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The struggle of two reformists

The ideas of Debendranath Tagore and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan inspired generations but failed to overhaul both Hindus and Muslims

The struggle of two reformists

With the bicentenary of two Indian giants falling in 2017, Pakistan has seen a few articles and events honouring Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Hardly anything has been said or written about the father of Rabindranath Tagore i.e. Debendranath who was also born in 1817 and played an instrumental role in the Bengal Renaissance. Without these two, the reform movements in India would have taken a much slower pace. The purpose of this article is to have a look at both Debendranath and Sir Syed and draw some parallels so that the broader currents of the 19th century India could be understood.

Debendranath Tagore founded Shantiniketan Ashram in 1863, and his son — the world-famous Rabindranath Tagore — turned it into a Brahmo Vidyalaya (school). By 1921, it had expanded into Vishva-Bharti University which sought a basis for a common fellowship between the cultures of East and West. But much before this, Debendranath had laid the foundation of a reform movement that changed the intellectual and religious landscape of Bengal, much in the same fashion as Sir Syed did in northern India. Vishva-Bharti University, popularly known as Shantiniketan, also became a residential university, not very different from the pattern the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) followed.

Both the universities — and their early founders — followed paths that converged and diverged in an interesting manner. While the Shantiniketan with its international student body, focused more on arts and crafts, Sino-Indian studies, music, and dance, research in Asian languages, teacher training, and technology, the AMU became a bastion of Pakistan movement that, according to Jaun Elia, ‘nurtured boys who divided India’.

At the age of 30, Debendranath was much ahead of Sir Syed who had authored his famous archeological masterpiece Asarus Sanadeed. While Debendranath had already embarked on the road to reformation, Syed was still living in the past.

How come Debendranath and Sir Syed ended up playing roles that still resonate in the Hindu and Muslim psyches after 200 years? Perhaps the answer lies in the politico-religious and socio-economic conditions the two lived in and tried to reform.

We need to go back to the early 19th-century India. Bengal had been under the East India Company for over half a century whereas Delhi had just changed hands from the Mahratta to the British, with a nominal kingship of the Mughal ruler who still called himself the ‘emperor’. Considering the politico-religious settings, both Debendranath and Sir Syed opened their eyes in societies that were going through rapid political changes, but their respective people were steeped in religious practices that were conservative and resistant to change. Both realised that as long as this religious set of dogmas persisted, any political emancipation would be out of question.

In comparison, Debendranath Tagore had a better head start than Sir Syed did. In Bengal, the Hindu reformer Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) had founded Brahma Sabha in 1828, when Debendranath and Sir Syed were just 11 years old. Perhaps, Ram Mohan Roy was the first in the 19th-century India who studied with an open mind the scriptures of all major religions. His studies not only in the Vedas but also in the Quran and the Bible convinced him that every religion had the same end of moral regeneration of humanity. But the religions needed reinterpretation and reassessment in changing times.

Sir Syed also came to the same conclusion but unlike Debendranath, he did not have a Ram Mohan Roy to look up to in Delhi, and had to devise his own plan. Roy, Syed, and Tagore, all thought there was no reason for them to give up their religions or accept any other religion. They would accept the universal and moral teachings of other religions but without their dogmas, ritual and superstition. They reached these conclusions in their own ways. While Roy was able to embrace all other religions, Syed was more open to Christianity and not to other religions such as Hinduism and Sikhism.

Debendranath was more entrenched in his studies of Upanishads and their preaching of Vedanta. Perhaps due to his extraordinary indulgence in the Hindu religious texts, Debendranath in a way prevented Brahma Sabha from becoming a universal religion as Roy wanted it to be. When later it became Brahma Samaj or Society of God it essentially remained a sect of Hinduism. Debendranath’s father, Dwarkanath Tagore (1794-1846), had been a close friend and associate of Roy. Syed did not have such intellectual luxury as his father and other family members were close to the moribund Mughal court with all its entrapments of politico-religious decadence.

When Debendranath took upon himself the unfinished work of Roy, Brahma Samaj movement transformed in character and height. He established a society called Tattvabodhini Sabha (Truth-seekers Society) in 1839; by now he was propagating a new creed. Its newspaper Tattvabodhini Patrika started advocating social reform in Hinduism. Later, Sir Syed tried to do the same with Islam through his Tahzeebul Akhlaque. But the difference was their response to Christianity. In Bengal, there was mounting Christian missionary propaganda against Hinduism and Debendranath opposed this Christian onslaught. Under this Christian influence a radical section of the Brahma Samaj questioned the infallibility of the Vedas.

The most prominent of the critics of the Vedas was Akshay Kumar Datta (1820-1886). Just like in Islam, the infallibility of religious texts in Hinduism — especially of the Vedas — was an essential part of the Brahma religious creed. But unlike Islam, the Brahma leaders in Bengal in 1847 became convinced that the doctrine of Vedic infallibility was no longer tenable. Now they moved to reconstruct their religion based on selected passages of the Upanishads containing monotheistic ideas. Sir Syed also had to grapple with religious texts but in a different way since he was soft on Christianity as a monotheistic religion.

At the age of 30, Debendranath was much ahead of Sir Syed who had authored his famous archeological masterpiece Asarus Sanadeed. While Debendranath had already embarked on the road to reformation, Syed was still living in the past. In 1850, Brahma Samaj, led by Debendranath, published a new doctrine called Brahma Dharma or the religion of one God with some points of the Vedas repudiated but the Hindu character of Brahma movement was retained. Debendranath had infused a new life into it, which later Sir Syed tried to do with Islam by reinterpreting some of its religious texts.

