A Revolutionary Anthropologist:
Far Away from the Establishment

Abhijit Guha

Bhupendranath Datta is still a missing hero in Indian anthropology. His revolutionary activities and dedicated scholarship from a Marxist perspective in different branches of knowledge including anthropology remained unnoticed by the doyens of Indian anthropology. He viewed the origin and transformation of the caste system through class struggle and critiqued western anthropological theories of race as early as 1935. Datta’s study of the personality of his eldest brother Swami Vivekananda from a Marxist sociological angle is unique and neglected in the curriculum of Indian anthropology and sociology.

The name of Bhupendranath Datta is not found in the standard history books of anthropology in India. For example, the 859 pages Rise of Anthropology in India published in 1978 and written by L.P.Vidyarthi, the famous professor of Ranchi University and a doctorate of the University of Chicago do not contain the name of Bhupendranath Datta. (Vidyarthi 1978). Another famous but rare book Cultural Anthropology and other essays (1953) authored by Nirmal Kumar Bose, the doyen of Indian anthropology, also did not mention Bhupendranath Datta or his original works on Indian society and culture(Bose 1953). The name, contributions and life sketch of Bhupendranath Datta did not find a place in Bibliographies of Eminent Indian Anthropologists (with life sketches) by S.K. Ray published by the Anthropological Survey of India and the Indian Museum in 1974.(Ray,1974). The question is who was Bhupendranath Datta?  What were his contributions? Were his contributions so insignificant in Indian anthropology that he did not even deserve mention in the history of Indian anthropology written by the great Indian scholars and published by the premiere governmental institutions in anthropology and related sciences? 

In a valuable and unique Bengali biographical dictionary named Samsad Bangali Charitabhidhan (revised fifth edition, 2010)published by Sahitya Samsad, we get a short description of the life and works of Bhupendranath Datta. He was born on 4th April 1880 in Calcutta and died on 25th December 1961 in the same city and was the youngest brother of Swami Vivekananda. Bhupendranath passed the then school leaving Entrance examination from Calcutta Metropolitan School and joined the Bengal Revolutionary Organisation. Notably, at this young age, he became editor of the famous revolutionary weekly Jugantar and was sent to rigorous imprisonment for one year by the then British government for writing against the colonial rule. After being released from the jail he went out of the country in disguise and reached USA and earned his undergraduate degree from New York University in 1912 and then took a Masters’ degree in sociology from the famous Ivy League Brown University in 1914. While at USA he got in touch with the Ghadar Party and the Socialist Club and became interested in the philosophy of socialism. Then after the beginning of the First World War he reached Germany and joined the illustrious anti-British Berlin Committee organised by the Indians in exile and he was also the Secretary of this organisation during 1916-18.But what was most remarkable in the career of this outstanding intellectual was that along with his revolutionary activities, he continued his study and research in sociology and anthropology on India. Bhupendranath earned his PhD degree in anthropology in the year 1923 from the famous Hamburg University of Germany and became member of German Anthropological Society and German Asiatic Society. His scholarship was not limited to his specialized area in biological anthropology in which he did his doctorate but was as vast as to include sociology, history, law, philosophy, statistics and literature. He wrote books and articles in Bengali, English, German, Hindi and Iranian languages. Some of his remarkable books were Bharatiyo Samaj Padhyati(1958), Amar Amerikar Abhijnata(1933), Baishnab Sahitye Samajtatta(1945), Banglar Itihas(1963), Dialectics of Hindu Ritualism(1950), Hindu Law of Inheritance(1957), Dialectics of Land Economics of India(1952) and Swami Vivekananda: Patriot-Prophet—a study (1954).

Bhupendranath Datta was also a true political activist and a worker fighting for the cause of the Indian peasantry. He never opted for any job in the universities or institutes either in India or abroad and kept himself away from government of private establishments even after the independence of our country for carrying out his revolutionary activities. In 1921 Datta went to Moscow to join the Communist International founded by V.I. Lenin. Datta presented his research paper on the political condition of colonial India to Lenin. Lenin gave a reply to Bhupedranath and requested him to collect data on the peasant organizations in India. ( As early as mid-1930s, he was directly involved with the peasant movements in India and was the president of the Krishaksabha of Bengal as well as All-India Trade Union Congress. During this period he joined the Quit India movement of Mahatma Gandhi and was jailed by the British government.  

Unlike present day “specialised” anthropologists Bhupendranath was equally strong in the two major subfields of the subject, viz. physical anthropology and social-cultural anthropology. We find quite a good number of scientific articles in various national and international journals by Datta including Man in India, one of the oldest professional journals of anthropology founded by Sarat Chandra Roy in 1921. I will here briefly discuss his two remarkable articles   published in Man in India in 1935 and 1942. The title of the 1935 article is Ethnological Notes on Some of the Castes of West Bengal. It should be noted that the anthropologists of this period were mainly studying tribes rather than castes. Secondly, he looked at castes from a dynamic and changing perspective which was also new for the anthropologists of his time. The fact that the same caste could take up different appearances and functions under the influence of changing political and economic conditions were not overlooked by Bhupendranath Datta. For example, like a modern anthropologist Datta observed the Bhumij community of Bankura in the following manner:

The word “Bhumij” means indigenous… The Bhumij of Bankura formerly had been the ghatwals of the Raja of Vishnupur; that is to say they used to serve as his militia and to watch and defend the passes which led to the state of Vishnupur. In lieu of their service, they used to get land rent free for their maintenance and used to live well. But with the disappearance of the Vishnupur State and the expropriation of their lands by the East India Company, these people have fallen off from their position. (Datta 1935a:219). (Italics mine).

