Ashok R. Kelkar





The expression ‘Indian Renaissance’ is, in my opinion, a misnomer. I further submit that its continued use has misled our thinking.  I do not know who was the first person, Indian or possibly European, to coin this expression.  Whoever the person may have been, it is obvious that the choice of the expression is based on some kind of analogy.  What the Renaissance is to the history of Europe, namely, an ushering in of the Modern Age in succession to the Middle Ages, so be the Indian Renaissance to the history of India, namely, an ushering in of the Modern Age in succession to the Indian Middle Ages.  Now up to a point in the perspective of World History of which the history of the Indian Civilization, of the cultural zone of South Asia is a past, this line of reasoning makes sense – with the reservation that some thinkers have placed the beginning of the Modern Age in South Asia to the coming of the Mughal dynasty to the North and the coming of the Portuguese to the South.  Justice M.G. Ranado even, went to the length of likening the bhakti movement to the Protestant Reformation.  Now without looking deeper into the historical issues, I should at the same time like to point out that there is some need to identify what is meant by the ethos of Medieval Europe and the ethos of Renaissance Europe before the issue of motivating factors and their effects could be taken up.


            Medieval Europe can be identified with a feudal social order, a Church-dominated cultural order, and a personality directed by the Other (whether the expression ‘the Other’ can be understood in its widest sense). In contrast to this Medieval ethos we can set up another abstraction, namely, the Renaissance ethos.  Renaissance Europe can be identified with a mercantile social order, a history-oriented cultural order, and a personality directed by a search for a new order. (The Protestant Reformation is simply a part of the Renaissance).


            Now, what do we find when we turn to the nineteenth-century Indian resurgence that we associate with names like Rama Mohan Roy and M.G. Ranade?  To begin with, it is fragmented by religion (e.g. the Muslims and professionals drawn into it), by classes (e.g. the scholars and professionals were only imperfectly in touch with the new merchants like Jagannath Shankarsheth and merchant –industrialists like Jamshedji Tata and with the peasant discontent), by region (e.g. in spite of being a seat of the East India rule and of one of the oldest universities, Madras did not figure as a Renaissance Centre along with Bombay and Calcutta). Next, it is not all-pervasive: it is interesting that Marx did not reach the Indian intellectuals till the beginning of the twentieth-century, that while literature, the theatre, and the visual arts were affected by the new ethos, music and dance were left severely alone, and that the critique of religion was not followed up by the emergence of a new philosophy.  Finally, the Renaissance man was largely conspicuous by his absence.  The nearest we come to personalities touching upon many sides of life are Justice Ranade, economist, historian, statesman, religious and social reformer; Rabindranath Tagore, poet, painter, a thinker and founder of Visvabharati and Sriniketan; and Mahatma Gandhi, political and social activist, religious and economic critic.  One has only to look at these names and the impact of those personalities and to compare these names with Indian ____ on the scene to realize that the so-called Indian Renaissance is a far cry from the European Renaissance.


            To conclude, we certainly need a handy designation for the historical episode. But the choice of the expression ‘Indian Renaissance’ is not apposite. If we have to think of it as an analogue to a European historical episode, then the European Enlightenment comes much nearer to the ethos of the Indian movement. In Marathi I much prefer the expression used by D.K. Bodekar, namely, Bharatiya prabodhan. Actually, the gap between the label ‘Indian Renaissance’ and the reality is a case of a tragic failure on the part of Indians to take their future in their own hands.  (Parenthetically, I should like to point out that the debacle of post-Independence India is in part traceable to this failure.  Any rectification of the contemporary failure has to being with a critique of the Indian Prabodhan.)  The continued use of the misnomer makes us blind to the basic failure of the Indian Prabodhan. It is time that we rid ourselves of this blind spot if not of the misnomer that protects that blind spot.  The massive survival of the Feudalistic attitude and tactics is an example of the failure in modernizing India.


Postscript :


            Etymologically of course the Renaissance was the revival of Greek learning.  (The Indian Prabodhan did have its small share of rediscovery of the Sanskrit classics like Bhavabhuti and Kautilya in addition to the tradition canon.)  The Indian Prabodhan (that is, teaching and awakening) did not stand for the revival of the past but for the regeneration of the Indian society by the assimilation of western values and the rediscovery of Indian values of the distant past rather than the immediate medieval past.




            Read at the seminar on Indian Renaissance : Problems and perspectives, Indian Council of Philosophical Research at the University of Poona, Pune, 16-17 August 1984.  This has remained unpublished.