India Before the Nineteenth Century Renaissance
The gradual decline in power of the Mughals in the eighteenth
century resulted in anarchy in India's political life. Confusion, disorder
and disunity reigned supreme. The pleasure-loving later Mughals, the very
antithesis of their great forebears, and their corrupt nobility who were
engrossed in mutual rivalries weakened the central authority. Several provincial
dynasties sprang up to reduce the Mughal Emperor to insignificance. The
Maratha ascendancy in the north, series of foreign invasions and the terror
they struck, and the defeat of Marathas at the hands of Ahmad Shah Abdali
in 1761 made the condition worse.
The stage was set for the "flag to follow the trade"
and the English who had come as traders gradually acquired one province
after another and within a century became the paramount power over a dominion
extending from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin and from the Indus to the
Brahmaputra. That a great people should lie under foreign heels was a lamentable
The history of early English domination is a sordid story of
exploitation and plunder, resulting in the country's economic
ruin. Agriculture and small scale industries were badly affected
and indigenous trade came to a standstill. With the "decrease
of the national stock"and "a rapid lowering of mechanical
skill", the economic life rapidly deteriorated.
The breakdown of the political and economic structure had disastrous
effect on the socio- religious life. Rabindranath Tagore described
the then India as "slumbering in a death-like sleep".
He observed : "In social usage, in politics, in the realm
of religion and art we had entered the zone of uncreative habit,
of decadent tradition and ceased to exercise our humanity."
Social life dried up and expressed itself in the revival of
customs, superstitions, prejudices, ignorance, fear, feuds,
bitterness and parochialism.
Education, the prerequisite of healthy social life, was
neglected. "The centres of learning and wisdom had either disintegrated
or degenerated, and whatever of them remained did little more than the
memorising of texts on traditional lines". The education imparted
was narrow and did not include a study of sacred literature, ancient classics,
medicine or science. Referring to the general deterioration of Hindu society,
R.C. Majumdar says : "Long subjection to alien rule, lack of contact
with the progressive forces of the world, and a stereotyped system of education
leading to knowledge which was based upon blind faith impervious to reason
- all these told upon the mental and moral outlook of men and society".
Social degeneration was even more apparent in the condition
of women. Polygamy, child marriage, sati, sanctions against widow
remarriage, female infanticide, illiteracy, purdah system were the
prevalent practices and woman's status was generally inferior to men. N.S.
Bose writes about the women of Bengal "In the name of Kulinism hundreds
and thousands of girls' lives were totally blasted. Rich people in Bengal
were mostly polygamous and left their wives confined in the house.......".
There was no escape for women from the terrible sufferings and social fetters.
They did not enjoy any right or privilege. Throughout the dark and dismal
years of the eighteenth century, grievous social anarchy continued to gnaw
at the very vitals of Indian culture and the noble and sublime ideals had
long been forgotten. The low moral standard was reflected in the abundance
of corruption, fraud, treachery, conceit and other major and minor vices
and the entire social structure was fast degenerating.
The caste system led not only to stagnation and obscurantism
but also to bleak traditionalism - undemocratic and authoritarian in the
extreme. Hinduism's caste hierarchy based on social and legal inequities,
was held to be divinely ordained. At the apex of the social pyramid stood
the Brahmins who monopolized the right to act as priests and for exclusive
access to all higher religious and secular learning. At the base swarmed
the mass of shudras, the untouchables. To them the caste system, sanctified
by Hindu religion and enforced by coercive power, had assigned the duty
of serving all other castes. They were constrained to follow, under threat
of severe penalty, such low vocations as scavenging, tanning and the like.
Infringement of caste rules was a crime not only against caste but also
The upper classes had such frivolous pastimes as kite-flying,
bird-fights, obscene jatras, cheap theater, base musical performances
and so on. They had no interest in higher pursuits and could hardly read
and write. The masses were all the more ignorant and superstitious. But
they were honest, religious in the traditional sense and frugal in their
way of life.
Six hundred years of Islamic authority over the Indo-Gangetic
plain had left Hinduism in a state of depression. It was the religion of
a subject race. It had no central direction, organisation and hardly any
leadership. Religion, then, was marked with sacrificial rites and ostentation.
The study of Vedas and Upnishads had become almost extinct.
Irrational orthodoxy and ritualism prevailed. Even most of the Brahmins
were practically illiterate. Some of them had studied Nyaysastra
and Smriti, but few could explain Vedic prayers. Morality and religious
norms had reached their lowest ebb. As B.N. Dutta writes, the term Hinduism
"was used to denote a jumble of various Brahmanic rites of a later
origin, Mahayanist ceremonies and beliefs, Buddhist tantric rites, Buddhist
sahajyanist customs, totemistic notions of purity and taboo in matters
of touch and smell, non-Aryan customs and ceremonies, beliefs in witchcraft
and sorcery - all were known as Hinduism".
Islam, obviously, had failed to touch even a fringe of
Hindu society, despite its weapon of proselytization. It is indicated by
the continued belief in a number of gods, image worship, ritualism, dominance
of hereditary priests, the extant cults, aversion to spiritual practices
(yoga) as well as the common man's faith in witchcraft and tantric practices.
Religion as a source of moral purity and spiritual force, as preached by
the medieval saints, had long ceased to exercise any influence over a large
section of the people before the dawn of Indian renaissance in the nineteenth
century. To make things worse, callousness to human suffering arising out
of blind adherence to old practices such as hook-swinging seemed to have
been the order of the day. J.N. Sarkar observes : "Religion in the
eighteenth century had become the handmaid of vice and folly.
The Muslims, shorn virtually of all power, steadily found
themselves in a hopeless state of frustration and despondency. The early
Muslims had maintained intimate contact with Islam in its original home
and had purged themselves of almost all non-Islamic influences. But with
the passage of time their beliefs and social customs underwent change and
the pristine purity of Islam was diluted under the influence of Hinduism. Muslim
leaders, therefore, wanted their community to shake off manners and customs
which were alien to Islam.
The Sufi mystics attracted most of those who drifted away
form the original Islam. However, even Sufism later degenerated into rank
superstition and blind worship of Pirs at the instance of unscrupulous
Muslim priests. Shah Waliullah, a revivalist of the eighteenth century,
was deeply distressed by the decline of Indian Islam, which was slowly
departing from some of its original practices and unconsciously adopting
those of the Hindus. It was particularly so with new converts who retained
not only their Hindu background but also continued to adhere to some of
their beliefs and superstitions. A majority of Muslims feared the impact
of Western influence and English education. They nourished irrational prejudices
against new forces and denied themselves opportunities of material progress
and intellectual enlightenment.