|Brajendra Nath Seal
Brajendra Nath Seal
Kolkata, Bengal, British India
Sir Brajendra Nath Seal (Bengali: ব্রজেন্দ্রনাথ শীল) (1864–1938) was a renowned Bengali Indian humanist philosopher. He was one of the greatest original thinkers of the Brahmo Samaj and did work in comparative religion and on the philosophy of science. He systematized the humanism of the Brahmo philosophical thought. In his work, he underscored the tectonic shift in Brahmo theology in the late eighteenth century from liberal theism to secular humanism. Like his better known ideological precursor Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Seal was an educator, a firm believer in the cause of rationalism and scientific enquiry, a polymath in his own right and yet at the same time a preacher of humanism as a religious doctrine (as opposed to organized religion).
He was born in Calcutta in 1864. His father Mohendranath Seal was one of the earliest followers of Comtean positivism in Bengal. As a student of philosophy at the General Assembly's Institution (now Scottish Church College, Calcutta), he became attracted to Brahmo theology. And along with his better known classmate and friend Narendranath Dutta, the future Swami Vivekananda, he regularly attended meetings of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj. Later they would part ways with Dutta aligning himself with Keshub Chunder Sen's New Dispensation (and later on to found his own religious movement, the Ramakrishna Mission) and Seal staying on as an initiated member. During this time spent together, both Seal and Dutta sought to understand the intricacies of faith, progress and spiritual insight into the works of John Stuart Mill, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer and G.W.F. Hegel. Seal had a natural aptitude for mathematics and logic.
Although he had started out as college lecturer, his deep insatiable thirst for knowledge, coupled with financial constraints made him shift from one college to another (the colleges where Seal taught include Morris College, Nagpur and Krishnanath College, Berhampur). During the time period 1883 to 1907, he composed his first major work New Essays in Criticism, in which he applied Hegelian dialectics to literary criticism. Although he was an ardent admirer of English Romanticism and Romantic literature in particular, his work reveals him to be an early precursor of the school of logical positivism. In 1915, he earned his doctorate from the University of Calcutta on the subject of The Positive Sciences of the Ancient Hindus.
In 1896, Maharaja Nripendra Narayan Bhupa Bahadur, the son-in-law of Keshub Chunder Sen offered him the post of a principal of the newly established Victoria College in Cooch Behar. With a certain level of financial security assured, Seal finished his New Essays in Criticism and also composed an epic poem called Quest Eternal that traced his intellectual and philosophical odyssey. His further studies on ancient Hindu scientific philosophy led him to contribute a chapter in Prafulla Chandra Roy's History of Chemistry in Ancient India. His publications were noticed abroad and in 1902, his candidacy was seriously considered for a professorship in philosophy at the University of Cambridge.
The financial support provided by the Maharaja helped Seal to visit Europe in 1899, 1906 and 1911. In 1906, Seal addressed the International Congress of Orientalists in Rome and in 1911, the First Universal Race Congress in London. In 1911, while in London, the sudden death of his patron, the Maharaja, and subsequent withdrawal of financial support for his cultural and comparative-historical studies forced him to quit his job and reconsider his philosophical beliefs. During this phase, he underwent a transformation from being a believer of Brahmo rationalist doctrine to being a spiritual humanist. His analysis on the Comparative Studies in Vaishnavism and Christianity (1912) expresses the urge to break free from the hegemony of method as applicable in Eurocentric academic enquiry (as in disciplines like Indology and anthropology) and instead focus on comparative methodology, that would be largely immune to any possible colonialist bias. In this, Seal was motivated not merely as a recipient of orientalist hegemony in the academia, or as a counter cultural or for that matter, as a cultural nationalist response to imperialist discourse, as he was due so a more profound love for rationalist spirit of enquiry, albeit in a colonial context. For he was a rational humanist first, and a cultural nationalist much later.
After his resignation from Victoria College, he was offered the most prestigious chair of philosophy in India, the King George V professorship of philosophy at the University of Calcutta (other holders of this chair include Professor Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan among others). He used this period (1913–1921) to travel extensively, give lectures, publish books and philosophical tracts and support the efforts of Vice Chancellor Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee to make the University of Calcutta one of the best known seats of learning to the east of Suez. His scholarly contribution was recognized again with the award of an Honorary doctorate (Doctor of Science) from the University of Calcutta, on Dec 17, 1921.
He helped Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in founding the Visva-Bharati University on December 22, 1921. By virtue of being India's leading scholar on philosophy and comparative-historical studies and its first Western visiting scholar, Seal was honored as the first Chancellor of that university. During the same time, he was also appointed the Vice Chancellor of the University of Mysore, a position he held till 1930, when ill health forced him to retire. In 1926, the government of British India knighted him. During his stay in Mysore, he authored a textbook of Indian philosophy and a biography of Raja Rammohun Roy.
After retirement, and notwithstanding his general physical deterioration and failing eyesight, he achieved the grand finale of his long philosophical journey. In 1936, when he was bedridden and blind, he finished his magnum opus called Quest Eternal, which is one of the few modern Indian epics on the theme of the Faustian man in search of the reason for human existence. The conditions in which he wrote parallels that of the English poet John Milton when he wrote his Paradise Lost. The Faustian urge of this brilliant mind to find the meaning of life is at once an existential quest as a Modernist one. Although Seal was writing as a subject of the imperialist enterprise, and not as a party to it, it could be argued that he was a Modernist and an existentialist without his knowing it.
