Notes from Harvard

God's Beloved Land

India is God's beloved land. He has come into being in many countries in human form but not so many times in any other country-that is why I say, India is our motherland, is God's beloved land. - Subhas Chandra Bose to his mother Prabhabati, 1912.

"I rose early", Janakinath Bose a lawyer in Cuttack Orissa, wrote in his diary on January 23, 1897, "but found Prabha was still suffering. A son was born at midday. Prabha felt very ill but thank God she somehow got through." The sixth son and ninth child of Janakinath and Prabhabati was named Subhas, "One of Good Speech"- a name that would prove prophetic when his stirring words inspired India's army of liberation during the Second World War. The boy was born into a well-to-do family, though not into opulence. The country of his birth was, by contrast, mired in poverty.

Subhas was not unhappy in his primary school. He was good at his studies and usually at the top of his class. He was too young and too far away in Cuttack to be influenced by the anti-colonial Swadeshi ("Own Country") movement that swept Calcutta and Bengal proper from 1905 onward. That year, Curzon had partitioned Bengal into a Muslim - majority province, comprising eastern Bengal and Assam, and a Hindu - majority province that included western Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Bengali nationalists were determined to undermine what Curzon regarded as the "settled fact" of partition through a campaign of passive resistance and boycotts of British goods and institutions. The antipartition political agitation had coincided with a new flowering of Bengali literature, art, music, and culture, along with an effort to revive indigenous industries and promote national education. The P. E. School remained a European island in the political backwater of Orissa, its children protected from the powerful currents of change unleashed by the forces of Bengali patriotism, Indian nationalism, and Asian universalism. The school atmosphere presented a contrast to the broader cultural environment. It is only toward the end of his seven years at the P.E. School that Subhas realised that he had been inhabiting "two distinct worlds" which "did not always match." He felt a vague sense of "maladaptation" and "a strong desire to join an Indian School." When he finally bid goodbye to the Protestant European School, in January 1909, he did so "without a momentary pang."

With the move from the P.E. School to the Ravenshaw Collegiate School, a sense of alienation yielded to a feeling of promise and possibility, tinged with anxiety. Ravenshaw, consisting mainly of Bengali and Oriya teachers and students, proved far more congenial for making lasting friendships. Initially, Subhas' s lack of training in reading and writing Bengali was a challenge and the grammatical mistakes in his first Bengali essay elicited much laughter from his fellow students when the teacher read it out in class. Displaying a kind of dogged determination, Subhas made sure that on the annual examinations he obtained the highest marks in the subject. His family background and mastery of English in any case won him respect and gave him a sense of self-confidence. An inspiring headmaster of the school, Beni Madhav Das, instilled in him a sense of moral values and a love for nature that had both aesthetic and ethical dimensions. Subhas took to "a species of nature - worship," choosing beautiful spots by a river or on a hill or in a meadow to "practise contemplation."

On reaching his teens, Subhas entered "one of his stormiest periods" in his "psychical life." Part of the tumult could be explained by the usual changes of adolescence and the challenge of coming to terms with his sexuality, which he struggled to "suppress or transcend." But his precocity and introverted nature made Subhas's torment more intense than that of other teenagers. "I had in some respects" he would later recall, "a touch of the abnormal in my mental make-up." His higher self impelled him to rise above the attractions of worldly pursuits. He embarked on an incessant search for "a central principle," "a peg to hang my entire life on." It was not just the choice of his life's goal, but directing his "entire will to that single goal" that presented the major challenge. As he negotiated the existential crisis and "trials of becoming" of his adolescent years, books containing the works of one man, Swami Vivekananda, appeared to him as God-sent.

"I was barely fifteen" Subhas Chandra Bose wrote, "when Vivekananda entered my life." The message of this great Hindu sage, who had preached a life of service to suffering humanity and died at the early age of thirty-nine in 1902, gave him "an ideal" to which he could devote his "whole being." Vivekananda inspired an entire generation, but none so profoundly as the young Subhas. From a comprehensive reading of Swami Vivekananda's letters and speeches, Subhas "emerged with a vivid idea of the essence of his teachings" captured in the Sanskrit maxim "AtmanoMoksharthamJagaddhitaya [ca]." That aspiration -"For your own salvation and for the service of humanity"- was to be his "life's goal." The hita ("good") of humanity was rendered here as achievable through seva ("service"). To this formulation Subhas added another element: the service of humanity included the service of one's country. The spirit of self-fulfilling yet selfless service was distinct in Subhas's mind from "the selfish monasticism of the Middle Ages," as well as "the modern utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill." It was Vivekananda's radically modern interpretation of the ancient scriptures that appealed to Subhas. His religion was based on a "rational philosophy" of the Vedanta, and he dedicated his life to bringing about "a reconciliation between science and religion." His stirring call for equality was a harbinger of modern democracy in a hierarchical society. He had envisaged India's future as belonging to the Sudras, "the downtrodden masses." His passionate cry, "Say Brothers at the top of your voice, 'The naked Indian, the illiterate Indian, the Brahman Indian, the pariah Indian is my brother!'" was not just a plea for equality, but an invocation of the value of shraddha, "faith"- faith in oneself built on profound respect. If Swamiji taught the virtues of seva and shraddha, the teachings of Vivekananda's spiritual preceptor Ramakrishna Parahamsa , who had been the highest priest at the Kali Temple in Dakhshineshwar on the outskirts of Calcutta, brought home to Subhas the indispensability of tyag ("sacrifice") through his oft-repeated dictum that "only through renunciation was realization possible."

The path prescribed by Vivekananda led Subhas towards a combination of individualistic yoga and social service in the form of voluntary work in the villages. The practice of yoga, representing the individual's pursuit of union with the godhead, was supplemented with an effort to relieve human suffering. The master's teaching that "revolt is necessary for self-fulfilment" inspired a rejection of anachronistic familial and social conventions that restricted the sphere of community service. Sanskrit verses enjoining obedience to one's parents were now discarded in favour of those that extolled defiance. Friends who were prepared to follow Vivekananda's ideals seemed closer than family members who showed little empathy or understanding. Subhas remembered later that he felt "more at home when away from home." Yet the dramatic transformation that Subhas underwent in 1912 was best captured in a series of intense letters that the fifteen-year-old boy wrote to his mother.


Excerpted from His Majesty's Opponent by Sugata Bose
Penguin Books India, June 2011.

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