Rajendralal Mitra

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Raja Rajendralal Mitra
Rajendralal Mitra.JPG
Raja Rajendralal Mitra
Native nameরাজা রাজেন্দ্রলাল মিত্র
Born(1824-02-15)15 February 1824
Kolkata, Bengal, British India
Died26 July 1891(1891-07-26) (aged 67)
Kolkata, Bengal, British India
NationalityIndian
OccupationOrientalist

Raja Rajendralal Mitra (16 February, 1822 – 26 July, 1891) is the first modern Indologist of Indian origin and was a pioneer figure in the Bengal Renaissance[1]. He was also a noted antiquarian and the first scientific historiographer from Bengal.

Early life[edit]

Raja Rajendralal Mitra was born born in Soora (now Beliaghata), an eastern suburb of Calcutta,[2][3] on 16 February 1822 to Janmajeya Mitra. Raja Rajendralal was the third of Janmajeya's six sons, and also had a sister.[4] Raja Rajendralal's upbringing, however, was primarily the responsibility of a widowed and childless aunt.[5]

The Mitra family could trace its roots to Ancient Bengal,[3] and Rajendralal himself claimed descent from the sage Vishvamitra of Adisura myth[6] Kulin Kayastha.[3][clarification needed] The Mitras were devout Vaishnavs by caste.[7] There are records of Rajendralal's 4th great-grandfather, Ramchandra being appointed as a Dewan of the Nawabs of Murshidabad[3] and of Rajendralal's great-grandfather Pitambar Mitra (who is believed to have commanded the highest fame in the lineage) serving in important positions at the Court of Ajodhya and Delhi, .[2][8]

However, despite the family's royal connections, and due to a combinatrion of his grandfather's spendthriftness and his father's refusal to seeke paid employment, Rajendralal spent his early childhood in poverty.[8]

Education[edit]

Rajendralal Mitra received his early education at a village pathshala, where he learnt Bengali.[5] When he was about eight years old, he was enrolled into a private English-medium school in Pathuriaghata;[5] two years later he joined the Hindu School in Culcutta.[9] Mitra's education became increasingly sporadic from this point. Although he enrolled at Calcutta Medical College in December 1837—where he apparently performed well—he was forced to leave in 1841.[10][why?] He then began legal training, although not for long,[11] and then began studying languages. These included Greek, Latin, French and German and led his eventual interest in philology.[12][13]

Marriages[edit]

In 1839—when he was around 17 years old—Mitra married Soudamini.[9] They had one child, a daughter, on 22 August 1844; Soudamini died soon after as a result of complications.[14] The daughter died within a few weeks of her mother.[14] Mitra remarried at some point between 1860 and 1861 to Bhubanmohini. They had two sons, Ramendralal, born on 26 November 1864, and Mahendralal.[15]

Asiatic Society[edit]

Mitra was appointed librarian-cum-assistant-secretary of the Asiatic Society in April 1846,[14] which office he held for nearly 10 years, vacating it in February 1856. He was subsequently elected Secretary of the Society, and later appointed to the governing council. He was elected vice president on three occasions, and, in 1885, Mitra became the first Indian president of the Asiatic Society.[16][12][17][18] Although Mitra had received little formal training in history beyond that he had learned at school, it was his work with the Asiatic Society that helped establish Mitra as a leading advocate of the historical method in Indian historiography.[12][17]

Historiography[edit]

Influences and methodology[edit]

During his days in the Asiatic Society, Rajendralal came in contact with many distinguished luminaries[17] and was distinctly impressed by two lines of Orientalist intellectual thoughts. Noted scholars like William Jones (who was also the founder of Asiatic Society) and H.T. Colebrooke propounded a theory of universal-ism and sought to make a comparative study of different races by chronicling history through the lens of cultural changes rather than political events and James Prinsep et al sought for greater cultural diversity and glorified the past.[19] Subsequently, he went on to utilize the tools of Comparative philology and Comparative mythology in penning down a narrative of the cultural history of Indo-Aryans.[20][21]

