At the turn of the twentieth century, the 100 year-old Swaminarayan Sampraday found itself in a dispute with the powerful Shankaracharya of Dwarka, Madhavatirtha. Madhavatirtha took exception to a laxity in caste-based practices in the Swaminarayan Sampraday and deemed the latter to be “avaidika.” This dispute, set in colonial modernity, is one whose characters complicate binaries between the “traditional” and “modern.” It is the story of how a smaller religious community attempted to mediate local conflict through a translocal appeal to what I call a “scholastic public.” I suggest that the relative “modernity” of these debates about orthodoxy must be understood alongside two considerations: the reliance on external associational bodies of pandits to adjudicate the debates as well as the use of modern genres of print to amplify the debates. I argue that there are two very different deployments of “orthodoxy” at play: the associational bodies were pursuing trans-sectarian agendas of defining orthodoxy as a response to colonial critiques of Hinduism. On the other hand, Swaminarayan agents defended the legitimacy of their community through recourse to the symbolic purchase of vaidikatva. Crucially, they viewed this vaidikatva not as narrowly defined, but rather pluralistic in nature. This case thus reveals the dynamic negotiations of orthodoxy, sectarianism, and pluralism at play in late colonial India.
Prof. Arun Brahmbhatt is Assistant Professor of South Asian Religions in the Religious Studies Department at St. Lawrence University. He received his PhD from the Unversity of Toronto in 2018 and studied at Harvard University and Tufts University prior to that. His research is centred on Sanskrit textual practices in Gujarat during the late colonial period and on Sanskrit commentaries in the Swaminarayan Sampraday. Arun also explores sectarian and community formation and the manner in which regional religious movements negotiate interregional publics. Together with Dr. Lucian Wong (Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies) and Dr. Avni Chag (British Library), he directs the Rethinking Hinduism in Colonial India research project, hosted at the OCHS.