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Remembering Akshay Kumar Dutta, the progressive Bengali thinker behind the reformist Brahmo Samaj

By Amiya P Sen, Sahapedia

Progressive thinker and writer Akshay Kumar Dutta (1820−86) remains an unsung hero from renascent Bengal (1817−57), a period that had its fair share of celebrities and heroes. Dutta possessed not only a sharp intellect, but the courage and conviction to articulate certain views or proffer arguments that proved rather objectionable and distasteful to people of his class in contemporary Calcutta (now Kolkata). For one, he was behind the reformist Brahmo Samaj, renouncing its faith in the Vedas as pramana (proof), or an authentic source for Hinduism; surely a revolutionary step for the time. Dutta found the Vedas to be internally inconsistent—as any work of human authorship was apt to be — and argued instead that ‘nature’ itself and not any humanly authored text would be better qualified to be called a ‘scripture’.

With his friend and contemporary Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820−91), Dutta represents an exceptional stream of thought and consciousness. Quite extraordinarily, at a time when religion had become the preferred mode of self-expression for Western-educated Hindus, both Vidyasagar and Dutta extended their critique of contemporary Hindu faith and practice to the point of incredulous irreverence. While Vidyasagar argued that he had no need for a God who was powerless in preventing the merciless oppression of the weak and the innocent, Dutta insisted that honest human labour was likely to be as productive by itself as labour coupled with prayer. In true algebraic fashion, Dutta placed the value of faith and prayer as ‘zero’. At least in the case of Dutta, this would largely explain his gradual fading from public memory, even in his native Bengal.

Interpreting the West

 Remembering Akshay Kumar Dutta, the progressive Bengali thinker behind the reformist Brahmo Samaj

Akshay Kumar Datta. Image courtesy: WikimediaCommons

In some important ways, Dutta carried forward a line of argument first advanced in colonial Bengal by Rammohun Roy (1774−1833), advocating the progressive replacement of archaic and outmoded forms of indigenous knowledge by that which was socially and professionally useful. Like Roy again, Dutta was an admirer of the English philosopher Francis Bacon (1743−1803) and his inductive line of reasoning, which supported scientific observation and experiments. And like Roy again, he was an advocate of woman-related reform. In the 1860s and 1870s, when conservatism had begun to take hold of the Hindu mind, Dutta was among the few to consistently support both widow remarriages and legal abolition of multiple marriages among upper-caste Hindu males.

Dutta’s lasting contribution is his creative interpretation of the moral and scientific discourse of the contemporary West for the educated, middle-class Hindus of his day. Here, one can detect three major influences on his thought — all of which originated in contemporary or near contemporary Western thinkers. First, there was the English deist, William Paley (1743−1805), second, the Scottish phrenologist George Combe (1788−1858) and third, the French social theorist, Auguste Comte (1798–1857). From Paley, Dutta imbibed a deistic view of the world that spoke of a distant God uninterested in the day-to-day functioning of his creation. This argument he then joined to Combe’s ideas (from The Constitution of Man, 1828) of a set of perfect natural laws, the observance of which assured human happiness. Such ideas Dutta formulated in his two well-known treatises — Bahya Bastur Sahit Manavprakritir Sambandha Vichar (A Treatise on the Relationship between Human Nature and the External World, 2 volumes, 1851 and 1853) and Dharmaneeti (Principles of Morality, 1856). In late life, the ideas of Comte led him to a spell of agnosticism. Here, it would be interesting to note that unlike Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, also briefly influenced by the Positivism of Comte, Dutta did not take Comte to be an atheist (niriswara). If at all, he debated the nature of God, not his very existence.

Education, Science and Divinity

The intellectual legacy of Dutta manifested itself broadly in two ways. First, he was pre-eminently an educationist and pedagogue who successfully ran schools and experimented with the teaching and dissemination of useful and practical knowledge, suitably adapted from the West. Arguably, he was also the first in his generation to invent a scientific vocabulary in the Bengali language for the teaching of elementary science. Like Vidyasagar, he was a successful author of school textbooks, as for instance, Charupath (Elementary Lessons, 1853–54), Bhugol (Geography, 1851) and Padarthavidya (Physics, 1856). That apart, he also served as the editor of the well-known journal Tattwabodhini Patrika, the organ of the Tattwabodhini Sabha (founded in 1839) which, in its time, was a widely read journal in educated Bengali society. As a writer and editor, Dutta contributed substantially to the improvement of Bengali journalism and the evolution of modern Bengali prose.

Second, Dutta’s argument that it was no less important to understand creation than the creator himself, reinforces the foundations of empirical science.

It is somewhat ironic that perhaps Dutta’s best-known work is a two-volume narrative on Hindu religious communities in contemporary India (Bharatvarshiya Upasak Sampraday). In the first volume, Dutta displays great erudition and the ability to muster ideas and methodologies across disciplines like history, philology and religious studies. This work, believed to be based on the Orientalist HH Wilson’s classic account of the Hindu religious sects and communities (A Sketch of the Religious Sects of the Hindus, 1828), actually goes well beyond it. Dutta carried out extensive field-work, investigating extant Hindu religious communities and a third volume might well have emerged but for the untimely death of its author.

For a good part of his life, Dutta struggled against poverty, illness and an unhappy conjugal life. Estranged from his wife and family, he spent the last years of his life virtually as a recluse in the village of Bali, a few miles off Calcutta. There, he pursued his consuming interest in science, studying and cataloguing extant fossil remains of plant and animal life. Friends visiting him at Bali were struck by the huge portraits of Rammohun Roy, scientists Thomas Henry Huxley and Isaac Newton that adorned the walls of his drawing room. In hindsight, it might be reasonable to say that the choice of these portraits also testifies to the acumen and breadth of interest in a man whose work and memory has somehow not endured among his countrymen.

This is article is part of Saha Sutra on, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. The author is a historian with an interest in the intellectual and cultural history of modern India, and has written extensively on figures from colonial Bengal.

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Updated Date: May 19, 2019 10:55:54 IST