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Robert Antoine: The Indologist
Fr. John Felix Raj. S.J.


Life Sketch

Fr. Robert Antoine, SJ, was born on August 11, 1914, in Dolhain, Belgium, joined the Society of Jesus in 1932, came to India in 1939 and became and Indian citizen in 1950. In 1951 he joined St. Xavier’s Collegiate School as a full-time Sanskrit teacher. In 1956, he joined the newly started department of Comparative Literature of Jadavpur University and remained connected with this Department (of which he became a reader) till his death on October 17, 1981.

Inspired by the De Nobili-Britto-Beschi example, and also by the example of Abbe Godin and the French Worker-priests, Fr. Antoine founded Shanti Bhavan, the apostolic centre of spiritual and cultural life and dialogue in 1951 in Hindu locality of South Calcutta. There, he lived in full Bengali fashion and devoted himself to the competent pursuit of his chief interests: Sanskrit, Indian classical and religious music, vernacular Christian liturgy and inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue.

His scholarly achievements were considerable to say the least. Besides several articles and monographs, he had published a number of books. During the 42 years he spent in India, most of the time in Calcutta, he contributed a lot to the development of Bengali culture, to the enrichment of the Bengali and Sanskrit languages, and to the growth of the Church in West Bengal. His untimely death, caused by cancer of the liver, shocked and deeply grieved the countless friends he had in West Bengal. Antoine was an eminent priest, a scholar, an accomplished teacher, a gifted musician, singer and a dear friend.

Fr. Antoine, the Indologist, the philosopher, the theologian, the lover of music, art and literature, the pioneer of inculturation, belonged to the school of Frs. Johanns, Dandoy, Bayart and Fallon who had become enamoured of the rich religious and cultural heritage of India and Bengal, made profound contributions to the dialogue between Hinduism and Christianity and added a whole new dimension to apostolic work. Their only ambition was to serve to the best of their abilities the two causes that they cherished most in their hearts: the cause of Christ and the cause of India. The two causes were inseparable: on the one hand, India would find herself fully only when she had found Christ, and on the other the mystic Christ would not be complete until it had gathered to itself the most representative of the children of India. It was not to be a one way traffic where the Church would only give to India. She had also to receive from India the riches which God had planted there. In this, they were pioneers who prepared through many years the teaching of Vatican II on the church’s relationship with non-Christian religions:1 (1. D’Souza, J, Fr. Julian Bayart, SJ – A tribute”, God’s word among Men (ed G Gispert-Sauch), Vidyajoti, p xvi).

The Church has this exhortation for her sons: prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness of the Christian faith and life, let them acknowledge, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these men, as well as the values in their society and culture. (NA 2)

Fr. Antoine was a scholar in ancient Indian and western literatures, and Indian religions, and one of the few priests who had mastered Sanskrit and Bengali. He knew the people among whom he worked and established long-lasting contacts with them. He shared in their cultural and social life. He was familiar with their national and religious traditions. His unequivocal fidelity to Christ as the fullness of God’s revelation made him recognize and honour every spark of truth and goodness wherever it was found. He exemplified the paradox of Simone Weil that we must love truth more than Christ, because before he was Christ, he was Truth. Speaking of his influence on the fields of inculturation, inter-religious dialogue, on the intelligentsia of Calcutta, on the students of Jadavpur University, one cannot help comparing it to that of the devoted and self-effacing Indian mother who wields a pervading influence on her family and is the power behind the scenes.

He spent 42 years India, mostly in Calcutta. And Calcutta had become his true home; he had so deeply rooted himself in this land of Bengal, its culture, its way of life, that it became difficult to recall that he had once been a foreigner. While paying his tribute to Fr. Antoine, one of his students said: “With his Khurta, Pyjama, slippered feet and sun tanned complexion, it would be incongruous to refer to him as a foreign missionary. He was virtually the established Guru of the Hindu Bengali youth of Jadavpur University and the much-esteemed guide, philosopher and friend of many orthodox and influential Hindu Bengali families.” 2 (2. From a speech given at the funeral ceremony.)

