One of my colleagues gave me this article on Rammohun written by Sumit Sarkar – “Rammohan Roy and the Break with the Past”. My colleague told me that this a widely read article by students and teachers of history.
Sarkar needs no introduction, but reading it, I am disappointed because I find in it a prominent symptom of Post-Colonial scholarship – Source-Text Manipulation – a symptom of Kali Yuga scholarship.
Previously, while reading Narasingha Prosad Sil’s writings on Shri Ramakrishna, I became aware of this Strategy of historians and academicians –with the result that, nowadays, whenever I read an article or paper, by whoever he/she is – ‘great,’ ‘last word on so and so…’ etc. - my first work is to verify the citations with Source-Text.
Needless to say, my findings have confirmed me of this symptom. While such Text Manipulation betrays the learned scholars’ Agenda – and much more, I cannot but remember Vyasa and Marx, who had made us aware of this symptom.
Let me straight to the point, and place before readers to verify for themselves, by quoting what Sarkar quotes from Rammohun Roy’s Introduction to Kenopanishad (1923). In this quote, the BOLD UNDERLINED WORDS are what Sarkar omits; or rather hides with “dots” and the rest are what he quotes. I will come back to the context and implication of this hiding game later – first, here is the part of Source-Text (I suggest readers read the entire introduction):
“When we look to the traditions of ancient nations, we often find them at variance with each other; and when, discouraged by this circumstance, we appeal to reason as a surer guide, we soon find how incompetent it is, alone, to conduct us to the object of our pursuit. We often find that, instead of facilitating our endeavors or clearing up our perplexities, it only serves to generate a universal doubt, incompatible with principles on which our comfort and happiness mainly depend. The best method perhaps is, neither to give ourselves up exclusively to the guidance of the one or the other ; but by a proper use of the lights furnished by both, endeavor to improve our intellectual and moral faculties, relying on the goodness of the Almighty Power, which alone enables us to attain that which we earnestly and diligently seek for.”
Now, here is how Sarkar presents it with ‘dots’ and also omitting punctuation marks – the importance of which I will show as I discuss his article:
“When we look to the traditions of ancient nations, we often find them at variance with each other; and when … we appeal to reason as a surer guide, we soon find how incompetent it is, alone, to conduct us to the object of our pursuit … instead of facilitating our endeavours or clearing up our perplexities, it only serves to generate a universal doubt, incompatible with principles on which our comfort and happiness mainly depend. The best method perhaps is, neither to give ourselves up exclusively to the guidance of the one or the other ; but by a proper use of the lights furnished by both, endeavour to improve our intellectual and moral faculties, relying on the goodness of the Almighty Power … (p-50)”
I hope any careful reader will understand the difference in signification by such “dot-tricks.” If, at this point, any reader chooses to challenge – ‘so what? If a few words are dropped?’ or say something in the line – ‘such is common academic practice’ etc. etc. – to assure that reader, let me then do the same with Sarkar’s paper. For example, here is what Sarkar says he wants to do in this paper: “The second part of this paper will try to … break … Bengal’s development … in a very schematic and somewhat provocative manner…”
Got my point? So, following Sarkar’s own logic, this is what we understand about his intention towards Bengal! He wants to break Bengal’s development … and in a very schematic and provocative manner! (God save me for such manipulation. Readers please read Sarkar’s original paper to see what I hid by “dot-tricks” … and whether Sarkar really wants to break Bengal’s development or not.)
Now, let me make a quick analysis (not exhaustive, readers may find subtler layers) how Sarkar’s Source-Text Manipulation changes the significance of what Rammohun actually wants to say. Readers, who have already found out the difference, may skip this part.
We find here Sumit Sarkar omits some part of the quote … one phrase, one principal clause and one subordinate clause to be precise, 22 words (4+4+14 words in three cases).
Why does Sarkar omit them? Why does he substitute them with dots? Does he consider them unnecessary? More important is the question: when a historian is quoting an entire passage or its part, what right does he have to omit in-between words and punctuations of a historic Text? Doesn’t the scholar know what immense significance a single punctuation mark carries in a Text?
