New Directions in the Study of Modern Hinduism

An Online Lecture Series


Convened by Dr. Lucian Wong, Dr. Arun Brahmbhatt, and Dr. Avni Chag

Scholarship on Hindu traditions in colonial India has long 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 Enlightenment-inflected 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. Recent years, however, have seen the burgeoning of a body of scholarship that has sought in various ways to challenge this paradigm.  This series of lectures will showcase some of these important developments in the field.

These lectures will be held online. All are welcome. Please write to to register your interest prior to the talk and you will be sent the appropriate link.

Hilary Term

Modern Hinduism Before Reform

Prof. Brian Hatcher

Wednesday 19 Jan, 3.00-4.00 pm (GMT)

What do you do when your narrative of religious modernity includes only one of two contemporary and highly influential religious innovators? Try to tell a different story! Looking at the lives of Sahajanand Swami in Gujarat and Rammohun Roy in Bengal, what might we say about their accomplishments if we deferred applying the category of reform? Could we bring them together in one interpretive frame? If so, what new critical possibilities might arise? These are some questions I hope to pose in this lecture.

Brian Hatcher’s research focuses on the transformation of Hinduism in colonial and contemporary South Asia, with a special interest in early colonial Bengal. His publications explore issues of religious reform, vernacular modernity, and the colonial world of Sanskrit. An expert on the life and work of Ishvarchandra Vidyasagar, he is also known for his interpretations of “bourgeois Hinduism,” Hindu eclecticism, and the “empire of reform.” His most recent book, Hinduism Before Reform (Harvard University Press, 2020), offers the first in-depth comparison of the early histories of the Swaminanarayan Sampraday and the Brahmo Samaj, situating their origins in a distinctive early colonial moment as a way to bypass familiar models of modern Hindu reform.

 A Sovereign Knowing: Audacious Evocations of Hinduism in Colonial India

Prof. Leela Prasad, Duke University

Wednesday 26 Jan,, 3.00-4pm (GMT)

In my recent book, The Audacious Raconteur, I argue that even the most hegemonic circumstances cannot suppress “audacious raconteurs”: skilled storytellers who fashion narrative spaces that allow themselves to remain sovereign and beyond subjugation.  Four Indian narrators of different castes and religious backgrounds who lived in colonial India—an ayah, a lawyer, an archaeologist, and a librarian—show that the audacious raconteur is a necessary ethical and artistic figure in human experience. In this talk, I will outline the literary strategies and other creative choices that each of these raconteurs made to evoke and represent “lived religion.” Their portraits of religion, rooted in their everyday experiences and intuitions, reveal the vacuity of the terms, categories, boundaries, and conclusions about Hinduism that came to preoccupy colonial scholarship and its legacy. These portraits show that when the study of religion considers forms and varieties of power without presuming that power is the exclusive privilege of the dominant, it is able to engage the dynamic creativity and courage of an embodied religious subject. 

 Leela Prasad is an anthropologist in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University, North Carolina, USA. She writes on everyday ethics, Gandhi, gender, prison and post-prison life, decoloniality, and narrative art and culture. Her articles have appeared in Numen, Journal of Religious Ethics, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Oral Tradition, Journal of South Asian History and Culture, and in various edited volumes. She is fluent in Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, and Hindi. Her latest book, The Audacious Raconteur: Sovereignty and Storytelling in Colonial India (Cornell University Press, 2020) argues that even the most empowered oppressor cannot suppress the creativity of politically colonized people who ultimately remain sovereign. The book engages the extraordinary narrations of Indians in late colonial India, and converses with descendants, to highlight the perennial presence of the “audacious raconteur” as an ethical figure in contexts of power and domination.

Rethinking Modern Hinduism

Prof. Rick Weiss, Victoria University of Wellington/Heidelberg University

Wednesday 9 February, 3.00-4.00 pm  (GMT)

In this lecture, I present the basic framework laid out in my book The Emergence of Modern Hinduism (University of California Press, 2019). The book argues for the importance of regional, vernacular innovation in processes of Hindu modernization. Scholars usually trace the emergence of modern Hinduism to cosmopolitan reform movements, producing accounts that overemphasize the centrality of elite religion and the influence of Western ideas and models. Here I examine religious change on the margins of colonialism by looking at an important local figure, the Tamil Shaiva poet and mystic Ramalinga Swami (1823–1874). I argue for a history of Hindu modernization that demonstrates the transformative role of Hindu ideas, models, and institutions.

 Rick Weiss is Adjunct Professor of South Asian religions at Victoria University of Wellington, and Guest Professor of Modern History at Heidelberg University. His book Recipes for Immortality: Medicine, Religion, and Community in South India (Oxford University Press, 2009) examines the religious and nationalism dimensions of traditional siddha medicine. His second book, The Emergence of Modern Hinduism: Religion on the Margins of Colonialism (University of California Press, 2019), argues for the importance of regional, vernacular innovation in processes of Hindu modernization. His newest project examines the impact of print technology on religion in nineteenth-century India.

