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

Location: OCHS Library
Speaker: Prof. Amiya P. Sen
Date: February 1, 2018
Time: 2:00pm to 3:00pm

‘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’