De-Demonising ‘Anandamath’: Why We Must Read Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay in 2017

Bankim Chandra 
  • Why ‘Anandamath’ is one of the most important works of Indian literature, and why it has never been more relevant than it is in our time.

In his recent best-selling book Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra (touted as ‘the heir to Edward Said’ by The Economist) speaks of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay as ‘a high ranking official in the Bengali bureaucracy’ who ‘spun garish fictional fantasises about militant Hindu saviours’. Mishra’s views are the latest addition to a long-standing tradition of demonisation of Chattopadhyay’s literary masterpiece and his person by leftist intellectuals in India and abroad.

First published in a serialised fashion between December 1882 and July 1883 in Bangadarshan (a Bengali literary magazine founded by Chattopadhyay himself), Anandamath played a crucial role in concretising and strengthening the national identity of a people who had been under the subordination of foreign rule (Mughal and English) since as far as they could remember.

The patriotic song of Vande Mataram (I revere thee mother) originated from the pages of this masterpiece, sung by the novel’s idealistic and nationalist saints fighting for their motherland’s freedom. The song, and most importantly, the chant of Vande Mataram, gained immense popularity amongst the Bengali youth of Chattopadhyay’s epoch (Hindu and Muslim alike) and in a short span of time turned into a pan-India slogan of resistance to foreign rule. It is a rarely acknowledged fact that the objection by Muslims to the chant of Vande Mataram (that persists till date) was not immediate and was a subsequent result of many factors. In fact, the song almost became the national anthem of India due to the key role it played in mobilising and uniting Indians in the freedom struggle.

However, in the end, Tagore’s ‘inoffensive’ Jana Gana Mana was picked over Chattopadhyay’s far more popular canto as the national anthem of the newly born Republic of India. This hasty replacement, nevertheless, did not stop Rajendra Prasad from declaring in the Constituent Assembly gathering of 24 January 1950, that:

The composition consisting of the words and music known as Jana Gana Mana is the national anthem of India, subject to such alterations in the words as the Government may authorise as occasion arises, and the song Vande Mataram, which has played a historic part in the struggle for Indian freedom, shall be honoured equally with “Jana-Gana-Mana” and shall have equal status with it.

This equal status and honour though seemed more like a consolation prize to camouflage the injustice meted out to Chattopadhyay’s composition. But what led to this unpopularity of Anandamath and its author? The accusations against Chattopadhyay were plenty. Gandhiji, in his weekly, The Harijan (1 July 1939), made a subtle but remarkable allusion to the song and its author’s fall from grace by stating:

As a lad when I knew nothing of Anandamath or even Bankim, Vande Mataram gripped me. I associated the purest national spirit with it. It never occurred to me it was a Hindu song or meant only for Hindus. Unfortunately, now we have fallen on evil days. All that was pure gold before has become base metal today.

Gandhi’s skepticism clearly depicts that it was not the author or his text, but rather the popular perception that underwent a radical change. Leftist intellectuals objected to Chattopadhyay’s portrayal of Mughal rulers as oppressors and enemies of Indian civilisation and accused him of outright Islamophobia. Some said that since Chattopadhyay was a part of the Bengali bureaucracy, he tried to appease the British by portraying them as the lesser of the two evils in comparison with the Muslim kings. Thus, the novel that created a national identity, united the people of India in their struggle for Independence, and gave millions of people an ideal to believe in, was demonised and reduced to the status of a Hindu nationalist ‘fantasy’ (as Pankaj Mishra would have us believe).

These accusations, rarely based on facts, remained unchecked, and the Leftist propaganda against one of the first literary masterpieces of India continues to persist even today. The Left succeeded in its suppression of Ananadmath both at academic and popular platforms. While the majority of literary research about the novel is dedicated to the themes of Islamophobia and extreme Hindu nationalism, the novel itself has disappeared from the shelves of bookstores, only to be replaced by books written by the likes of Arundhati Roy.

It is time to rise above these prejudiced fictional binaries, dust up the abandoned pages of Chattopadhyay’s Anandamath, and see why it is one of the most important works of Indian literature, and why it has never been more relevant than it is in our time.

The poetics of ‘Motherland’: the problematic ‘Bharat Mata’.

One must really live under the proverbial rock to not come across the shrill debates of Indian primetime television, where imams are perpetually pitted against Hindu priests to the delight of ratings-driven news anchors while they try to outshout each other in their rejection or justification of the veneration of India as the motherland. The primary argument against the words Vande Mataram has arisen from a cooked up notion that it is an idea inherently opposed to the teachings of Islam. While this is certainly debatable, what has been completely drowned under the noise of this debate is the original sense in which Chattopadhyay used the notion of motherland or ‘Bharat Mata’ in the very same novel that coined the words Vande Mataram (I revere thee mother).

