in search of Renaissance Man

This is text of Key-Note address  to Lomosonov Seminar, CRS, JNU.

November 14th, 2011.

It is very appropriate that this academic event celebrating the tercentenary of M.V. Lomosonov has been dedicated to the search of new age renaissance-man.  After all he was a real polymath, a son of common people who went on to earn the acclaim as Russia’s first Renaissance man. He published monographs on physics, geology, chemistry, optics, classics, language, and history. He was a commanding figure in the debates over what should constitute the more-or-less vernacular Russian literary language and poetic meter, for which he authored a much-celebrated grammar as well as a book of Russian rhetoric.

And here let us recall that, intellectuals across Europe came to see themselves, in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as citizens of a transnational intellectual society—a Republic of Letters in which scholars, philosophers and scientists could find common ground in intellectual inquiry even if they followed different faiths and belonged to different nations. Given this self-perception of this republic of letters, The more interesting and more important question would be- were people from outside Western Europe admitted  as its citizens or not?  People like Lomosonov are important not only for their own societies but for mankind as such for the simple reason that knowing and thinking about such people encourages, in fact forces us, not only to redraw  the boundaries of the so-called republic of letters, but also  to rethink other given categories and rework the received wisdom.  I am sure; this gathering of scholars is going to make important deliberations in the direction.

Once again I express my gratitude for giving me the privileged opportunity of presenting this key-note address to such an important seminar and I would like to use this opportunity to put some concerns for the consideration of the fellow scholars.

Renaissance, as we all know, literally means re-birth. And hence the term renaissance is metaphorically used to describe the historical process particularly in the realm of culture whereby Europe was reborn into its real self, as it were. Obviously re-birth can only come after death, after a certain fundamental break. The centuries preceding renaissance in European history are naturally known as the dark ages, from which Europe recovered courtesy the Arabic translations of the Greek classics. So far as European cultural experience is concerned, may be the metaphor of death and re-birth can be justified. The question however is, can we use this term-‘Renaissance’ i.e. rebirth in the context of other societies? To put the question in a concrete way, when we talk of, let us say Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century, are we not implicitly saying that the centuries preceding the 19th were those of stagnation and decay, of metaphoric death?  Can the pre-colonized India really be described in these terms? Be it the grand narrative of Mughal state in north India or the local narratives of various parts of the sub-continent, the description of society and culture as stagnant and dead hardly seems appropriate. It is an equally debatable proposition that the colonial modernity brought the necessary dynamism to otherwise stagnant pre-colonial India. As a matter of fact, the reality seems to be rather reverse, the colonialism far from brining India into the flow of history, actually brought a deliberate disruption in the historical evolution of Indian society by its policies of economic destruction and historical distortions. The colonial episteme and policies actually led to what I prefer to call –सांस्कृतिक संवेदना-विच्छेद- ‘the dissociation of cultural sensibility’  [i]  in the mind of the colonially educated Indians. Tagore’s novel “Gora” traces the anxiety and anguish resulting from this dissociation in a moving way.

This dissociation of sensibility was palpable even during the so-called Bengal Renaissance. Be it the heinous practice of Widow-burning or other social ills, the reformers like Ram Mohan Roy used to perforce make appeals to the ancient wisdom of the Upanishads. Nothing wrong there, the point however is- was there nothing progressive and inspiring in the contemporary everyday practices and in the immediate past? Was it appropriate to treat the Upanishads as something frozen in time long ago and now waiting to be ‘re-born’?   Did Chandidas and Chaitnaya have nothing to offer to the reformers?  It was Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay who put this question to Ram Mohan Roy. He thus underlined the reformers’ ignorance of the tradition coming down not only from the remote antiquity but also from immediate past. More serious was the   downright contempt for even the positive aspects of contemporary life and the immediate past.  This contempt was deliberately crated by the colonial modernity, and continues to live with us Indians even today.

The point, I am trying to  make here is that we cannot understand the colonial period of Indian history without first understanding better the history of what happened before it. Similarly we cannot understand processes of the European renaissance without taking into account its debt to other traditions.  It follows that the categories like renaissance and renaissance-man ought to be employed in non-European contexts with necessary modifications and never losing the sight of what the Colonialism did to the cultural memories and intellectual legacies of the colonized societies. Let us not ignore the dynamics of the universality, which was there much before the colonial expansion.  Andre Gunder-Frank has demonstrated quite convincingly that ‘great universal cultures flourished till the 19th century totally independent of modern Europe.’[ii]

Recalling Gunder-Frank’s Argument, the Mexican scholar Enrique Dussel argues for the idea of ‘trans-modernity” instead of the so-called post-modernity, “the concept of post-modernity implies that there is a process that emerges “from within” modernity and reveals a state of crisis within globalization. “Trans”- modernity, in contrast, demands a whole new interpretation of modernity in order to include moments that were never incorporated into the European vision.”[iii]

