by Anirban Karak

Political economy was arguably the first instantiation of modern “social” science, and undoubtedly of Western and Northern European provenance. Therefore, its dissemination in early colonial (c.1760-1860) Bengal is a historical problem. In recent decades, most scholars have sought to address the issue through a study of the intrinsic relationship between social scientific abstractions and the operation of colonial power. Sudipta Sen has argued that political economy was a vehicle for the legitimization of British colonial rule in Bengal in the name of “free trade,” while Upal Chakrabarti has drawn attention to how political economy served as an instrument for rendering subject populations knowable, classifiable, and governable. These suspicious views of modern social science have served as an essential corrective to an earlier generation of scholarship by developmentalist thinkers – including orthodox Marxists – who uncritically accepted the universal applicability of social theories.

An acknowledgement of this fact, however, does not preclude the possibility of rethinking the history of political economy in colonial Bengal from a radically different set of conceptual presuppositions. As Andrew Sartori has recently argued, in addition to a study of the relationship between political economy and imperial power, we need to pay close attention to “new normative impulses and aspirations emerging directly from agrarian society in the region” (173, emphasis mine). Sartori’s study of agrarian politics in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries shows how indigenous actors insisted that norms governing agrarian social relations be premised on the property-constituting powers of labour. In turn, this opened up a new conceptual space for appeals to both political economy and the normative significance of property. Without denying the role of classical Islamic jurisprudence in shaping discourses on land and property, Sartori draws attention to how twentieth-century agrarian movements inhabited the ideological landscape of a much broader world of political aspirations and norms.

Conceptually, Sartori’s approach is grounded in a radically historicist and Marxian view of capitalist society as a historically specific realm of objective interdependence grounded in the mediating role of abstract labour.1 The reason why people in colonial Bengal found it increasingly difficult to make meaningful political claims without an implicit engagement with the social significance of labour, Sartori argues elsewhere, is precisely because labour was becoming the fundamental form of social relationship in the region. Sartori’s interventions, however, pertain primarily to the late colonial (c.1860-1947) period, which leaves open the following question: was political economy primarily an instrument of colonial power in early colonial (c.1760-1860) Bengal, or did political-economic norms mediate the subjectivity of colonized actors in ways not hitherto understood?

In this essay, I suggest one possible way of approaching this difficult question. Traditionally, historians have assumed that political-economic thought could have found expression only in technical treatises, political pamphlets, and political action. I argue instead that devotional poetry in the vernacular Bangla can help us understand how and why ideas about labour and its social significance mattered to Bengali actors. I discuss two poems – one by the mystic-poet Ramprasad Sen (1718-1775) and the other by Kubir Gossain (1787-1879) – and offer an interpretation that surpasses the limitations of extant interpretations and also speaks to the history of political economy in the early colonial period.

Figure 1: Ramprasad Sen (1718-1775). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Ramprasad Sen was born in February 1718 in the town of Kumarhaṭṭa, roughly 30 miles north of Calcutta. Undoubtedly, his self-understanding was that of a devotee of the goddess Kali seeking salvation through worship. Nevertheless, the content of such devotion was often expressed in radically new ways such as the use of economic metaphors, and it struck a chord with people from the lower orders. This included workers, clerks, porters, and other labourers in the city of Calcutta, and labourers and tenants in the expanding economy of Nadia and Jessore, where the commercial production of indigo took off from the late 1780s. Ramprasad was also the first to use the vernacular Bangla to discuss philosophical themes at a time when it was still not considered a “respectable” language for intellectual abstraction. Despite scholarly acknowledgements of these pioneering contributions, Ramprasad continues to be seen as primarily an innovator within a long tradition rather than a genuinely new and forward-looking voice. As a result, we fail to notice how Ramprasad’s poetry offers insights into how developments within indigenous discourses created the ground for thinking through the social significance of labour. Consider, for instance, the following poem –

Man re krishi kāj jāna nā,
Eman mānab jamin raila patit, ābād karle phalta sonā.
Kālī nām-e dāore beṛā, phasale tachrup habe nā,
Se ye muktakeśīr śakta beṛā, tār kāchete yam ghēm̐ṣē nā.
Adya śabda-śatānte bā bājeāpta habe jāna nā,
Āche ektāre man ei belā tui cuṭiye phasal keṭe ne nā.
Guru ropaṇ karechen bīj, bhaktibāri tāy sēm̐ca nā,
Ore ekā yadi nā pāris man, Ramprasad ke saṅge ne nā.

