Cudworth and liberal Christianity in the Bengal Renaissance

The Tattvabodhini Patrika “The Truth-enlightening Journal” was one of the most influential organs of the Bengal Renaissance. It was the expression of the ideas of a group around Debendranath Tagore called the Tattvaranjini Sabha or the Society of Those Who Delight in Truth. The context was one of intense proselytizing in colonial Calcutta and the society or Sabha was pursuing the soi-disant Father of modern India Rammohan Roy and vision of a renewed Vedantic theism and the Brahmo Samaj was disrupted by the death of Rammohan Roy in Bristol in 1833. Faced with the prospect of answering the challenge of evangelicals like Alexander Duff, whose combination of educational institutional activity and Christian zeal, rather paradoxically ignited a vigorous response from the Hindu reformers, Tattvabodhini Patrika published Debendranath’s own interpretations of the Upanishads alongside extracts from Rammohun’s translations of the Upanishads. In the face of the  Christian missionary critiques of Hinduism as pantheistic, monistic, and idolatrous religion, in 1864 we find the following instructive passage in which Cudworth is cited as pioneer of comparative religion:

“Our reverend friends maintain that it was Christ who first revealed correct notions of religion to mankind, and that they did not possess them before his appearance. Now this is a statement contradicted by all history.

I would recommend Gentleman to your attentive perusal the “Intellectual System of the Universe” by old Dr Cudworth, whose liberal Christianity the revered gentlemen in question would do well to imitate. This book contains innumerable proofs of the existence of correct notions of the godhead prevailing among the ancient Greeks and Romans.”

The author wishes to infer that Indian monotheism too contains correct ‘notions of the godhead’, and reading Cudworth can furnish a path to such an insight. Why do we find a reference to the Cambridge Platonists, old Dr Cudworth and his ‘liberal Christianity’? These figures of the Bengal elite do not want to fall into the arms of the Enlightenment agnosticism of Hume and Gibbon, the spiritual mentors of the East India Company. Cudworth represents that Alexandrian strand of Christianity that happily drew upon pagan Hellenic thought, and what might be called a more fluid or mystical monotheism as opposed to the exclusive monarchical theism of High Protestant or Catholic orthodoxy. I am using the language of John Kenney. Exclusive theism concentrates upon numerical singularity and the more inclusive theism of Hellenic Monotheism, where the stress is laid upon the ultimacy and unity of the supreme principle. Much of Cudworth’s True Intellectual System of the Universe, in particular the enormous fourth book, is devoted to showing that monotheism in this more fluid sense was the foundational religion of the Egyptians and the rest of the ancient world, and this primordial monotheism lapsed into polytheism and pantheism.  It is no accident that one of Cudworth’s liberal Christian successors B.F. Westcott (1825-1901) should have been a driving force behind the foundation of St Stephen’s College in Delhi. Westcott was a great admirer of Plotinus and Origen, and he viewed the Cambridge Platonists as the real successors of the Alexandrians in the modern world.  
My thanks to Ankur Barua for referring me to the Tattvabodhini Patrika passage.

Douglas Hedley

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