Well, at least we know that even the smallest punctuation mark is the signal of a stylistic decision, and that distinguishes one writer from another and enables an author to move an audience - Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is a remarkable case in point.
Plenty of examples of how punctuation changes meaning are available on net; just for a light-hearted example, see the following two sentences:
A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
Cheers to Patriarchy, and cheers to Feminism respectively.
Ar example ki darkaar, let us now come back to Sarkar, and study his “dot-trick”:
i) In the first case, Sarkar makes the sentence appear like: “when … we appeal to reason as a surer guide, we soon find how incompetent it is…” (It is an optical illusion and our psychological limitation that we do not think on the dots but read joining together what is before and after them). The meaning that emerges – that Sarkar wants to convey is: Rammohun says, when he appeals to reason he finds it incompetent, that is, Rammohun no longer has Faith in Reason.
However, when we put back the missing words in place (“discouraged by this circumstance”), it now conveys an entirely different meaning. Rammohun says, “when, discouraged by this circumstance, we appeal to reason as a surer guide…” – that is, he speaks of a condition to ‘appeal to reason,’ - that appeal to Reason as a surer guide is futile when one appeals in a state of being ‘discouraged’ – in other words, he implies that Reason can act as sure guide when the Mind is in state of being ‘encouraged.’
ii) In the second case, Sarkar’s manipulated Text reads as: “we soon find how incompetent it is, alone, to conduct us to the object of our pursuit…. instead of facilitating our endeavors or clearing up our perplexities” – that is, we think “instead of” as connected with “our pursuit” and make sense accordingly.
But in the original we find: “…we soon find how incompetent it is, alone, to conduct us to the object of our pursuit. We often find that, instead of facilitating our endeavors or clearing up our perplexities…” – that is, “our pursuit” is actually the end of a sentence and therefore, end of a ‘sense’ – and the “instead of” has nothing to do with it. The “instead of” is actually connected with the new beginning of a sentence/sense “We often find that, instead of…” - “We often find that…” suggests (implied) ‘we may not often find,’ or ‘sometimes we do not find’- but Sarkar drops that phrase to hush up Rammohun’s tentativeness.
iii) In the third case, Sarkar ends the quote as: “…but by a proper use of the lights furnished by both, endeavour to improve our intellectual and moral faculties, relying on the goodness of the Almighty Power …”. It seems that Rammohun speaks of improving his intellectual and moral faculties by relying on God only – and Sarkar wants us to think that way to prove that Rammohun has made his “intellectual and moral faculties” subservient to God only.
But in the original we find: “but by a proper use of the lights furnished by both, endeavour to improve our intellectual and moral faculties, relying on the goodness of the Almighty Power, which alone enables us to attain that which we earnestly and diligently seek for.” The “which alone enables…” is a relative clause connected with “intellectual and moral faculties,” or “relying on the goodness…” or more probably with both, because Rammohun’s Rationality includes Intellect and Bhakti together.
In short, Sarkar’s manipulation makes the sense of the Text something like this: Rammohun found the faculty of “reason” to be “incompetent” as “a surer guide,” and stressed on “endeavour to improve our intellectual and moral faculties, relying on the goodness of the almighty power.”
Now why does Sarkar play that game?
Actually, Sarkar has to show that Rammohun was moving away from ‘reason’ in his later life to justify the title “Rammohan Roy and the Break with the Past”; and in the immediate context, Sarkar has to manipulate the Text in this way to bring home his point that this is a change in Rammohun from the “claims of reason” which was now “balanced and increasingly limited by Upanishadik authority.” (p-16)
This last line – “the claims of reason (of Rammohun) are now balanced and increasingly limited by Upanishadik authority as well as by a conservative use of social comfort criterion” – is indeed Sarkar’s gem of a delivery!
Why gem? Before coming to that, let us note how Sarkar, even in the truncated and manipulated quote, Deconstructs his own thesis, because there is the very important word “perhaps” that shows Rammohun is tentative in what he says. Sarkar has obviously missed the “perhaps” otherwise it would have met with the same fate of being hushed up by “dot-trick.”
