Bhagwan Das- Freedom fighter - biography

Bhagwan Das- Freedom fighter



Bhagwan Das was born on 12 January 1869 (he shared the year of' his birth with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi) at Banaras in a Vaish family. He was the second of the six children of Madho Das and Chameli Devi.
An ancestor of Bhagwan Das, Sah Manohar Das, was the commissariat agent of the East India Company when the battle of Srirangapamam was fought between the British and Tipu Sultan. After the death of Tipu, general loot took place and Manohar Das, taking advantage of it, acquired Considerable wealth, left Mysore and settled permanently in Banaras. The family owned valuable properly in Bara Bazaar, Calcutta and extensive cultivable land, mostly in the Jaunpur district near Banaras. The family took to banking and usury. The affluence of the family could be judged from the fact that during Bhagwan Das time, the family had twenty domestic servants.
Bhagwan Das education started at the age of three. His first teacher was a Muslim maulvi (a religious instructor) who taught him Urdu and Persian and love for Islam, which he carried throughout his life. At the age of about five, he was admitted to a private school, founded by the famous Hindi poet Bhartendu Harish Chandra near their home, where he learnt Hindi and some English. At the age of seven, he was admitted to the Government Queen’s College. He was an extremely precocious child. At the age of twelve he passed the Entrance (matriculation) examination and four years later, the Bachelor of Arts examination with a distinction. He had opted for English, Sanskrit and Philosophy as subjects. In 1886, at the age of seventeen, he passed the M.A. examination of the Calcutta University in mental and moral sciences. He developed great interest in Hindu religion and philosophy, an interest which he maintained throughout his life. He devoted the next four years fully to study these subjects and learnt Sanskrit from Kashi pandits to read the scriptures in the original. However, at the insistence of his father, he joined government service in 1890 as a tehsildar (subordinate revenue Officer) and in 1894; he was promoted as deputy collector and magistrate. He was posted at various places in Uttar Pradesh. The period of his government service was eventless because his heart was not in it, though he proved to be a man of integrity and was devoid of prejudices. His father died in 1897 and he resigned from government service in 1898.
The same year (1898) Annie Besant, the president of the Theosophical Society, founded the Central Hindu College “to rehabilitate all that was great and glorious in the Oriental culture". She felt that religion was the foundation of all true education as it was the foundation of the family and the state. The existing schools, she felt, were not imparting proper education. Bhagwan Das completely agreed with her views and started working with her in the college as well as in the Theosophical Society, a branch of which was opened in Banaras by Annie Besant. The school proved to be a success; the number of students increased every year and it became a model school for the country. One important contribution of the college was the publication of the Sanatan Dharma Series of Hindu religious textbooks. These books give, in a form suitable for students, a graduated outline of the fundamental principles of the Hindu religion. It is quite likely that Annie Besant took the help of Bhagwan Das in planning and writing these textbooks. Bhagwan Das had written the book Sanatan Dharma; An Advanced 'Textbook Hindu Religion and Ethics in 1904, supplementing the Sanatan Dharma Series of textbooks. He, jointly with Annie Besant, published the translation of Bhagvad Gita in 1906, giving original Sanskrit verses and the English translation alongside and a Concordance of Sanskrit words at the end. To this day it remains one of the best translations of the Bhagvad Gita. Bhagwan Das served the Hindu College as honorary secretary for fifteen years (1899-1914). He was also active in the Theosophical Society and played a significant part in the development of the Banaras branch of the society. However, the main interest of his life by now had become the study of Hindu scriptures like the Vedas and the Manusmriti and their interpretation through his books and articles for the scholar as well as for the layman. A continuous stream of books flowed from his pen year after year and Bhagwan Das became famous as a highly learned man and a Vedic scholar.
Through the study of the Hindu scriptures, he came to the conclusion that there was no valid reason to believe and practice untouchability and that all castes should be allowed to enter Hindu temples without any restriction. He also advocated that the mamas (four divisions of Hindu society) should be decided by karma (actions) and not by birth. Thus armed, he took active part, along with Madan Mohan Malaviya, in the movement against untouchability and restrictive temple entry.
From the mid- 1920s onwards, Mahatma Gandhi had started preaching against untouchability and supporting the temple entry movement. Whenever Gandhi was in doubt about the verdict of the scriptures (as he hardly knew Sanskrit) he used to refer to Bhagwan Das for his opinion. Gandhi used to address him as ‘Dear Baboo Bhagwandas’ or simply as ‘Dear Baboo ji’. From their correspondence, it is evident that Gandhi had great respect for Bhagwan Das, when the latter started writing to Gandhi through his secretary Mahadev, instead of Writing to Gandhi direct, Mahatma Gandhi wrote to Bhagwan Das, “I know you want to save my time by writing to Mahadev, but it is as well not to do so. It may cause delay and your letters are no strain on me”.1 When Gandhi was undergoing a fast unto death against the verdict of the Communal Award which recommended separate electorates for the scheduled castes, Bhagwan Das went to Poona to meet Gandhi in Yervada. He remained in Poona for three weeks and met Gandhi in Yervada jail almost daily. About these meetings Gandhi later wrote to Bhagwan Das on '7 January 1933, “I cannot tell you what a joy it was to have you with me for so many days. It was all so unexpected and therefore a double pleasure”.
