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Collet as a Cosmopolitan Writer on Religion

In the decade prior to the beginnings of her engagement with the Brahmo Samaj, Collet had already gained a considerable public profile in Britain and the USA as a writer on religious matters from a theist perspective, and the study of these earlier writings gives insights into the roots of her cosmopolitan approach to religion. In particular, her writings in the 1850s on the life and ideas of the leading British secularist George Jacob Holyoake were marked by a sympathetic engagement across the theist- atheist divide which demonstrated an open-minded engagement with difference. Her assertion that ‘rival systems do not stand to each other in the relation of absolute truth and absolute falsehood, but as different conceptions of truth’45 fore-shadowed her later approach to engaging as a liberal Christian with the Brahmo Samaj.

This public engagement began with an article in the Contemporary Review of February 1870 on ‘Indian Theism and its Relation to Christianity’, which she then revised and published in pamphlet form.46 The pamphlet sought to explain the religious position of Sen to the British public. Urging them to welcome him on his visit to England, Collet argued that it was perfectly consistent for him to hold up Jesus as a bond of connection between East and West and the greatest benefactor of mankind without pledging himself to Trinitarian theology or forgetting his own Theist doctrine. Brahmos, she explained, were thirsting for God who was ‘God without a second’, and this was the ‘indispensable foundation of all religion’.47 While acknowledging that Brahmoism might perhaps in the future provide a bridge between Hinduism and Christianity, she warned that attempting to convert Brahmos to Christianity was inappropriate: they were already doing essential work for God and rescuing hundreds of souls from heathen bondage. She concluded: ‘Let us not, then refuse our Christian sympathies to these Hindoo Unitarians, as fellow-worshippers of our common Father, fellow-learners of the teaching of His Son, fellow- seekers of the Kingdom of Heaven.’48

Collet was also keen to spread knowledge of the Brahmo Samaj beyond Britain, and she made connections with continental European liberal Christian theologists who were interested in Sen’s work. She wrote a Historical Sketch of the Brahmo Samaj at the request of Dr Max Krenkel of Dresden, as an introduction to a German translation he was publishing of Sen’s lectures and tracts. At the request of her Brahmo friends, she then arranged to publish it in Calcutta in its original English form in 1873, in an interesting instance of the transnational and translingual circulation of texts that was a feature of aspirational cosmopolitanism. In her preface to this version, she emphasised that common ground with Indian Theists was not confined to heterodox Unitarian Christians:

I am a Trinitarian Christian, and not a member of the Brahmo Samaj. But I feel strongly that all earnest believers in a Personal and Perfect God hold so much vital truth in common, that Christians and Theists, without the slightest unfaithfulness to their separate differences of conviction, may and should cooperate largely for the promotion of truth and righteousness, and the abatement of heathenism and unbelief.49

The Brahmo Samaj was deserving of Western support, she argued, as ‘a true Church of God’ which was ‘doing a real and most sacred work for Him in a country which the West has, as yet, failed to Christianize’.50

Collet took on the key role of record keeper for the contemporary movement of Brahmo Samaj. She recorded and circulated information on its activities and published a detailed record of Sen’s time in England, Keshub Chunder Sen’s English Visit.51 Between 1876 and 1882, she compiled a set of Brahmo Year Books recording the activities of the various branches of the movement all over India. Her introductory description of the purpose of these yearbooks clearly articulated the perspective of aspira- tional spiritual cosmopolitanism that she brought to the project. Her aim, she stated, was to foster ‘the mutual interchange of spiritual experience’ across religious and ethnic boundaries. This she rooted in her belief that: ‘the practical Christian and the devout Theist (whether Jew or Brahmo, Asiatic or Saxon) have each lessons to learn from the other; they already hold far more in common than either is wont to suspect’.52 Echoing earlier Unitarian writings, and in direct opposition to evangelical missionaries, Collet made it clear that she was convinced that only indigenous movements such as the Brahmo Samaj could bring about a religious reformation in India. But she went further than this: She also challenged the belief that all progressive movements originated in the West by expressing the hope that the movement’s ‘fervour of devotion joined to the simplicity of creed’ could be a ‘means of grace’ to all those in the West ‘who find established forms uncongenial, and the popular theologies incredible’.53 She clearly had in mind her friends who were Transcendentalists and theists, and she sent the yearbook to leading Unitarians in the USA.54

Having been a prominent supporter of Sen’s Indian theism, Collet became disillusioned with the new direction in which Sen sought to lead the Brahmo Samaj in the late 1870s. She was convinced that he was moving away from the founding principles of Brahmoism, with its commitment to the radical religious and social reform of Hindu culture. Her aspirational spiritual cosmopolitanism was never based on uncritical cultural relativism, and she publicly attacked Sen’s new religious vision of a universal and purified faith, arguing that it was based on the false premise that all established and orthodox religions were equally true and involved the reintroduction of unreformed Hindu religious practices, which had previously been rejected by Brahmo reformers.55 This, she argued, was a backwards step to ‘mental slavery, superstition, and idolatry’ rather than a forward-looking move towards a ‘pure, spiritual, enlightened’ religious life in India.56 She also sought to combat the influence of Sen’s new religious ideas beyond India, encouraging Westerners to instead throw their support behind his opponents in the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, stating that her own religious position as a Christian was based on the same foundations as their ‘pure theism’.57

Collet formed a close connection with the leader of this new organisation, Sivanath Sastri. When Sastri visited her in England in 1888, she persuaded him to write a full history of Brahmoism.58 Perhaps keen to record that the roots of Brahmoism lay in a radical critique of orthodox Hinduism which was at odds with Sen’s new position, she also shifted her own focus from compiling the yearbooks to researching an English-language biography of the revered founder of the movement, Ram Mohan Roy. It was a work that complemented the newly published Bengali- language life of Roy by Nagendra Nath Chatterji.59 She worked on this book right up until her death in 1894, scrupulously researching and factchecking to create a work that her own biographer, Sarkar, described as ‘an ideal of conscientious biography’.60 She included multiple quotes from Roy’s own writings, allowing him to speak for himself to the reader, as had been her approach in her earlier study of the life and work of English secularist George Holyoke.61

Collet’s account of Roy’s religious development presented him as a truly cosmopolitan intellectual rather than a man simply influenced by the influx of Western or Christian ideas into India following the imposition of British colonial rule. She explained that he had learned many languages in order to read diverse religious texts in their original and that his own beliefs drew on several religious traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam as well as Christianity.62 She presented Roy not as a convert to Unitarian Christianity, as some of his Western supporters had earlier tried to claim, but as a reformer of Hinduism who attempted to eradicate idolatrous practices and return to its earlier pure form.63

 
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