The Scientific Sufi: The Life and Times of Jagadish Chandra Bose. Meher Wan. Viking. Pages 267. Rs 369.
Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858 – 1937) was an enigma when he lived.
To this day he continues to fascinate the students of various disciplines of science – from physics to plant physiology.
When alive, he was attacked for crossing the boundaries in ways more than one.
He was essentially a physicist from India, a colonial backwater as far as science was concerned. He showed how plants responded to stimuli and electric excitement running through them. To the mostly Western science audience, he showed in his demonstrations something deeply Indian.
In post-Independent India, there was an attempt to diminish his importance.
A general impression was created that he was celebrated because of nationalist fervour of the Independence movement and that his theories had been repudiated even during his own time.
Meera Nanda, whose articles were prominently featured by a section of influential media wrote:
Fortunately, for the history of science in general and history of Indian science in particular, his biography, The Life and Work of Sir Jagadis C Bose, was written by his polymath admirer-friend Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) and published in 1920.
In recent decades there has been a renewed interest in the cognitive abilities of plants and scientists involved in these studies all over the world consider Bose as the father of this field.
There has been a renewed interest on his life in India too.
In 2022, came Unsung Genius by Kunal Ghosh, a retired aerospace engineer from IIT Kanpur, on the life of Acharya Bose, a book that presented the work and achievements of JC Bose – particularly on the so-called ‘Hertzian waves’. It also brought out the extent to which the Western disciples of Swami Vivekananda stood by him in his endeavours.
The book itself was dedicated to Mrs Sara Chapman Bull, an extraordinary lady whose contributions have been not much known outside a small circle.
This context is necessary to understand the biography of Bose under review – The Scientific Sufi- Life and Times of Jagadish Chandra Bose (Penguin 2023) by Meher Wan a physicist from IIT Kharagpur.
This is perhaps the first biography of Bose that explicitly identifies him with a religious term in the very title.
In its content it relies mainly, but not exclusively, on the work of Patrick Geddes but it makes some very significant changes.
It starts right from Bikrampur (Vikrampur), the ancestral home of Bhagban Chandra Bose, the father of J C Bose.
A vast Buddha-Vihara had been found in the excavations in the area around Bikrampur. The period of this Buddha-Vihara is believed to be about a thousand years ago from today. There was also a Buddhist influence on the local culture. It is said that about a thousand years ago, there came a time when fanaticism was increasing among the people of both Hindu and Muslim religions, and they were going on killing each other. At this time, many people here adopted the Sufi sect, and believed that caste or religion was not necessary for the attainment of God. Singing these thoughts through Sufi songs and music, the saints wandered from one place to another. Bengal’s ‘Baul’ music flourished during this time, whose roots are believed to be associated with Buddhism. Due to these reasons, this area was culturally very vibrant.Wan, Meher. The Scientific Sufi (p. 14). Penguin Random House India Private Limited. Kindle Edition.
Now compare this with what Patrick Geddes wrote about the same Vikrampur:
Moreover the evidence of surrounding monuments, and yet more numerous ruins, proves Vikrampur to have been a peculiarly rich and active centre of Buddhist culture: hence it is but natural that the Hindu revival which followed this should have been active here, and so strike deep and firm roots in its turn. These ancient cultures, then, have their influence in producing a population interested in education, affected by ideas and ideals : hence it is not solely for Bose's individual sake that a new and ambitious school is at present being founded in his ancestral village to bear his name, but also as an expression of the old cultural interest, here as elsewhere feeling its way towards readjustment to the times. Mahommedans here, too, as nearly always tinged by their Hindu surroundings, are moving along with them.
The difference between both the passages is obvious. Meher Wan invents fanaticism in his narrative and then brings Sufi and Buddhist elements as providing a healing balm for the masses.
The 'H-word' is of course left out in the narrative. A noted absence is that of Chaitanya in this quasi-fabricated spiritual landscape.
Wan also brings in Lalon Faqir (1772-1890) who was the epicentre of nineteenth century Baul movement.