Although he was initially inspired by the Hegelian philosophy of the unilinearlity of history, one that resonated well with the official Sadharan Brahmo Samaj doctrine, Seal eventually rejected the Hegelian thesis of the linear flow of historical progress from East to West as being too narrow and parochial. The logical culmination of the Hegelian idea envisioned all human races as being surrogates and appendages to the dominant Greco-Roman-Gothic type, which in its wake resonated perfectly well with the Orientalist doctrine. Seal saw this discourse as being dangerously Eurocentric that in effect precluded the possibility of an equitable cultural dialogue. As he saw it, the philosophy of the subaltern societies or those relegated to the periphery would be seen as being in a state of primitivism when compared to the philosophy of the dominant societies. As he saw it, the Orientalist bias espoused by Hegelianism:
|“||...seems to be a mischievous error due to an essentially wrong conception of the philosophy of history and the evolution of culture and an essentially perverse use of the historical-comparative method.||”|
Seal drew close to what is today called postcolonialism. As contrary to colonial discourse, he argued that in any proper comparative-historical analysis, all societies should be seen as being in similar stages in the development of culture. All cultural traditions could be relatively seen as they evolved parallel patterns wherein
|“||every code, language, myth or system, has its own history -- its own origin, growth and development -- a study of which is essential to a proper understanding of its function in society, its place, meaning and worth.||”|
As distinct from the Hegelian world view, Seal espoused that the idea of Western civilization as being the focal point or the culmination of world civilization was fundamentally erroneous, that failed to take into account the myriad richness and complex mosaic of cultural continuum that manifested themselves in Hindu, Islamic, and Chinese civilizations. Human civilization, far from being a centripetal order where the West was to be considered as the center around which other (non Western) cultures revolved was for Seal,
|“||a circle of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere [and] each culture was diversely embodied, reflected in specific modes and forms. [But] in spite of the diverse ethnic developments all very real, all very special, there has been a general history of human culture and progress, the unfolding of a single ideal, plan, or pattern, a universal movement...the same general historic plan and in obedience to the same general law of progress||”|
Thus, as he saw it (in Comparative Studies in Vaishnavism and Christianity), Vaishnavism and Christianity were two distinct religious traditions, each with its own uniquely rich tradition of historical exegesis that spanned two millennia and could in no way be seen as being phases in the development of (a Eurocentric) human civilization, as one leading to another in a pattern of cause and effect. Seal's philosophical insights were to be developed by his latter day successor from his college A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada of the ISKCON movement.
His epic poem Quest Eternal is rich in the application of symbolism of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. It stands out as a very sophisticated cross-cultural analysis of the dilemma of the modern Everyman in search of meaning in life. For Seal, this search for meaning has two dimensions: firstly, the historical dimension that explores how a world view or a zeitgeist is shaped by the continuum of the ancient, medieval and the modern, and secondly the cultural dimension which spells out how specific patterns of human configurations shape a world view in the mode of causality. Seal's hero is on an adventure on a scale far more grandiose, magnificent, world-encompassing and demanding than Goethe's Faust. The hero is the prototype of the modern cosmopolitan man in search of an ever elusive unity in the pluralistic universe:
|“||The human mysteries,
They dance of Love,
It is interesting to note here that Seal's hero (in the initial stages) is not merely the man who is trapped within the confines of ancient social order where he is merely a hapless victim of circumstances beyond his control but the hero who undergoes a spiritual transformation to a medieval wizard knight (who closely resembles the modern scientific man) who seeks out scientific rationalism in nature. He seeks the truth in the "Magician Commonwealth of Reason" and eventually wins the ever elusive trophy of the "Zodiac shield of the Sun for his victories over Untruth". However like all well intended adventures, his quest is ultimately Promethean and Sisyphean and must end in failure:
|“||But all quest of knowledge blest
Himself it cannot save!
The modern man of science, much like Dr. Faustus, (and not unlike Christian, an Everyman character) is an eternally homeless wanderer, "... in search of a Wisdom that is able to master Death". Death is not merely physical, but a metaphor for "the dark power in life who frustrates our goals and strivings" who assists the victory of "brute Matter and blind Sense" over "realms of Soul, of Nature, and of Man in History". In despair, the hero expostulates:
|“||Is this Man's kingdom?
Man, bound, manacled.
Seal's hero is not proletarian, and does not take recourse to rationalism, scientism, Marxism or any salvation theology, but a universal redeemer whose task, like Prometheus, is to "redeem humanity from the bondage of the Gods":
|“||Oh come, Prometheus, come out of the shadow
Of ages, out of the Deep,
Seal's epic redeems collective suffering as a means to redeem humanity . His belief in the religion of universal humanity found parallel reflection in Rabindranath Tagore's concept of the Vishwa Manav of the Universal Man, who would rise from the ashes like a phoenix to redeem the depravities of humanity. And yet like Prometheus, he would be eternally trapped by the vicissitudes of existence.
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