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An Accomplished Teacher

Sanskrit was introduced in St. Xavier’s School in 1938 at the suggestion of the late Nilratan Sircar, a renowned Sanskrit scholar. Fr. P Fallon was the first teacher. In 1939, Fr. Antoine, still a Scholastic, took over from Fr. Fallon and taught Sanskrit for over a year. Then in 1951, he joined the School as a full-time Sanskrit teacher. Two years later, he wrote his first book in two parts, a Sanskrit Manual and Book of Exercises for High School students. The book has seen three editions and has been widely used at the high school level all over the country.

In 1956, Fr. Antoine joined the newly started Department of Comparative Literature of Jadavpur University, where he worked in close collaboration with Buddhadev Bose, Sudhindranath Datta and other eminent Bengali scholars. He remained connected with this department (of which he had become a Reader) till his death. Besides these regular teaching assignments, he gave at various times, courses on Religion and Ethics at St. Xavier’s and Loretto Colleges. He even found time to teach Greek and Latin to small groups of friends who would regularly gather in his Shanti Bhavan residence.

All his former students remember him as an inspiring teacher, a friend and a guide more than a mere class-room lecturer; he had a gift to make them, not just know but love Homer and Valmiki, Virgil and Kalidasa, Dante, Racine, Valery; “when reading with them the book of Job he made them live personally the drama of Job’s anguished and yet unshaken hope. 3 In truth he was a born teacher. To quote one of his former students, “Fr. Antoine, who brought into teaching the zest which characterised everything he did, was the first to make us relies that Sanskrit wasn’t such a whopping bore, after all”.4 Reminiscing about Fr. Antoine, Mathew Jaynath who was Fr. Antoine’s student in Shanti Bhawan wrote: ‘First it was a teacher-student relationship, soon it became a friendship, and finally, it became transformed into a relationship of guru and sishya, he, the spiritual guide and I, the seeker”.5 Fr. Antoine, free-thinking Jesuit and scholar in Sanskrit, Bengali, Greek, Latin and five other languages, introduced his students to the mysteries and joys of literature and was equally at home with the Upanisads and the Bible.6

  1. Fallon P, “Man of God who made his home in Kalighat”, Amrita Bazar Patrika, Calcutta, Oct 19, 1981.

  2. The Statesman, Calcutta, Oct 26, 1981.

  3. Jaynath Mathew, “Fr. Antoine and the life I shared with him”, The Herald, Calcutta, Nov 27, 1981.

  4. Sen Pradip, “A Man of God”, Business Standard, Calcutta, Oct 25, 1981.

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Shanti Bhawan Experiment

From the very start of his teaching career Fr. Antoine had felt the wish to share the life of those he taught and to identify himself, as much as he could, with their cultural and social milieu. This led him to go and live in a Hindu-Bengali locality of South Calcutta; together with Fr. Fallon, he first lived for a year (1951) in the house of a Bengali Family. Not satisfied with this experiment, in the following year, he established his own little residence-cum-hostel, Shanti Bhawan, in Prince Golam Mohamed Road, and this remained his family home till he died. “This was a unique venture and constituted a major departure form the established life-style of Jesuits in this part of the world. Admittedly, in Post-War Europe various experiments were in progress such as Catholic worker-priests and the winds of change were slowly gathering momentum, but it must be remembered that Vatican II was a long way off. Nevertheless there were the beginnings of a ferment” 7 (7 Ibid).

