Though Bengal is proud of having produced the great Vedantin Madhusudana Saraswati in the sixteenth century, Swami Vivekananda lamented in 1888. 'The Vedas may well be said to have fallen quite out of vogue [in Bengal].' And it was Swamiji's desire to revive the study of the Vedas and Vedanta in this part of the country. The present volume, Vedanta in Bengal, by Dr. R. K. DasGupta, is based on twelve thought-provoking lectures given by the author at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture. These lectures give a brief survey of the influence of Vedanta on Bengal's religious and philosophical thoughts from the Pala-Sena period to the modern era, and they point to the undeniable fact that Vaishnavism, Shaktism, the Brahmo Movement, the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Movement, and other religious movements in Bengal all had their foundation in Vedanta.
The author focuses his attention first on 'vernacular Vedanta', which first appeared in the literary and philosophical history of the country in the South in the eighth and ninth centuries in the Tamil Vaishnava songs of the Alvars. This movement became manifest later in Bengal in the songs of Vidyapati, Chandidas, Ramprasad, and others, as also in the Baul songs and in the writings of Bankimchandra and others; and the author has shown how it imperceptibly but convincingly acted on the great minds of Ramanuja in the South and Rammohun Roy, Ramakrishna, Rabindranath, and Aurobindo in Bengal.
The pervasive influence of Tantra on the Bengali mind notwithstanding, it is Vedanta-either Dvaita or Advaita or both-that has spread its influence the most. Vedanta has without doubt, contributed to a distinct attitude of mind, a spiritual temper, and a whole outlook on life which is reflected in the writings, songs, and kathakata of the people of Bengal. Tracing the development of 'vernacular Vedanta', mentioned above, the author observes that in the period of Caitanya, Vedanta emerged as a philosophy of bhakti of Dvaita Vedanta. He also notes that the Vedantic renaissance as presented by Rammohun was not Shankara's monism, for Rammohun held that the highest religion of the Upanishads was 'monotheistic, this worldly and not outworldly'. The Vedanta of Rammohun's contemporary Mrityunjay Vidyalankar also was a theistic Vedanta; and Devendranath too rejected the doctrines of monism, Incarnation, and Maya (illusion). Contrary to popular belief, the author asserts that Keshab did not Christianize the Brahmo Dharma. Keshab was a Vedantin, but to make the Brahmo Movement universal he introduced some popular features.
Though nurtured in the spirit of Vedanta that is peculiar to Bengal and which permeates its life, Sri Ramakrishna realized the truth of Advaita Vedanta under the tutelage of a traditional teacher, Totapuri. According to the author, Sri Ramakrishna's Vedanta was many-sided, yet he taught his disciples Dvaita-bhakti Vedanta. The author also contends that it was Vivekananda's belief that Vedanta was an much monistic as dualistic and that Swamiji was both a Shankarite. But the author also points out that Vivekananda held Advaita to be the summum bonum of man's spiritual life even though he believed that Advaita was not the only philosophy of the Upanishads or of Vedanta.
The author's search for Vedanta in Bengali religious songs in general deserves special mention, and he has shown how it influenced the people of Bengal, great or ordinary. And as Vedanta became manifest in the lives and works of the great minds of Bengal, some special characteristics of this philosophy were revealed in each of them. For example, Rabindranath's Advaita did not accept the dissolution of the individual in Brahman; rather, he believed in the uplift of the individual's consciousness with Brahman. There is a tenderness of feeling in his religious poetry which perhaps cannot be contained in the traditional metaphysical strait-jacket of any school of Vedanta, yet, as the author discovers: '...there is an advaya where the endlessness of man is in union with the endlessness of God. I call it a New Upanishad and a new Vedanta.' On the other hand, in the case of Sri Aurobindo, the author chose to call his philosophy 'Sri Aurobindo's Vedanta, Advaita Vedanta in a special sense. It is Advaitic or monistic in the sense that it affirms the Oneness and unity of Brahman. But for Sri Aurobindo the One manifests itself in the Many without renouncing its Oneness.'
The author's incisive analysis of the Vedantic influence on the great minds of Bengal bears testimony to the author's immense erudition as well as to his original thinking.
2 June 2003
I am grateful to this Institute's Secretary, Swami Prabhanandaji Maharaj, for his choosing my twelve lectures on Vedanta in Bengal delivered at this Institute for publication in a volume. Professor Visvanath Chatterjee, Associate Editor of the Institute's Bulletin, has very painstakingly revised the manuscript giving an appropriate title to each lecture and prepared an index. I thank Swami Chatterjee for this valuable work. I thank Swami Balabhadrananda for all that he has done for the publication of the work.
I thank Swami Prabhanandaji Maharaj for his very generously blessing my little book with a Foreword. I am no less thankful to him for his saving me from the grave error of excluding Madhusudana Saraswati from my account of Vedantic studies in Bengal.
Vedanta in Bengal is not really a comprehensive study of Vedantic ideas as they have entered into Bengali religious and philosophical thought as expressed in our literature in Bengali and English. I have made only a small beginning and I hope some of our scholars will, ere long, present a deeper and more extensive study of the subject.
A 4-3 Golf Green Kolkata 700095 9 June 2003
R. K. DasGupta
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