 The Boundary of Laughter: Popular Performances Across Borders in South Asia

Aniket De, Harvard University

Wednesday February 16, 3.00-4.00 pm (GMT)

Combining archival research with ethnographic fieldwork, my new book, The Boundary of Laughter, explores how spaces of popular performance have changed with the emergence of national borders in modern South Asia. Drawing on a rich and hitherto unexplored archive of Gambhira songs and plays, I trace the making of the popular theater form called Gambhira by Hindu and Muslim peasants and laborers in colonial Bengal, and explores the fate of the tradition after the Partition of the region in 1947. In this talk, I will share some parts of my book in an attempt to rethink our analytical tools for studying religious faith and identity in colonial India, particularly in relation to Hindu-Muslim relations. I hope to work towards a new approach for studying popular performances as shared spaces that can accommodate peoples across national and religious boundaries.

Aniket De is a PhD Candidate in History at Harvard University, USA, and the author of The Boundary of Laughter: Popular Performances across Borders in South Asia (Oxford University Press, 2021). 

What is ‘Modern’ Hinduism?

Prof. Ishita Banerjee-Dube

Wednesday February 23, 2.00-3.00 pm (GMT)

While there is no common accord among scholars on the propriety of the use of ‘Hinduism’ as a religion, there is a wider acceptance of the fact that Hinduism gained currency in the writings of British administrator-scholars in the first half of the 19th century. In 1816, the noted Orientalist scholar H.H. Wilson had commented that “Hindu religion has been hitherto employed in a collective sense” to designate ‘a faith and worship of almost endlessly diversified description’. Taking this relatively recent use of Hinduism in administrative and scholarly writings as a point of entry, my talk will query the perceptions and conceptualization of ‘modern’ Hinduism. When and how did Hinduism become modern and in what sense? Is modern tied to ‘scientific’? What are the productive possibilities and grave dangers in calling Hinduism  modern? In other words, does it help us understand and analyse the historical processes and their socio-cultural (and political) ramifications that the study of religions is meant to entail?

Ishita Banerjee-Dube is distinguished Research Professor at the Centre for Gender Studies and the Centre for Asian and African Studies, El Colegio de México and a member of the National System of Researchers in the highest category. Her research covers themes of religion, law and power, caste and politics, time and temporality, and food, gender and nation with special focus on eastern India over the 19th and 20th centuries. Her six single-authored books include A History of Modern India (Cambridge University Press, 2015); Religion, Law, and Power (Anthem Press, 2007); and Divine Affairs (IIAS, 2001). The most recent of her dozen edited volumes are Cooking Cultures (Cambridge University Press, 2016); On Modern Indian Sensibilities (Routledge, 2018); and Nation, Nationalism and the Public Sphere (Sage, 2020). Banerjee-Dube edited the series “Hinduism” with De Gruyter Open and published articles in acclaimed journals such as Current Sociology, Studies in History and anthologies such as Subaltern Studies.

Margins, Meanings, Modernity: Satnampanth, Hinduism, and Colonial Questions

Prof. Saurabh Dube

Wednesday March 2, 2.00-3.00 pm (GMT)

 This talk shall address some of the salient issues informing the project on “Rethinking Hinduism in Colonial India”. It shall do so through two overlapping steps. On the one hand, I shall seize upon a few critical concerns of my historical anthropology of the Satnamis of Chhatisgarh: a subaltern and heretical caste-sect that variously challenged, negotiated, displaced, and reproduced formations of meaning and power encoded in dominant Hinduism and colonial authority. On the other hand, I will bring into view aspects of my more recent forays into understandings of modernity, colonialism, and their subjects. Taken together, I seek to ask: How are we to understand heterogenous articulations of the margins and meanings of Hinduism? What is the place of authority and alterity in expressions of caste and sect, gender and office in these arenas? What presumption and privilege are reproduced in familiar projections of modern Hinduism, bearing which traces of liberal-progressivist subjects-settlements? Can the study of apparently marginal subjects engage the widest questions of power and meaning turning upon caste and religion, colonial cultures and modernity’s makeovers, including by carefully querying formidable anthropological assumption(s) and developmental historical premise(s)?

