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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 37 September 9, 2023

A Tribute to Akshay Dutta – the pioneer Bengali rationalist | Jayanta Kumar Ghosal

Saturday 9 September 2023


by Jayanta Kumar Ghosal

Romesh Chandra Dutta, the doyen of 19th Century Bengali Literature, wrote, “Akshay Kumar Dutta and Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar were the true successors of Raja Rammohan Rai. They inherited his strong enthusiasm for social reform and devoted their lives to the good of their country. And they also perfected the literary prose style of Bengal which was first rudely shaped by Raja Rammohan Rai.”

Akshay Kumar and Iswar Chandra both were born in 1820, the first was senior by two months. Both worked for social reforms. Akshay Dutta deliberately engaged himself in the task of shaping the thoughts of people around him. He played the main role in the social reformation movements of Vidyasagar not only with Brahmo Samaj but with actively associating himself with many social organisations. As well as encouraged various social movements in different ways and took active role in almost all reformation works at that time.

This great social thinker of 19th century Bengal sincerely wanted to bring about changes in the mental state of people spreading scientific education among them. As the editor of famous ‘Tatwabodhini Patrika’ he spread rationalism and modern thoughts. He keenly observed the changes in the 19th-century western world. Scientific and technological developments occurred in this century which western world surpassed the previous centuries.

Akshay Dutta rightly realised that modern western world discarded all ineffective old ways of life, rejected prejudices, and began running fast towards an enlightened goal. The enlightened people of Western World faced changes with the rise of new questions. The questions were on the relationship between nature and human being and many more things which faced abrupt changes with the rise of new ideas and questions mainly based on modern scientific thoughts.

The great Indologist Haraprasad Sashtri described “Akshay Kumar Dutta was the first writer to introduce western outlook and mentality among Bengali Youths. He is the moral preceptor of New Bengal.” It is also to be noted that western ideas began to percolate long before through the writings of Rammohan Roy and through the journals of the Hindu College elite. But it must be said that the famous ‘Tatwabodhini Patrika’ of which Akshay Dutta was the editor for long twelve years (1843-1855) exercised remarkable influence over educated youths who were searching eagerly a way out of orthodoxy and convention.

While he was a student his opinions started changing. He read Pope’s translation of the ‘Iliad’ and also an English version of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’. He observed the remarkable similarity between popular Hinduism and the pre-Christian religions of Europe in early medieaval times. The conviction grew in him that Hinduism like the religions of Greece and Rome, had no basis other than in human imagination . He was convinced that the mythological accounts were imaginary. He felt that something must be wrong with religion when it can allow such false ideas about the real world to go unchecked and unquestioned, while it was so sure about the nature of what it called ‘ultimate reality’. He tried earnestly to understand how the scientists arrived at their conclusion.

He believed that the Universe, of which the other name is Nature, was the great original scripture and the careful observation and investigation could help man discover the laws that regulate Nature’s Life. He declared “Universal Nature is our scripture. Pure rationalism is our preceptor. Whatever truth has been discovered by Bhaskara and Aryabhatta, Newton and Laplace, forms part of our scripture. Whatever logical theories have been propounded by Gautam and Kanada, Bacon and Comte, are also our scripture.” He considered knowledge to form a spectral continuum, both increased in volume and enriched by generations of enquirers.

Today when the Hindutwabadis are raising their ugly heads and spreading myths/rumours among the masses joining hands with the different sections of Hindu Community capitalising their growing discontent due to political and economic situation. In order to combat them the rational and scientific thoughts are to be spread which Akshay Dutta pioneered. Through his writing he inspired people to work for the rights of women and the working class particularly the peasantry rightly understanding that they are the backbone of our society. In two articles he exposed severity of exploitation and the inhuman extent of torture on them by the native landlords and indigo-planters. He did not hesitate to extend his strong support to the Bengal peasantry through his writings. He wrote several other articles on their inhuman livelihood.

He devoted a major time to a critical study of the various systems of Hindu philosophy and Hindu religious sects with their different practices. His research work was published in two volumes as ‘Bharatbarshiya Upasak Sampradaya’(Indian Religious Sects, Vol-I, II). In the second volume he mentioned that the central fact of Hinduism which distinguishes it from all other major religions is that it has no single creed, and its systems of philosophy like ‘Sankhya’ and Vaiseshika’ are to large extent secular and invoke no higher authority other than human intelligence.

He was directly concerned with problems of education. He served as a teacher of Tattawabodhini Pathsala at Bansberia in Hoogly and as the Head master of Vidyasagar’s Calcutta Normal School and wrote some textbooks. He laid maximum stress upon education. He opined that education was needed not only for the moral and intellectual benefit of the people but also for the well being of their material condition. He demanded free compulsory education for all children upto the age of fifteen to be provided by the government and the medium of instruction is vernacular. Side by side he said, “Government should establish and maintain schools of technology as well as of agriculture. .....Engineering, ship building and the process of manufacturing instruments should be taught.” In his opinion there should be provision for majority of the students for ‘technical and vocational education, instead of theoretical university education,...’

Akshay Dutta along with Vidyasagar were the pioneers of rationalistic, empiricist and inductive ideas in Bengal. They were not fully successful in their mission yet their attempt holds a great lesson for the future, particularly during this time when rationalism and scientific temperament have been pushed backward.

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