Bhakti and Bhaktas: The Many Lives of Bhima Bhoi and Mahima Dharma
Ishita Banerjee-Dube, El Colegio de México
An itinerant, abstemious ascetic who preached the mahima, glory of an omnipotent Alekh (indescribable) Absolute and pure devotion to him as a way to salvation in the tributary states of Orissa (Odisha) in the 1860s, came to be deified as Mahima Swami, an incarnation of the Absolute, and his precepts found entry into vernacular newspapers, colonial records and subsequent texts as Mahima Dharma/Alekh Dharma/Kumbhipatia Dharma. Bhima Bhoi, the bhakta-kabi (poet-devotee) of Mahima Swami, innovatively combined teachings of the Guru with aural comprehensions of popular religious texts and the epics in numerous couplets to elaborate a theosophy-philosophy that blended lofty ideals with the everyday metaphor of Kaliyuga and appealed to large groups of subordinate men and women. My intervention will revisit my earlier work on Mahima Dharma to trace the enduring presence, many meanings and diverse apprehension and deployment of Bhima Bhoi’s compositions and legends of his life by lay followers, particularly the more marginal ones. This will offer fresh insights into the distinct ways ‘religious’ teachings, rituals and codes of behaviour are grounded by followers to cope with the difficulties of the present, forge a sense of identity and community, and extend initial impulses of preceptors in myriad ways that at once resist and shore up to the institutionalisation of a radical, heterodox faith. Through a combined exploration of philosophy and its praxis, modalities of identity formation and gender dynamics in the practices of ordinary devotees, I hope to be able to discern the distinct textures in the quotidian existence of a ‘Hindu’ order at different moments.
The Political Theology of Lala Lajpat Rai (1865–1928): Reconfiguring Vedic dharma in the Arya Samaj
Ankur Barua, University of Cambridge
A central concept in the revalorisation of Indic civilisation against the backdrop of colonial modernities in South Asia was dharma. For its proponents, dharma was both a signifier of the ancient heritage of the land and a rallying cry to generate self-assertive responses to western influences. Thus, across locations such as Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, and others, various debates relating to the reformulation of Hindu identity were conducted with the conceptual currencies of dharmic vocabularies. These negotiations of western idioms through Indic prisms have often been depicted in terms of a binary opposition between ‘reform’ and ‘revivalism’, where socio-religious movements such as the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal are placed in the former group and others such as the Arya Samaj in the Punjab in the latter. In our study of Lala Lajpat Rai, a prominent figure in the Arya Samaj, we argue that these categories should not be treated as hermetically sealed entities, for there was much conceptual and institutional traffic across them. The hermeneutic exercises of Rai, who actively sought to configure the Arya dharm within broader Hindu milieus, cannot be classified in a modular fashion as either ‘revivalist’ or ‘reformist’. Rai foregrounds Vedic themes precisely as the overarching canopy for fostering liberal education, social progress, and humanitarian relief. Equally crucially, unlike some prominent figures in the Arya Samaj who became entangled in interreligious violence, Rai’s Vedic appeals to the regeneration of Hindu worlds are not marked by vituperative language directed at Muslims and Christians. Thus, Rai’s somewhat embattled positions within the Arya Samaj are structured by complex dialectical interweaves in which the vocabularies of restoration, meliorism, and universalism are intertwined with one another. Rai remains a pivotal, if somewhat understudied, figure in the narrative of the construction of Hindu modernities which seek to configure Vedic religion as a this-worldly spirituality which is vitally engaged on social fronts and creatively engages with non-Indic universes.
The Haribhaktivilāsa and Gaudīya Vaiṣṇavism in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
Måns Broo, Åbo Akademi University
The Haribhaktivilasa (ca. 1540) by Sanatana Goswami is a voluminous ritual text belonging to the Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya begun by Sri Krishna Caitanya (1486–1533). It was first printed in 1843 and reprinted many times after, but it also has a strong manuscript tradition both before and after that. I have for my forthcoming critical edition of this text examined more than a hundred manuscripts of this text from the 18th and 19th centuries. In this paper, I will take a close look at the colophons of selected manuscripts to see what they say about the scribes and the people they copied the text for. One needs to acknowledge the fact that extant manuscripts present us only with a partial view of the text’s circulation, as those manuscripts copied for large institutes or that saw the least use where the ones most likely to survive until today. Nevertheless, I argue that scholars have paid too little attention to manuscript dissemination in their study of sampradayic Hinduism, as a close look at the dissemination of religious manuscripts has many things to tell us about the religious society that found the text worthwhile to copy.