Saurabh Dube is Professor-Researcher, Distinguished Category, at El Colegio de México, and also holds the highest rank in the National System of researchers (SNI), Mexico since 2005. Apart from around 140 essays and book-chapters, his authored books include Untouchable Pasts (1998, 2001); Stitches on Time (2004); After Conversion (2010); Subjects of Modernity (2017, 2018, 2019); as well as a quintet in historical anthropology in the Spanish language published by El Colegio de México (2001-2018). A 600 page anthology/omnibus of Dube’s Spanish writings of the last two decades was published recently. Among his more than fifteen edited volumes are Postcolonial Passages (2004, 2006); Historical Anthropology (2007, 2008); Enchantments of Modernity (2009, 2010); Crime through Time (2013); Unbecoming Modern (2006, 2019); and Dipesh Chakrabarty and the Global South (2019, 2021). Dube is the founder-editor of the international innovative series, “Routledge Focus on Modern Subjects.” He has been elected Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, New York; the Institute of Advanced Study, Warwick; the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla; the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study, South Africa; the Max Weber Kolleg, Germany; and the Institute of Human Sciences, Vienna. Dube has also held visiting professorships, several times, at institutions such Cornell University, the Johns Hopkins University, University of Iowa, and Goa University (where he occupied the DD Kosambi Visiting Chair in Interdisciplinary Studies).

Trinity Term

Book Panel:
Global Tantra: Religion, Science, and Nationalism in Colonial Modernity by Dr Julian Strube
Discussants: Prof. Hans Harder, Prof. Gavin Flood, and Dr. Bjarne Wernicke-Olesen

Wednesday 1 June, 3.00–4.00 pm (GMT)
Tantra has formed an integral part of Asian religious history for centuries, but since “Arthur Avalon” introduced the concept to a global readership in the early twentieth century, Tantric traditions have exploded in popularity. While it was long believed that Sir John Woodroffe stood behind Avalon, it was in fact mainly a collaboration between learned South Asians. Julian Strube considers Tantra from the Indian perspective, offering rare insight into the active roles that Indians have played in its globalization and re-negotiation in local Indian contexts. In the early twentieth century, Avalon’s publications were crucial to Tantra’s visibility in academia and the recognition of Tantra’s vital role in South Asian culture. South Asian religious, social, and political life is inexorably intertwined with various Tantric scriptures and traditions, especially in Shaiva and Shakta contexts. In Bengal, Tantra was central to cultural dynamics including Vaishnava and Muslim currents, as well as universalist tendencies incorporating Christianity and esoteric movements such as New Thought, Spiritualism, and Theosophy. Global Tantra contextualizes struggles about orthodoxy and reform in Bengal, and explores the global connections that shaped them. The study elides boundaries between academic disciplines as well as historical and regional contexts, providing insights into global debates about religion, science, esotericism, race, and national identity.
Julian Strube is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Vienna. His work focuses on the relationship between religion, science, and politics since the nineteenth century from a global history perspective, concentrating on exchanges between Indian and Western intellectuals. His publications include Socialism, Catholicism, and Occultism in Nineteenth Century France, New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism (with Egil Asprem), and Theosophy across Boundaries (with Hans Martin Krämer).

Networks of Power

Dr. Shruti Patel

Wednesday 8 June, 3.00-4.00 pm (GMT)

In this talk I shall bring into view modern Hinduism through the prism of power: how can we understand nineteenth-century religious communities in a world of shifting political authorities—the colonial state being just one of them? This question draws from my current book project about the creation of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya, a Hindu devotional community, and the new forms of complex authority and subjectivity it advanced in the early nineteenth century in the region of Gujarat in western India. In doing so, the historical study not only understands the Sampradaya’s development in the context of the political-economy, it critically thinks about the political in relation to the devotional, prior to the era of nationalism. Taken together, these lines of analysis broaden the historical conversation beyond the colonial state as sites of power, and outline a more capacious, complex character of modern Hinduism.

Shruti Patel is Assistant Professor of History at Salisbury University, USA. She is an American Association of University Women American Postdoctoral Research Leave Fellow (2021-22) and a Visiting Scholar at Tufts University, completing her book project, The Play of History. Her publications investigate religious institutionalization, material culture and issues of historiography. 

From Advaitic Inclusivism to Yogic Pluralism:
A New Diachronic Interpretation of Swami Vivekananda’s Views on the Harmony of Religions

Swami Medhananda

Wednesday 22 June, 3.00–4.00 pm (GMT)

