Richard S. Weiss
No history of Hinduism can be written without reference to the plethora of initiatory religious communities (sampradāya, panth, mārga, etc.) that have long comprised a fundamental component of the Hindu religious landscape. For centuries, these organisational formations have profoundly shaped collective and individual Hindu life. They have played a central role in the transmission of religious teachings, rituals, and codes of behaviour, and aligned themselves, to varying degrees, with local regimes of power. Yet, while there is no dearth of scholarship on such formations in classical, medieval, and early modern India, they have, by comparison, featured surprisingly little in the study of colonial period developments within Hinduism.
The basic reasons for this neglect are not hard to discern. Scholarship on Hinduism in the colonial context has been dominated by the discourse surrounding ‘Modern Hinduism’. This value-laden category has privileged the role of a narrowly circumscribed list of figures and institutions that betray the workings of a westernised rationality and its reformative impulses. Indeed, the field of colonial Hindu studies has commonly been equated with the study of these emergent, reform-oriented currents. As a result, sampradāyic formations in this context, when not wholly neglected by scholars, are often presumed to have been rendered increasingly irrelevant by modernising forces.
These assumptions, however, are not borne out by the historical evidence. Recent years have witnessed growing interest in colonial-era activity within the vast array of regional and trans-regional sampradāyic formations that fall beyond the discursive parameters of the established ‘Modern Hinduism’ paradigm. This burgeoning body of scholarship has begun to reveal just how central a role such initiatory religious currents continued to play in Hindu lives of all varieties amidst the unprecedented social and epistemic changes effected by colonialism. Many of these currents had marked effects upon social and cultural spheres beyond their immediate communal parameters. And while some participated avidly in colonially-driven modernising processes, others remained less directly implicated in the colonial sphere. Nevertheless, what is becoming ever clearer is that any serious attempt to understand Hinduism at this pivotal historical juncture cannot fail to attend to the spectrum of sampradāyic dynamics within this context.
The Rethinking Hinduism in Modern India project is a dedicated platform for the consolidation and coordination of research that critically investigates intellectual, ritual, social, and other kinds of development within sampradāyic Hindu formations across colonial India. The project aims to generate a critical mass of scholarship that deploys these oft-neglected communities as a vital entry point onto the colonial Hindu landscape. In doing so, it aims to establish a model for studying Hinduism in modern India that neither conflates this potentially rich subject area with an attenuated notion of ‘Modern Hinduism’, nor is predetermined from the outset to reproduce variations on a well-worn ‘tradition-modernity’ motif.