Lecture tag: Colonialism

Conceptual Nuances of ‘Reform’ and ‘Revival’: The Hindus of British India

‘Reform’ proved to be one of the defining features of Modern Hinduism. It suggested to Hindus what Hinduism might mean to them and what inputs it could possibly make into the formulation of the corporate Hindu identity. The first point to examine here is whether or not this term had a prehistory or, if as is commonly suggested today, this was a term manipulatively constructed in the colonial era, as allegedly were ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’. This paper tries to establish the argument that often, an idea or a practice is not known by a given name. Surely, the intention to reform in the sense of rationalising and humanising ideas or practices goes back a long time in south Asian history and yet, my researches reveal that there was no corresponding term in the major Indian vernaculars or for that matter, in Sanskrit, which captured the essential spirit or the meaning of the modern word ‘reform’. The contemporaries of Kabir, Nanak, and Chaitanya did not call them ‘reformers’ or identified their work as ‘reform’; such terms were peculiar to the modern era. Given this fact, this paper seeks to examine the ideological and historical compulsions that lay behind the articulation and use of such terms. This paper also argues that reform was a strongly contested term and ought to be studied in its various nuances that were determined by acute differences over understanding, intentions or strategy.

Following Prof. Tapan Roychaudhuri’s critique of 1988, cultural historians have expressed reservations against the use of the term ‘revival’. Prof. Raychudhuri had suggested that that which was ‘far from dead’ (Hinduism) could not have been ‘revived’. My rejoinder to this has been that short of a miracle, it is only the dying that can be revived, not the dead. The literature of the Hindus in the 19th century is replete with references to a ‘dying’ Hinduism and to a culture in crisis and my point here is that in historical reconstruction, the perceptions of contemporary actors plays no less a part, even when removed from social and historical reality. Thus, though it has now been amply demonstrated that in 19th century India, the penchant for interpreting the contemporary cultural awakening as a ‘Renaissance’, or ‘Reformation’, analogous to European experiences (some of them even spoke of ‘Hindu Protestantism’) was quite misplaced, such analogies still need to be historically explained. This paper argues that the terms ‘reform’ and ‘revival’, far from being naive and unproblematic, bring out the problems of cultural self-definition within an indigenous discourse trying to contest the Orientalist one. Contrary also to what has sometimes been suggested, revivalism was not archaic, anachronistic, or a romantic return to the past. Careful selection went into the question of just what ought to be revived or could be revived at all. Given the ideological framework of the contemporary Hindu intelligentsia, the issue of revival was implicit in acts of reform and reform, implicit in attempts to bring about a revival. The revivalist, I feel, has indeed to be separated from the reactionary.

Prof. Amiya P. Sen is by training a historian with special interest in the intellectual and cultural history of colonial India. Prof Sen took his undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi and thereafter went on to do research under Prof. Sumit Sarkar, again at the University of Delhi. After a brief career in the civil services, he served the Universities of Delhi and Visva Bharati (as Tagore Professor at Rabindra Bhavan) and is currently professor of modern Indian history at the Department of History & Culture at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Prof. Sen was Agatha Harrison Fellow at the University of Oxford, Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, and at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, New Delhi, and held the Zimmer Chair, South Asia Institute, Heidelberg. To date, Prof. Sen has produced 12 books, mostly published by Oxford University Press, Delhi, Penguin Viking and Permanent Black. A complete list of his books and articles is available in the Wikipedia entry for ‘Amiya Prosad Sen’ 

The spiral conch, home, and body: An Everyday Phenomenology of Sonic Metaphysics in Hindu Bengal (TT19)

This essay brings together decisive sacred archetypes of Bengali homemaking: sounds of the evening shankh (conch), the goddess Lakshmi, and the female snake-deity, Manasa; and argues that the sacred home, body, and world are tied through sonic metaphysics. It analyzes everyday home-ethics not simply through the European category of the ‘domestic’, but conceptually more elastic vernacular discourse of shongshar, which means both home and world. Thereby, it problematises notions of privacy and sanctified interiority of homes, women, and the nation, afforded by postcolonial theory. In understanding shongshar as a religious everyday dwelling, it analyzes (contrary) worship ontologies of Lakshmi, the life-goddess, Manasa, the death-goddess, and the twists of these imaginations engraved in the material contours of the shankh. Moving beyond the interiority-exteriority dialectic, I posit space as an aperture within the folded conch and vastu (home). The shankh, as a quintessential symbol of mongol (wellbeing), and its sonic turns, are analyzed as the material/spatial embodiment of shongshar’s daily texture, including both life and transcendence. Its spiral twirls are also critically linked to tantric ideas of the devotional body which is essentially constituted by and sensitive to various subtleties of naad (sound). Thus the materiality and audition of the conch, home, and breathing body are shown as cosmic counterparts, twisting through fertility and renunciation, interiority and expanse. Based on ritual texts, fieldwork among Lakshmi and Manasa worshippers, conch-collectors, craftsmen and specialists, and immersion in the everyday philosophy of sounds, I explore a new ethical anatomy of the religious home/body, reflected in the echoes of the conch.

Sukanya Sarbadhikary works at the interface of the anthropology of religion, religious studies, and philosophy. In her first work she did an intensive ethnography among different kinds of Bengal-Vaishnavas, focusing on diverse experiences of religious place and sensory affective discourses. Her book, The Place of Devotion: Siting and Experiencing Divinity in Bengal-Vaishnavism’ (University of California Press) was published in 2015. She is also passionately interested in the sociology and philosophy of aesthetics and music, and their relations with sacred embodiment. She is currently working on a range of devotional instruments and traditions of sonic metaphysics.

Before Reform: The Swaminarayan Sampraday and Brahmo Samaj as Early Colonial Religious Polities (TT19)

An attempt to exit the discursive world of religious reform in order to rethink the first emergence of two major Hindu movements that would come to be scripted (each in their way) as reform movements. This paper asks how might we view the work of Sahajanand Swami and Rammohun Roy, respective founders of these two movements, if we thought of them not as reformers but as articulators of two innovative religious polities within a distinctive, if short-lived, early colonial moment?

The Rise and Fall of a Monastic Network in Colonial Bengal (TT19)

Combining textual analysis and site-specific field study, this paper explores the extension into southwestern Bengal of the Dasnami Sampraday in the early 17th century, mapping the emplacement of a network of satellite monastic sites in relation to a new principal “seat” (gaddi) at Tarakeshwar, and charting the rapid deterioration of these sites beginning in the late colonial period.

Brian A. Hatcher is Professor and Packard Chair of Theology at Tufts University. His research focuses on religious and intellectual transformations in colonial and contemporary South Asia, with a special interest in early colonial Bengal. His publications explore issues of vernacular modernity, translation, the life histories of Sanskrit scholars under colonialism, and the modalities of religious eclecticism and scriptural reform among a wide range of Calcutta-based intellectuals. His most recent book-length project, Religion before India, is a comparison of the emergence of the Swaminanarayan Sampraday in Gujarat and the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal as two religious polities that come to be scripted in terms of an emergent “empire of reform” after the 1830s. At present, he is conducting research toward a new book entitled Mapping a Monastic Mandala, which explores the networking and emplacement of Shaiva monastic complexes in southwestern Bengal from the eighteenth to the twentieth century under the leadership of the Dasnami Sampraday.