Revisiting certain passages of Anandamath should shed some light as to what the matriarchal personification of India signified in Chattopadhyay’s vision. Having just rescued Mahendra (a wealthy man who had to leave his completely abandoned village in Bengal because of the draught and famine caused by the intense summer, the negligence of the ruling Nawab, and the unfair taxes levied by the British) from a fleet of soldiers carrying tax collections to the British headquarters in Calcutta, Bhavanand breaks into a song (Vande Mataram) that rouses the former’s curiosity. After hearing the first couplet, Mahendra is slightly confused and inquires Bhavanand about the identity of the mother he is singing about. Bhavanand responds with the next four verses:



सुहासिनीं सुमधुर भािषणीम्

सुखदां वरदां मातरम्।

(The Mother – with nights that thrill in the light of the moon, Radiant with foliage and flowers in bloom, Smiling sweetly, speaking gently, Giving joy and gifts in plenty)

Mahendra instantly cries in reply ‘But that’s our land not our mother!’, making an argument that many ignorant detractors of Vande Mataram have been making in the name of misguided notions of secularism (my use of the word ‘ignorant’ is in reference to their ignorance of the plot of the novel as well as their understanding of secularism). Bhavanand then explains that he belongs to the sacred brotherhood of Anandamath, and that he along with other sanyasis of the brotherhood consider themselves as the ‘children’ (santaan) of the motherland. They had given up all material, family, and matrimonial ties, to serve their mother who was suffering under the siege of Muslim rule and British exploitation.

Thus, the idea of the ‘nation’ as a mother was introduced into the text with an aim to glorify the sanyasis’ struggle for the emancipation of Bengal, and by Chattopadhyay’s own admission, as a tribute to the real sanyasi rebellion of the late eighteenth century. Hence, the ‘nation’ revered as the mother by the sanyasis in the novel is Bengal, and not India as one unified nation. As the action of the novel progresses, Mahendra sheds his life of luxury and wealth and associates himself with the cause of the ‘children’.

One of the many factors that motivated him to do so was his visit to their operational headquarter, a cave called Anandamath, hidden in a dense forest. There he comes across three idols of the ‘mother-goddess’. The very first, exceeding goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswati in beauty, perched atop Lord Vishnu’s lap, was ‘the mother-as-she-was’. The second, ‘blackened, shrouded in darkness, robbed of everything and naked’, was Kali, ‘the mother-as-she-is’. And finally, Mahendra set his eyes on ‘a golden ten-armed image of the goddess in a large marble shrine glistening and smiling in the early morning rays’, and was told that she is ‘the mother-as-she-will-be’.

It is quite evident that Chattopadhyay’s depiction of ‘nation’ as the mother was a deliberate metaphorisation, to familiarise an oppressed people with their glorious past, to make them come to terms with their tragic present, and to give them an idealistic future to aspire for. Leftist intellectuals’ objection to such a portrayal of the nation comprises the argument that nostalgia for a ‘fictional’ past creates a breeding ground for totalitarian and facist ideologues (one wonders how extreme-left-wing dictators came about as no great civilisation of the past was communist).

And even the Leftist admirers of Aristotle’s ‘sexist’ politics and Plato’s ‘racist’ Republic, who dismiss ancient India’s intellectual capital (Sanskrit texts of Indian philosophy) with anachronistic criticism of its inherent misogyny and racism, will find it hard to argue with material facts: India, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, made up for 23 per cent of the world economy (as much as the economy of all the nations of Europe combined), by the time the British left India, its share was reduced to a mere 3 per cent.

Hindu-nationalism, Islamophobia and casteism: an elaborate game of misrepresentations and lies about Anandamath

The first translation of Anandamath from the original Bengali to English (there have been several subsequent translations in both English and Hindi) was done by Nares Chandra Sen-Gupta, a legal scholar and novelist based in Calcutta, who gave it the title, The Abbey of Bliss. In his preface to the translation, Sen-Gupta discusses the literary merits and the historical scope of Chattopadhyay’s novel in more than adulatory terms for more than 10 pages, equating the Bengali writer with no less than Sir Walter Scott, and declaring him to be the ‘Father of Bengali prose’. However, just before concluding his prefatory note, he adds, “But with all this, one cannot but regret the anti-Mussulman sentiments that our author has so freely introduced in the present work”.

Thus the first seeds of misrepresentations about Anadamath were sown (arguably due to half-baked understanding of the text) which would in due course germinate outright lies and eventually lead to the demonisation of the novel and its author (with, of course, the generous help of Leftist academic criticism, and popular ‘secular’ propagandism). Let us now look at some facts. In Rajsimha, the novel he penned just before he wrote Anandamath, Chattopadhyay writes:

There is good and bad amongst both equally. In fact, one must admit that when Muslims ruled India for so many centuries, they were certainly better than contemporary Hindus where kingly qualities were concerned.