Perhaps, a major difference was that Debendranath had in his Samaj (Society) people such as Datta and Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-1884) who became a right-hand man of Debendranath in the late 1950s. That was the time when Debendranath turned conservative but Syed continued on his path of reform. The age of 40 was a watershed for both Debendranath and Sir Syed in their own ways. From now on each was moving in opposite directions. While Debendranath was more progressive and reformist in the first half of his life, Sir Syed was conservative. But in the second half both take an about-face.

For Muslims, the post-1857 era was hopeless in which Syed sparked a ray of hope. For Hindus, especially in Bengal, the situation was not as dark mainly thanks to the Bengal Renaissance courtesy the thinkers and intellectuals. Whereas the Muslim intellectuals mostly consisted of poets and religious scholars who were more interested in revival rather than reforms. Of course, Ghalib being an exception. Ghalib is reported to have inculcated in Sir Syed a desire for a modern future rather than a craving for a glorious past. While Debendranath became more spiritual and was called a Maharishi, Sir Syed remained temporal and withstood all obstructions from his friends and foes alike.

In 1863, Debendranath founded Shantiniketan, a spiritual abode of peace; and the very next year in 1864 Syed instituted his Scientific Society. From now on their journeys take interesting turns. In 1866, Sir Syed’s Scientific Society launches its organ Aligarh Institute Gazette and through this he succeeded in agitating the traditional Muslim minds. In 1860s, when Debendranath Tagore opposed Keshab Chandra Sen on matters of social reforms the Samaj split into two. Sen was much younger and advocated complete abolition of caste distinction. In 1868, Sen formed ‘The Brahma Samaj of India’, and Debendranath named his faction as Adi (Haqiqi or old) Brahma Samaj.

Just like Sir Syed, Sen professed zealous loyalty to the British government, whereas Debendranath became more of nationalist and a spiritualist than a British loyalist. Sen was also a bundle of contradictions: an opponent of child marriages and religious rites, he himself gave his minor daughter to a raja in marriage performed with orthodox Hindu rites. While Debendranath at least initially followed in the footsteps of Roy, Sir Syed was the first Indian Muslim who felt the need of a new orientation of Islam, and tirelessly worked for it. Debendranath gradually became inactive and opted for a secluded life, Sir Syed continued on the path of reform till his death.

The last 30 years of Debendranath’s life became unremarkable as his son Rabindranath Tagore took the torch from him and gave it a more temporal tinge. The last 30 years of Sir Syed were the most remarkable thanks to his one achievement after another. He remained an ardent reformer and continued to work for the reconciliation of modern scientific thought with religion. Sir Syed’s rationalistic interpretations did not attack the basic beliefs of Islam, as Debendranath had done in the first half of his life. Both were anxious to push new education but Sir Syed’s vision and laborious efforts were entirely of his own making.

Sir Syed believed in and preached the message of free inquiry, toleration, and morality. His focus on science and technology was unique among the Muslims of his age. Both Debendranath and Sir Syed rejected superstition as hindrance to human progress and tried to separate them from ‘true faith’. But somehow, both could not break free from their essentially faith-based thoughts. One tried to reform Hinduism, and the other attempted to impart modern education to Muslims. Though AMU was open to all religions, its core was Muslim and not secular.

Even after coming back from England, Syed gave examples of young English men and women for their hard work, but never acknowledged that a process of secularisation had made religion almost irrelevant. Perhaps he could not go that far, since even his religious reforms were being criticised. Professing an openly secular agenda would have doomed his project. Both Debendranath and Syed followed Ijtihad (reinterpretation) and opposed taqlid (copying and following old values). Both tried to propagate a true religion in their own ways, representing character, knowledge, tolerance, and piety. Both were opposed to ignorance and illiteracy, and worked for the welfare of their communities.

Now, 200 years on when we see the Hindu and Muslim extremists and fundamentalist rampaging in India and Pakistan a kind of sadness takes over. In a way, the succeeding generations of Hindus and Muslims failed Debendranath and Sir Syed. Why? Perhaps, because of the deeply religious orientation of both Muslims and Hindus that has been further aggravated by communal politics in the aftermath of the bloodiest division of a country in the mid-20th century. Though the Indian National Congress did try to carry forward the torch of Debendranath and Sir Syed, the perpetual animosity between India and Pakistan has facilitated the Modis and the mullahs in both the countries.

Dr Naazir Mahmood

Naazir Mahmood
The writer has been associated with the education sector since 1990 as teacher, teacher educator, project manager, monitor and evaluator.


  • This article ought to be widely read in India as well as Pakistan. An article on Sir Syed has appeared in rediff.com last week:
    “Caught between worship and blame” by Mohammad Sajjad, a historian at AMU. Pakistanis may find it interesting.


    • Thanks for sharing the article by Sajjad, I is very well written,. I am glad, R S Chakravarti, you liked my piece, thanks for appreciation.

    • Many Thx Mr Chakravarty and Mr N Mahmood for liking my piece. Comparing with D Tagore sheds more light on the two.

  • “In a way, the succeeding generations of Hindus and Muslims failed Debendranath and Sir Syed.” True! Sadly, the succeeding generations have been failing any attempt to put rationality in religion, be it by Ghulam Ahmed Pervez or Javed Ahmed Ghamdi.

  • Thanks Awab for reading and appreciating my article.

  • What about the role of Syed Amir Ali of Bengal. He was born at Cuttack now in Orissa province but at that time, a part of Bengal. He was sn educated person and wad a predecessor to Sir Syed.

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