A Monk in the Garb of a Revolutionary Nationalist

– Sreejit Datta

“Dada, the day I realise that India can never be liberated by Ahimsa, I shall adopt Bengal’s very own revolutionary path.” [translated from the original Bangla quote by the present author]

These words were uttered by Sri Subhash Chandra Bose at a time when he, as a young protégé of ‘Deshbandhu’ Chittaranjan Das, was still a dedicated Gandhian Congress worker, yet to become the ‘Netaji’ that we know. However, contrary to what may at first glance seem rather obvious, these words of young Subhash were not directed at his illustrious mentor Deshbandhu. Instead, they were spoken to Subhash’s ‘Upen-da’ – that is, Sri Upendranath Bandyopadhyay, a leading figure among the first generation of revolutionary nationalists from Bengal’s ‘Agni Yug’ (literally, the “Fiery Era”), a close associate of the firebrand Ghose brothers Aurobindo (later Sri Aurobindo) and Barindra, as well as an ace journalist and editor.

Born in a humble Bengali Brahmin family from the erstwhile French colony of Chandannagar (in present-day Hooghly district of the Indian State of West Bengal) in 1879, Upendranath was one of those late nineteenth-century prodigious and inspired Bengali youth who could forsake everything – be it the prospects of a bright career after university or the comforts and certainties of family life – and jump headlong into the mission of liberating the Motherland, Mother India, the presiding deity of their hearts. By the time of Upendranath’s birth, the British had gained a rather firm foothold in its Indian colony. And at the turn of the century, when Upendranath was a young man of eighteen, the Sun of the British Empire was at the highest point of its ascent. Coincidentally, or perhaps by divine providence, Swami Vivekananda returned from the West at that same time (1897). Like hundreds of his generation, Upendranath was attracted to the mission of liberating his Motherland upon perusing the speeches and writings of Vivekananda, especially those which the Swami wrote or delivered during his whirlwind tour across the three continents of North America, Europe, and Asia between 1893-99. This lion among men, fairly well-known in the cultivated societies of Calcutta due to his singing and debating prowesses as Narendranath Dutta in the years before he took the ochre robe, was hand-picked by Thakur Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa Deva; and Narendranath was specifically ordained by the Saint of Dakshineswar to spread His message across India and the world, and carry out His mission of “rousing the sleeping leviathan” (to borrow a phrase from Vivekananda himself) – the slumbering Hindu nation. Thus, upon his eminently successful stint at the Chicago Parliament of World Religions, Vivekananda thundered from America:

“Young men of Bengal, to you I especially appeal. […] Let us wipe off first that mark which nature always puts on the forehead of a slave — the stain of jealousy. […] Let us take our stand on the one central truth in our religion — the common heritage of the Hindus, the Buddhists, and Jains alike — the spirit of man, the Atman of man, the immortal, birthless, all-pervading, eternal soul of man […] Look at that handful of young men called into existence by the divine touch of Ramakrishna’s feet. They have preached the message from Assam to Sindh, from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin. They have crossed the Himalayas at a height of twenty thousand feet, over snow and ice on foot, and penetrated into the mysteries of Tibet. They have begged their bread, covered themselves with rags; they have been persecuted, followed by the police, kept in prison, and at last set free when the Government was convinced of their innocence. They are now twenty. Make them two thousand tomorrow. Young men of Bengal, your country requires it. The world requires it. Call up the divinity within you, which will enable you to bear hunger and thirst, heat and cold. Sitting in luxurious homes, surrounded with all the comforts of life, and doling out a little amateur religion may be good for other lands, but India has a truer instinct. It intuitively detects the mask. You must give up. Be great. No great work can be done without sacrifice. The Purusha Himself sacrificed Himself to create this world. Lay down your comforts, your pleasures, your names, fame or position, nay even your lives, and make a bridge of human chains over which millions will cross this ocean of life. […] Ours is to work. […] I do not see into the future; nor do I care to see. But one vision I see dear as life before me: that the ancient Mother has awakened once more, sitting on Her throne rejuvenated, more glorious than ever. Proclaim Her to all the world with the voice of peace and benediction.”[1]