In West Bengal, the Church was, to say the least, tradition-bound at the time. For Jesuits there were two main life-style – either being attached to an educational institution or being attached to a parish. Breaking away from this tradition was a major advance. The idea was a daring one. Not only would they live the life of Bengali middle-class gentlemen in a Bengali community but they would also work in their own right in a non-Christian organization like any other layman. That the experiment was a success goes without saying. As a Patrika journalist put it, ‘the Shanti Bhawan brought there two great Jesuits who had left the sanctuary of St. Xavier’s College closer to the Bengal they had chosen to make their home’.8 Shanti Bhawan has been in existence for almost 55 years. After a couple of years or so, Fr. Fallon moved to North Calcutta where he set up a similar establishment “Shanti Nir” and taught at Calcutta University. (8. Datta Jyotirmoy, “Last Battle of a Sceptical Jesuit”, Amrita Bazar Patrika, Oct 17, 1981.)

Life at Shanti Bhawan had many facets. It housed about a dozen students and working men who had considerable freedom but the overall guidance was given by Fr. Antoine. It was, successful experiment in community living. It soon became also the center where an ever-increasing number of friends could come together. Some came for spiritual guidance and religious inquiry; some loved to participate in the liturgical worship, which Christian Bengali worshippers found so authentically expressive of both their Christian faith and their own cultural traditions; the students living there would bring their friends.

Fr. Antoine had also started a Darsana Chakra, which brought together month after month teachers and students of philosophy for an exchange of views between thinkers belonging to Eastern and Western metaphysical traditions (Sankara and Ramanuja, Thomas Aquinas and Blondel, Bergson and Teilhard, Manabendra Ray and many others). At these cordial “dialogues” many philosophical ideas came in for lively and friendly reflection in the homely circle of Shanti Bhawan’s learned visitors. And these “dialogues” were pursued from day today on even more personal themes between Fr. Antoine and the many young and old people who came to him, knowing they would meet a “man of God” and a true friend always busy and yet always available, smiling and welcoming them at any time, whether they came to confide in him a hopeful dream or a depressing failure, religious doubts or moral crises, or simply to ask his help and guidance in some thesis or book they were planning to write.

Fr. Antoine used to have bantering exchanges with his great colleagues, the poets Sudhindranath Datta and Buddhadev Bose, over the Dantesque notion of Paradise from which heathens like Kalidasa and Tagore were barred. He used to say that he did not know about that but after he died he would like to enjoy the company of Datta and Bose. He was fluent and powerful speaker and was often invited to give lectures by educational institutions, religious and secular organizations, and over the Radio and Television, on various topics, particularly the Gita and the Bible. His eighteen discourses on the Gita, which he gave to different organisations still remain unpublished.

From Shanti Bhavan originated other ‘conversions’ as well: the manner of celebrating the Eucharistic service, of blessing marriages, the way he dressed for liturgical ceremonies, inspired many in their efforts at ‘inculturation’. He was a pioneer in the line of inculturation. To him inculturation never was a policy, it was but the practical expression of his faith in the incarnation.

Much more important was the contribution he made to bring about a change in the attitude of many in the Catholic Church towards non-Christian religions. His sincerely ‘dialogical’ and spiritually respectful approach coupled with his positive and appreciative understanding of the religious traditions and beliefs of those whom he esteemed and loved, never lessened his own faith in Christ and loyalty to the Church, but freed his zeal from any kind of aggressive fanaticism or impatient proselytism. He came more and more to understand the reality of the divine workings of God’s grace in the hearts of his many non-Christian friends. He knew that these could help him to probe ever deeper the Mystery of God, that he had a precious message to communicate but also much to learn and receive through his communion with them.9 (9. see Fallon.)

One of his Hindu friends wrote in a newspaper: “the more he discarded the trappings of religion, the more spiritual beauty he seemed to radiate. Non-conformed couples would have him solemnized their marriage, and he would be called upon to deliver the oration at many a Hindu Sradh, where he would read passages from the Bible and the Upanisads”10 At Shanti Bhavan he was a rare combination of scholar, parish priest, University professor, social and cultural figure and good friend. To each of these roles he brought a passion and an intensity that was truly extraordinary. His Novel but authentic attitude to life, existentially lived through the years, did more than many theoretical discourse and treatises to bring about a new orientation and a more “Catholic” vision in the life of the Church in recent times. 10 See Jyotirmoy Datta.

