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Home arrow Sociology arrow Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire: Interfaith, Cross-Cultural and Transnational Networks, 1860-1950

Collet’s Religious Cosmopolitanism as a Search for Affective Religious Community

As Sarkar notes in his biographical sketch, Collet ‘passed through many and interesting phases of religious experience’, though remaining ‘always very broad and liberal’.18 As a child, her involvement with the radical Unitarian congregation at South Place Chapel in London in the 1830s brought her into contact with Ram Mohan Roy, who came to speak at the chapel, making her aware of a liberal religious movement which was developing from Hindu rather than from Christian roots. On Roy’s death in Bristol in 1833, the minister of South Place, W.J. Fox, delivered a sermon in Roy’s honour. Collet later listed the published version of this as one of her sources for her Life and Letters of Raja Rammohun Roy}9 Sarkar describes Collet’s devotion to the Brahmo Samaj as ‘almost of the nature of a romance’ and roots it in this childhood encounter: ‘Impressed by the magnetic personality of the founder of the Brahmo Samaj... she remained a most loyal and devoted supporter of the church throughout its life’.20

Collet remained an active member of South Place Chapel into the 1840s.21 This also drew her into transatlantic Unitarian religious and reform networks: She became part of circles influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a leading American Transcendentalist. As a result, she started to move beyond Christianity, with its stress on the authority of the Bible, to a more intuitive form of theism.22 Transcendentalist beliefs were influenced by Eastern spiritual traditions. Emerson, whose series of London lectures Collet enthusiastically attended in 1848, was a leading promoter of cosmopolitanism. Indeed, on attending his lectures, Collet was getting a flavour of the antebellum New England lyceum lecture circuit. This was an important arena within which women, denied full national citizenship rights, were encouraged to imagine themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ through developing a relativist outlook towards other cultures and an ethical sense of obligation to strangers.23

Collet was also influenced by the more extreme Freethinking and Secularist speakers to whom South Place offered a platform. She wrote articles for the atheist and socialist George Jacob Holyoake’s periodicals in the 1840 and 1850s under the pseudonym ‘Panthea’.24 Further suggesting her developing cosmopolitan outlook at this time, in a letter to her aunt Mary, an orthodox Christian who was horrified by her religious heterodoxy, Collet linked her pantheistic belief that God was ‘immanent in all spirit and all space’ to a globalised, non-Eurocentric geographical vision. She stated that she would protest against ‘equating religion and morality with Christianity’ just as she would ‘protest against calling the wide ocean by the name of the British Channel just because that is the part of it best known and appreciated by us’.25

By 1857, however, Collet, as her surviving manuscript ‘Intellectual Diary’ for that year reveals, was considering a return to the Unitarian Christian beliefs of her childhood. This was partly the result of her enthusiasm for the heartfelt form of Unitarianism espoused by the leading British minister James Martineau. It was also partly because of her discontent with the religious writings of leading Transcendentalists, which she felt were too abstract and ‘wholly unable to realise the special truths incarnated in any other doctrine, or be conscious of the spirit needs which gave to many mediate forms of truth their hold on the human heart’. Collet’s valuing of different spiritual traditions developed in diverse cultural contexts anticipates the grounds of her later engagement with the Brahmo Samaj.26 We might describe her distinctive stance as one of spiritual cosmopolitanism rather than religious universalism.27

By 1861, Collet had definitively moved away from ‘pure’ theism: She later described her ‘conversion to Christianity’ as having taken place in that year.28 Initially returning to Unitarianism, she was then attracted to Christian Socialism; finally, in 1870, she was baptised at an Anglican church and became a Trinitarian Christian.29 This move did not, however, represent a retreat into narrow religious orthodoxy.30 For, at the same time as her personal beliefs were moving away from Transcendentalist theism towards mainstream Protestantism, she was becoming intensely interested in news of the development of a new theist movement in India. She learned of this through the medium of her theist friends Frances Power Cobbe and Francis W. Newman, who wrote informing her about the revival of the Brahmo Samaj under Keshub Chunder Sen.31

Cobbe, as a theist, aligned her religious position to the Brahmos to the extent of describing herself as a ‘Brahmika’ (female member of the Brahmo Samaj).32 In contrast, Collet forged her own connection with Brahmos as a Christian who belonged to a different religion but who felt a sense of close spiritual affinity. As she stated in a letter published in 1870 in the Brahmo Journal for the Enlightenment of Women:

Even if I am a Christian, I feel immense love and respect for the Brahmos. The prayers that I heard here of your religion, I look forward to do the same in Calcutta at the temple of your religion. If that does not happen,

I hope to meet you in God’s lovely garden one day and live there as a family.33

Her use of familial imagery paints a domestic-based and heart-felt cosmopolitan vision of heaven as a site of cross-cultural and inter-faith unity, a vision which stood in sharp contrast to the standard Christian belief that only Christian converts would go to heaven and broke sharply with evangelical Protestant missionary discourse which linked the heavenly family to the patriarchal English missionary family, whose role it was to parent racialised others and lead them to God.34