Mind, you don’t know the work of cultivation,
Your human-field has remained fallow, till it and you’ll reap crops like gold.
Fence it around with Kālī’s name, so your crops won’t be harmed,
The wild-haired one is strong, death won’t come near her fence.
Your crops won’t fail in a day, a year, or even a century,
So apply yourself mind, and work to reap as much of a harvest as you can.
The guru has sowed the mantra, now water his seed with devotion’s showers,
And oh, if you can’t do it alone, mind, take Ramprasad along.2

Although none of his poems were printed during Ramprasad’s lifetime, scholars unanimously attribute this poem to him, and they agree that it was orally circulated during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is among Ramprasad’s most well-known poems, and it was included in a printed collection of 1878. The crucial hinge on which an adequate interpretation of this poem turns, I believe, is the history and usage of the term “krishi” in the first line, which refers to “cultivation.” At stake is also a history of “culture” as a concept with global reach, since the etymological roots of the word culture lie in the Latin colere, which means to “tend” or to “cultivate.” In early usage, culture was often accompanied by a genitive phrase (of the spirit, of literature, and so on), in keeping with its foundation in the agricultural metaphor. In Western and Northern Europe – especially modern-day Germany, France, and Britain – the use of culture as a freestanding concept might have begun as early as the late sixteenth century, but the mid to late eighteenth century marks the decisive break. From that point onward, the category of culture has been extensively used to develop the modern idea that labouring activity was not just a profane necessity but rather a mediation between the binaries of necessity and freedom, profane and sacred, outer and inner, body and mind, and object and subject.

In Bengal, the word that is now ubiquitously used to translate culture – sanskriti – was not used as much before the early twentieth century, when Rabindranath Tagore launched a massive campaign to raise the term to its contemporary status of sole supremacy in conventional usage. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a rival word for culture was “krishti,” or by extension “krishi,” both of which denote “cultivation.” Rabindranath considered the etymological roots of krishti in agriculture to be at profound odds with the rarified significance of culture in its higher sense, which he thought should refer to a space beyond necessity. Unlike the mundane associations of krishti with the soil and bodily needs, sanskriti refers to something like purification: an extraction of the spirit from its necessary attachments to the grossly material.

Figure 2: Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) disliked the associations of the term “krishi” with the material necessities of human life. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The influence of Tagore’s ideas on modern Bengali consciousness can scarcely be overestimated, but the legacy of this latter-day elite “culturalism” has severely affected our ability to interpret pre-twentieth century literary and religious forms on their own terms. Once we remind ourselves that krishti and krishi did refer to the self and the cultivation of subjectivity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we can recognize that the discourse of culture in Ramprasad was very different from the latter-day culturalism of Tagore. Ramprasad was not interested in dissociating the spiritual world from the material one. On the contrary, he aimed to try and find a way to reconcile the two. In Ramprasad’s thought, subjectivity was “free” in so far as humans were both engaged in mundane labouring activity and continuously strived to imbue that activity with divine significance.

