Discovering Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay as a Popular Science Writer

Unknown to many, novelist Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay devoted considerable attention to popularising science. On his 181st birth anniversary, Sahapedia focuses on Chattopadhyay’s scientific philosophy.

We all know Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay for producing highly popular and entertaining novels in Bengali. However, his literary genius served to hide from public view other equally important and productive facets of his intellectual and cultural life. That Chattopadhyay devoted considerable attention to history, anthropology, sociology, religion and popular science is a fact seldom acknowledged. Of these, the last is the most neglected.

In 1994, a commemorative volume (Bankimchandra: Essays in Perspective) of 650 pages edited by Bhabatosh Chatterjee attempted to critically reassess Chattopadhyay’s life and work, but did not include a single essay on his approach to science and scientific thought. This, notwithstanding the fact that he produced a collection of nine Bengali essays on elementary science, first published in 1875 as Vigyanrahasya (Mysteries of Science) and reprinted in his lifetime in 1884.

Other than this, Chattopadhyay also articulated a philosophy of science through which he attempted to understand not only its technical functions or properties but also the social and intellectual.

Chattopadhyay’s writings on popular science coincided with his entry into the world of Bengali journalism. It is for his monthly journal, Bongodarshan (founded in 1872), that he began writing these essays. The aim was to popularise science among interested men, schoolboys of advanced levels and educated, modern woman. Importantly, Chattopadhyay was also one of the earliest to support Mahendralal Sarkar in his attempts to establish the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (he writes about this in his essay Bharatvarshiya Vigyan Sabha, 1872; three years later, the association was founded).

The essays written for the Bongodarshan between 1872 and 1875 were essentially adaptations from the writings of European scientists who lived and worked between the 17th and 19th centuries. This includes the Italian Evangelista Torricelli, Frenchman Blaise Pascal, Scotsman Charles Lyell, Irishman John Tyndall and Englishmen T.H. Huxley, Norman Lockyer and Richard A. Proctor. Between them, these men had covered the scientific disciplines of biology, mathematics, astronomy, physics, geology and anthropology, which also goes to show the breadth of Chattopadhyay’s intellectual engagement with science.

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Thus, Dhula (Dust) is based on Tyndall’s Dust and Disease, Jaibanik (The Protoplasm) on Huxley’s Lay Sermons and Koto Kaal Manushya (Antiquity) on Lyell’s Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man. Since his vocation as a civil servant took him to places at considerable distances from the colonial metropolis of Calcutta, these essays were written – as Chattopadhyay confesses – under trying conditions, without the support of suitable libraries from where to borrow books or the discerning reader. And yet, as expressions of an honest curiosity with scientific phenomena, these are simply sparkling in their depth and originality.

Science as philosophy

In colonial Bengal, an interest in popular science did not originate with Chattopadhyay. Such interests are anticipated in the works of the two foremost educationists of his time: Akshay Kumar Dutta and Iswarchandra Vidyasagar. Dutta’s Charupath (three parts, 1853-1859) and Vidyasagar’s Bodhodoy (1851) were useful, school-level primers.

While the driving force in Dutta and Vidyasagar was essentially pedagogic, Chattopadhyay preferred to treat the subject more philosophically. In an 1873 essay, ‘The Study of Hindu Philosophy’, he investigated the typically Hindu approach to science and, more broadly perhaps, the Hindu’s intellectual predilections. He faulted the Hindu approach on account of adopting the wrong investigative method, relying more on the deductive than an inductive approach based on empirical observation and experiment.

In the same essay, he wrote, “A Hindu philosopher in Torricelli’s place would have contented himself with simply announcing in an aphoristic sutra that the air had weight… no experiment would have been made with the mercury; no Hindu Pascal wold have ascended the Himalayas with a barometric column in hand.”

In this essay, he cited the example of how physicists such as Torricelli and Pascal seized upon the observations once made by the gardeners of Florence that the water column would not rise above a certain height, even when boosted by a water pump. This eventually led them to the theory of atmospheric pressure. He was also disheartened to note how Indians would not energetically push their scientific observations to their logical conclusion.

Aryabhata’s astronomical or mathematical observations, though arriving several centuries before the advent of modern science, was left fuzzy and ill-defined since it was formulated in the typically aphoristic (sutra) style prescribed by the Indian tradition.

Chattopadhyay felt that it was European science that had ultimately conquered India for the British. His argument here was that a continuing indigenous tradition of scientific study would have actually served the people far better instead of leaving them irrational and indolent.

It is important to realise that Chattopadhyay also used science and reason interchangeably, which then allowed him to make critical remarks relating to Hindu society and culture. This emboldened him to say how Puranic gods such as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva were fictional characters. In ‘What does Science Have to Say About the Trinity’ (1875), he wrote, “The apocryphal tales occurring in our Puranas and itihas [history] do not have any scientific argument behind them. Brahma, Vishnu, Maheswara and similar other gods are but characters from some strange novels.” In ‘On the Origin of Hindu Festivals’ (1869), he stated how several Hindu festivals that had acquired a religious character over time were originally linked to agrarian production cycles.

For him, science constituted the very edifice of reason and realism, and its proper use, he believed, would only help Indians to dismantle their settled opinions, irrationalities and superstitions. In a concluding note to his essay on the moon (‘Chandraloka’, Vigyanrahasya) he tells us how literary imagination could never catch up with science. Literature often created a comforting, make-believe world whereas science hastened to demolish it!

This article is part of Saha Sutra on www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. Amiya P. Sen is a historian with an interest in the intellectual and cultural history of modern India, and has written extensively on Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, including Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay: An Intellectual Biography (2008).