Though, he was heavily influenced by the philosophies of orientalism, he did not subscribe to a blind adoption of the past and actively asked others to shun tradition, if they hindered the progress of the nation.[22]

Works[edit]

A noted antiquarian, he played a substantial role in discovering and deciphering historical inscriptions, coins, texts et cetera.[23] Establishing the relation between Shaka era and Gregorian Calendar as well as identifying the year of Kanishka's ascent to throne were his major achievements, which were also later agreed upon by modern historians.[24] Deciphering historical edicts, he also contributed towards an accurate re-construction of the history of Medieval Bengal esp. of the Pala and Sena dynasties.[25] He intensively studied the Gwalior-ian monuments and inscriptions to discover many unknown kings/chieftains and assigned approximate time-spans to them. He was also the only historian, among his contemporaries to near-precisely assign a time-frame to the rule of Toramana.[26]

His affinity for concrete factual observations and inferences along with a dislike for abstract reasoning, (in contrary to most Indo-Historians of those days), has been favorably received.[20] He was a noted oriental scholar, who was revered in the Brahmo circles and was probably the first Bengali to learn Chemistry.[4]

Cataloging, Translation and Commentary[edit]

As a librarian of the Asiatic Society, Rajendralal was endowed with a charge of cataloging old Indic manuscripts, that were collected by the Pandits of the Society from across the country. That his efforts in the aspect were widely acclaimed, he (along with several other scholars) choose to follow a central theme of European Renaissance that emphasised on collection & translation of ancient texts (puthi), editing and publishing a variety of Indic Text(s), along with extensive commentaries, in the publications of the Society esp. in Bibliotheca Indica.[27] He often explicitly instructed the Pandits to copy the texts verbatim rather than introduce insert their own corrections, dwelling upon the concept of Variae Lectiones.[28] Often, the texts were translated to English following the lines of Jone's and Colebrook's pioneer efforts.[29] Several Vaidic, Puranic and Vaishnav texts were included among them.

Sushil Kumar De has noted that whilst Rajendralal's editions has been superseded by more accurate translations and commentaries, his works retain significant value as the editio princeps.[30]

Archaeology[edit]

His archaeological interests consisted of significant work as to chronicling the development of Aryan architecture in prehistoric times.

Under the patronage of Royal Society of Arts and the colonial government, Rajendralal led an expedition into the Bhubaneshwar region of Odisa during 1868-69 to study and obtain casts of Indian sculpture.[31] The results were compiled in The Antiquities of Orissa which has been revered as a magnum opus about Odisan architecture.[32] Modeled on Ancient Egyptians by John Gardner Wilkinson and published in two volumes, they consisted of his own observations followed by a reconstruction of the socio-cultural history, in light of the architectural depictions.[33][34][35]Buddha Gaya: the hermitage of Sakya Muni was another major contribution that collated the observations and commentaries of various scholars about Bodh Gaya.[36]

Both of these works along with his other miscellaneous essays contributed immensely to a detailed study of varying forms of temple-architecture across the Indian landscape.[37] He was also the first scholar to hypothesise about the reasons behind nude sculptures in temple-premises unlike his European counterparts who simply attributed them to a percieved lack of morality in ancient Indian social life.[38]

A standard theme of Rajendralal's archaeological discourses was to rebut the prevalent European scholarly notion that India's art of architecture and esp. the art of building in stone was derived from the Greeks and that there was no significant architectural advancement in the Aryan civilization.[39][40][41] He oft-conflicted with European scholars in the regard and his acrimonious dispute with James Fergusson[42] has since-interested many historians.[41] Ferguson would later even write a book titled Archaeology in India With Especial Reference to the Work of Babu Rajendralal Mitra[43] to rebut Rajendralal's The Antiquities of Orissa, which criticized Ferguson's about Odisa architecture.[42]Mostly comprising of ad-hominems[44] and an acute politicization of the issue, the discourses shed light on the broader themes of nationalism.[45] He often noted that the architecture of pre-Moslem India was equivalent to the Greek architecture and propounded the racial similarity of the Greeks and the Aryans, who had the same intellectual capacity.[41][46]

