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Bengali Vaisnavism in the Modern Period Symposium

OCHS Library
Tuesday, 27 February 2018 -
10:00am to 3:00pm

A Gaudiya Vaishnava Swami at War

Dr. Måns Broo (Åbo Akademi)
It is evident from the writings and activities of Gaudiya Vaishnava reformer Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati (1874–1937) that he politically was a loyalist, though his followers post-independence have tried to tone down this fact or even obscure it. Using previously classified material from the India Office Archives at the British Library, I will in my paper look at the way in which one of his disciples, Swami B.H. Bon (1901–1982) wanted to join the British armed forces in 1940 as a Hindu chaplain to help the war effort, and the reaction towards this offer from the colonial authorities. While the offer wasn’t taken up and the Swami never mentioned it in his subsequent autobiographical writings, the correspondence it created illustrates some of the complexities of the last years of British rule of colonial India.

Investigating the Contours and Agendas of Vaishnava Journals in Colonial Bengal

Dr. Santanu Dey (Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandira)
In this presentation I take a broad overview of several Bengali vernacular journals with a Vaishnava focus from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in order to understand the diverse ways in which the contemporary Bengali educated classes were trying to forge points of convergence for Vaishnava culture within the emergent colonial public sphere. By looking at a mix of some well-explored journals and some relatively lesser-known journals I try to examine whether there exists a possibility for identifying patterns of literary memorialisation of the Chaitanya heritage in colonial Bengal. Rather than tracing the historical trajectories of individual periodical publications (since extant copies of most of them do not exist in continuous unbroken series) I shall attempt a thematic survey of the issues they discussed. This exercise would, I contend, not only help us to identify the priorities that the Vaishnava print sphere fixed for itself but also to map the varied agendas of reform put forward by educated Vaishnavas. This would also enable us to uncover the mutual inter-connections between print journalism, readership and the project of Gaudiya Vaishnava rediscovery in colonial Bengal.

Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and the Vaishnava Revival in Colonial Bengal

Prof. Amiya P. Sen (Jamia Millia Islamia)
Structurally, this paper can be divided into two parts of which the first part takes up certain key theoretical questions and the second, a critical examination of Bankim’s understanding and projection of Vaishnavism. I begin by extending Joe O’Connell’s line of argument whereby he questioned, quite justifiably I think, the tendency to treat the terms Gaudiya Vaishnavism and Bengali Vaishnavism interchangeably. This tendency persists and occurs in a very recent doctoral dissertation that I had the privilege of examining.  Some of my objections to this conflation of what appear to be somewhat distinct cultural and theological movements or orientations are as follows. First, it is unclear to me how the term Gauda (the term used for medieval (Sultanate) north Bengal came to represent the entire geo-cultural space of Bengal. Conventionally, the different geographical regions of Bengal have been known by different names such as Rarh (south West Bengal) or Banga (east Bengal). Second, to the best of my knowledge, no Vaishnava sampradaya is identified with a place or a region. Invariably, they are identified with the founder. In case the affiliation of Bengal Vaishnavism with the Madhva sampradaya going back to the 18th century still holds, this itself would justify a change of nomenclature but for the fact that this affiliation too was born more out of contrivance than conviction. For those who believe that the religion of Chaitanya ought to be called a distinct sampradaya by itself, my submission would be to call it ‘Gauriya’ (after Gaur or Chaitanya) and not ‘Gaudiya’. 

The second part of this paper builds on this theoretical critique by examining in some detail, the Vaishnava revival associated by the well-known thinker and novelist, Bankimchandra. In this part, I draw attention to the very different understanding of Chaitanya and his movement that Bankim exhibits and which could be said to foretell the thesis later developed by some Bengali intellectuals about Vaishnavism leading to the emasculation of Bengalis as a community. Bankim’s reading of Krishna too is more political than cultural or theological and yet, this political reading somehow does not deny the status of Krishna as an avatar. It is worth pondering if these two conceptions rest easily with one another. Political consciousness apart, bhakti remains an important part of Bankim’s ouvre both in his essays and novels. Projecting Krishna as the ideal man does not, in my opinion, take away from his standing as the Divine: an object of piety and reverence. Finally, Bankim apparently had a rather odd and idiosyncratic way of looking at Vaishnava ways of life. In an essay written in the 1880s, for instance, he has a Vaishnava mendicant feast on mutton curry. Of late though, I have discovered, much to my surprise, that this may have some foundation in actual practice. Bipin Chandra Pal, a Brahmo convert to Vaishnavism, writes of how he found a Goswami from Nadia stationed in Sylhet, relishing wild boar. If anything, this compels us to look afresh at the cultural differentiation within what has been somewhat loosely called ‘Bengal’ or ‘Gaudiya Vaishnavism’.

The Dilemmas of Sacred Space: Controversies about the Two Birthplaces of Caitanya

Prof. Ferdinando Sardella (Stockholm University)
The presentation will discuss the history and development of one of the largest pilgrimage areas for Vaishnavas in Eastern India, the town of Nabadwip, and its nearby counterpart on the other side of the Hugli river, a branch of the Ganges, i.e. Mayapur. Each of these two locations is regarded by different groups of Gaudiya practitioners as the authentic birthplace of Caitanya. Mayapur today attracts the largest number of pilgrims, but Nabadwip has been a key site for learning and practice of Vaishnavism for centuries. The paper will discuss issues of sacred geography and historiography linked to the birthplace of Caitanya, and various interpretations of its precise location, born out of the erratic flow of the Ganges in West Bengal. The region has recently become a centre for the international practice of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, which has raised important theoretical questions about authenticity, integration and identity within the tradition.

Vaishnavas and Varna-dharma in Colonial Bengal

Dr. Martin Fárek (University of Pardubice)
The dominant explanation depicts Vaishnavas of Bengal as proponents of social reform and critics of the caste system. However, this account fails to explain why and in what sense did Vaishnavas retain the practices and ideas of varna-dharma, why new jatis emerged among them, and why important figures such as Thakur Bhaktivinode insisted on keeping the divisions of varna among their disciples. This paper will develop an alternative hypothesis in response to these problems.