Disappearing Dedications?: A Second Look at the Evidence from the Brahmaputra Valley
Indrani Chatterjee, University of Texas at Austin
This paper explores the absence of historiographical discussion of ritual dedications of entire households to various temples in the region that subsequently became modern Assam. The epigraphic evidence extends into 1802, and then peters out. But the historiography of the Northeast, including that of religions of Assam (such as Kamakhya temple studies), say nothing about these dedications of the past at all. This paper will probe their disappearance from discussion as well as suggest possible ways to link such ritual practice with practices common across the southern Indian, Odishan and southeast Asian temple complexes.
The Modern Hindu Islamicate: Gandhi Between Sampradaya and Silsilah
Timothy Dobe, Grinnell College
The general scholarly neglect of sampradayic traditions in colonial Hindu contexts is due at least in part to the notion that colonial Hinduism was thoroughly reimagined according to an Enlightenment model of religion as a ‘belief system’ . Such forms of ‘apartheid religion’ (Chidester) supposedly not only sidelined and weakened the traditional authority of sannyasis, mathas, and their lineages, in favor of reformist groups such as the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj, but similarly sharply separated colonial, reformist Hinduism from Islam, now (re)imagined as doctrinally diametrical, geographically ‘foreign’ and temporally ‘past.’ In this paper I challenge and complexify these views by demonstrating the performative power of comparable and overlapping notions of lineage (sampradaya, Sufi silsilah and Christian saintly succession) precisely within, and not only alongside, such ‘reformist’ colonial Hindu contexts. Specifically, I examine Gandhi’s intimate and long-neglected relationship with the Chistiya silsila as a part of this wider colonial context and argue that this was vital to his emergent popular political power and religious appeal in South Africa and in early 1920s India. As with pre- and early modern South Asian religious traditions, Sufi idioms, narratives, lexicons, and holy men, are so indispensable to the formation of colonial Hindu traditions that scholars of South Asian religions may now be compelled to forge notions, not of a ‘Protestant’, but rather of an ‘Islamicate,’ colonial Hinduism.
On the Margins of Modernity: The Advaita of Rāmasubha Śāstri
Jonathan Duquette, University of Cambridge
It is a well known fact that the history of modern Hinduism is closely intertwined with Advaita Vedānta. However, the dominating narrative has emphasised the importance of ‘neo-Vedanta’ to the expense of the ‘traditional’ Vedānta that was thriving in this period—the Advaita of the pandits who continued to debate, teach and write in colonial times. What were they writing about? What key philosophical issues were debated among pandits? Were these themes in continuity with the older exegetical tradition or responding to new patterns of epistemology and practice? Did Advaita Vedānta scholars continue to engage with canonical figures such as Śaṅkara, and if so, in what ways? How does this compare with neo-Vedanta interpretations, and how can the works of pandits help us ‘rethink Hinduism’ in the modern period? In this talk, I reflect on these questions with a focus on Rāmasubha Śāstri (1840-1922), a little known scholar of Advaita who lived near Tanjore.
Śūdra Asceticism in Anglo-Hindu Law: Scripture and Custom
Christopher T. Fleming, University of Oxford
This paper examines Śūdra ascetics in colonial-era Hindu law. The right (adhikāra) of Śūdras (and of Kṣatriyas, Vaiṣyas and women, for that matter) is a vexed question in classical Sanskrit jurisprudence (Dharmaśāstra). Many authors, including Manu and Yājñavalkya took the view that renunciation was limited only to Brāhmaṇas – an opinion shared by Śaṅkarācarya and the leaders of numerous religious communities. Others held that renunciation and monastic initiation were available to the three twice-born (dvija) classes. Few intellectuals (though certainly not none) afforded this opportunity to Śūdras and to women. The right to renunciation was a hotly debated topic amongst early modern paṇḍitas such as Kamalākara and Gāgā Bhaṭta. These restrictions notwithstanding, India was, and remains, the home of a wide variety of influential initiatory religious communities (Maṭhas, etc.) that welcome Śūdra renunciates – the Dharmapuram Adheenam is one notable example.
