Sivanath Sastri (as spelt by himself, but also spelt as Shibnath Shastri, Shib Nath Shastri, Shibanath Shastri, Shivanath Shastri) (শিবনাথ শাস্ত্রী Shibonath Shastri) (1847-1919) was a scholar, religious reformer, educator, writer and historian. He played an active role in the society of his times and kept a wonderful record of events but for which it would have been difficult to know and understand his turbulent age. His views have, occasionally, been criticised. He was not merely a detached historian but also an active participant of the age.
He started attending the local pathsala and when an English school was established at Majilpur with the support of the local zemindar, he joined it. During his childhood, one of the villagers, Brajanath Dutta and his son, Shib Krishna Dutta, used to subscribe to the Tattwabodhini Patrika and discuss religious and social matters with learned people. They had later influenced other villagers, such as Umesh Chandra Dutta, to convert to the Brahmo Samaj.
At the age of nine, he went to Kolkata and joined Sanskrit Collegiate School. He used to stay near to the house of his maternal grand father. His maternal uncle, Dwarakanath Vidyabhusan, was a learned person teaching in the Sanskrit College. They were close to Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, who used to visit their house regularly. As a child, he went and attended the first widow remarriage at Sukea Street on 7th December 1856. In 1858, Dwarakanath Vidyabhusan started the newspaper Somprakash. The press and other arrangements were set up in the house itself. Thus, Sivanath Sastri grew up in a varied environment of education, initiative and reform.
While his family was well disposed towards the Brahmo Samaj, they had not joined it and retained their foothold in the orthodox society. Sivanath Sastri had class friends such as Aghore Nath Gupta and Vijay Krishna Goswami, who had joined the Brahmo Samaj. Another Brahmo, Umesh Chandra Mukhopadhyay influenced him. He started attending prayers of the Brahmo Samaj against the wishes of his father. Keshub Chunder Sen formally initiated him into the Brahmo Samaj in 1869. Twenty other persons were also initiated on the same day. That included Ananda Mohan Bose, Krishna Behari Sen, Rajaninath Roy and Srinath Dutta. He abandoned his sacred thread. His father virtually interned him in the house for over a month trying to convince him to stay back in the traditional fold, retaining his sacred thread. People in the area had never heard of anybody giving up his sacred thread. There was commotion not only in the village but also in the entire area. People from all around poured in to see him. Some of them thought he had gone mad. Ultimately, his father turned him out of the house.
Sivanath Sastri moved to Kolkatta. He virtually survived on his scholarship. He passed B.A. and then when he passed M.A. in Sanskrit in 1872, he was bestowed the title of ‘Sastri’, which he used the rest of his life. In spite of his radical ways, his near and dear ones loved him for his idealism, determination and his sweet behaviour. They ultimately softened down the attitude of his father. During this period, he met people, such as Ramtanu Lahiri and Dwarkanath Ganguly, who had a great impact on his life.
In 1872, when Keshub Chunder Sen established Bharat Ashram he shifted to the place as a boarder. When his maternal uncle, Dwarakanath Vidyabhusan, was ill in 1873, he had to go and look after Somprakash, his school at Majilpur, and his property. During the period, he also took interest in the affairs of Harinavi Brahmo Samaj and Harinavi School. Harinavi was a village adjacent to Majilpur. He appointed his friend Prakash Chandra Roy as the second master of the school. In 1874, he took over as headmaster of South Suburban School. In 1876, he joined as head pundit of Hare School but gave up government service after a short period and devoted himself fully to the work of the Brahmo Samaj.
According to Sivanath Sastri in his History of the Brahmo Samaj, “At the time of its foundation, the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj was headed by three men universally esteemed in Brahmo society for their high moral character. They were Ananda Mohan Bose, Sib Chandra Deb and Umesh Chandra Dutta.” Bijay Krishna Goswami, Ramkumar Vidyaratna, Sivanath Sastri and Ganesh Chandra Ghosh were appointed ‘the first preachers of the Samaj, with authority to minister to the spiritual needs of the body and also to visit the provincial Samajes for the purpose of propagating their new faith.’
In October 1919, the Indian Messenger wrote about him, “Since the foundation of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, Sivanath became the life and soul of the Samaj – as an organiser of the Samaj, as missionary and as minister of its chief congregation – so much so that it is but bare justice to say that his life and thought has been as a leaven that leavened the whole mass of its activities and aspirations. He was associated with Ananda Mohan Bose in the establishment of City School – City College and School – and was its first Secretary. He was editor of Tattwakaumudi, the Bengali organ of Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, for many years; he contributed regularly to the columns of Brahmo Public Opinion and when the paper ceased to exist, he was chiefly instrumental in starting the Indian Messenger. He helped in the establishment of the Brahmo Balika Shikshlaya and became its Secretary when it was in sore need of his powerful aid. He founded the Ram Mohun Roy Seminary at Patna. He established the Sadhan Asram as a centre of spiritual activity and a home for the training of mission workers.”
Another important event of the period was the setting up of the Indian Association in 1876 with Ananda Mohan Bose as its president and Surendranath Banerjee as its secretary. Sivanath Sastri was amongst the committee members. In a way, it was forerunner of the Indian National Congress.
In 1881, when he went on a missionary tour to South India, he witnessed social conditions there. In Chennai, he was surprised to observe that Sudras did not watch a Brahmin partaking food. When he went to Kakinada in what is now Andhra Pradesh, he agreed to be a guest of Pyda Ramakrishnayya, a Kamti by caste, and who was leading a campaign for remarriage of widows. The Brahmins of the town were so enraged that they decided to force him to quit the place. At Rajahmundry he met Kandukuri Veeresalingam Pantulu, the renowned reformer.
On his trip to Coimbatore, he was accompanied by Ranganatham Mudaliar, secretary of the Chennai Brahmo Samaj. Many of his hosts came forward a few stations earlier to convince him that while in Coimbatore, he had to follow the systems followed there. Sivanath Sastri plainly said that he was opposed to the caste system, but they argued that those who were not following the caste system were considered to be Christians and socially boycotted. Even some Christian communities followed the caste system. Sivanath Sastri followed the system for a few days and then obviously broke the rules. However, even when the news about it spread, people came and listened to his lectures.
In 1882, Ramakrishna Paramahamsadev went to attend a Brahmo festival at Sinthee. The following describes what he did on sighting Sivanath Sastri.
About his last days, Sivanath Sastri wrote as follows:
He was married a second time, in 1865 or 1866, to Birajmohini. He had protested strongly against this second marriage and even had his mother’s support but he could not finally stand up against the wishes of his father. He was greatly repentant for what happened and was mentally disturbed about it. Umesh Chandra Dutta sent him a copy of Theodore Parker’s Ten Sermons and Prayers. He found solace in reading the book. The realities of life in that age shocked him and the incident pushed him further towards the Brahmo Samaj.
Subsequently, problems cropped up in the family with Birajmohini and his father was intent also on ‘returning’ her to her father’s house but Sivanath Sastri stood up and prevented it. Later, he proposed to get Prasannamoyee married a second time but she spurned the proposal. Sivanath accepted her in his family but did not maintain a husband-wife relationship with her.
He died on 30th September 1919.
Sivanath Sastri started a Bengali periodical, Mukul, for children in 1302. In the earlier issues he wrote most of what was published but as new writers came up, he gradually left more space for them. He edited it for six years. The magazine is still referred to a pioneer in children’s literature.
His poem Sramajibi published in the inaugural issue of Bharat Sramajibi (in 1874), edited by Sashipada Banerjee, was the first poem written in Bengali about the working class.