Though Lalon was alive till Bose was in his thirties, there is no evidence anywhere to suggest the influence of this saint on the thought processes or emotional making of Bose.
Wan extrapolates the verses of Lalon, clearly related to spiritual yearning, to freedom from British.
He also connects Baul devotional music as a movement ‘whose roots are believed to be associated with Buddhism.’ (p. 14).
Though Lalon himself in his musical verses had described his devotion for Chaitanya explicitly, that part is avoided.
Consider another incident. The Bose family, whose neighbours were mostly Muslims, met with a fire accident. A dacoit seeking revenge set fire to their house.
Of course the Muslim neighbours all came to the rescue. It was one of them who pointed to Bose’s little sister being trapped inside thinking that she was actually an idol. Wan writes:
Neighbours also came to the rescue, most of whom were Muslims. In this chaos, a man said to Bhagban Chandra Bose, ‘You would not like us to touch your idol, but I think it can be saved.’ Actually, it was not any idol, it was Jagadish’s younger sister—she had been left on the bed in the chaos. Seeing so much fire, she was astonished and frozen, her face became expressionless. She didn’t even cry. She was rescued quickly.(p. 23)
The above is based on the biography by Geddes. And this is what Geddes wrote about the same event:
The immediate neighbours, who as it happened were mostly Mahommedans, hastened to the rescue. One of them saw in the burning house a small figure, which in the smoke and firelight he mistook ; he ran back to Mr. Bose, saying, ' You would not like us to touch your idol, but I think it can be saved.' 'Idol, I have no idol; — let me see ' — and here was the little daughter (afterwards Mrs. M. M. Bose), then aged only three, who in the scattered confusion of the family had not been missed, but was sitting on her bed, fascinated rather than terrified by the scene. The father rushed in and carried the child out ; and a moment after the roof fell in.
Both describe in detail how the neighbours helped the Bose family which included giving them a part of their own house to live. It is quite a touching humanistic gesture.
But Wan seems to tinge his narration with a subtle ‘suggestio falsi’. Geddes clearly states that it was the father who rescued Bose’s sister. He should have got the information from Bose himself.
Wan simply makes the father disappear and leaves it to the imagination of the readers as to who rescued the the girl – implying perhaps one of the neighbours rescued her.
There are today many works that deal with the scientific relevance of the work of J C Bose and his foresightedness in a more detailed manner than this biography and hence that shall be left aside.
For example the author misses a great opportunity to show the work of Bose in a very Darwinian context even though he mentions Darwin.
He quotes the letter from Sir Lauder Brunton where the latter mentions Darwin in a very relevant context :
For Mr Darwin I made some experiments on digestion in insectivorous plants in 1875. All the experiments I have yet seen are crude in comparison to yours, in which you show what a marvellous resemblance there is between the reactions of plants and animals.(p. 217)
Wan even mentions Bose's conception of plants as 'dipoles'. But he does not connect the dots via the root-brain hypothesis of Darwin: the work of Bose, decades after Darwin, could have been seen as showing the evolutionary continuity in sensory processes between plant and animal kingdoms.
But with a title like ‘Scientific Sufi’ and a separate chapter titled ‘Scientific Sufi’ one would have at least expected a comprehensive presentation of a deeper world-view of Bose.
While there was no such discussion under the said title, the author finds it necessary to present the following:
During the visit at one place, Bose was invited to visit the innermost precinct of the temple, which was considered as the holiest among the holies. Professor Bose answered that he was not an staunch Hindu and no longer believed in caste and had lost in any caste by his journeys to foreign countries across the sea, so he had no right to enter (the holiest part of) the sanctuary. But the priest replied, ‘No, no, come in. You are a Sadhu.’(pp. 233-234)
Again this is taken from Geddes:
He explained that he was not an orthodox Hindu, and no longer believed in caste, and had lost it in any case by his journeys to foreign countries across the sea; and so he had no light to enter the sanctuary. ' No, no,' said the priest. ' Come in. You are a Sadhu.'
A Hindu can be a staunch Hindu without being orthodox. They are not synonyms. Wan could have at least changed the ‘an’ to ‘a’ in his book, when he changed the ‘orthodox’ to ‘staunch’.