Collet’s language suggests her deep longing for spiritual community at this time. It is clear that, in her life-long determination to chart her own faith path, she struggled to find a religious community in England to which she felt she truly belonged. In a heartfelt passage to an English friend, she later recalled:

[M]y mother and aunt, and all my brothers and sisters (or belles-soeurs) except Collet, held aloof when there was anything seriously unpopular about my heroes or favourites - Still I pulled on, somehow - at last I became a Christian, to the amazement of all my friends. Then a new bond arose, and a new enthusiasm, and the tables were turned to some slight extent. Next came India and the B. Samaj, bringing a fresh recast of mental relationships.35

Collet continued: ‘All these developments had resulted in a curiously heterogeneous field of friendships and associations, wh. had, however, no antagonistic elements.... ’36 Her cosmopolitanism was characterised by this valuing of harmonious heterogeneity within her affective community.

Collet’s discovery of the revived Brahmo Samaj was life-changing: it provided her with a focus for her future life and work as she took on the role of promoting the movement to the British public. As a single middle- class woman in her 30s, Collet had longed for a purpose beyond a traditional focus on marriage and motherhood, as she had recorded in her Intellectual Diary of 5 March 1857:

[T]hose graceful woman-novels, ‘Florence Templar, ‘Thorney Hall’, etc. they are merely autobiographies of the affections purs et simples. The heroines love ... but... they have no life of their own - no purpose beyond the affections, no aspirations except a vague desire to be good. How can women be so easily contented - so torpid? Oh! For strength to live out something fuller and nobler without forgetting the restraining grace of womanhood.37

In this context, her intellectual, spiritual and emotional engagement over a period of 30 years with the Brahmo Samaj can be seen as a cosmopolitan- oriented resolution of what she described elsewhere in her Intellectual Diary as ‘the full problem of women’s deep nature... - the problem namely, of fusing intellect, passion, and action, in the purest flow of the religious and human affections’.38

While Collet never fulfilled her dream of travelling to Calcutta, she began to correspond with Sen after being put in in touch with him by Cobbe and Newman in 1869. She subsequently was crucial in insuring the success of Sen’s visit to Britain in 1870. Indeed, her Bengali biographer Sarkar claimed that ‘much of the success of Mr Sen’s English visit and the warm reception accorded to him was due to the efforts of Miss Collet’.39 A private letter that Sen wrote to Collet in 1874 gives a sense of the intimacy that developed between them during and following his visit, and suggests how highly Sen valued Collet’s moral support. Addressed to ‘My dear friend’ and signed ‘With love ever yours affectionately Keshub Chunder Sen’, it told her that his children ‘eagerly await’ the presents she is sending to them through his close Brahmo colleague Protap Mozomdar, who was returning to Bengal following a visit to Britain, and expressed thanks for her ‘words of sympathy and support’ in an internal controversy within the Brahmo Samaj, and for sending him a ‘beautiful picture’ of ‘Consolation’.40

Following Sen’s visit, Collet also entered into correspondence with other leading male and female members of the Brahmo Samaj, fostering a broader ‘affective community’ rooted in a sense of spiritual fellowship. Her first letter to a Brahmo woman, published in translation in Bamabodhini Patrika in 1870, gives a vivid sense of how she saw friendship as the basis for cross-cultural community and helps us better understand the reference to Collet’s ‘Indian home’ in her obituary. Her letter began by expressing the wish that her (unnamed) correspondent could be a neighbour, rather than living so far away, as she would have loved to have visited her home and find out about her domestic life: ‘If you were not living so far away from me I would have been very pleased. We could have had pleasant conversations and would have come to know about your life in the antahpur [women’s quarters]andyour children’.41 This genuine interest in a Bengali woman’s domestic life contrasts with the constant repetition in Christian missionary writings of the horrors of the dark, dirty and confining space of the women’s quarters of the Bengali home. To foster her correspondence with Brahmo women, she learned Bengali. As Sarkar notes: ‘She used to write in Bengali very affectionately to many Brahmo ladies whom she had never seen’.42

Sarkar also draws attention to Collet’s ‘warm reception of, and valuable help to’ Indians who visited England from the time of the visit of Keshub Chunder Sen right down to the date of her death. Brahmo gentlemen in London, he states, ‘found in her a most kind friend and well-wisher, ever ready to assist them with sound advice and guidance’. He quotes from a letter written to Collet by Ananda Mohan Bose when leaving England in 1874 at the end of a four-year stay to train at Cambridge as a barrister, which emphasised ‘the happiness and pleasure I have derived from your acquaintance and friendship’ and noted that, in the days he spent with her, he ‘derived a strengthening and cheering influence from your example and words’.43 Collet also lent her support to Indian feminist Pandita Ramabai, a convert from Brahmoism to Unitarian Christianity, during her stay in Britain in the 1880s, sending her publications by the Brahmo Samaj.44

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