This discourse of culture, I suggest, reached its apogee in poems like the following one by the poet Kubir Gossain (1787-1879) – 

Ābād kara coddapoyā jami laye
Thāka re man khāṭo krishāṇ haye.
Dīkṣe-guru bartamān
Haye adhiṣṭhān
Jamir uṭhita patit kichu nāhire.
Prem dhībare tini ulubane geche bīj chiṭāiye,
Āmi halām hatabhombā.
Jami hala ajanmā,
Man tumi re kritikarmā
Krishi janma suman diye.|
Man re joṛo dharma-hāl prabartak-phāl
Sādhak-muṛāy siddha-iṣ lāgāiye.
Joṛān diye ripur skandher
Lāṅgal joṛā sābandhe
Beye yāore premānande.
Anurāg-pācum̐ni laye
Man re kara bhakti-cāṣ
Uṭhāo bighna-ghās
Jami samān kara dhairya-maiye.
Netra bāri kara sinchan
Rūp rasāne deha mārjan
Prakāśibe bīj kāncan
Aṅkur habe premodaye.
Deha habe sunirmal
Dharibe suphal
Kubir kay caraṇer dhulā kheye.

Take this small plot of land and cultivate,
Mind, stay on as the small peasant.
Put up residence with your initiation-guru “bartamān,”
This land has neither crests nor troughs.
Like a loving fisherman He has scattered seeds in this forest full of reedy grass,
I am dumbstruck!
The land exists but is not yet born,
Mind, you are the executor of action,
Cultivate birth using your good self.
Mind, join the dharma-plough with the initiation-blade,
By letting the perfected soil touch the practised tip.
Join the plough over the shoulders of the six sins,
And float on blissful love.
Drink the potion of love, oh mind,
And cultivate devotion,
Yank out the troublesome grass,
And make the land equal using the patience-ladder.
Sprinkle the land with teardrops,
And polish the body into a beautiful form.
Golden seeds will appear
And sprout into flourishing love.
The body will be purified,
It will bear good fruit,
Kubir says, feeding off the dust at His feet.3

This poem uses the Bangla term “ābād” to denote cultivation, and it manages to use real-world references without leaving any doubt about its real object: arguing for the role of worldly labour in preparing the embodied mind for the divine. The argument is unfolded with equal parts of vigour and poetic finesse, qualities that do not always go together. From the beginning, we find a valorization of humility, such as when the mind is exhorted to stay on as the “small” peasant. What is most noticeable, however, is the ease with which Kubir manages to get across the difficult idea of immanent potentiality. The body exists and has the potential to bear good fruit, but not without the application of diligent labour. More importantly, it is the “mind” which is the “executor of action” (kritikarmā). The “senses” and the six sins cannot just be gotten rid of, because the “mind” is “embodied,” and the “body” is “mindful.” So the self must have control over and harness the six sins for its purposes, by making them into oxen who help with cultivation. Finally, cultivating the mind also means polishing the body, for one cannot survive without the other. The unity-in-difference of mind and body allows for the golden harvest to appear, and Kubir’s imaginative poetry constantly seeks to hold together these two dimensions in creative tension.

Scholars of religion often study different religious sampradāyas (communities) separately, and thereby miss out on the remarkable thematic overlaps across sects. Thus, Kubir’s poetry is rarely studied together with that of Ramprasad, since the former belonged to the Sāhebdhani (“wealthy Englishmen”) sampradāya who did not worship the goddess Kali. I think this approach is too narrow and a thematic study allows us to discern insights that we might otherwise overlook. Taking a broader, historical view, we can explain the importance of “labour” or practical activity in vernacular devotional poetry with reference to both trends of change within local religious practices, as well as the intensification of commercialization during the early colonial period.

To do so, we would have to begin with the emergence of the bhakti movement in the sixteenth century. Derived from the Sanskrit root bhaj, bhakti means “devotion” to something or someone. In the sixteenth century, bhakti was invoked to suggest that universal access to the divine without the mediation of Brahmans (the uppermost, “priestly” caste) was possible through devotion. The core message of the movement was that God had descended to earth in the form of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1533) to deliver from all manner of evil all of humankind, especially those in the greatest need of such grace, namely women, sinners, and the lowest castes. Moreover, bhakti affirmed an individual’s present birth as a wonderful opportunity to break out of stereotypical self-images rooted in a person’s caste, sex, and occupation. In effect, the bhakti critique asserted that caste and other ascriptive statuses could not be compatible with divinity or be a reflection of divine will.