Rammohun suggests one should “perhaps” neither give oneself exclusively to the guidance of the reason or to doubt, but to take light from both. Rammohun is in fact calling for a Balance of Reason and Doubt – a Doubt entailed by reason itself. Only a man of great Spiritual and Intellectual Maturity is capable of such ever alertness about his Self – tentative about his Reason and Doubt – and only a fool has a fixed idea of what is Reason and what is not-Reason.
In short, here we find in Rammohun an “advanced form of rational mysticism” that Erich Fromm rightly finds in Marx.
Or perhaps, we find in Rammohun the pre-shadow of Marx himself. In the words of Erich Fromm – ‘“Marx fought against religion exactly because it is alienated, and does not satisfy the true needs of man. Marx's fight against God is, in reality, a fight against the idol that is called God. Already as a young man he wrote as the motto for his dissertation "Not those are godless who have contempt for the gods of the masses but those who attribute the opinions of the masses to the gods." Marx's atheism is the most advanced form of rational mysticism, closer to Meister Eckhart or to Zen Buddhism than are most of those fighters for God and religion who accuse him of "godlessness."’
We can just replace ‘Marx’ with ‘Rammohun’ here to understand Rammohun’s attitude to Religion and Reason.
Now a brief discussion on what I called Sarkar’s gem of a delivery – his lines – “the claims of reason (of Rammohun) are now balanced and increasingly limited by Upanishadik authority as well as by a conservative use of social comfort criterion”
So, in Sarkar’s equation, Balance = Increased Limit!!!
This is more stunning than E = MC2
How can Balance be Increased Limit? Does a balanced personality mean ‘limited’ personality? Balance is the height of achievement – Evolution towards a greater being, and ‘increasingly limited’ is akin to degeneration and downfall. How can Rammohun be both at the same time?
Now, why has Sarkar to do that? Well, he has to prove something against Upanishads, that is, Upanishads are “authority” and “limited authority” and something “anti-reason” – that’s the main point, Upanishads are ‘against reason,’ ‘unreasonable’ etc.
Well, Sarkar certainly has the liberty to take care of his so-called Marxist conscience thus; but where is Sarkar’s ‘reason’ if it finds “Balanced = Increasingly Limited”?
Does he want to keep both ends open as Escape-route, if necessary?
We find another such instance in Sarkar’s opinion on Rammohun’s early (probably first) writing – “Tuhfat-ul Muwahhiddin” (1803-4) in which Rammohun said “falsehood is common to all religions without discrimination.”
In page-14, Sarkar regards Tuhfat as Rammohun’s “fairly consistent militant rationalism” and in page-16, he says: “Even in Tuhfat, belief in the soul and in an after-life were accepted as socially advantageous although doubtfully rational.’
How can a writing that has “fairly consistent militant rationalism” also have “belief in the soul and in an after-life”? Sarkar justifies that ‘belief’ by saying that Rammohun accepted the belief “as socially advantageous although doubtful rational.”
Why does Sarkar seem to be rationalizing Rammohun’s Tuhfat? That is because he has to establish Tuhfat as a very important work – a landmark, a breakpoint – that would serve him in a double way.
I confess, I have not read Tuhfat (I doubt whether many a learned scholars too have read it!); but if Tuhfat really has such contradiction as Sarkar says, then it is indeed an immature writing – and that explains why Rammohun never translated it in English or Bengali.
Sarkar, of course finds a different reason: “the logic seems to have frightened even the later Rammohun himself. Prolific translator of his own works, he never brought out in English or Bengali editions of Tuhfat.” (p-14)
Regarding Sarkar’s opinion on Tuhfat, Partha Chatterjee says: “Rammohan's critique in the Tuhfa went far beyond the condem¬nation of Brahmanic ritualism—indeed, Rammohan's own ancestral religion is barely mentioned in the text.”
If Rammohun’s “own ancestral religion is barely mentioned in the text,” why would Rammohun be “frightened”? Needless to say, Sarkar’s logic is absurd.
