Indian Renaissance - National Awakening




Lexicons call Renaissance “new birth.” The European Renaissance which started in Italy in the 16th century signified the birth of Modern Europe. Similarly, the Indian Renaissance which began in the early phase of the 19th century resulted in the birth of modern India. The question, however, arises: What exactly do we mean by the birth of Modern India?


The land, rivers, mountains, seas, etc., of the country remain what they have always been: they neither die nor are they born anew. The national habits, folkways, culture, religion, etc., of the people also continue to be almost alike; so also the general composition of the Indian people. Or we can say, amidst certain invariable changes there is a deep underlying continuity.


What, then, is it which can be said to have been newly-born with the advent of the so-called renaissance?


What is called renaissance or new birth in India is nothing other than the awakening of the mind, soul or psyche of the nation after a long or short span of sleep; it is the galvanising into creative activity of the dormant life-force of the national spirit. It may be described as a renewal of the national springs of life when they seemed all but choked and about to dry up. It is the emergence and unhampered functioning of the free and creative spirit of the country. To realise the significance of this statement we must bear in mind that every nation, like each individual, has in it a creative principle which is always seeking to convert its potentialities into actualities. India, too, possesses a creative force. We may call it “spirituality.”


How Renaissance began in India


            The Indian Renaissance begins with the Modern Period. And the Modern Period starts with the British domination in India. The British rule brought political unity to India which she was lacking for centuries. It also brought with it a new and expanding religion, a different culture and civilisation which has had enormous impact on the life and mind of the people of India.


Raja Ram Mohun Roy, generally acclaimed as the prophet of the Indian renaissance or Indian awakening or Indian national­ism, took up the task of the study of English language and literature immediately after starting his crusade against idolatry, politheism and Sati. In other words, his movement for the reform of Hinduism and his call to his countrymen to go back to the teachings of the Upanishads antidate his familiarity with English literature and Western ideas.


This important fact leads us to assert that the impact of the West could at best be the occasion for the birth of the national awakening, but definitely not a veracause. On the contrary, the spirit of India was awakening the minds of a number of eminent persons to raise India from its deep slumber and recovering its spiritual heritage, although in some form or other the impact of the West cannot be ignored to this effect.


The British Impact (negative aspect)


The important fact to be noted is that with its roots in a materialistic view of the universe and self-untreadness as well, the Western civilization was incapable of reviving the spiritual culture of ancient India directly unto the floor. It will be too much to hold that a civilization (i.e. West) which exaggerates bodily and mental life could directly lead to the discovery of the inner spirit of man and its immense possibilities. At best, it could give rise to conditions under which the dormant creative faculty of the Indian spirit could be revived.


Another important feature to be born in mind is that the first and immediate effect of the introduction of Western pattern of education in our country by a joint effort of some of the leading citizens of Calcutta and the Christian missionaries – in general­–has more a negative effect in this regard. No doubt it became a centre of intellectual revolution, a nursery for the origin and dissemination of new ideas of change in education, culture, society and politics. But unfortunately its alumini denationalised Indian spirit instead of being any help to recover the spiritual heritage of the past. They began to take pride in denouncing everything Indian. To them the ancient heritage of India was anathema. They denounced it outright as vile and corrupt and unworthy of the regard of rational beings.


This is how they became great admirers of everything Western and opened the doors for India to develop an attitude of contempt and inferiority complex towards their great religions and cultural traditions. Referring to this state of affairs, Prof. D. S. Sarma rightly observes:


“This was the first time perhaps that the Indian mind was thrown off its balance. Even the devastating Muslim invasions and conquests had not produced a result of this kind.” (Sarma, D. S. Hinduism through the ages. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. P. 58.)


British Impact (Positive side)


Every “no-moon” has its positive side to show at some or other time. And the impact of Western thought is no exception. It gave momentum to the renaissance movement in India. English education enabled Indian mind for the first time to have a closer view of Western culture. As a result of which the mental outlook of the educated Indian mind was broadened. Indian people now could understand and appreciate the ideological forces that were the living force for the West. They also felt the direct impact of a great industrial, scientific and technical civilization which was in a process; to change the shape of the world, it also engendered in them a new critical and reflective attitude and they became more conscious of the shortcomings of their own society. Moreover, they could be conscious of evils that had entered Indian society through the ages and had almost depri­ved it of its dynamism and creative vigour.