One of the most lasting legacies of bhakti was its contribution to a gradual withdrawal of sacral legitimacy from external institutions to inner devotion. Ultimately, this is what enabled the emergence of political assertions by the lowest castes and peasants aimed at the recalibration of institutions from the late eighteenth century onwards. For instance, petty merchants belonging to lower and middling castes challenged “arbitrary” market taxes imposed by upper-caste elites and the colonial state.4 Similarly, in the districts of Nadia and Jessore – where the Sahebdhani sampradāya and other heterodox bhakti communities such as the Kartābhajās (worshippers of the master) were most active – lower caste groups fought against zamindari oppression, often with the help of Baptist missionaries.

I do not mean to suggest that bhakti was the primary driver of political action, or that it had no internal contradictions. As several scholars including Ranajit Guha and Milinda Banerjee have shown, bhakti could often be used to justify domination and sovereign power. Indeed, the bhakti critique of caste eventually failed to transcend that system of hierarchy because it did not have an alternative vision of the social organization of labour. Nevertheless, challenges to arbitrary power were also initiated by oppressed actors inspired by bhakti, and we need to explain both the possibility of resistance and its eventual failure historically rather than as intrinsic features of bhakti itself.

A fruitful line of inquiry, I believe, is to note that the withdrawal of sacral legitimacy from external institutions to inner devotion initially created a disjuncture between the secular and the divine worlds. Linking bhakti to notions of sovereign power was one way of resolving this disjuncture, but in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, imaginative poets such as Ramprasad and Kubir charted a different course. They pondered deeply and carefully about what could mediate the relationship between finite beings and their secular institutions and the world of the infinite divine, if not caste-ascribed duties inherited by birth. Their short answer was: worldly labour unmarked by caste.

This is why, I would argue, political economy and the role of abstract labour in organizing social interdependence are relevant for understanding the subjectivity of colonized actors. The idea that the sacred could emerge immanently from within the mundane or the profane was radically new, and it went against the grain of the millennia-old idea that the mundane world was “illusory.” Although the internal trajectory of bhakti generated the conceptual possibility of such new arguments, the fact that they were clearly articulated only from the eighteenth century onwards is surely a function of the intensification of commercialization. Indeed, the fact that Kubir lived in what is today Nadia district in western Bengal, where commercial indigo production increased rapidly from the 1780s onwards, is more than just a coincidence.

My argument implies that any study of the history of political economy in early colonial Bengal must take into account not only the actions of the colonial state, but also the ways in which the social dimension of abstract labour was impinging upon the everyday life and thought of those on the receiving end of colonial and capitalist exploitation. Very often, the critique of domination was intrinsically related to and made possible by the very context in which domination thrived. By remaining attentive to this paradox, we can better understand the contradictions within bhakti and political challenges to caste, and thereby trace the contradictions of capitalism in the South Asian context.

Anirban Karak is a historian of early modern and modern South Asia. He earned his PhD from New York University and is currently serving as a Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences Collegiate Division at The University of Chicago. Before joining NYU, Anirban completed an MA in political economy from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a BA and MA in economics from Jadavpur University. Anirban’s writing has appeared in various academic journals and public-facing fora in both English and Bangla, including Modern Asian Studies, Critical Historical Studies, Review of Radical Political Economics, Development and Change, Mediations, Serenade Magazine, and Nirantar. He is currently working on his first monograph titled “Caste, Capitalism, and Subaltern Aspirations in Bengal, 1696-1859.”

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured image: A latter-day depiction of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1533) leading a Sankirtana or congregational song and dance in praise of the divine. Courtesy of British Library.

  1. In a recent review essay, I have engaged directly with this theoretical framework and argued for its potential usefulness for writing global histories of capitalism.
  2. Translation taken from McDermott, Singing to the Goddess, 77, with minor changes.
  3. Translation mine.
  4. Anirban Karak, “The Politics of Commerce in Eighteenth-Century Bengal: A Reappraisal,” forthcoming in The Indian Economic and Social History Review.