My paper attends to colonial-era efforts to understand and to regulate Śūdra ascetics within the wider framework of Anglo-Hindu law. In order to administer Hindu religious endowments, jurists in the employ of the British East India Company, and, later, the Crown, crafted a hybrid system of jurisprudence that drew on an eclectic mixture of Dharmaśāstra, Indian custom, and English theories of equity. Anglo-Hindu law privileged Dharmaśāstra as a source of juridical knowledge about Hindu religious endowments, and colonial jurists culled through a wide, often contradictory variety of Dharmaśāstric and related Sanskrit treatises when formulating their courtroom decisions. The result was that the courts concluded, eventually, that although Śūdras are barred by Dharmaśāstra from renouncing the world, Śūdra renunciates and their religious institutions would be protected under Anglo-Hindu law on the basis of custom (ācāra). Ironically, this decision was justified in part by appealing to Dharmaśāstric injunctions that the king (a role assumed by the Company and Crown) is bound to investigate and to protect the conventional (sāmayika) Dharmas of non-Brāhmaṇical communities.
This paper opens with a summary of classical and early modern Dharmaśāstric debates about Śūdra renunciation before providing an intellectual history of their analysis by jurists in several influential court cases involving Śūdras and their participation in initiatory religious communities. Cases include: Greedharee Doss v Nundo Kishore (1867) 11 MIA 405; Dharampuran v Virapandiyam (1899) IRL 22 Mad 302; Giyana Sambandha v Kandasami ILR 1- Mad 375, 386; Harish Chandra v Atir Mmahamed ILR 40 Cal 545; AIR 1917 Cal 231; Somasundram v Vaithilinga ILR 40 Mad 846; and Narain and Another versus Mohar Singh, High Court, 22 December 1936, ALJR. I demonstrate that the colonial courts’ endorsement of Dharmaśāstric reasoning and their reliance on custom as a source of juridical knowledge about Śūdra ascetics and their institutions resulted in a series of problematic legal ambiguities that continue to vex India’s courts post-independence (see, for example, Krishna Singh v Mathura Ahir, AIR 1980 SC 707, 716).
Religious Polities and Early Modern Hindu Sampradays
Brian A. Hatcher, Tufts University
In Hinduism Before Reform (2020) I advanced the idea of using the concept of religious polities to examine and compare the origins of two modern Hindu movements, the Brahmo Samaj and the Swaminarayan Sampraday. For the conference on Rethinking Modern Hinduism I do not wish to review or revisit the book as much as to seek to extend this exploration of religious polities for thinking about the role and function of Hindu sampradays within the early colonial landscape. One question I’d like to consider is: How might religious polities be thought of in terms of plural sovereignties constellating with—rather than opposing or seeking to displace—other polities within specific territories? A second: Can we find ways to reach back in time before the transformative impact of the imperial state formation and the emergence of the late-colonial public sphere in order to think anew about how Hindu sampradays expressed and also shaped patterns of institutional belonging, subjectivity, ethics and ritual life? A third and obvious question is: What difference might any of this make to how we think anew about modern Hinduism?
Debating the Printed Word: Vacanas and the Modern Turn in Vīraśaivism during the Late Colonial Period
Gil Ben-Herut, University of South Florida
The attention paid toward the Vīraśaiva (Liṅgāyat) tradition of the Kannada-speaking region is partly related to the devotional poems attributed to its progenitors. These short lyrical poems called vacanas, which started to be composed in the twelfth century, have gained traction for their antinomian voice, a voice that deeply resonates with universal and progressive values. But within Vīraśaiva circles the ideas presented in some vacanas, as well as their historical significance for the tradition as a whole, remain hotly contested. In this presentation, I shall consider the role early print publications of vacanas played during the early twentieth century in realigning Vīraśaivism according to Protestant piety and modern sensibilities, and the internal debates and legalistic battles this process spawned between religious agents and institutions.