A careful reading of Chattopadhyay’s prose would reveal that he never differentiated between Hindus and Muslims, his argument was more nationalistic in nature. At best, his differentiation was of a political nature, between the Muslims who came from outside to rule and oppress (jaban) and the ones who were indigenised (desi). Thus in Anadamath, when one of the characters (Bhavanand) criticises the Muslim ruler Mir Jafar (the notoriously incompetent and greedy Nawab of Bengal who was principally responsible for famines and poverty during his reign and who gave a free hand to the British to exploit the poor and downtrodden of Bengal), there is absolutely nothing that suggests a communal bias:

Aren’t you even a little fed up with the way things are? Look at all the other places — Magadha, Mithila, Kashi, Kanchi, Delhi, Kashmir — where else is in such a mess? Where else do people have to eat grass for lack of food — or thorns, or anthills, or creepers from the forest? Where else do they eat dogs and jackals and dead bodies? Where else can’t folk have peace of mind even when they’ve locked away their money, or installed the shalogram at home, or kept their wife and daughter indoors, or when their womenfolk are expecting? Here they cut open the womb and tear out the child! Everywhere else there’s a pact with the king for protection, but does our Muslim king protect us?

As it is evident, Chattopadhyay’s criticism of exploitative and oppressive rulers, in defence of the suffering population of Bengal, has been given a deliberate communal twist in order to level false accusations of extreme Hindu nationalism against him.

The other major (and equally absurd) charge made against the author of Anandamath is of being an upholder of caste-privilege. During British Raj in India, (as has been magnificently demonstrated by Shashi Tharoor in his book, An Era of Darkness) there was a deliberate effort made by the colonisers to deepen the caste differences amongst the Hindus, as a part of the British colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’. This led to the transformation of a dynamic, mobile Indian society (where linguistic and geographical affiliations were no less influential than those based on caste) into a rigid, casteist one.

An important number of Brahmins thus entered the British bureaucracy in Bengal, owing to their superior education and the knowledge of the English language. Subsequently, a small community of English speaking, upper-caste Hindus came about, known at that time amongst the natives as the ‘Bhadralok’ (‘the civilised ones’). Many Indians at the epoch criticised the Bhadralok (sometimes rightfully so) for practising snobbery and elitism and it is no secret that there were indeed many an apologists of the British Empire amongst them.

However, it must also be acknowledged that there were many amongst this newly emergent class who believed that India still awaited a philosophical and cultural self-regeneration without which there could hardly be a substantial claim to the right of political self-expression. Chattopadhyay was certainly one of these Bhadralok, who strongly associated themselves with the golden age of the ‘Aryan’ (noble) Indians of the Vedic past and dreamt of an Indian renaissance.

These were the caste dynamics of Chattopadhyay’s life, thoughts and works, and hardly anything in them suggests even a remote allusion to casteism. In fact, there are strong suggestions in Anandamath itself of the need to annihilate the caste-system, so that Indians could stand against the invaders as a united people. The ‘children’ (sanyasis) of Anadamath had to undertake a sacred oath in order to be initiated into the brotherhood, which comprised a vow to renounce marital life, parents, friends, servants, wealth, property, pleasures, and fight till their ‘Mother’ was freed from the rule of invaders. One more vow, however was required, which is best expressed in the following passage of Anandamath (and which aptly dispels all falsehoods regarding casteism in Chattopadhyay’s world-view) where Mahendra and another patriot are about to be initiated into the sacred brotherhood by Satyanand:

“One other thing”, said Satyananda. “Caste. What is your caste? I know Mahendra is a Kayastha, but I do not know the caste of the other”.

“I am a Brahmin. I’m not married”, was the answer.

“Very good. Will both of you be able to renounce caste? All the Children are of equal standing. Under the terms of this great vow there is no difference between a Brahmin and a Shudra. What is your reply?”

“We will not make such distinctions. We are all the Children of the same Mother”.

The aborted Indian renaissance: Anandamath’s call of action to Indian academia.

Sudipta Kaviraj, in his book, The Unhappy Consciousness: Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and the Formation of Nationalism in India, rather dextrously states that: “It was possible to change the past in the future, simply by making it the past of a different present.” While one can certainly debate Bankim’s nationalism or even question the ethical and philosophical axis of any definition of nationalism per se, it is hard to ignore the importance of the cultural vision for India as proposed in the novel. The ‘mother-as-she-was/as-she-will-be’ metaphor has larger implications than mere economic prosperity of a nation and its people. India’s philosophical and literary texts have long been forgotten and rejected by her own citizens, and foreign invasion (both British and Mughal) can only be held responsible partially.