Whilst, much of his archaeological observations and corresponding inferences were later refined and/or rejected, he did pioneer work in the field[47] and his works were often substantially better than that of his European counterparts.[48]

Lingustics[edit]

Rajendralal was the first Indian who tried to engage the common populace in a discourse of the phonology and morphology of Indian languages and tried to establish philology as a science.[49] He debated European scholars on the locus of linguistic advances in Aryan culture and propounded that the Aryans had their own script, which was not derived from Dravidian culture.[50] Rajendralal also did seminary work in the fields of Sanskrit Buddhist language and literature and Gatha dialect, in particular.[51]

Vernacularization[edit]

He was a pioneer in the publication of maps in Bengali language and translated (or rather constructed) the definitions of geographical terms from English into Bengali.[52].He published a series of maps about districts of Bihar, Bengal and Odisa, for indigenous usage, which was noted for assigning correct names even to the most minute of local villages by sourcing them from the local populace.[53]

As a member of the shortlived Sarasvat Samaj, (which was set up as a literature society by Jyotirindranath Tagore with some help from the colonial government, for publication of higher-education books in Bengali medium) he wrote A Scheme for the Rendering of European Scientific terms in India that imparted the earliest set of ideas, to be followed in the vernacularization of scientific discourse.[52][54]

He was also a member of several other societies (Vernacular Literature Society[55], Calcutta School Book Society[56] et cetera) which advocated and played important roles in the propagation of textual books esp. in Bengali literature.

Many of his Bengali texts were adopted for school-education.[55] One of his texts on Bengali Grammar and Patra-Kaumudi (Book of Letters) attained widespread popularity.[55]

Publication of magazines[edit]

From 1851 onward, under a grant of Vernacular Literature Society, he started publishing the Bibhidartha Sangraha, an illustrated monthly periodical devoted to educating the general native populace in western knowledge, without coming across as too rigid.[55] The first of it's kind in Bengal, it had a huge reader base and also introduced the concept of literary criticism and reviews in Bengali literature. It is also noted for introducing Michael Madhusudan Dutt's Bengali works to the public.

Mitra retired from its editorship, in 1856 citing health reasons and Kaliprassana Singha took over the roles.[57][58][59]After the magazine was compelled to withdraw from active publication in 1861, (post it's criticising the Colonial Government, Rajendralal) came back to the fold in 1863 and restarted a similar publication under the name of Rahasya Sandarbha, maintaining the same form and content.[58][60]It continued for about five and a half years before being voluntarily called off.

He was also involved with the Hindoo Patriot for a long span of time and held editorial duties, for a while.[61]

Socio-political activities[edit]

Rajendralal was a prominent social figure during his times and was close to several contemporary thinkers(??) including Rangalal Bandyopadhyay, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Kishori Chand Mitra, Peary Chand Mitra et al.[62][63] His name has been regularly located in wide forms of social activities ranging from hosting condolence meetings to presiding sabhas and giving political speeches.[64]

He held important roles in a variety of societies and had a role in the management of the Tattwabodhini Sabha.[65] He also served as a translator in Calcutta Photograhic Society[66] and was an influential figure in the Society for the Promotion of the Industrial Art, which took major roles in the development of voluntary education in Bengal.[67]

He wrote essays chronicling widow-remarriage as an ancient societal norm; vouching against it's portrayal as a corruption of the Hindu culture and opposed polygamy.[68] He also wrote numerous discourses on the socio-cultural history of the nation including on the topics of beef-consumption in ancient India, prevalence of drinking et al; the latter at a time when Moslems were increasingly blamed for the social affinity for drinking.[69]

He has been noted to be apathetic as to religious stuff but seeking for a disassociation of religion from state, spoke against the proposals of the Colonial Government to tax the natives for spread of Christian ideologies.[70]