Caste, Sampraday and Histories of Hinduism in British India
Malavika Kasturi, University of Toronto
My paper examines the relationship between gurus, caste and sampraday in early twentieth century India, when gurus and mahants from various traditions were renegotiating their subjectivities, power and position within and without their religious traditions. This is an important period, given the close attention given to ‘caste reform’ by a number of political stakeholders, against the backdrop of the anti-colonial struggle. Specifically, I ask how upper caste and Brahman gurus engaged with the growing unrest, tension and protests within their sampraday to the ways in which caste hierarchies organized monasticism, and access to its resources and wealth under colonial rule, aided and abetted by colonial law. Interestingly, by the early twentieth century, many Brahman gurus cooperated with orthodox Hindu associations, who opposed the ‘reform’ of varnasramdharma, or formed their own guru-based organizations which enunciated a clear position against caste reform. To explicate my argument, I will investigate how the Varnasrama Swarajya Sangh and the All India Dharm Sangh led by Dandi sanyasis, consistently opposed mandir pravesh (temple entry) and caste reform within and without monastic orders from the 1930s onwards. My discussion will propose that that the intertwined histories of sampraday and caste are vital to understand the genealogies of ‘modern Hinduism in British India and after 1947.
From Caṇḍāl to Transnational Religious Network: Sectarian Resilience and Untouchable Pride in the Bay of Bengal
Carola Lorea, National University of Singapore
This paper examines the case of the Matua community, a low caste movement which emerged as a separate religion, distinct from the broader and loosely institutionalised manifestations of Bengali Vaishnavism, around the mid-nineteenth century. The founding gurus of the Matua community Harichand Thakur (1812-1878) and his son Guruchand Thakur (1847-1937) successfully mobilised the largest agriculturist caste living in the marshy areas of southern East Bengal, and turned the derogatory term by which their ecstatic devotees were known (Matuyā meaning intoxicated, drunk, mad) into the name of a separate religious identity for untouchable – Caṇḍāl – devotees.
Looking at early Matua publications, songs and hagiographies, oral interpretations and ethnohistories, I will trace the emergence and separation of a Dalit religious movement that defines itself as radically egalitarian, anti-patriarchal and anti-Brahminical. I will argue that this separation responds critically to modernist ideas of high-caste Hindu reformers, and reacts to the discriminatory stereotypes in colonial descriptions of low-caste religious movements. At the same time, Matua leaders responded to anxieties of conversion, particularly instilled by the vicinity of the Australian Baptist Mission of Faridpur.
At present, the transnational Matua community counts fifty million followers (according to the possibly inflated numbers registered by the All India Matua Mahasangha in Thakurnagar, North 24 Pargana, West Bengal) and its political power can tilt the scale of national elections. Straddling Bengal borders and uniting the shores of the Bay of Bengal, the narratives of the Matua community demonstrate not only that social formations like ‘sect’, ‘cult’, ‘religious movement’ (dharmāndalan), and guru-disciple ‘lineage’ remained central institutions in the everyday lived religiosity of colonial India, but also that colonial India provided a vibrant setting for the proliferation of such religio-social formations. New religious communities emerged out of dynamic debates between colonial, Christian and bhadralok ideas of how a modern religious ought to be, and the quest for recognition by marginalized social groups aspiring for social mobility from the fringes of the Empire. Making sense of these historical dynamics between Hinduism(s) and its others is fundamental to understand the contemporary intersections of caste, religion and displacement that ethnographers encounter today.
Driving Force or Remnant of the Past? Interpreting ‘Sampradāya’ in Colonial Debates on Hinduism
Angelika Malinar, University of Zurich
Recent scholarship increasingly deals with the role of sampradāya(s), religious communities or teaching traditions, in colonial-modern formations of Hinduism and thus addresses a lacuna in earlier research. The latter focused on Western constructions of an ‘essential’ Hinduism, the quest for modernized, ‘reformed’ Hindu communties voiced by the newly emerging middle-classes, and the lobbying for ‘Hindu unity’ from nationalist viewpoints. Numerous academic studied explored the differences and commonalities in the various representations of Hinduism that were produced in this constellation. Less attention has been given to the multi-facetted role of sampradaya(s) in the colonial debates about ‘Hinduism’. At a conceptual level, there have been conflicting views about what sampradāya actually is. This is also mirrored in the different translations proposed for the term. The historical role was also a matter of controversy: Are sampradāyas an essential feature of Hinduism manifesting its richness, or do they represent a historical past marked by internal division and ‘sectarianism’ that will eventually be overcome by Hindu unity? Members and representatives of sampradāyas were engaged in these debates as well. For instance, by recasting their religious-philosophical tenets as an all-encompassing form of religion, resisting ‘reformist’ agendas, etc. In these engagements they were, on the one hand, competing with various constructions of ‘unified’ Hinduism. On the other, they had to struggle with being represented as caste-like, exclusivist and even dubious social institution that belongs to the past. The paper will deal with such conflicting views about sampradāya with a focus on their being interpreted as a ‘traditional’ institution.