In the life of J C Bose, a high was reached on 10 May, 1901 when he gave a lecture along with demonstrations at the Royal Institute, London.
Here he breached many boundaries and showed a unity which troubled many scientists of the period.
While Wan records the anxiety that Bose had before giving this discourse, through his correspondence with Tagore, he somehow sees it fit not to give those famous words that Bose said at the end of that lecture:
It was when I came upon the mute witness of these self-made records, and perceived in them one phase of a pervading unity that bears within it all things—the mote that quivers in ripples of light, the teeming life upon our earth, and the radiant suns that shine above us—it was then that I understood for the first time a little of that message proclaimed by my ancestors on the banks of the Ganges thirty centuries ago— ‘They who see but one, in all the changing manifoldness of the universe, unto them belongs Eternal Truth, unto none else, unto none else!
What Wan leaves out suggests a strong pattern.
Wan mentions the inaugural address that Bose delivered at BHU on Vasant Panchami 1916, at the behest of Madan Mohan Malaviya.
One does not expect this book to give any excerpt from this lecture. But that lecture gave a glimpse of the spirit of JC Bose. Bose spoke at length about the special nature of Indian civilisation with respect to science and future.
After pondering over what stops India from taking her rightful place in the world as a worthy contributor to human knowledge, he asked if her mind was ‘paralysed by weak superstitious fears’ and answered his own question thus:
That was not so; for her great thinkers, the Rishis, always stood for freedom of intellect and while Galileo was imprisoned and Bruno burnt for their opinions, they boldly declared that even the Vedas were to be rejected if they did not conform to truth.
They urged in favour of persistent efforts for the discovery of physical causes yet unknown, since to them nothing was extra-physical but merely mysterious because of a hitherto unascertained cause. Were they afraid that the march of knowledge was dangerous to true faith? Not so. For their knowledge and religion were one.
These are the hopes that animate us. For there is something in the Hindu culture which is possessed of extraordinary latent strength by which it has resisted the ravages of time and the destructive changes which have swept over the earth. And indeed a capacity to endure through infinite transformations must be innate in that mighty civilisation which has seen the intellectual culture of the Nile Valley, of Assyria and of Babylon war and wane and disappear and which to-day gazes on the future with the same invincible faith with which it met the past.Modern Review, vol. XIX, pp. 277-8 in 'Sir Jagadis Chunder Bose: Life and Speeches' , Ganesh & Co, Madras, 1920 (available online)
Scientific Sufi provides in a haphazard manner the beauty of the inner life of Bose which combines uniquely poetic imagery and a scientific quest that seems in many ways infused with what Einstein would call the cosmic religious feeling.
For example, the author provides the translation of an ‘essay’ or travelogue that Bose wrote on going to the origin of Ganga. The translation provided by him is almost entirely (with slight word changes) based on the translation done by Dr. D.P.Sen Gupta (Remembering Sir J.C.Bose, World Scientific, 2007) from the original Bengali.
What Bose narrates starts as an attempt to demystify the origin of the river Ganga and ends in a kind of a mystic experience.
Overcome by exhaustion, I collapsed, unconscious, at the feet of Nandadevi. Suddenly, thousands of conch shells roared aloud and in my daze, with eyes half-opened, I could see in the mountains and forests, an enormous puja had been arranged. Water poured down the huge spout of a holy pot, trees were offering their flowers and thundering sound of conch shells reverberated all over. I could not be sure whether the sound was from conch shells or from boulders of ice rolling down. I was thrilled and overwhelmed with joy when, looking ahead, I saw that the haze that had been covering Nandadevi and Trishul had now lifted, and around the peak of the Nandadevi there shone a glow that was difficult to gaze at. The smoke that rose from the lighted haze covered the sky. Is that then the so-called matted hair of Mahadeva? It covered the Nandadevi like a roof. Droplets of ice shining like diamonds fell, sharpening the Trishul and forming a crown of diamonds around the peak of Nandadevi. Shiva and Rudra, the saver and the destroyer, I realized the meaning of the myth. I could see in my mind’s eye how water drops collect and make their journey to the sea and then come back here as vapor. The eternal cycle of creation and destruction was clearly visible.