Why is Sarkar so obsessive with Tuhfat?
First, establishing Tuhfat as an ‘anchor,’ would enable Sarkar to show Rammohun’s later transformation, that is, moving away from ‘reason.’ Secondly, Sarkar would use the same ‘anchor’ against Rammohun – and also to justify the comment he has made two pages back: “we have come perilously close, in fact, to the vanishing point of religion, and the logic seems to have frightened even the later Rammohun himself. Prolific translator of his own works, he never brought out in English or Bengali editions of Tuhfat.” (p-14) (This is with reference to Rammohun’s writing in Tuhfat that “falsehood is common to all religions without discrimination.”)
In Tuhfat, Rammohun criticized “Self-interest of priests feeding on mass ignorance and slavishness to habit,” etc. – but how Sarkar feels “we have come perilously close, in fact, to the vanishing point of religion” is a question to ponder with! How can criticizing the corrupt side of Religion be ‘vanishing point of religion’? All the great personalities of Bengal Renaissance did that – Keshava Chandra Sen, Shri Ramakrishna, Bankim Chandra, Svami Vivekananda, Rshi Aurobindo, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, and Rabindranath Tagore. In fact, it is the triumph of a Spiritual person who can see the difference between Spirituality (or Dharma) and Religion.
If one reads Sarkar’s language carefully, one will find plenty of such dabbling – that ultimately conveys no meaning; yet without meaning –Sarkar goes on writing to establish some view. If Sarkar is not ‘certain,’ or even ‘certain about being uncertain,’ what is such dabbling if not babbling?
Sarkar prominently betrays the Bourgeoisie symptom of manipulation that Shri Ramakrishna and Svami Vivekananda called Shukno panditya (Dry Intellect) – a phenomenon that Marx too has alerted us of:
Wonder of wonders, Sarkar himself uses the word Dry Intellect quite recognizably when he observes that Brahmoism “in spite of the retreat from unadulterated rationalism begun by Rammohun and continued on a greatly enhanced scale by Devendranath and Keshabchandra – still remained far too intellectual and dry a creed to be ever successful as a popular religion.” (p-17)
Why does Sarkar think Rammohun broke with the past? Is it because Rammohun did not follow the perceived-Script (by so-called Marxists) of Marx’s life?
While dealing with Marx, scholars (particularly those who are known as Marxists) split Marx into early-Marx and late-Marx. Althuser too noted a “rupture.” Again, for example, Irfan Habib while referring to Marx’s observation on Religion (‘Religion is the opium of the people) regards the period 1844 as “early phase in (Marx’s) intellectual life.” In other words, there is a correct tendency to acknowledge an Evolution in Marx – indeed, why Marx only? No Human is Static.
The early phase of Marx saw such writings that is “perilously close” (to use Sarkar’s favourite words) to Faith in Spirituality, if not Religion. The later Marx is often viewed as discarding that. So, is this the proto-Script that one has to follow – from Spiritual-Rational to perceived-less-Spiritual-Rational?
Since Rammohun expands his Wisdom with age and maturity, Sarkar must consider that a “break”!
How Sarkar ends the paper deserves special attention. Sarkar ends his paper with these words: “A critical re-examination of Bengal Renaissance, of its limits and contradictions and hidden assumptions, has therefore, an importance far transcending the purely academic.” (p-28)
Let us study this sentence carefully.
We have already seen Sarkar’s ‘limits’ in equating ‘Balance’ and ‘limit’ – we have already seen his ‘contradictions’ regarding Tuhfat, we have already seen his ‘hidden assumptions’ about Upanishads (he could offer us no argument or even a citation why Upanishads are ‘authority’ that ‘balance and increasingly limit’ the ‘claims of reason’), yet he calls for ““a critical re-examination of Bengal Renaissance, of its limits and contradictions and hidden assumptions.” More interesting are the last five words – “far transcending the purely academic.”