The Indian thinkers were now determined to reform society and purge it of all its evils. Infanticide, child marriage, Sati, enforced widowhood, purdah, Devadasi, untouchability, caste system and prohibition of foreign travel appeared to them as the plagues of Hindu society which were to be rooted out altogether. Above all, the Indian thinkers and reformers of this period condemned and discouraged the tendency of some English edu­cated people to entertain blind and uncritical admiration for everything Western and cherish hostility towards their own cul­ture and civilization.



Some reformers and leaders of this century aroused in people a sense of patriotism and greater admiration and respect for its rich cultural tradition. To this effect they also got considerable support from a section of Western indologists, orientalists and some other Western friends and well wishers of India.


Translations of Sanskrit texts into English created sensation in the Indian mind and made English-educated people to realize the greatness and depth of Indian culture and civilization. The names of some of the great Western indologists and orientalists to be particularly mentioned here are Sir William Jones, Sir Charles Wilkins, Colebrooke, Wilson, Muir, Monier Williams, Max Mueller, James Fergusson, Dr. Buffler, Dr. Fleet and Havel.


That is how the many-faceted contribution of Britishraj is recognised for the birth of Indian Renaissance Movement. But some scholars like Sri Aurobindo would not like to recognise the British impact, rather would bestow the credit on Indian spirituality or the inherent Sakti. At best British impact might have had indirect effect in a secondary level. So in what follows, we shall discuss how the Indian spirit is responsible for Indian renaissance.


Indian Spirituality and Indian Renaissance


It is quite evident that the spread of Western education could not by itself have fostered and promoted the renaissance unless there had not been a genuine urge from within, a spirit of renais­sance aiming at the revival of what was noble and elevating in India’s past. That is how we are led to assess that though the West has had its influence on Indian minds for a national resur­gence, the main factor responsible for this is the Sakti of India which has thrown up a large number of high-souled Indians who incarnated in themselves the new spirit of awakening. How the sprout of Renaissance came out to stand as a gigantic banyan tree is the stimulation of the West to revive the dormant intellectual and critical impulse of the people, to force them to turn to their past and recover the spiritual heritage, and put the revived spirit face to face with novel conditions and ideas and the urgent necessity of understanding and conquering them.


The so-called Renaissance Movement is not confined to religion only. It is so comprehensive that it reflects almost all departments of national life; a many-sided movement concerned with rejuvenating all aspects of Indian life and thought, educa­tion, humanities, the social sciences, the physical sciences, the economic, political and social life of the country, literature and the other fine arts: Philosophy and Religion.


It is thus naturally difficult to count all the departments of activity which were shaped by the Renaissance Movement. Raja Ram Mohun Roy was concerned in a way with education and social life and its reformation and some aspects of the Hindu religion. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda liberalised and modernised Hinduism and took it back to its universal roots and form. They were concerned with the very soul of the Indian Renaissance.


Having thus analysed some factors which contributed to the Indian Renaissance, we may now set forth its various phases.


The Different Phases of the Indian Renaissance Movement


As is said earlier, the impact of the West on India was to some extent destructive. Hinduism, as it was understood and practised in those days, was unable to withstand the terrific forces of the Western onslaught. Many of its ideas, institutions and practices were unable to stand those examinations and scrutiny and were therefore summarily rejected by the young men of Bengal who had received Western education. They became English in taste, opinions, words and intellect and the dream of Macaulay was being realized to some extent.


The educated youth became denationalised and began to ape European manners and to look with irreverence, if not with contempt, upon the past civilization of the Hindus. As Lord Ronald says that westernisation became the fashion of the day and westernism demanded its votaries that they should cry down the civilisation of their own country. The more ardent their admiration for everything European, the more vehement became their denunciation of everything Eastern.


But fortunately, this spirit did not spread widely. It failed to filter down to the masses nor could it affect all the educated youngmen. The factor which India could receive from complete westernisation was that she lives centrally in the spirit, with less buoyancy and vivacity and therefore with a less ready adaptiveness of creation, but a greater, intenser, more brooding depth. In this respect India differs greatly from Japan who lives centrally in her temperament and in her aesthetic sense and has therefore been more rapidly assimilative of Western culture.


When men like Raja Ram Mohun Roy in Bengal and Mahadev Govind Ranade in Maharashtra who had some knowledge of the past to react differently to the West, by way of looking upon the past culture from a new angle and tried to understand and reshape it in the light of new ideas and knowledge to suit the modern society, there arose Indian renaissance. They became the pioneers of social reforms and initiated the liberal tradition in Indian thought. Though Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Justice Ranade are famous as great social reformers, they were no less interested in political and educational matters where they showed remarkable towers of their minds. Of course, for several reasons they could not exercise their powers in these fields at large.


