In one of his examinations of change and continuity in the contemporary Bengali family, the nineteenth-century Indian essayist and educator Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay alighted upon the subject of family pets. The presence of animals in the household was not of course new in India, but keeping essentially useless animals as named, domesticated, affectively integrated members of the family – dogs answering to Tommy and cats not answering to Pussy – was a cultural novelty borrowed from the colonizers. Bhudeb expressed his support for the development: the household pet was not only a sign of human mastery over animals, but also an index of European power in the world. He believed that animals obeyed Europeans more readily than they obeyed natives. (Colonial whites were convinced that the opposite was true.) Indians, he argued, ought to cultivate domestic habits that would build up and also demonstrate their command over nature. In the same essay, he declared that the laws of animal nature are inadequate to the nature of humans: people need traditions. Contrasting humans with animals and simultaneously asserting the animal nature of man, he posited tradition as a distinctly human artifice: a second level of nature qualified by particularities of race. Indeed, the rakhshansheel (conservative) project in which he was engaged might be described as an attempt to wrestle with the nature of Indians, and to reformulate it in the name of conservation.
The reformulation of ‘custom’ was central to that project. Yoga and Tantra, for instance, became for Bhudeb scientifically referenced ideologies of mastery over the animal nature of man: the yogi’s body, he wrote, was a package of muscle and nerve improved by education, instinctively capable of utilizing the tools of technology in addition to its own powers. If there is an apparent incongruity between this emphasis on instinct and Bhudeb’s usual emphasis on achieving control over involuntary bodily functions, it is misleading. He was positing a new instinct, which was born from the establishment of control over the body. Instinct or nature then worked at two levels: there was an animal instinct that had to be transcended, and a human (or ‘improved animal’) instinct that was produced by transcendence. Bhudeb intervened, here, in the Hegelian discourse of habit and historical impotence that underlay colonialism. When he insisted that knowledge must become the basis of habit, he rejected the habituality of the Oriental, in which the individual native had neither willpower nor self-control. For the regenerated Indian, habit was an entirely positive thing, formed by the will (specifically, the will to self-control); it set him apart both from Europeans and from animals, identifying him not only universally as a new kind of man, but also specifically as a creature of race. In a colonized society that was apparently in a state of rapid decay, this regenerative vision was an alternative and a challenge to the technological achievements of the West, and very importantly, a frame within which science and technology could be assimilated.
Comparing Hindu society and its counterparts around the world, Bhudeb articulated a scheme of distinct civilizational natures, of which Hindus (peace-loving, hard-working, patient and unselfish) possessed the best. Nature took on different forms in different lands, and religious and social customs were accordingly various. Grafting the customs of one land upon another distorted nature and was inevitably harmful. Europeans had not benefited by adopting the Semitic religion of Christianity: it had devastated their society and turned their lower classes into animals. Because Indian customs were relatively intact, Indians had been able to preserve some of their higher nature, but it was threatened by the circumstances of colonial life, with its many incitements to mimicry, which alienated the individual from the race. Here, Bhudeb’s attempt to articulate an Indian nature reflects a bifurcation in his outlook. The nature of the individual was inherently threatening and bestial: controlling it was basic to culture and civilization. But the nature of the nation or race, which may or may not be bestial, had no automatic necessity of control. It simply was, and could be recognized with either pride or objectivity. It was what the nationalist worked with, and also worked on. That combination of ‘working with’ and ‘working on’ racial nature underlay Bhudeb’s conservatism as well as his nationalism.
Bhudeb thus made a clear separation between nationality, which was innate, and nationalism or national feeling, which had to be developed by becoming aware of, practicing and improving the innate truth of nationality. Indians, Bhudeb wrote, must follow the dharmic exhortation to detached action, and through exercise (anushilan), cultivate their nationality. Failure to do so would be a moral and natural failure, although it would not be contrary to the ordinary nature of humans. When Bhudeb posited the recovery of national feeling by the nation as the regeneration of the race, he reflected a cluster of near-contemporary movements: eugenics, ‘white anxiety’ after Gobineau and Darwin, even Zionism. But since detached action was itself unnatural, Indian nationality was ‘unnatural’ also, and as such, a fact of civilization. What Indians were thus urged to cultivate was thus not just their nature, but cultivation itself: to maintain, in other words, a higher (national) nature of continuous struggle against lower (individual) nature.
The absence of struggle indicated not stability but stagnation and death. Not even English-educated Indians could be as unselfconsciously selfish as the English, Bhudeb wrote, and then warned Indians against mimicking English selfishness, the assertion of safely stable difference followed immediately by the warning of disaster. That simultaneity was, at one level, merely the deployment of two opposed but equally valuable polemics. But at another level, the contradiction was resolved through the discourse of racial cultivation. Nature was real and resilient, but not invulnerable: it could change, and while that change generally constituted degeneracy, it could also take the form of positive change, or regenerative adjustments that shaped a defensible racial ideal. In recognizing this ideal, common men should follow great men. Custom became the link between ‘great men’ and ‘common men.’ The problem with English-educated youth, Bhudeb suggested, was an easy morality that required neither personal rigor nor external supervision. The mimic, from this perspective, was not only undisciplined and unwilling to accept proper authority, but also decadent, i.e., always looking for what was easy, which went against the austerity of the conservative nationalist.
It is not that Bhudeb saw ‘European’ hedonism and materialism as inherently alien values, or even as altogether undesirable. He was, after all, a theorist of the grihastha life and not of sannyas: a critic of excess and unrestrained animal nature. He wanted to conserve the distinction between a wild West and a restrained Orient, and was apparently both secure and anxious about whether the distinction was viable. He was fascinated by Comte but rejected various universalist, humanist and Positivist visions: one race, one state (even one empire), no war, no religion, or even one religion (although a shared non-dualism across religions could be entertained). That anti-Utopianism was a key aspect of his conservatism: he rejected anything that threatened difference and bounded, implicitly (or explicitly) hierarchical identities. Justice and common ground were not unimportant to the politics of community and inter-communal relations, but they had to be pursued through the management, rather than the elimination, of difference. The simultaneous critique of egalitarianism and gross inequality is central to conservatism in anti-colonial nationalism. It requires on the one hand a mechanism of reconciliation, which Bhudeb identified with dharma or the nature of Hindu society. On the other hand, it requires the dual vision of nature: what is natural (like inequality) is good and acceptable, but nature is also uncivilized and unjust, necessitating containment. A regenerative education in colonial India, from this conservative perspective, kept that duality viable.