Quoting such a long passage is necessary because this shows a rapturous vision a young scientist had. Unfortunately this has not been discussed in this book much.
In a detailed paper, Mackenzie Brown had studied the evolution of the religious views of Bose (‘Jagadish Chandra Bose and Vedantic Science’ in ‘Science and Religion: East and West’, Ed. Yitach Fehige, Routledge, 2016). He traces an evolution from the Brahmo view of a creator-Deity towards a non-dual unity of all where there is no room for ‘vitalistic dualism.’
Even this paper has not looked into this quasi-mystical experience, what to speak of this book under review.
In his overzealous attempt to present Bose as a ‘Sufi’ of science by reducing his Hindu-Vedantic dimension, the author has not given much space to Nivedita either.
She is mentioned a few times without giving the reader the knowledge of the kind of selfless work she did for Bose, including her vision of an Institute of Science which would later materialise in Bose Institute after her death.
When she saw the way the British racism created depression and agony for Bose, she wanted to be reborn as an Indian and fight against the British themselves.
Reba Som in her detailed biography of Sister Nivedita writes:
As part of her mission to spotlight the innate genius of India’s finest minds, she promoted the scientific work of Jagadish Chandra Bose. She took him under her wing, reassured him in moments of despair, invited financial assistance for his work and constantly edited and helped in the writing of his manuscripts.
She also fought pitched battles for Bose and his wife when they were discriminated against by the British:
At the railway station, Jagadish and Abala Bose faced discrimination from white passengers in the first class compartment of the train, who protested against their entry. Nivedita’s angry and forceful intercession on their behalf brought the dispute to a halt, allowing their entry into the train.
At the Bose Institute he installed a relief of a woman carrying a lamp. Done by Maharashtrian sculptor Vinayak Pandurang Karmakar, it was modelled on Nandalal Bose's painting of Nivedita, informs us the website of Bose Institute. Bose himself wrote about this relief:
Entering the Institute, the visitor finds to his left the lotus fountain with a bas-relief of a Woman Carrying Light to the Temple. Without her no light can be kindled in the sanctuary. She is the true light-bearer, and no plaything of man.
The symbol of the Institute itself combined two great spiritual traditions of India – Amla of Buddhist emperor Ashoka and the Vajra symbolising the sacrifice of Dadhichi.
The latter was suggested to Bose by Nivedita who had inscribed it earlier in her conception of a flag.
However all these aspects of his life are left out in the present biography - perhaps unintentionally. Perhaps the author thought the role of Nivedita in the life of Bose was not as important a role as the role of the hypothetical, Buddhist-origin Sufi music of Bikrampur.
Viswapriya Mukherjee quotes Tagore on the role Nivedita played in the science career of Bose:
He [Bose] was fortunate in finding in Sister Nivedita a great inspiration to all his activities and creative work. The name of this noble lady deserves a respectable place in the chronicle of Jagdish Chandra’s life-work. Her pervasive influence induced him to overcome all obstacles, his being spreading out over the world to play a universal role.
But not in the Scientific Sufi of Meher Wan. Perhaps unintentionally.
But a pattern does emerge from Meera Nanda to Meher Wan—try to diminish and dismiss a Hindu personality.
His Vedantic science was wrong. He was considered great only because of nationalist pride. He was proved wrong in his own times. But when despite all that if he stands the test of time, then de-Hinduise him.
His life as a pilgrimage in science could have taken him from Brahmo-monotheism to Vedantic non-dualism and got him anchored in that unity. But call him a Sufi. Try to play down his Hindu identity. Make him look like he never cared for or even relinquished his Hindu identity. At best it was just an accident of birth.
Then make him a Sufi of science. If get caught – one can be sure of the next line of defence – cry communalism and take that high moral stand and say ‘are not Vedanta and Sufism one and the same?’
On the whole this biography is a warning - how hyped biographies are going to indulge in civilisational distortions on diverse fronts.
Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.
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