He was a member of Wellesley's Textbook Committee set up in 1877.[71] From 1856 to 1881 (till it's closure), he was also the Director of the Wards' Institution, an establishment formed by the Colonial Government for privileged education of the wards of Zamindars and upper classes.[72]

He was actively associated with the British Indian Association since it's inception; serving as the President for 3 terms (1881-82, 1883-84, 1886-87) and Vice-President for another 3 terms (1878-80, 1887-88, 1890-91). Several speeches on the broader locus of regional politics have been recorded.[73][74][1]He was a Justice of the peace of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation for many years and also served as it's Commissioner from 1876.[75] He was also involved with Indian National Congress.[76]

Criticism[edit]

He often accepted legends and myths at their face-value as was evident from his Antiquities in Orissa.[6][77] That he often intended to prove the ancient origin of the Hindus also affected his works. In the reconstruction of the history of Sen dynasty, he had to self-construct and rely upon a wide number of propositions whilst accepting genealogical tables (whose authenticity was highly doubted by himself) and even tried to assign a historical status to the Adisura myth.[6] Remarkably though, his inferences were not found to be extraordinarily absurd in light of later studies.

He also held the Indo-Aryan civilization to be superior than others and wrote numerous discourses that covered spans, which were (self-admittedly) far away from the realms of authentic history.[6] A preface of one of his book mentions[6]:-

The race [the Aryans] of whom it is proposed to give a brief sketch in this paper belonged to a period of remote antiquity, far away from the range of authentic history....The subject, however, is of engrossing interest, concerning, as it does, the early history of the most progressive branch of the human race.

He also shared a veneration for the Hindu rule and a profound dislike for the Muslim invasion of the nation.[40] Rajendralal writes[40]:-

Countries like Kabul, Kandahar and Balkh from where Muslims had flooded India and had destroyed Hindu freedom, had sometimes been brought under the sway of the kings of the Sun (Saura) dynasty. Sometimes peoples of those country had passed their days by carrying the orders of the Hindus. The dynasty had a tremendous power with which it had been ruling India for two thousand years.......

Moslem fanaticism, which after repeated incursions, reigned supreme in India for six hundred years, devastating everything Hindu and converting every available temple, or its materials, into masjid, or a palace, or a heap of ruins, was alone sufficient to sweep away everything in the way of sacred building.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar had criticized Rajendralal's command of Sanskrit grammar and he was often portrayed as having exploited Sanskrit Pandits in the collecting and editing of ancient texts, without giving them the required credit,[78] though it has been refuted.[79] Much of his commentaries, were faulty and was later rejected by scholars.[80]

His equating extreme examples of Tathagata Tantric traditions, from GuhyaSamaja Tantra-scriptures in a literal sense and as an indicator of mainstream Buddhist Tantra (......the most revolting and horrible, that human depravity could think of.......) were criticized and rejected esp. in light of the fact that such texts were long disconnected, in a historical sense, from the culture that created and sustained them.[81][82]

His archaeological discourses have been criticized as deemed to have been quite motivated by the locus of establishing Indo-Aryan superiority and utilizing them to establish the view that the ancient settlement place of Aryans corresponded to Northern India..

He has been criticised to not actively speak out against the conservative society or for the need of any social reform and maintaining an ambiguous nuanced stance.[83][84] When the British Government sought for the views of notable Indian thinkers as to establishing a minimum legal of marriage with an aim to abolish child-marriage, Rajendralal spoke against it, emphasizing upon the social and religious relevance of child-marriage and Hindu customs.[71]

Some of the extreme biases might have stemmed in, as a response to European scholars like Fergusson et al, who were extremely anti-Indian in their perspectives and furthermore, there were also unavoidable limitations within the perspectives of an orientalist scholarship.[85]

Last years and death[edit]

Rajendralal spend the last years of his life at the Wards' Instituition, Manicktala which he turned into his residence, (post it's closure).[86] Even in his last days, he was extensively involved with the Asiatic Commitee and was a member of multiple sub-committees.