We have to look to men like Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta, Gopala Krishna Gokhale and Surendranath Banerjee who with many others, introduced, formulated and strengthened the Western pattern of the so-called liberal tradition in the political thinking of modern India. This, without any hesitation, may be regarded as the first phase of the Indian renaissance which was the outcome of Western impact on Indian spirituality.


The contrast feature, as it could be said the next phase of the renaissance, is said to have been carried on by Swami Dayauanda Saraswati who did not know English at all. Thus this patriot re­mained uneffected from the influence of English civilisation and asked his countrymen to go back to the purity of the Vedic civili­zation. The Arya Samaj founded by him was mainly responsible for the awakening among the people of Northern India as well as for social and religious reform.


During the third phase, there arose a great figure in the personality of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa who laid emphasis on the recovery of the old spiritual knowledge and experience in all its splendour, depth and fullness as the first and the most essential work of the religious and the social reform. His great disciple, Swami Vivekananda, carried out the flag flying adding a new dimension by interpreting Vedanta scientifically and up­lifting the masses by channelising their thought in political and philosophical realm.


In the pronouncements of Rabindranath Tagore and Sri Aurobindo we see the fourth stage of Indian renaissance. Their contribution through literature helped Indian renaissance to be­come fuller and more self-conscious, and nationalism purer and nobler. The tradition both in Indian renaissance and political thinking of Modern India finds its high water-mark in Tilak, Lajapat Rai and Bepin Chandra Pal.


The most significant phase starts with Mahatma Gandhi. He contributed immensely towards giving a new direction and form to the Renaissance Movement and brought forth into active life some of the old and characteristic features of ancient Indian culture. He was mainly responsible for turning the national struggle for independence into new channels and thereby made a rich addition to social, religious and political ideas.


Assessment of Indian Renaissance Movement


Thus the overall description suggests that the social, politi­cal and philosophical thinking of modern India has been shaped under the stress of different forces and contains several currents of thoughts. They cannot be assessed as a consistent or system­atic whole. The reason for this non-integration may be found in the mutual incompatibility of the Western influence and the Indian culture. India would have been completely westernized like Japan if she had accepted Western culture without a second thought. But fortunately she has tried to Indianise what she got from the West. This has been the chief aim and purpose of the Indian Renaissance Movement which is yet to see its end-point.


Till this day Western impact has not been uprooted from India, though Britishers have left the nation since more than three decades. Nor Indian renaissance has come to its saturation. In its process, even now, the renaissance is effected by Western thought, but certainly not uncritically. The process of “Manana” and “Nidhidhyasana” has saved Indian culture to get its position in the peak. The task of reconstructing a new India, which ought to retain what is of value in the ancient culture and absorb what the new scientific and technical knowledge has to give is still going on. No better job can be discharged to put the characteristics of the Indian renaissance in a nutshell than to quote Sri Aurobindo – its greatest exponent and interpreter. He writes:


“It is rather a process of a new creation in which the spiritual power of the Indian mind remains supreme, recovers its truths, accepts whatever it finds sound or true, useful or inevitable of the modern idea or form but so transmutes and Indianises it, so absorbs and transforms it that its foreign character disappears and it becomes another harmo­nious element in the characteristic working of the ancient goddess, the Sakti of India, mastering and taking possession of the modern influence no longer possessed or overcome by it. (Sri Aurobindo, The Renaissance in India. Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry. pp. 21-22.)


Since the renaissance has exerted a great deal of impact on the proceedings of Indian National Movement playing a nota­ble role in shaping its political, philosophical and social think­ing, it can very well be inferred that the later must have been greatly shaped and moulded by its central feature, namely spirituality. In its most representative and leading thinkers like Lokamanya Tilak, Tagore and Sri Aurobindo and Mahatma Gandhi, social, philosophical and political thinking stands at the edge of religion.


If the distinctive feature of the ancient Greek political thought was its ethics and that of the Roman thought legal approach and if German political thought is immensely influenced by its metaphysical trend, in modern Indian thinkers philosophy, politics and religion have been closely knitted very successfully. Gandhiji dazzles as the best illustration in its favour. He made it as the mission of his life to interact religion and politics.