Nineteenth-century colonial India offers examples of both Hindu iconoclasts and iconic worshippers, but there has been a tendency to privilege the former and regard them as agents of modernity, and the latter as backward. Most nineteenth-century studies of Hindu attitudes to image worship have mainly focussed on two prominent figures—Rammohan Roy (1772–1883) and Dayananda Saraswati (1824–1883) who denounced image worship. This paper seeks to widen the discourse and to include the often overlooked nineteenth-century Sri Lankan Shaivite ‘reformer’, Arumuga Navalar (1822–1879) who took a very different stance on the issue of image worship. While Roy and Dayananda rejected image worship, Navalar affirmed it. Situating these three ‘reformers’ in their respective historical and cultural contexts, the paper will draw attention to the significant differences between Navalar and the two Indian Hindu responses to the Protestant missionary critique of image worship. It seeks to problematize the conventional approach which situates the debate on image worship within the narrow confines of the tradition verses modernity paradigm.
Dr Sharada Sugirtharajah is Senior Lecturer in Hindu Studies in the Department of Theology, at the University of Birmingham. Her research focuses on representation of Hinduism in colonial and postcolonial writings.