Bengal's Forgotten Prophet

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John A. Stevens
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


John A. Stevens’ Keshub: Bengal’s Forgotten Prophet is an intellectual biography of Keshab Chandra Sen (1838–84), the influential Bengali leader and social reformer who was a close associate of the Bengali ecstatic, Ramakrishna (1836-1886), as well as the head of the Bengali reform movement known as the Brahmo Samaj. Stevens traces how Keshab was born into a wealthy upper class Bengali family, and was drawn to the Brahmo Samaj of Rammohan Roy (1772-1883), which was committed to a form of religious universalism and liberal social reform grounded in English Universalist thought, and Roy’s rationalist interpretation of the Upanishads (chapter 2). Stevens then continues to outline Keshab’s increasing contacts with English Universalists, his belief in the providential nature of British rule for India, and his dissatisfaction with the Brahmo leadership’s inclination towards gradual social reform (chapters 3 and 4).

This dissatisfaction would cause a decisive break between Keshab and the conservative Brahmo leadership, with Keshab’s splinter group de-emphasizing the Hindu nature of the Brahmo Samaj in favor of an eclectic religious universalism that was shaped by a mixture of Hinduism, Christianity, and a commitment to strong social reform. Stevens rightly notes, however, that Keshab’s image as a type of liberal reformer was paralleled by a deep, internal transformation that left him open to the influence of a more emotional form of Hindu religiosity and mysticism, which was brought into Keshab’s life by Ramakrishna (chapter 5). This transformation was followed by a break between Keshab and his followers over Keshab’s agreement to the arranged marriage of his fourteen-year-old daughter. This break caused Keshab to establish the Church of the New Dispensation (Nababidhan), which proclaimed Keshab to be a prophet whose unique access to divine inspiration would usher in a new age of religious harmony (chapter 6).

Stevens does not embrace earlier scholarly views that emphasize Keshab as emblematic of how the elites of Bengali society (bhadralok) were either the great harbingers of modernity in Indian society, or psychologically flawed individuals who could not decide if they were Indian or English (6,16). Keshab believed strongly that one could lead the life of a loyal, liberal Anglicized Indian without having to sacrifice their personal life as a quasi-Hindu ascetic, but his inability to hold these two frequently contradictory positions would eventually cause his career to unravel. Keshab’s attraction to devotional Hinduism was decried by those in England as a regression into superstition (151, 197-99); his acquiescence to British pressure to arrange his daughter’s marriage was viewed in India as a betrayal of Brahmo reform ideals (164-67); and his claims about the uniqueness of his prophethood led to a type of religious authoritarianism that undermined his claims concerning the universal accessibility of divine inspiration (200-01).

Whether or not Stevens is correct in describing Keshab as “forgotten” may be somewhat debatable. Keshab is still largely remembered in Bengal through his association with Ramakrishna, whose life continues to be celebrated in Bengali films, dramas, and television serials. There is no doubt, however, that Keshab fell into a state of obscurity after his death. The Brahmo Samaj and the Nababidhan both were unable to sustain themselves after Keshab’s death as they were both completely overshadowed by the influence of the Ramakrishna Mission and Visva-Bharati University who devalued or ignored the influence that Keshab had upon their respective founders, Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). This seems to be particularly the case with the Ramakrishna Mission narratives, where Keshab tends to be subordinated to Ramakrishna.

The Keshab, however, that emerges from Stevens’ pages is a man who was an intellectually complex individual with a very strong sense of purpose about his role in bettering India. Stevens accomplishes this portrait by paying detail to the intellectual contexts in which Keshab operated, but this attention to detail also tends to be the main weakness of Stevens’ narrative. The theoretical digressions that this book frequently takes to explain Keshab’s broader intellectual contexts make it difficult to follow the thread of Stevens’ argument, and tends to obscure our understanding of Keshab-the-person as opposed to Keshab-the-public-intellectual. This, in turn, may prove to be somewhat frustrating for non-specialists and casual readers looking for perhaps a more intimate introduction to Keshab’s life. This shortcoming, however, should not detract from the importance of this volume. There have been few sustained studies of the Brahmo Samaj since David Kopf’s 1979 book The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind (Princeton University Press) and Keshab: Bengal’s Forgotten Prophet represents what seems to be the first academic biogaphy of Keshab. For non-specialists and novices to Bengali religious and intellectual history, this book may somewhat daunting, but for upper level undergraduates, graduate students, and specialists, Steven’s book will prove to be a welcome look at one of the most neglected figures in 19th century Bengal.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shandip Saha is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Athabasca University. 

Date of Review: 
September 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John A. Stevens is a Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow at SOAS, University of London.


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