Bhupendranath Datta‘s contributions in the subfield of physical anthropology were no less remarkable. For example, he wrote a critical review of the western anthropologists in his 84-page article, Races of India, published as early as 1935 in the prestigious Journal of the Department of Letters of the University of Calcutta (Vol. XXVI, January). He showed how the ‘diverse reports‘, ‘opposing opinions‘ and ‘new nomenclatures‘ used by different authors as regards the nature of the population in India only ‘confused the students and frightened the layman.’
It is rather strange that Bhupendranath Datta’s original ideas on the caste system, published in the oldest research journal of India, were overlooked by the latter-day anthropologists of India. His book, Dialectics of Hindu Ritualism was written after his article on caste dealt with the political economy of Hindu religious institutions. It was definitely one of the early Marxist sociological expositions of the Hindu religion. It would however be wrong to view Bhupendranath as a rigid and dogmatic intellectual. In his next book Hindu Law of Inheritance (An Anthropological Study) published in 1957 he mentioned categorically ~ “Strangely, it was found out that some of the earlier writers of Indian legal history have based their writings on the hypotheses of Morgan and Maine. But while reading the history of the cultural evolution of India, we must not forget that the present-day anthropologists say that civilisation never had a unilinear development the world over.
It was even admitted by Frederick Engels that the latterday anthropologists were not accepting the dictum of Morgan. Humanity never had a stereotyped evolution in course of its advancement. We must bear this in mind when we study Indian history”.
This book contains a detailed discussion on the two ancient systems of law which governed inheritance in India ~ Mitakshara and Dayabhag ~ from a historical perspective. The book revealed the erudition of its author as regards Sanskrit literature and law books which threw up a challenge to Sir Henry Maine’s theory on the existence of village communities in India based on principles of communal or joint ownership of agricultural land. Suffice it to say that till today the syllabi of anthropology and sociology in Indian universities contain an overdose of the contributions of Maine, Morgan and Marx; but not a single word on the original input of Bhupendranath on the laws of property inheritance in ancient India.
His contributions in the subfield of physical anthropology were no less remarkable. For example, he wrote a critical review of the western anthropologists in his 84-page article, Races of India, published as early as 1935 in the prestigious Journal of the Department of Letters of the University of Calcutta (Vol. XXVI, January). He showed how the “diverse reports”, “opposing opinions” and “new nomenclatures” used by different authors as regards the nature of the population in India only “confused the students and frightened the layman”. It is interesting to note that he concluded the paper by saying that different “biotypes” did exist in India (he did not use the term “race” here) and a thorough scientific investigation was needed to link the affinities of the Indian population with the outside world. His critique of racial anthropology of India was much ahead of his time, and remained unnoticed by the anthropologists studying the history of the discipline.
I will conclude my discussion with Bhupendranath Datta’s book on Swami Vivekananda. He wrote two books on his elder brother, one in English and the other in Bengali. The Bengali book, published in 1961, is more elaborate and anthropological in nature. This is a unique, rare and pioneering culture-personality study. The latter-day Indian sociologist, Benoy Ghosh, and an American anthropologist David Mandelbaum did such a study on Vidyasagar and Mahatma Gandhi, but to the best of my knowledge no sociologist or anthropologist has done any study like Bhupendranath on Swami Vivekananda. In this detailed anthropo-sociological research, he placed Vivekananda in the socio-historical context of the 19th century.
The essence of Bhupendranath’s interpretation of Vivekananda was that the latter was not satisfied only with programmes of public welfare. According to Bhupendranath, Swami Vivekananda wanted a complete transformation of the prevailing exploitative social system. In the beginning of his book Bhupendranath’s words may shock the so-called Marxists. A loose translation would read thus: “Marxists may be surprised to know that Swamiji had ideas similar to Marx much earlier. They would be more surprised that Swamiji had openly and frankly admitted himself as ‘Socialist’ and here lay the inner message of Swamiji to the youth of India. Many will also be astonished by reading that Swamiji not only used Marx’s statement that the poor are becoming poorer, and the rich are becoming more rich. He predicted too that the ‘culture of the have-nots’ will be the culture of the Indian people in the future New India.
A dedicated and revolutionary scholar like Bhupendranath Datta is still a neglected figure in the history of Indian anthropology and sociology. I suggest the Asiatic Society, University of Calcutta and the Anthropological Survey of India take a joint initiative to republish his works, and the sooner the better.
The writer is a Senior Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, at the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata.