The Amiya Nimai Carita (The Ambrosial Life of Nimai, hereafter ANC) is a sixvolume prose hagiography of the ﬁfteenth-century devotee, Chaitanya, written in Bengali and published over nearly a quarter of a century, between 1885 and 1911. Their author is Sisirkumar Ghose, a prominent anti-colonial voice from Bengal who ran an inﬂuential and stridently nationalist publishing house and English newspaper, both called the Amrita Bazar Patrika.2 In 1897-98, during the long gap between the fourth and subsequent volumes of the ANC, the author also published its abridged English version called Lord Gauranga, or Salvation for All (hereafter Lord Gauranga).3 The Bengali texts enjoyed tremendous popularity in twentieth-century Bengal, and the English version achieved a wide international reach.4 Written in chaste Bengali prose and often tedious and repetitive in its narration, the ANC told a tale that was already well-known to its Bengali-speaking audience, while Lord Gauranga intended to reach a wider audience of interested non-Bengalis and westerners. Given this reach, it is thus a matter of considerable interest that this popular account of Chaitanya’s divinity came to be retold by a stalwart nationalist leader of the late nineteenth century, in both Bengali and English, covering more than 1,500 pages of prose. The ANC and Lord Gauranga function as sacred biographies in fairly typical
terms. They do not share the same concern with presenting Chaitanya as a human ﬁgure that a later critical biography did.5 These texts remain steadfastly committed to the idea of Chaitanya as divinity, a fact that situates them within a rich genealogical tradition of Chaitanya hagiographies composed in the region.6 Chaitanya (1486-1533), better known as Nimai or Gauranga in Bengal, was a prominent
presence in popular memory as well as a subject of proliﬁc literary output from precolonial Bengal, much of which was in the genre of hagiographies.7 At least seven earlier sacred biographies of Chaitanya are currently extant.8 Nonetheless, despite Chaitanya’s importance to the religious and literary landscape of Bengal, no signiﬁcant sacred biography had been written since the seventeenth century, when Krishnadas Kaviraj composed his magnum opus, the Caitanyacaritamrta in Sanskrit and Bengali, that served as the “ﬁnal word” regarding doctrinal matters within Gaudiya Vaishnava circles.9 The goal of sacred biographical tradition around Chaitanya was to allow each disciple lineage to portray their “perspective on his descent.” According to Tony Stewart, “[T]he Gaudiya Vaisnavas were unusual amongst religious groups of their time, for when they at ﬁrst expressed their differences over theology and the nature of devotion, they staked their claims largely through the medium of religious biography.”10 The act of hagiography production and dissemination within Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a highly literate tradition, was thus strongly embedded in an ethics, praxis, and ultimately, politics of devotion.11 Sishirkumar Ghose, in composing the ANC, relied heavily on earlier hagiographical narratives to piece together his own. He, however, intervenes in a discursive ﬁeld noticeably different from the concerns shared by earlier hagiographers that primarily revolve around the question of Chaitanya’s divinity and are effectively laid to rest with the appearance of the doctrinally sophisticated Caitanyacaritamrta of Krishnadas Kaviraj. Ghose is explicitly distinct from his predecessors in a signiﬁcant regard-his
intended audience. The ideal reader of older hagiographies is the “committed devotee.”12 Ghose, on the other hand, writes to win over the disbeliever. Chief among the motive considerations pressing on his project was the dismissal of Vaishnava religiosity by both westerners and educated, reformed Indians on the basis of its fanciful and mythic dimensions. For Ghose admits that his purpose in retelling the “ambrosial life of Nimai” derived from the hope that it would compel its readers to take the ﬁgure of Chaitanya seriously as an empirically validated divinity, thereby gaining converts to Vaishnavism and, by extension, even Hinduism.13 The prefaces of each of the volumes reveal that these sacred biographies were meant not only for devoted Vaishnavas, but also (and perhaps even primarily) for an audience of educated and literate Bengalis and English-speaking Indians and westernersthose most likely to be skeptical of the ideas presented therein.14 How, then, does Ghose make a traditional hagiography acceptable to his audience of skeptics and historically minded Bengalis? Ghose’s approach to his task is deeply embedded in the historical conjunctures
of his time. It is in this period, when enthusiasm over history ran high amongst the Bengali middle-classes, that they discovered their apparent lack of it. Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, the outstanding literary luminary in colonial Bengal, rued “we have no history” in 1880, while calling for the composition of indigenous histories.15 By the end of the nineteenth century, the main elements of indigenously written nationalist history of India were organized around a glorious Hindu past when religion and civilization reached its pinnacle, followed by an age of decline and subjection underMuslim rule. Its primary aimwas to forge the nation
by excavating and reconstituting its true self from the ancient period.16 History, thus, emerges at the time as a key site where comparative civilizational claims are made and contested, especially as otherwise subaltern pasts stake equivalence in history’s allegedly universal language of teleological advancement.17 The gravity of civilizational encounters that forms the basis of modern historical consciousness mandates that superiority be marked not only in the present times, but also inscribed in the past that is at once sacred and secular. The use of history, as a discursive site where sacred lives from the past are made
meaningful to the struggles of the present, lies at the heart of my concern in this paper. I would like to excavate a subaltern and sacred past here to account for the extent and character of modern historical consciousness in colonial Bengal in the critical last decade of the nineteenth century. I focus here on this late nineteenthcentury prose version of a genre of traditional devotional literature-the hagiography-to interrogate the use, reach, and limits of history in a body of literature written with an explicitly religious message. Excavating the nature of historical consciousness in modern religious literature allows us to examine the problem of secular and sacred histories in a manner that goes beyond pointing out the inherent limitations of the latter when compared to the rational paradigms of the former. My intention here, given the remarkable departures in form and audience of these modern sacred biographical texts from their immediate predecessors, is to locate them within the imperatives of the times, bearing in mind the enormous signiﬁcance of the past to the present in the period of high nationalism that their author inhabited.