This utterance reveals –
i) Sarkar categorizes academic into ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ academic, or “purely academic” and “pure academic with something else” implying some incompleteness and limitation in “purely academic”
ii) Sarkar believes in ‘transcendence’ of “purely academic” into something else Beyond it, and better or elevated than it (hopefully, because as far I know, ‘transcendence’ implies betterment, that is, towards the positive side)
iii) ‘purely academic’ is an obstacle to research; that is, simple academic or ‘impure academics have merit’ therefore, ‘simple’ and ‘impure’ can be ‘pure’ and perceived ‘pure’ or ‘purely’ can be ‘impure’
Interestingly, in calling for “transcending the purely academic” Sumit Sarkar is exactly echoing Shri Ramakrishna’s criticism of “ONLY” Book-Reading and Book-Learning (also Svami Vivekananda’s similar criticism) – though Sarkar, in his characteristic self-deconstructive (self-destructive?) style refuses to understand Shri Ramakrishna on that point and goes as far to say that Shri Ramakrishna was “disdainful” of Book-Learning.
This is yet another symptom of Kali Yuga scholarship! Imagining the Emotional State of a historic person! A novelist has that license, does a historian have that?
With this interesting like, I will next discuss on Sumit Sarkar’s paper on Shri Ramakrishna, and needless to say, more gems of deliveries are waiting for us, there.
So, where do we find us at the end of Sarkar’s present paper? Whether he has been able to show “Rammohan Roy and the Break with the Past” is highly debatable, at least I find his arguments absolutely bogus; but given the nature of Sarkar’s Source-Text Manipulation, at least I am sure of Sarkar’s Bourgeoisie-style “Break with History.”
Partha Chatterjee has rightly said that Sumit Sarkar’s understanding of Rammohun’s “extraordinary rationalism” is “clearly insufficient.”
I cannot end this review without pondering over another question.
Has Sumit Sarkar read Upanishads? It does not seem so. He delivers another gem of a delivery in his pronouncement on Vedantik Philosophy. He considers Vedantik philosophy “essentially elitist, preaching Mayavada for the ascetic and intellectual while leaving religious practices and social customs utterly undisturbed at the level of everyday life. Rammohun’s originality lay firstly in his deft avoidance of extreme monism. Mayavada in his hands get reduced to the conventional idealist doctrines of dependence of matter on spirit and the creation of the world by God and the Vedantik revival is thus reconciled with a basically utilitarian and this worldly approach in religion.” (p-14)
Sarkar differentiates between “extreme monism” and (by implication) ‘mild monism’ or some other degree of monism. Whether monism can be conceived in such degree is a big question. Sarkar also says, Mayavada got “reduced” in Rammohun’s hands. How can Mayavada be “reduced”? Is it petrol-price?
More significantly, Sarkar betrays an ‘Elitist’ Bourgeoisie symptom of considering that Intellect is Elitist and it cannot be found “at the level of everyday life”. In what way is Intellect opposed to the “level of everyday life”? Does Sarkar reserve the copyright of Intellect for scholars like himself only?
Sanjay Subrahmanyam is absolutely right in observing: “postcolonial scholars are often strikingly ill-informed about the pre-colonial world.”
At the end, my appeal to readers: let us be aware of Chakri-Centric Kali Yuga scholarship, and let us always read original Source-Text. In short, let us discover Truth ourselves.
Religion in Indian History. Edited by Irfan Habib. Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2007, p-xii
Erich Fromm. Marx's Concept of Man. (Transcribed: by Sam Berner). Frederick Ungar Publishing: New York, 1961.
Partha Chatterjee. Black Hole of Empire - History of a Global Practice of Power. Princeton University Press, 2012, p-137
Religion in Indian History. Edited by Irfan Habib. Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2007, p-xii
Partha Chatterjee. Black Hole of Empire - History of a Global Practice of Power. Princeton University Press, 2012, p-137
Sanjay Subrahmanyam. Europe and the People without Historiography; or, Reflections on a Self-Inflicted Wound. Historically Speaking, Volume 5, Number 4, The Johns Hopkins University Press. March 2004, pp. 36-40 (Article)