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Musical Revolution
In his small gurukul-like Shanti Bhavan he had adopted an altogether Bengali way of life, and his students and friends were the teachers who initiated their foreign guru into the homely Indianness of his new life, Indian music and Rabindra Sangita. Shanti Bhavan soon filled with song. Fr. Antoine became an able singer and even composer of genuinely Bengali music. He composed a number of hymns which are sung in prayer meetings and Eucharistic celebrations. In 1963 he published a Bengali Hymn Book and a Liturgy of the Holy Week.

He brought about a musical conversion and revolution in the Christian churches and chapels of the Christian Bengali community. He encouraged, at times personally trained, young and gifted exponents of genuinely Bengali religious music. Former Latin and other Western tunes gave place to Indian ragas and raginis under his inspiring guidance. He was at home with the scale, the technique and the ‘tal’ of Indian music. He was secretary of the Music section of Sarat Bose Academy for several years; in that capacity, he demonstrated, on many occasions, hymns and songs of the East and West. He had also made a comparative study of Indian and Western music. In one of his well-appreciated articles on Music Indian and Western he says:

Besides technical differences, it would appear that one of the main divergences between Indian and Western music is the Indian emphasis on the display of skill. The achievement of the great Indian artists essentially consists in being so skilful as to make the audience forget their skill and transport them beyond the realm of mere admiration for musical acrobatics into that of pure aesthetic joy, from the realm of ‘citra’ into that of ‘rasa’11 (11 Antoine R, “Music Indian and Western”, Annual Souvenir of 1958 of Sarat Bose Academy, Calcutta.)

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His Literary Contributions

Over the years Fr. Antoine published several monographs and articles as well as a number of books. It would be worthwhile exercise to bring out a collection of his published work. I hope the Jesuit Province of Calcutta will do something about it.

As a scholar, well-versed in the Greek and Latin Classics and even more familiar with the Sanskrit Classics, Fr. Antoine in collaboration with Dr. Hrishikesh Bose, made a Bengali translation of the Aeneid of Virgil in 1972 and of the Seven Theban Tragedies in 1974. An English translation of Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa was published in 1972. He had already published in 1957 Where We All Meet – A Dialogue. This book was the echo of a real dialogue and the fruit of the unique experience of the common quest shared by many of his friends. It contains stimulating discussions on philosophical and theological questions – God, evil, suffering, man, world, religion and so on. It was his sincere effort to see things from the other’s point of view and to broaden and enrich one’s own approach. He says in this book: “mutual understanding is more fruitful than controversy … It makes the meeting of friends a source of immense joy. Rivalry is transformed into collaboration and the fear of humiliation replaced by the exhilarating feeling that we are seeking together our common liberation in the one Truth which embraces us all”12 (12 Where We All Meet – A Dialogue, Light of the East series, Calcutta, No 51, 1957, p1.)

For many years, Fr. Antoine had reflected on the religious significance of ancient myths, especially those that gave the Sanskrit Epics their supra-temporal value and spiritual dimension. Consequently, he published in 1975 Rama and the Bards, a critical study of the ‘epic memory” in the Ramayana, while yet to be published is the unfinished type-script of a second book on The Technique of Oral Composition in the Ramayana, a sequel to Rama and the Bards. It is a thesis in which he continued his research into the more-than literary origins of the Songs of Rama. He had just one chapter left and it was a cruel irony of fate that cancer took him away before he could finish it. The Jadavpur University has been generous enough to publish in two parts all the eight chapters of this unfinished book in the Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature (Vols. 21 and 22, 1983 and 1984).

From August 1957 to June 1959, a team of Jesuit scholars published “Hinduism – a Course by Letter”, a series of 24 monthly articles. This was an introduction giving busy people the main practical aspects of Hinduism. Fr. Antoine and Fr. Fallon contributed the greater number of those letters. These were later published in book form in 1961 under the title of “Religious Hinduism” Fr. Antoine had himself contributed nine of the essays gathered together in this book, especially those on the Mahabharata, the sacred books and religious literature on Hinduism, Hindu rituals and Samskaras, its Ethics and Worship. German and French translations have been published and the book has seen four English editions.

