8th January 1884: Keshub Chandra Sen, social reformer and philosopher, died

A leading 19th century Bengali thinker and reformer who was influenced by Christian beliefs which he merged with Hindu philosophy to form a unique synthesis of religious thought, Keshub Chandra Sen was born on November 19, 1838 in Calcutta. He died on January 8, 1884.

Keshub, who played a pivotal role at an astonishingly young age in popularising the Hindu reformist movement Brahmo Samaj at a time when Calcutta was going through a period of great intellectual churning, came from a well-off and renowned family. His grandfather Ramkamal Sen (1783-1844) was the compiler of the first English-Bengali dictionary, co-founder of several leading institutions including the Hindu College, and the first Indian secretary of the Asiatic Society.

Keshub was 10 when his father Peary Mohon died. The boy was brought up by an uncle. After completing his school education, he joined the Hindu Metropolitan College.

Sill a teenager, he became attached to a Masonic lodge. He was influenced by the ideas of Brahmo Samaj at an early age. At 17 he established ‘The British India Society’. For a short while he worked as a bank clerk but found the “sober, monotonous” job “intolerable”, according to one account. 

Deeply interested in moral and spiritual questions, he joined the Brahmo Samaj in 1857. He read the works of the American reformist Theodore Parker and founded a society called Goodwill Fraternity in his own house. Keshub developed a close bond with the reformist leader Debendranath Tagore and together they made the Brahmo Samaj quite popular. For Debendranath the young and brilliant Keshub was the best thing to have happened to the Samaj. Keshub would lecture at the new Brahmo School and published the ideology of the creed, with an emphasis on attracting Bengali youth.

By 1860 Keshub was already attempting to evolve a new synthesis of Christian theology with its focus on the importance of repentance and prayer, and the reformist aspects of Hinduism.

In April 1862 Debendranath made Keshub the Acharya (minister) of the Brahmo Samaj, a move that did not go down well with other Samaj members. There were other differences between the older and younger members of the Samaj as well. In a lecture delivered in 1865, Keshub spoke against some of the ideologies of the Samaj.

Eventually in November 1866 the ‘Brahmo Samaj of India’ was established, which set itself as different from the ‘Adi Brahmo Samaj’. Some of the tenets of the Brahmo Samaj ofIndia, founded by Keshub, P.C. Mozoomdar and others, were: the wide universe is the temple of God; wisdom is the pure land of pilgrimage; faith is the root of all religions.  

In January 1868, Keshub founded the Tabernacle of New Dispensation and the following year the newly-built chapel was consecrated. He declared the “Church Universal” to be the “respiratory of all ancient wisdom and the receptacle of all modern science, which recognise in all prophets and saints a harmony, in all scriptures a unity and though all dispensations a continuity”.

He visited England in 1870 and addressed several gatherings there.

Keshub’s philosophy was strongly influenced by Biblical teachings. He often spoke of an “Asiatic Jesus”. In a passage he once wrote: “Behold, he cometh to us in his loose flowing garment, his dress and features altogether oriental, a perfect Asiatic in everything. Watch his movements and you will find genuine orientalism in all his habits and manners, in his uprising and downsitting, his going forth and his coming in, his preaching and ministry, his very language, style and tone. Indeed while reading the Gospel, we cannot but feel that we are quite at home when we are with Jesus, and that he is altogether one of us. Surely Jesus is our Jesus.”

Putting his work and speeches into context in ‘Christian Theologies From An Indian Perspective’, Sunand Sumithra writes: “[Keshub]…gave seeds for posterity to Indianise the Christian faith: the concept of divine-human, hidden Christ, Christ-centred integration, kenosis as self-emptying, the emphasis on the Holy Spirit, Christification, are some of the seeds which have yielded harvest with the later Indian interpreters of Christ…[Keshub accepted] the significance of Christ’s person, not just his teaching.” 

Keshub’s agreeing to marry his eldest daughter Suniti to the young ruler of Cooch Behar led to murmurs of discontent among a section of his fellow Brahmos as the girl was under 14 (the boy was 15). Eventually a liberal group of Brahmos formed their own splinter sect called Sadharan Brahmo Samaj in May 1878.

Keshub later grew closer to the saint Ramakrishna Paramhansa.

In his last years Keshub’s quest for a universal religion led to the formation of the Nava Bidhan (New Dispensation), which aimed to combine the best of the Eastern and the Western thought.

In the 45 years that he lived, Keshub’s intellectual and spiritual journey was steep. But ‘Indian nationalist’ is not a term generally used to describe him. The year after his death, the Indian National Congress was formed, and Indian nationalism would henceforth have a more coherent voice.

And yet Keshub, despite the intense and unfinished spiritual quest that formed the more central aspect of his life and work, could lay his finger on the pulse of British imperialism. In a lecture delivered at Calcutta Medical College way back in 1866, he said: “Many a European adventurer in this country seems to believe that he has a right to trample upon every unfortunate nigger with whom he comes in contact. This he believes to be heroism, and in this he seeks glory! But he forgets that to kick and trample upon one who is inferior in strength is not heroism, but base cowardice. What glory is there in abusing and maltreating a poor native? What glory is there in whipping and scourging a helpless native to death, under the infatuating influence of brutal anger?”

Also on this day:

1908 — Fearless Nadia, actress and stuntwoman in Indian films, was born

1929 — Saeed Jaffrey, Indian-born British actor, was born

1936 — J.N. Dixit, Indian Foreign Secretary, was born 

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