Past scholars have tended to paint Swami Vivekananda either as a modern-day exponent of Śaṅkara or as a passive colonial subject whose views were largely a reaction to Western hegemony and the British occupation of India. By contrast, I argue in my new book, Swami Vivekananda’s Vedāntic Cosmopolitanism (Oxford University Press, 2022), that Vivekananda was a cosmopolitan Vedāntin who developed distinctive new philosophical positions through creative dialectical engagement with thinkers in both Indian and Western philosophical traditions. This talk is based on the third chapter of my book, which provides a new diachronic interpretation of Vivekananda’s doctrine of the harmony of religions. Most scholars claim that in spite of Vivekananda’s pluralist-sounding statements that the different world religions are equally valid paths to the same goal, he was actually more of an inclusivist, since he affirmed the superiority and uniqueness of Advaita Vedānta and Hinduism vis-à-vis other religions. I argue that these scholars overlook the fact that his views on the harmony of religions evolved from 1893 to 1901. From September 1894 to May 1895, Vivekananda harmonized the world religions on the basis of the “three stages” of Dvaita, Viśiṣṭādvaita, and Advaita, claiming that theistic religions like Christianity and Islam belonged to the Dvaita stage. However, beginning in late 1895, he explained the harmony of all religions not in terms of the three stages of Vedānta but in terms of the four Yogas. According to Vivekananda’s final position, every religion corresponds to at least one of the four Yogas—namely, Karma-Yoga, Rāja-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga, and Jñāna-Yoga—and each of these Yogas is a direct and independent path to salvation. On this basis, he defended not only a full-blown religious pluralism but also the more radical cosmopolitan ideal of learning from—and even practicing—religions other than our own. On the basis of this diachronic interpretation of Vivekananda’s views, I argue that the vast majority of scholars have seriously misrepresented his mature Vedāntic doctrine of the harmony of religions by taking it to be based on the three stages of Vedānta rather than on the four Yogas.

Swami Medhananda (Ayon Maharaj) is a monk of the Ramakrishna Order and Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at the Ramakrishna Institute of Moral and Spiritual Education in Mysore, India. His current research focuses on Vedāntic philosophical traditions, cross-cultural philosophy of religion, cross-cultural approaches to consciousness, Indian scriptural hermeneutics, and the philosophies of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, and Sri Aurobindo. He is the author of three books: Swami Vivekananda’s Vedāntic Cosmopolitanism (Oxford University Press, 2022), Infinite Paths to Infinite Reality: Sri Ramakrishna and Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2018), and The Dialectics of Aesthetic Agency: Revaluating German Aesthetics from Kant to Adorno (Bloomsbury, 2013). He is the editor of The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Vedānta (2020) and co-editor, with Benedikt Paul Göcke, of Panentheism in Indian and Western Thought: Cosmopolitan Interventions (Routledge, under contract). He is also the editor of two special issues of the International Journal of Hindu Studies (Springer), one on “Vedāntic Theodicies” (December 2021) and one on “Swami Vivekananda as a Philosopher and Theologian” (in progress). Since January 2018, he has been serving as a Section Editor of the International Journal of Hindu Studies (Springer), overseeing submissions in Hindu and Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion. He has published nearly thirty articles in such journals as Philosophy East and West, Journal of Indian Philosophy, Journal of Religion, The Monist, Kantian Review, Journal of World Philosophies, Journal of Dharma Studies, Religions, History of European Ideas, PMLA, and Journal of the History of Ideas.    

 Martyrdom and Karma Yoga in the 1920’s

Prof. Torkel Brekke

Wednesday March 9, 3.00-4.00 pm (GMT)

Four important Indian political and religious thinkers and writers of the early 20th century are presented here: Aurobindu Ghose (1872-1950), Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920), Bhagat Singh (1907-1931) and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966). During the first decades of the 20thcentury there erupted a violent revolutionary movement against the British colonial power in India. Inside this movement there was often a contest about how to configure the relationship between the Indian nation and the various religious identities of that nation in the struggle for independence. The four writers presented here represent different approaches to questions about the role of revolutionary violence in the struggle for independence. From the late 19th century India had entered a new period in terms of political discourse and practice. A consequence of globalization was that the language available to Indian politicians and revolutionaries expanded in its repertoire through the exchange with Western ideologies and practices. The language of politics in general, and the language of revolution, war and violence specifically, became global with Western concepts like rights, justice, equality, oppression, terrorism, capitalism, class struggle, and nationalism entering the discourse of revolutionary thinkers and activists everywhere. These were used by individual ideologues as well as political organizations in India, often combined with Hindu, Sikh and Islamic concepts, to create new idioms of politics that were both complex, eclectic and globalized. In addition, ancient religious concepts that were traditionally closely linked to a particular tradition were consciously lifted out of their old contexts and deployed strategically in new ways to justify violence against the colonial state. Good examples are the concepts karmayoga and martyrdom.

Torkel Brekke is Professor at Oslo Metropolitan University. His publications include Makers of Modern Indian Religion in the Late Nineteenth Century (2002), Religious Motivation and the Origins of Buddhism: A Social-Psychological Exploration of the Origins of a World Religion(2002), Fundamentalism: Prophecy and Protest in an Age of Globalization (2012), Buddhism and Violence: Militarism and Buddhism in Modern Asia (co-edited with Vladimir Tikhonov; 2012), and Military Chaplaincy in an Era of Religious Pluralism: Military-Religious Nexus in Asia, Europe, and USA (co-edited with Vladimir Tikhonov; 2017).