Fr. Antoine has published many articles in the Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature, the Visvabharati Quarterly and other learned reviews. All the articles reflect his indepth comparative study of ancient Indian and Western literature. Prominent among then are: “Homo Viator” and “The Curse in Oedipus Rex and Abhijnanasakuntalam’. Any knowledgeable Indian, reading his articles, must feel proud of this great Jesuit for his successful scholarly treatment of the superiority of the Eastern cultures over the West. His articles clearly show how deeply he had been attracted by the treasures hidden in ancient cultures, a world of extraordinary spiritual vitality.13 (13 Pradip Sen)

Inspired by Baudelaire’s poem “Le Voyage” he wrote the article “Homo Viator” – ‘Man on the Way’. In this article the makes a profound analysis of a number of Mythical “Men on the Way” in the whole range of Western civilization – Ulysses, Jason, Alexander and Aeneas; the wandering Jew and the knights of the Grail, followed by the Crusaders; great expeditions to the New World floated across the scene, and, finally, the cosmonauts who took their flights towards other planets. In vain did he look for a parallel mythic image in Indian culture:

I thought of the Parivrajaka, the wandering mendicant who has no home here below. But I felt immediately that the parallel would not work. There was a radical difference between the restlessness of the Western traveler and the serenity of the Indian mendicant. The Indian Parivrajaka is homeless because he has found his true home ‘in the cave of his heart’ whereas the Western traveler, in the words of Baudelaire, is a prisoner who can never escape the receding walls of his prison. 14 (14 Antoine R, “Homo Viator”, Visvabharati Quarterly, Calcutta, Vol 41, Nos 1-4 (1975-76), p1)

In the same article he brings out a point in the contrast between Tantalus and Buddha as mythical symbols of Western and Eastern cultures, and quotes Jean Brun: “The West is primarily Tantalus. Tantalus is a prisoner of the ‘here’ … The East, on the contrary, is Buddha with folded hands. He has found wisdom in the extinction of desires …”15 Is Fr. Antoine’s Homo Viator’ a pilgrim or a vagabond? He is “a potential pilgrim who chose to be a vagabond” because “the West has found it increasingly difficult to accept the impermanence of its a achievements and has clung to the hope that man alone will eventually solve the riddle of human existence. Any reliance on a Transcendent has been branded as a shameful abdication.” 16.

15 Ibid, p 2 (Jean Brun’s “Les Vagabonds de l’Occident”, Paris 1976.

16 Ibid, p 27.

In the article “The Curse in Oedipus Rex and Abhijnanasakuntalam,” Fr. Antoine makes a parallel study of Kalidasa’s and Sophocles’ approaches to the world ‘Curse’ which, in ancient cultures, like its counterparts: oaths, boon and oracle, had a great respect and possessed a power which bound gods and man alike. The most interesting feature of the article is the difference in the nature of a curse in the ancient Indian and Greek traditions:

In the Indian tradition a good number of curses are conditional. Either in the formulation of the curse itself or as a result of a prayer for mercy, a condition is attached to the curse, which, once fulfilled, puts an end to the ineluctability of the punishment … In the Greek tradition, on the contrary, there are no conditional curses. There may be a condition previous to the curse, as in the case of Laius…17 (17 Ibid “The Curse in Oedipus Rex and Abhijnanasakuntalam”, Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature, Vol 18-19 (1980-81), pp 1-2.)

