Books, Articles and Essays
by FR. FELIX RAJ, SJ, DIRECTOR | «
Robert Antoine: The
Fr. John Felix Raj.
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.)
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
Fallon P, “Man of God who made
his home in Kalighat”, Amrita Bazar Patrika, Calcutta, Oct 19, 1981.
The Statesman, Calcutta, Oct 26,
Jaynath Mathew, “Fr. Antoine and the life I shared with him”, The Herald,
Calcutta, Nov 27, 1981.
Sen Pradip, “A Man of God”, Business Standard, Calcutta, Oct 25, 1981.
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.
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
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
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.)
|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
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.
Fr. Antoine’s Literary works
1953: A Sanskrit Manual for
High Schools, 2 parts, Calcutta, St. Xavier’s College.
1957: Where We All Meet – A
Dialogue, Calcutta, Light of the East Series No. 51, COP.
1963: Gan Kara Nava Git, A
Bengali Hymn book, Calcutta, Shanti Bhavan.
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
1965: Introduction to
Upanisads, Monograph, Pune, Papal Seminary.
1967: The Mystery of Man,
Calcutta, Xavier Publication.
1972: Virgil’s Aeneid,
translated into Bengali, Calcutta, Jadavpur University.
1972: Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa,
translated into English, Calcutta, Writer’s Workshop.
1974: Seven Theban Tragedies,
translated from the Greek to Bengali, Calcutta, Jadavpur University.
1975: Rama and the Bards,
Epic Memory in the Ramayana, Calcutta, Writer’s Workshop.
“Music Indian and Western”,
The Annual Souvenir of 1958, Sarat Bose Academy (Calcutta).
“A Pioneer of Neo-Hinduism”
Bankim C Chatterjee”, Indica, IHRI Commemoration Volume, St. Xavier’s College,
“Indian and Greek Epic”,
Quest, April 1958.
“The Gospel and Modern Indian
Thought”, Lumen Vitae (Brussels), 1953.
“Religious Symbolism in the
Kausitaki Upanisad”, Baroda Journal of the Oriental Institute, 1951.
“The Eucharist and the
Industrialization”, India and the Eucharist, pp 61-70.
“Homo Viator”, The
Visvabharati Quarterly (Calcutta), Vol 41, Nos 1-4, 1975-76, pp 1-17.
“The Curse in Oedipus Rex and
Abhijnanasakuntalam”, Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature, Vol 18-19,
1880-81, pp 1-12.
“The Technique of Oral
composition in the Ramayana”, Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature, Vol
21, 1983, pp 1-21.
The Technique of Oral
Composition in the Ramayana” (cont) JJCL, Vol 22, 1984.