heart of India, then, I say, the work done will last for centuries. India will attain true greatness and civilization, if only the basis on which we build this vast fabric is national and firm. And such a great basis we have in the great ideas of the past…
(Source: The full speech was published under the title Reception in Edinburgh in The Brahmo Samaj: Keshub Chunder Sen in England by Brahmo Tract Society, 78 Upper Circular Road, Kolkata in 1915.)