Even after 70 years of Independence, India suffers from a philosophical amnesia. While the teaching of Western philosophy has prospered in Indian academic institutions, the teaching of Indian philosophical texts has largely been reduced to an odd module put together with badly translated extracts of Sanskrit texts and some introductory books by Dr S Radhakrishnan. Any further investigation and interest in Indian philosophical tradition is viewed with ‘progressive’ skepticism of conservatism and communalism.

Only self-proclaimed god-men, spiritual and mystical gurus have benefitted from this amnesia, having succeeded in creating a reductionist view of Indian philosophy to suit their own end of commercialising spiritualism. Just as India has abandoned and forgotten its argumentative and rational philosophical texts and procured for herself a simplified, commercial spirituality, the West has suppressed its spiritual heritage (the books authored by mystic and spiritual authors like Swedenborg, St Augustine etc. now lie gathering dust), thus creating a perfect and convenient interdependency that servers one particular ideology.

Chattopadhyay’s genius lies in the fact that he foresaw this intellectual crisis that has only recently emerged at the centre stage of national debate. And not only did the author of Anadamath successfully predict Leftist propaganda against India’s rich philosophical tradition, he even proposed a brilliant vision for combatting it (hence earning the eternal wrath of the Indian ‘liberals’). This vision comes across in the novel’s climax (after Satyananada successfully leads the ‘children’ to victory in battle against the British) when Satyananda is visited by the mysterious ‘healer’ (perhaps Chattopadhyay’s metaphoric personification of the divine) who tells the leader of Anandamath that he has played his part in the freedom struggle, and that he must now withdraw from any further agitation.

Satyanand, baffled, argues that the rule of invaders had not yet ended, and that India was still bound in shackles of servitude by the British. To this, the mysterious healer replies:

Unless the English rule, it will not be possible for the Eternal Code to be reinstated … To worship three hundred and thirty million gods is not the Eternal Code. That’s a worldly, inferior code. Through its influence the real Eternal Code — what the foreigners call the Hindu rule of life — has been lost. The true Hindu rule of life is based on knowledge, not on action. And this knowledge is of two kinds — outward and inward. The inward knowledge is the chief part of the Eternal Code, but unless the outward knowledge arises first, the inward cannot arise. Unless one knows the gross, one cannot know the subtle. For a long time now the outward knowledge has been lost in this land, and so the true Eternal Code has been lost too. If one wishes to reinstate this Code, one must make known the outward knowledge first. The outward knowledge no longer exists in this land, and there’s no one to teach it; we ourselves are not good at teaching people such things. So we must bring in the outward knowledge from another country. The English are very knowledgeable in the outward knowledge, and they’re very good at instructing people. Therefore we’ll make them king. And when by this teaching our people are well instructed about external things, they’ll be ready to understand the inner. Then no longer will there be any obstacles to spreading the Eternal Code, and the true Code will shine forth by itself again. And till that day comes — so long as the Hindu is not wise and virtuous and strong once more — English rule will remain intact.

This ‘divine’ monologue, is perhaps the most misunderstood text written by any writer of Indian literature. Without comprehending the magnitude of the cultural vision proposed by Chattopadhyay, without acknowledging his politico-historic genius, the above cited text was taken as the final evidence in the case against him of being an apologist of the British Raj. It is only today, that we are starting to comprehend (unfortunately, still not substantially enough) the underlying message that Anadamath carries for the patriotic intelligentsia of India.

The nations of the West (especially the Anglophone ones) have undoubtedly established the best research facilities (of our times) a scholar in any domain would need to conduct substantive research. This has been one of the factors that has lead to their monopoly in dominating cultural discourse, in their rewriting of history and their cultural imperialism. If we are to rescue the Indian philosophical tradition from the clutches of propagators of superstitions, and from the mind-numbing exoticism of ‘Indologists’ and Orientalists, the effort needs to come from within Indian academia.

We must adopt modern epistemological traditions (without necessarily falling into cliches and propaganda) and research methodologies, and shun a certain baseless skepticism of intelligence, especially propagated by self-styled pop-philosophers (also known as gurus) who preach damaging falsehoods about Indian philosophy’s incompatibility with rationality and logic.

This is perhaps what Chattopadhyay’s ‘healer’ implies when he rightfully declares that outward knowledge has been lost in our country and one needs to import it back, if we are to inculcate any realistic hopes of eventually reviving the Eternal Code (Hindu Philosophy) and of bringing about the long-awaited Indian renaissance. The language of rigour and honesty in academia is a universal one, and it is high time Indian philosophy learnt to speak it. No epistemological revolution happens overnight, but we would do well to bring back Anandamath to the display shelves of bookstores, for a start.

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