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For Example

In Kalidasa’s play it is the curse which is the mainspring of the dramatic action: the curse cause the king to forget and explains the estrangement of the two lovers who, ignorant of Durvasa’s malediction, fail to understand what is happening to them. Because the curse is conditional, it loses its power once the ring is placed before Dusyanta … In Oedipus Rex, precisely because Sophocles deliberately keeps the curse outside the dramatic action, it is Oedipus’ initiative which sets the dramatic action moving … the dramatic action is the passage from ignorance to knowledge. Sophocles has deliberately shorn his play of all ethical undertones in order to present man in the stark precariousness of his condition. Sophocles has great respect for man (one may remember here his Ode to Man in Antigone), but man is not fully the master of his destiny. There are hidden powers which shape his life…18 (18 Ibid, pp 11-12)

Scholar, Fr. Antoine certainly was. And yet, literature was not as important as life to him. There was a deep inner connection between Antoine the scholar and Antoine the man. He believed in the importance, as he unsed to say, of “being” rather than “having”. To quote his own words, ‘living in God is like soft music which brings internal harmony and peace. As soon as you try to rationalise it, the music stops.”

His zest for life combined with the need for inner tranquility meant a constant struggle, the inevitable predicament of a sensitive soul in today’s mindless acquisitive world. Such peace and inner composure that he acquired was hard won. His life-style bears ample testimony to this – he was no ivory tower intellectual, but a vibrant person who felt, thought and suffered to the core. He was genuinely concerned about people and life around him and what is more, capable of being disturbed. His vulnerability was the measure of his concern. To Bengalis, this non-conformist ‘sanyasin,’ by his gentle nature, erudite scholarship and catholic vision, had become one of their very own.

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Fr. Antoine’s Literary works

Books

  1. 1953: A Sanskrit Manual for High Schools, 2 parts, Calcutta, St. Xavier’s College.

  2. 1957: Where We All Meet – A Dialogue, Calcutta, Light of the East Series No. 51, COP.

  3. 1963: Gan Kara Nava Git, A Bengali Hymn book, Calcutta, Shanti Bhavan.

  4. 1964: Religious Hinduism, A Presentation and appraisal by Jesuit Scholars, Allahabad, St. Paul’s Publications. (Fr. Antoine, with some other Jesuit friends, had planned this book, first as a series of 24 monthly letters which appeared from June 1957 to June 1959, then, with Frs. J Neuner and R De Smet as editors, as an enlarged book in 1964. Fr. Antoine contributed himself nine of the chapters of this book)

  5. 1965: Introduction to Upanisads, Monograph, Pune, Papal Seminary.

  6. 1967: The Mystery of Man, Calcutta, Xavier Publication.

  7. 1972: Virgil’s Aeneid, translated into Bengali, Calcutta, Jadavpur University.

  8. 1972: Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa, translated into English, Calcutta, Writer’s Workshop.

  9. 1974: Seven Theban Tragedies, translated from the Greek to Bengali, Calcutta, Jadavpur University.

  10. 1975: Rama and the Bards, Epic Memory in the Ramayana, Calcutta, Writer’s Workshop.

Articles

  1. “Music Indian and Western”, The Annual Souvenir of 1958, Sarat Bose Academy (Calcutta).

  2. “A Pioneer of Neo-Hinduism” Bankim C Chatterjee”, Indica, IHRI Commemoration Volume, St. Xavier’s College, Bombay 1953.

  3. “Indian and Greek Epic”, Quest, April 1958.

  4. “The Gospel and Modern Indian Thought”, Lumen Vitae (Brussels), 1953.

  5. “Religious Symbolism in the Kausitaki Upanisad”, Baroda Journal of the Oriental Institute, 1951.

  6. “The Eucharist and the Industrialization”, India and the Eucharist, pp 61-70.

  7. “Homo Viator”, The Visvabharati Quarterly (Calcutta), Vol 41, Nos 1-4, 1975-76, pp 1-17.

  8. “The Curse in Oedipus Rex and Abhijnanasakuntalam”, Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature, Vol 18-19, 1880-81, pp 1-12.

  9. “The Technique of Oral composition in the Ramayana”, Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature, Vol 21, 1983, pp 1-21.

  10. The Technique of Oral Composition in the Ramayana” (cont) JJCL, Vol 22, 1984.

     

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