Annie Besant collaborated with Madan Mohan Malaviya in the establishment of Banaras Hindu University and merged the Central Hindu College in the proposed university, which started functioning in 1916 in the College Campus itself. Bhagwan Das was nominated as one of the five honorary joint secretaries of the Management Committee of the university. He was also nominated as a member of the University Court, Senate and other bodies. But soon after, he started criticizing the working of the university and its vice-chancellor, Madan Mohan Malaviya. He wrote articles and ‘open letters’ expressing his views, which were published in the Leader in 1917. The confrontation came to a head in the Court meeting of December, 1920 and he crossed swords with Annie Besant and Malaviya on various issues. The amendments moved by him were lost by heavy margin and consequently he withdrew his membership from the Court, the Council and other bodies of the university.
It was during 1919-20, at the age of fifty, that Bhagwan Das was drawn to politics for the first time in 1919; he was president of the U.P. Social Conference. In 1920, he presided over the UP. Political Conference, and soon became an important member of the Indian National Congress. He took part in the Non-Cooperation Movement launched by Gandhi in August 1920 and was sentenced to a nine month imprisonment. However, he was released after two months. When Kashi Vidyapeeth was founded in 1921, Bhagwan Das became its kulpati (vice-chancellor). He also used to teach philosophy there. He was nominated as chairman of the Banaras Municipal Board in 1923 and served in that capacity for about three years. During his tenure, the municipality functioned efficiently and its debt was considerably reduced.
In March 1931, serious communal riots took place in Kanpur, after the execution of Bhagat Singh and his two comrades in the Lahore Jail. According to the official estimate 165 persons were killed and 480 injured. Among the killed was Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, president of the U.P. Congress. An enquiry committee was constituted by the Congress to go into details of the riots, with Bhagwan Das as chairman. After several months of enquiry and interviews, the Committee submitted a report. About this report well-known historian RC. Majumdar wrote, “Bhagwan Das submitted a report in a bulky volume. It began with along historical introduction with sole object to prove that the Muslim rulers were the most tolerant in respect of other religions. A more ridiculous parody of history it is difficult to imagine, and yet bore the signatures of several Hindus who should have known better. It was a piece of pure political propaganda”. To placate the Muslims the Committee had to resort to untruth and negationism. Fortunately, for the good name of the Congress, and of the authors of the Report, it was proscribed by the government.
     In 1935, Bhagwan Das was elected unopposed to the Central Legislative Assembly His term lasted for two years but he did not leave any impact on the Assembly proceedings and hardly made any speeches. His son and biographer, Sri Prakasa writes, “My father had no practice of extempore speaking. He was a great writer, but not a speaker. Whenever he had to say anything, he wrote it out with great care and labour, and read it out in the Assembly. He spent most of his time in the lobbies reading and writing. He never asked any questions. My father delivered very few speeches either". His limitations as a speaker could be the reason for his not taking active part in politics. He was essentially a scholar, a philosopher and a writer. He has written more than forty books, mostly on religion and philosophy, and almost all in English. According to S. Radhakrishnan, “I have been an admiring student of Dr. Bhagwan Das’ Works. His attitude to our ancient works is one to be followed by others: trust tempered with criticism. He had great faith in the central ideas of Indian thought and he was an effective critic of the deviations which took place spoiling the purity and strength of our religion”.
Bhagwan Das was cast in the mould of great rishis (sages) and his luxurious beard imparted grace and dignity to his personality, rivaling that of Rabindranath Tagore. Though he was not a good speaker, he must have been a good conversationalist and a Charming host, as many persons used t0 visit him and enjoy his hospitality. These included Gandhi, Nehru, C.R. Das, CF. Andrews, Anand Coomaraswamy and many others, both Indian and foreigners. However, he was not a spendthrift and was not lavish of his purse. Nor did his wealth tempt him to be a philanthropist. In spite of his intellectual pursuits he was very fond of physical exercise and used to do scores of push-ups and sit-ups daily, which would have shamed many a Wrestler. After seeing Bhagwan Das for the first time, Jawaharlal Nehru remarked, “He has the straightest back I have ever seen.” And that back remained straight even when he touched his eightiethyear.
Bhagwan Das was awarded doctorate degrees honoris causa by the Banaras Hindu University (1929) and Allahabad University (1937). In 1955, he received the Bharat Rama. In 1959, he died at Banaras. His marble statue greets the visitors to the offices of the Municipal Corporation of Varanasi. His son Sri Prakasa was the first Indian high commissioner in Pakistan (1947-49) and later served as governor of Assam, Madras and Bombay (later Maharashtra).

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