There is no problem in using the categories evolved in Europe, provided these are not used in a euro-centric manner.  One should never forget the caution issued by Raymond Schwab to his European readers about pre-colonial India, way back in the fifties-“unlike a unique model, India had always known the same problems as we, but had not approached in the same ways. It presented, as had been seen only once before in the history of mankind, a past that was not dead but remained an antiquity of today and always.”[iv] This sensitivity to both identity and difference is extremely important for undertaking the search for a new renaissance man in the 21st century.  Schwab also argued quite forcefully that the arrival of Indic studies in 18th-19th century Europe was one of the decisive events of the world intellectual history. Recalling that this arrival was described as the oriental renaissance by the contemporaries, he argues that, “this is not a second renaissance but the first belatedly reaching its logical conclusion.”, and it is only after this completion of renaissance that, “humanist’s long prohibition against looking beyond Greece for fear of running into Barbarism and the clerics’ against looking beyond Judea for fear of running into idolatry ends in the west.”[v]

The search for a new renaissance-man cannot be undertaken without the cognition and recognition of the universality of human spirit and the diversity of its manifestations. Abhinavagupta, who was a great mystic, philosopher and Kavyashastri at the same time summed up the wisdom of his intellectual tradition most succinctly in a reminder which is even more relevant today after almost a thousand years- न हि एकया दृष्ट्या सम्यगम् निर्वर्णनम् निर्वहति… it is not only through one way that you can appropriately describe all the phenomenon….

I hope, following the lead of Abhinavagupta, we can explore the universality of human spirit and free it from the burden of unnecessary binaries; we can keep the differences in sight and yet not lose sight of the common pursuits. If we really want to search and imagine the new age renaissance men and women, we will have to get rid of binaries imagined between the mystic cognition and intellectual enlightenment; between the concern for society and the autonomy of individual. Instead of the stifling ideological straight-jackets, the search for the new age renaissance-man will have to root itself in the life-affirming vision of art and literature.

I cannot think of a better way of concluding this address than to quote from Jaishankar Prasad- who is not much known outside the Hindi literary circles and who was a great scholar, poet and playwright, and a great connoisseur of arts, a new age Renaissance man- if you please. He was active during the colonial period and acutely sensitive to the pressures caused by the colonial situation. While discussing the Indian and western notions of art and poetry, Prasad observed:

ज्ञान के वर्गीकरण में पूर्व और पश्चिम का सांस्कृतिक रुचि-भेद विलक्षण है। प्रचलित शिक्षा के कारण आज हमारी चिंतनधारा के विकास में पाश्चात्य प्रभाव ओत-प्रोत हैं और इसलिए हम बाध्य हो रहे हैं अपने ज्ञान-संबंधी प्रतीकों को उसी दृष्टि से देखने के लिए। यह कहा जा सकता है कि इस प्रकार के विवेचन में हम केवल निरुपाय होकर  ही प्रवृत्त नहीं होते, किंतु विचार-विनिमय के नये साधनों की उपस्थिति के कारण संसार की विचार-धारा से कोई भी अपने को अछूता नहीं रख सकता। इस सचेतनता के परिणाम में हमें अपनी सुरुचि की ओर प्रत्यावर्तवन करना चाहिए क्योंकि हमारे मौलिक ज्ञान-प्रतीक दुर्बल नहीं हैं।[vi]

That is: “The different taxonomies of knowledge in the east and the west are due to the differences in cultural preferences. The prevalent education system has coloured our thinking with western influences and has compelled us to asses our own cultural semiotics on western parameters. But let us not overplay the role of compulsion here; the presence of the new media of the exchange of ideas has made it impossible for anybody to remain untouched by the ideas in international circulation. In fact, we must go back to our own semiotics with this awareness, as our own knowledge systems and signs are not any weaker.”

I think, this reminder from an Indian renaissance-man of the colonial era has become even more important for the new age renaissance-man and woman of the 21st century.






[i]  See my “ Akath Kahani Prem ki: Kabir ki Kvaita aur un ka Samay”( Hindi) Chapter 2. ( New Delhi, 2nd edition, 2010), Rajkamal Prakashan.

[ii] See Andre Gunder Frank, “Re-Orient: Global Economy in the Asian Age”, Vistar Publications, New Delhi, 2002( first published in 1998.

[iii] Enrique Dussel, “World System and “Trans”- Modernity.” In  ‘Unbecoming Modern: Colonialism, Modernity, Colonial Modernities’ eds. Saurabh Dube, Ishita Banerjee-Dube. , Social Science Press, New Delhi, 2006.


[iv]  Raymond Schwab, “The Oriental Renaissance” Tr. Gene Patterson-Black and Victor Reinking.  Columbia University Press. New York, 1984.


[v] Ibid, p.15.

[vi] ‘Kavya aur Kala’ in “Prasad ki sampoorna Kahaniyan aur Nibandh” ed. Satyaprakash Mishra, Lok-Bharti Prakashan, Allahabad, 2009, p. 467.

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