Courting the Divine: Image of the Hindu Deity and Legal Personhood in India
Esha Meher, Yale University
The flimsy boundaries of Constitutional Secularism make it a highly contested principle in the Indian Courts of Law. While the letter of law dictates equality of all religions before the State, the reality has always been different. The Secular State despite despite being a theological novice has stepped into boundaries beyond its domain in a host of different issues ranging from the legality of cow slaughter to administration of temples and places of worship. It donnes the cap of an arbitrator while negotiating conflicting sentiments in issues like cow slaughter where it has refused to outlaw the practice carving a sensitive exception for muslims during Bakri Eid. And at other times it became the litigant, counsel and judge, as it decided that the Hindu ceremony of Bhoomipujan to mark construction on a High Court premises was not against the secular values of the Constitution (2011). Irrespective of the number of actual pronouncements on religion or core religious practices by the Indian judiciary, there was never any enunciation or breakdown of religious principles that the judiciary borrowed from time to time to deliver these judgments. The most interesting case in point being that of the jurisprudence surrounting the image of the Hindu deity. The Court has churned out a plethora of judgments to comment and decide the evolving rights and powers of the Hindu Image without pausing ever to understand the true nature of it. It has navigated its complex relationship with the image of the deity using the legal instrument of personhood wherein the deity was treated like a living person complete with their own rights and liabilities. But the problem as always was the law’s unique obsession with theorising on the principle without attempting to understand it.
The author through the length of this paper traces the history of legal personhood (also known as juristic personality) in the English colonial jurisprudence and its hasty application to the image of the Hindu deity in colonial India. For a country where majoritarian interpretations of the law are increasingly used to oppress the minority, the image of the Hindu deity plays an extremely crucial part. The image when understood through the lens of Western legal theories but applied in India, has the ability to be the single most powerful tool dispossessing hundreds from their land and stripping them of legal adversarial rights. Thus its understanding beyond the Western legal lens is the need of the hour. Through a tactful use of ancient Hindu texts, colonial legislations, practices and case laws, this article argues that the image of the Hindu deity occupies a unique position in Indian society, such that it is unfit to belong or be justified by any of the western theories of legal personhood. The first part deals with the History and Theory of the Concept of Personhood in both common and civil law. The second part deals with the Image of the Hindu deity and the colonial’s state’s contradictory jurisprudence that has created a phenomena that can no longer be understood or defined by the contours of law.
Changing Through Service: The Swaminarayan Sampraday and Discourses of Reform in Nineteenth-Century Gujarat
Ved Patel, Emory University
This paper argues that the Swaminarayan Sampraday religious practice of sevā, established in the first few decades of the nineteenth century, influenced and shaped emerging discourses of reform in Gujarat between 1840 and 1890. More specifically, the Sampraday’s delineation of the practice as a central pathway to individual and societal improvement through association with divine immanence, forced Gujarati thinkers from this period labeled by their peers as ‘reformers’ to formulate systems of reform in relation to this practice.
To showcase this, I compare three nineteenth-century Gujarati figures— Durgaram Manchharam Mehta (1809- 1876), Dalpatram Dahyabhai Travadi (1820-1898), and Narmadshankar Lalshankar Dave (1833-1886)— who produced influential works about reform in the three major cities of Bombay, Ahmedabad, and Surat. Each had varying degrees of interaction with colonial and non-colonial actors and institutions during their lifetimes, with one of the most prominent non-colonial institutions being the Swaminarayan Sampraday. All three figures were aware of the Sampraday and wrote at length about the movement and interactions they had personally with its founder and followers. In fact, each thinker’s conceptualization of reform distinctly contrasted or was concordant with the Swaminarayan concept of sevā and could not have been clearly formulated without engagement with the Sampraday.