Such a rousing and direct call to action – that of joining a mission to liberate oneself as well as one’s Motherland from servitude and raise the masses on the strength of India’s eternal spiritual truth – was sure to make a lasting impact on its intended targets. Powerfully articulated by the ‘Revolutionary Monk’ from Calcutta and bearing the unmistakable blessings of Sri Ramakrishna Deva, the call did stir the hearts of hundreds of young men and women in Bengal and elsewhere, Upendranath among them, and why wouldn’t it? Truly had Rabindranath Tagore, the Greatest Poet of Modern India, spoken of Vivekananda’s profound influence upon the youth thus: 

“There at the source of the adventurous activities of today’s[2] youth of Bengal is the message of Vivekananda— which calls the soul of man, not his fingers.” [translated from the original Bangla quote by the present author]

Upendranath, brimming with youthful courage, characteristic self-confidence, and a dauntless craving for truth, decided to become a wandering Sadhu. He took the ochre robes and went straight to the Mayavati Ramakrishna Advaita Ashram. In his later years, Upendranath confessed that his goal was to travel the four corners of India, and like countless Hindus make it to the ‘Char Dham’ or the Four Great Pilgrimages on foot so as to acquire an intimate knowledge of his motherland. Though Upendranath did not stick to the ways of the monk for long, that journey across the length and breadth of India played a pivotal part in moulding his outlook and character through those formative years of his life; and it prepared him for the upcoming stormy days of the great struggle for India’s liberation, and to act out his own special role in it. 

Upon his return, Upendranath joined a school in Bhadreswar, Hooghly, as a teacher. In addition to the staple diet of school curricula, his students began receiving from him lessons on why and how India should achieve liberation from colonial rule. After Upendranath’s passing, Taranath Roy (1950) wrote in his obituary that Upendranath and his friends had started giving lessons on swordsmanship, stick wielding, rifle shooting, and callisthenics to young students around this time. But his chief weapon in this war for India’s liberation was his pen. His sharp and passionate writings, in both Bengali and English, started to appear in the daily and weekly columns of Bande Mataram (edited by Sri Aurobindo) and Juganatar Patrika, respectively. Roy (1950) makes a significant remark in this regard: “His writings set Bengali teenagers on fire, the youth became full of passion. Upendra never needed chemical ingredients to make a bomb. His words alone acted as atom bombs.” [translated from the original Bangla by the present author]

Roy further reports that Upendranath used to offer regular classes on the Bhagavad-Gita to the young recruits in the garden house Ashram of Muraripukur in Calcutta’s Maniktala, wherefrom Upendranath, Barindra Kumar Ghose, and their other Jugantar associates were arrested by the British police on a fateful summer night of Baishakh in 1908, in what is famously known as the Alipore Bomb Case, the Muraripukur conspiracy, or the Manicktolla bomb conspiracy. Among those who took lessons from him on the Dharma revealed in the Gita were the very first of the Bengali martyrs in India’s armed struggle for freedom: Sri Prafulla Kumar Chakraborty and Sri Prafulla Chaki; as also among his mentees in this Ashram were revolutionaries like Sri Kanailal Dutta, Sri Rash Behari Bose, Sri Nalini Gupta, Sri Sachin Sen, who would in later years become legendary revolutionary nationalists in their own right. 

No words, other than his own, as contained in the autobiographical work Nirbashiter Atmakatha (literally ‘An Autobiography of the Exiled’), can describe more vividly and effectively the inhuman conditions that Upendranath and his associates had to endure and the barbaric torture they were subjectetd to during their days in the jails of Calcutta and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for twelve long years between 1908 and 1921. Suffice it to say that the British Colonial government left no stone unturned to break Upendranath and his associates in body and spirit. However, by dint of great willpower and faith, Upendranath came out of the British jail in 1921 unharmed and, with redoubled zeal and a most intimate knowledge of the colonial system at its worst, experienced firsthand, resumed his journalistic, literary and editorial work along with Barindra Kumar Ghose. His pen was relentless in attacking not only the savage and exploitative British colonial rule, but also the weaknesses of various anti-colonial political forces and movements in India as well as of Indian society. Once again Upendranath was incarcerated by the British colonial government, this time for a three-year term, on charges of authoring and publishing ‘seditious writings’.   