On 26 July, 1891, at around 9 PM, Rajendralal died in his own home amidst bouts of intense fever. Contemporary news-reports mention that these fevers have been common occurrences for the last few years, since his suffering a stroke that subsequently induced paralysis and that they had grossly affected his health.[87]

Numerous condolence meetings were held across different places and newspapers were filled with obituaries.[88] A huge gathering took place at the Kolkata Town Hall under the auspices of Lt. Gov. Charles Eliot to commemorate Rajendralal as well as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (who has recently expired) and was the first of it's type to be ever presided by a Lieutenant Governor.[88]

Contemporary reception[edit]

His academic works have been extensively praised by his contemporaries. His oratory, debating skills[89] and writings have also been noted for their exceptionally clarity.

Max Müller showered profuse praise on Rajendralal noting[90]:-

....He has edited Sanskrit texts after a careful collection of manuscripts, and in his various contributions to the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, he has proved himself completely above the prejudices of his class, freed from the erroneous views on the history and literature in India in which every Brahman is brought up, and thoroughly imbued with those principles of criticism which men like Colebrooke, Lassen and Burnouf have followed in their researches into the literary treasures of his country.His English is remarkably clear and simple, and his arguments would do credit to any Sanskrit scholar in England....

Rabindranath Tagore commented of him being a Sabyasachi, who could work with both hands and was an association, condensed into one man.[52]

Roper Lethbridge and Romesh Chunder Dutt also derived from Rajendralal in their works.[91].

Legacy[edit]

Rajendralal has been widely viewed as the first modern historian of Bengal in the sense of applying a rigorous scientific methodology to the study of history.[41][92] Those who preceded him including the likes of Govind Chandra Sen, Gopal Lal Mitra, Baidyanath Mukhopadhyay et al, despite well-aware of the modern concepts of mainly Western History, depended upon translating and adopting Europe an history-texts.[93] From a pan-Indian perspective, R. G. Bhandarkar who trod a similar path was one of his contemporaries.[93]


He has influenced a generation of historians including Haraprasad Shastri.[93][94] His 'Sanskrit Buddhist Literature', was heavily utilised by Rabindranath Tagore for many episodes of his poems and plays. [95][96]Eminent Historian Professor R.S. Sharma described him as "a great lover of ancient heritage, he took a rational view of ancient society...."[97]


A street in Kolkata is named after him.[98]

Honors[edit]

In 1863, the Calcutta University appointed him as a corresponding fellow and he played an important role in it's education-reforms.[99] In 1864, the German Oriental Society appointed him as a corresponding fellow.[100] In 1865, the Royal Academy of Science, Hungary appointed him as a foreign fellow. In 1865, the Royal Asiatic society of Great Britain appointed him as a honorary fellow.[100] In October 1867, the American Oriental Society appointed him as a honorary fellow.[100] In 1876, the University of Calcutta honoured Mitra with a honorary doctorate degree.

He was awarded with the honorary titles of Rai Bahadur in 1877, C.I.E in 1878 and Raja in 1888. Rajendralal had expressed displeasure about the awardings.[101]

Publications[edit]

Apart from very numerous contributions to the society's journal, and to the series of Sanskrit texts entitled "Bibliotheca indica," he published four separate works:

  • The Antiquities of Orissa (2 vols, 1875 and 1880), illustrated with photographic plates
  • Buddha Gaya : the hermitage of Sakya Muni (1878), a description of a holy place of Buddhism where Buddha attained Enlightenment.
  • a similarly illustrated work on Bodh Gaya (1878), the hermitage of Sakya Muni.
  • Indo-Aryans (2 vols, 1881), a collection of essays dealing with the manners and customs of the people of India from Vedic times.
  • The Sanskrit Buddhist Literature of Nepal (1882), a summary of the avadana-literature.

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Major Sources[edit]

External links[edit]