Through this comparison, this paper contributes to the conference objective to highlight sampradayic developments across colonial India. It expands the discussion of ‘reform’ in nineteenth-century India to take seriously local indigenous patterns of thought and exchange emerging through processes of self-reflection and reference to non-colonial nodes of power and influence. This kind of localized, deep study reveals how variated ‘reform’ can be on the ground even in shared geographical and ideational spaces. This paper also illuminates that the generation, accumulation, and dissemination of knowledge during the colonial period was a multi-modal and bi-directional process. While colonial categorical and epistemological presumptions influenced social and religious discourse creation in India, emerging indigenous institutions were involved and agential in these creative processes.
Inventing a Sampradāya: Lineage, Authority and Religious Transmission in Tamil, Dalit Śaivism in Colonial Modernity
Srilata Raman, University of Toronto
This paper looks at the genealogy of the emergence of subaltern, Vedāntic gurus within the Tamil region in colonial modernity. Almost overwhelmingly Śaivite these gurus were, by their very caste status, not affiliated to any of the established sampradāyic lineages of the prestigious monasteries of Tamil Śaivism, either that of the Tamil Śaiva Siddhānta or Tamil Vīraśaivism. How, then, was the guru-ship to be established and legitimated? This paper shows that, inasmuch as the paradigm of sampradāyic lineage had to still be adhered to, it was being dynamically reinvented already from the 15th-16th centuries onwards within Tamil Śaivism through strategies of self-initiation. These strategies of legitimation, though, gathered particular force in the context of colonial modernity. A focus on specific figures who took recourse to this strategy forms the basis of this paper.
The Reinvention of Vaiṣṇavite Religious Identity in Nineteenth Century Western India: The Vallabha Sampradāya’s Encounter With Colonialism in the Bombay Presidency
Shandip Saha, Athabasca University
The sixteenth century North Indian philosopher, Vallabha or Vallabhācārya (1479-1531,) was the founder of the Kṛṣṇaite devotional (bhakti) community known both as the Vallabha Community (Vallabha Sampradāya) and the Path of Grace (Puṣṭi Mārga). After his death, Vallabha’s male descendants, known as mahārājas, were responsible for the growth of the community in Western India where it flourished under the patronage of Rājpūt noblemen and the wealthy mercantile communities of Gujarat between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the nineteenth century, however, the lavish lifestyle of the mahārājas would leave the Puṣṭi Mārga vulnerable to the polemics of British Orientalists and Hindu reformers in the Bombay Presidency who characterized the community’s teachings as endorsing sexual immorality and religious heterodoxy. This paper proposes to give a brief overview of how the Puṣṭi Mārga responded to these criticisms by redefining the community’s beliefs to conform to definitions of Hinduism and middle-class morality that were shaped by the values of colonial state. In doing so, the Puṣṭi Mārga made the choice to abandon its centuries-long identification as Vaiṣṇavas in order to become Hindus who belonged to the larger religious construction known as sanātana dharma.
What Do We Talk About When We Talk About ‘Modern Hinduism’?
J. Barton Scott, University of Toronto
To suggest that the scholarship on ‘modern Hinduism’ has neglected sampradayic formations is simultaneously to make a cogent and much-needed historiographic intervention and to wade into a conceptual quagmire—risking a reification of the very categories it seeks to undermine. What is accomplished by describing nineteenth and twentieth-century sampradayic institutions as ‘modern,’ beyond simply noting their temporal location in the period after 1800? That adjective would seem to call out for connection, cuing an empirical study of how sampradayic institutions became entangled with colonial modernity that could, in turn, prompt a reconsideration of the conceptual moorings of modernity as such. For such a project to succeed, however, the study of sampradayic institutions cannot wall itself off from the study of colonialism and colonial public culture, with all its conceptual riches. Sampradaya/reform should be taken to indicate not an ‘either/or’ problem but a ‘both/and’ problem. How might each of these terms be read via the other? How can modern Hindu studies work to bridge the gap between classical Indology and colonial cultural studies, providing perhaps a uniquely productive scholarly site from which to do so?
The body of this paper offers a brief review of the history of the phrase ‘modern Hinduism’ from the 1840s to the present. It then discusses a handful of recent monographs on the topic to experiment with forms of scholarly reading that move between sampradaya and reform, vernacular and English, Indology and colonial studies. If modern Hindu studies is to perform the task that would seem most urgent for it—providing a critical account of the politics of Hinduism in the contemporary world—it needs to make good use of all of the scholarly resources available to it.