Being a direct participant in the revolutionary nationalist movement, its defects were not hidden from Upendranath’s piercing intellect and clarity of vision. Towards Sri Aurobindo, he had limitless reverence filled with awe, but he did not join the former’s spiritual commune in Pondicherry; for Upendranath’s destiny was somewhat different and it took him down a path that had its own distinct place in the larger scheme of India’s continued struggle for establishing ‘Swarajya’, although that path was undoubtedly infused with the deeper elements of Hindu spirituality in a very uniquely modern, renascent Bengali way. 

In his career as a leading journalist and literary figure in Bengal, closely associated with the editing and publication of Barindra Kumar Ghose’s Bijoli Patrika and Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das’s Narayan Patrika, Upendranath made a lasting impact on the minds of countless Bengali readers of all ages, on the intelligentsia as well as on the future leaders of Bengal and India. It was around this time that the young Subhash Chandra Bose had discovered in Upendranath a great inspirational figure from a previous generation of freedom fighters and yet an endearingly close elder brother; someone he could address as ‘Upen-da’, one who was eminently approachable to the younger generation of patriots, and remained ever ready to crack a joke or whip out witticisms during his rich, versatile, and thoroughly entertaining conversations with them. Sri Aurobindo himself attested to this side of Uprndranath when he said: “You would never have a dull moment if Barin or Upen was there.” To a new generation of Bengali youth, typified by the likes of Subhash Chandra and Benoy-Badal-Dinesh, who were preparing themselves for the third and final wave of armed revolutionary struggle for India’s freedom, and who burst forth in due time in the form of the daredevilry of the Bengal Volunteers, and ultimately Netaji Subhash’s war efforts which set the stage for India’s political independence in 1947, Upendranath had these pregnant words to say: 

“If they understand this basic fact well, the Bengali youth’s future work will be laid on a solid foundation. To denounce Nature [Prakṛti] completely and rush headlong towards Nirvana is to fail the very purpose of Creation. We need to be free, become Svarāṭ – not by being slave to Nature, not through a compromise with Her, not even by circumventing Her – but by becoming a complete overlord of Nature. One has to remain in the samsara while acquiring a complete mastery of its ways. And then this inner freedom will be reflected in every worldly action that we undertake. Then work will merely become an expression of absolute bliss [Ᾱnanda]. No fragmentary force of the world will then be able to stop that Divine Inspiration. Whatever you will then build shall never be destroyed. This is nothing new. Aeons before now Nature had thus proclaimed: 

yo māṃ jayati saṅgrāme yo me darpaṃ vyapohati ।

yo me pratibalo loke sa me bhartā bhaviṣyati ॥[3] 

[“He who conquers me in battle, removes my pride, and is my match in strength in the world, shall be my Lord.”] 

Such sadhana is no child’s play, nor is it meant for the dependant and the weak. Now look here, O Sons of Bengal, see if you can venture into such heroic sadhana?”[4] 

This last question remains open to this day, ringing as relevant and burning at this moment of the semisesquicentennial anniversary of India’s independence and her partition – as valid now as when it was first conceived and written down by Upendranath Bandyopadhyay, not only for the youth of Bengal, but all of India.

The author: Prof. Sreejit Datta is Director of Centre for Civilisational Studies and Assistant Professor at the Rashtram School of Public Leadership, Rishihood University. Views expressed are personal.


[1] Reply to the Madras Address, Vol 4, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda

[2] i.e., in the early decades of the twentieth century

[3] Śri Śri Caṇḍī / Devī Māhātmyam / Durgā Saptaśatī / (5.120)

[4] Translated from the original Bangla of Upendranath (as available in Upendranath Bandyopadhyay Rachana Sangraha) by the present author

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