Bhupendranath’s second article of Man in India entitled Origin and Development of Indian Social Polity written as early as 1942was also significant because in that long article his proposition was “Evolution of the society and status of the castes should be evaluated according to the economic and political condition of the state”. Accordingly, he explained that caste has no biological basis and one of the most interesting subsections of the article is “Class-struggle in ancient India” in which Datta elaborately demonstrated how the origin and transformation of the caste system took place through the myriad conflicts and struggles among the different social classes revealed in the stories of the epics of India. It is really strange that this kind of original ideas on the caste system which was published in the oldest research journal of India was overlooked by the later day anthropologists of India. Nirmal Kumar Bose just mentioned Bhupendranath Datta’s name in his article published in The Economic Weekly but made no attempt to understand Datta’s unique approach in Indian anthropology, which dealt with caste from a Marxist point of view. (Bose 1965:1337-1340).

Datta’s book Dialectics of Hindu Ritualism written after his caste article dealt with the political economy of Hindu religious institutions. Definitely it was one of the early Marxist sociological expositions of 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 civilization never had a unilineal development the world over. It is even admitted by Frederick Engels that the later-day anthropologists are not accepting the dictum of Morgan. Humanity never had a stereotyped evolution in its career of advancement. This we must bear in mind when we apply ourselves to Indian history (Datta, 1957:.ii). (Italics mine).

This book contains detailed discussion on the two ancient systems of law which governed inheritance in India, viz. Mitakshara and Dayabhag from a historical perspective. The book revealed the erudition of its author as regards Sanskritic 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 heavy dosage on the contributions of Maine, Morgan and Marx but ironically not a single word on the original inputs of Bhupendranath  Datta 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 pages article Races of India   published as early as 1935 in the prestigious Journal of the Department of Letters of the University of Calcutta. (Datta, 1935b:165-248). In this article Datta had elaborately shown how the “diverse reports”, “opposing opinions” and “new nomenclatures” used by different authors as regards the nature of human populations in India only “confused the students and frightened the layman”. It is interesting to note that Datta concluded the paper by saying that different “biotypes” did exist in India (he did not use the term “race” here) and mentioned that a thorough scientific investigation was needed to link the affinities of the Indian populations with the outside world.

I will end 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 Swami Vivekananda published in 1961 is more elaborate and anthropological in nature. This is a unique, rare and pioneering culture-personality study. Later day Indian sociologist Benoy Ghosh and an American anthropologist David Mandelbaum did this kind of study onPandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and Mahatma Gandhi but no sociologist or anthropologist has done any study like Datta on Swami Vivekananda. In this detailed anthropo-sociological research Bhupendranath placed Vivekananda in the socio-historical context of nineteenth 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 Datta, 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. Let me freely translate them in English as follows:

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 ‘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  future New India.(Datta 1961).(Italics mine).

A dedicated revolutionary and a scholar like Bhupendranath Datta is still a missing hero in the history of Indian anthropology and sociology. (Guha 2016 & 2018). The Asiatic Society, University of Calcutta and the Anthropological Survey of India may take a joint initiative to republish the works of Bhupendranath Datta. Sooner the better. 

Bose, N.K. 1953. Cultural anthropology and other essays. Calcutta: Indian Associated Publishing Company.
Bose, N.K. 1965.  ‘Class and Caste’. The Economic Weekly.17 (35): 1337-1340.     
Datta, B.N. 1935a. ‘Ethnological notes on some of the castes of West Bengal.’ Man in India.15(4):196-224.
Datta, B.N.  1935b. ‘Races of India: a critique of reports of Indian Anthropology’. Anthropological papers. Calcutta University. 26:165-248.
Datta, B.N.  1942. ‘Origin and development of Indian social polity’. Man in India. 22:12-63.
Datta, B.N.   1950. Dialectics of Hindu ritualism (Part I). Calcutta: Gupta Press.
Datta, B.N.   1957. Hindu law of inheritance (An Anthropological Study). Calcutta: Nababharat Publishers.
Datta, B.N.   1961. Swami Vivekananda (in Bengali). Kolkata: Nababharat Publishers.
Guha, A. 2016. ‘Indian Anthropology and its Critics’. Frontier. 49(8).August 28-September 3
(Accessed on 18/10/2018 at
Guha, A.  2018. ‘Abahelito nrittatik Bhupendranath Datta.’ Arek rakam.(Bengali magazine).18:13-16.
Ray, S.K. 1974. Bibliographies of Eminent Indian Anthropologists (WITH LIFE-SKETCHES) Anthropological Survey of India, Govt. of India, Indian Museum, Calcutta.
Samsad Bangali Charitabhidhan.(Bengali).2010. (Revised fifth edition).Kolkata:Sahitya Samsad.
Vidyarthi, L.P. 1978. Rise of Anthropology in India: A Social Science Orientation, Vols. I & II. Concept Publishing Company. New Delhi.

A slightly different version of this article was published under the title ‘Bhupendranath Datta: An Unnoticed Indian Anthropologist’ in the Bulletin of the Ramkrishna Mission Institute of Culture. (ISSN 0971-2755). Vol. LXX, no.12, pp.20-23.I owe my debts to the editorial board of the Bulletin for inviting me to write the article without which this one could not have been written.

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Jun 10, 2020

Abhijit Guha

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