Contextualizing ‘Orthodoxy’ and ‘Reform’: Shashadhar Tarkachuramani and the Sarvamangala Sabha
Julian Strube, University of Vienna
This paper complicates distinctions between self-referentially ‘orthodox’ and ‘reformist’ movements and, by extension, between tradition and modernity. It addresses the problem of the prevalent scholarly focus on English-educated colonial elites and the metropolis of Kolkata, by highlighting the importance of ‘orthodox’ sabhās whose activities have ramifications up to the present day. The discussion will revolve around the Sarvamangala Sabha, established by the tantric pandit Shivachandra Vidyarnava (1860–1913) during the peak of ‘Hindu revivalism’. On one hand, the society proclaimed ‘Hindu orthodoxy,’ rejected ‘Western’ influences, emerged from the rural background of Kumarkhali (in today’s Kushtiya district), and propagated ideas that can only be comprehended against specific local diachronic (precolonial) developments. On the other hand, the society was part of a popularizing movement publishing in Bengali, strived for the unification of Vaishnava, Shakta, and Muslim currents, and laid the foundations for the later project of ‘Arthur Avalon’, which became famous for its editions, translations, and studies of Tantra.
The underlying connections and exchanges transgress the sphere of a supposed Sanskritic Brahmanical orthodoxy. They elide boundaries between so-called traditional and modern aspects, as well as between local and global developments. The clearly ‘reformist’ program of the Sarvamangala Sabha went hand in hand with an ostensibly anti-modern and anti-reformist stance, which highlights that the sphere of ‘orthodox’ pandits was not removed from colonial modernity but shaped it in a conflictual yet participating way. This point is substantiated by a discussion of Shashadhar Tarkacuramani, one of the most prominent orthodox pandits and a founding member of the Sarvamangala Sabha. The ambiguity of his polemics against modernity and Western influences are explored on the basis of his writings, especially Dharmmabyākhyā (1884) and his journal Bedbyās, but also through his personal networks and editorial activities.
Apocalypse and a Marginalized Hindu Community in Colonial India
Rick Weiss, Victoria University of Wellington/Heidelberg University
This paper seeks to understand the emergence of Ayya Vazhi, a Hindu apocalyptic movement founded in South India in the first half of the nineteenth century. Vaikundar Swami established Ayya Vazhi as a community through which marginalised Shanars might transform their social and material prospects. Vaikundar interpreted the group’s dystopian present, characterised by penury and daily caste oppression, as the beginning of an apocalypse. He asserted that his teachings, which stressed egalitarianism and non-violence, would hasten the end of the Kali Yuga and usher in a new age of truth and justice.
The content and structure of Ayya Vazhi narrative cosmology emphasised prior Hindu expressions as well as other, non-Hindu apocalyptic imaginaries. While these eclectic influences suggest a cosmopolitan ethos, the character of Vaikundar’s vision was local, not driven by the logics, ethics and goals of elite Hindu reform. This paper strives to understand Ayya Vazhi as a vernacular movement which was grounded in prior Hindu idioms, but which was also a product of a transcultural, global exchange of apocalyptic imaginaries.
A Pothī Hiding in a Book: Tracing the Sectarian Outlines of the Indological library
Tyler Williams, University of Chicago
From where did all of the books that fueled the so-called Hindu ‘renaissance’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries actually come? From where did the fledgling modern philological and literary-historical sciences in colonial India get their textual material? In this paper I will argue that sectarian communities (including not only monks and scholars but also merchant patrons and devotees) played a much larger role in producing the library of colonial-era Hindu thought than has been previously realized. They did so by composing, editing, preserving, printing, and circulating precolonial works of theology, philosophy, and ritual praxis that exerted considerable influence over the ways that both religious thinkers and non-religious scholars constructed, reconstructed, and contested ideas about Hinduism and its history.
I will briefly trace the histories of several influential works in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, demonstrating how these books and their ideas moved between sectarian communities and a burgeoning public sphere. Their various stories reveal to us intersections between the personal and the institutional, between the monastic and the mercantile, between manuscript culture and print culture, and between religious scholasticism and ‘modern’ humanities disciplines. By focusing on sectarian communities within the vaguely-defined realm of nirguṇ bhakti, I will try to show that these communities and traditions influenced colonial conceptions of Hinduism as much as their better-known Vaishnava counterparts.