This book studies how a dominant strand of Hinduism in North India – the tradition which uses and misuses the slogan Hindi – Hindi – Hindustan – came into being in the late nineteenth century. It uses the life and writings of Bharatendu Harishchandra (often called the father of Modern Hindi) as its focal point for an analysis of some of the vital cultural processes through which modern North India as we experience it today came to be formed.
First published in 1997 this book has been widely recognized as a work of exceptional scholarship with politically vital implications. It is reissued not with a new foreword by Francesca Orsini highlighting the nature of its importance.
Vasudha Dalmia is Professor of Hindu and modern South Asian Studies at the University of California Berkeley.
Urban votaries of Hinduism in the twentieth century generally see no reason to question its monolithic character. All doubts on this score tend to be regarded as academic quibbling by the resurgent movements which have largely instrumentalized religion for political ends. Yet for all the efforts to eradicate signs of former pluralities the fissures remain apparent even today. Any serious analysis of the process of cementation which is still under way leads back to the nineteenth century for the movements to reformulate and reassert Hindu Dharma were to converge and ins some instances to clash with unprecedented momentum in the last decades of the century. Hinduism as it formed itself in the late nineteenth century worked with the postulation of a race of ancient Hindus thus for instance the title of R.C. Dutt’s book early Hindu civilization 2000 to 320BC. Based on Sanskrit literature (1888) as typical of the retrospective projection of a religious conceptualized as nonlinear. To question the nonlinearity in not to assert that the affinities invoked had not existed at all. There had been common traditions and common references points in the past but they had not necessarily solidified into the consolidated mass which Hinduism in the nineteenth century came to signify and which had new socio-political dimensions.
Dharma sabhas in the cause of Sanatana dharma had begun to spring up across the subcontinent since the thirties whether as a defensive measure against proposed Legislation as in the case of the dharma Sabha founded in Calcutta in 1831 when the practice of sati was banned or against rising missionary invective as in Maharashtra. The dharma sabhas were novel institution they had always mediated between the precepts of the Dharmasastra and actual contingency. In the nineteenth century however they no longer functioned with the authority of the political legislator to back them but, rather, against they very authority. Further they were no lover composed of learned Brahmins alone but also of the western educated urban intelligentsia. They were organized according to British models had presidents executive boards and secretaries and often functioned in strict accordance with British Parliamentary procedure. The notion of Santana dharma itself had remained anything but stationery through the ages. Its renewed propagation tended to congregate around these sabhas. However it would be a mistake to imagine that these institutions came into being only to conserve inherited practice. As always one of their vital functions was also to sanction change however minimal it might have appeared at first sight.
While sifting a wide range of Hindi literature in the nineteenth century I have found that even while defending tradition while emphasizing the sanatanata constancy of the ved puran vihit arya dharma the dharma of the Aryas as authorized by the canonical Vedas and puranas the spokesmen in the very name of orthodoxy of tradition itself were in fact accommodating and articulating wide reaching changes. The sanatanata which they so firmly posited was shifting ground whereby certain features which were proclaimed as characteristic were being foregrounded in a heretofore uncharacteristic manner. Though a number of studies of sanatana dharma leadership in the nineteenth century have been undertaken in the last two decades these movements often summarily denoted as revivalist have yet to be charted in any comprehensive fashion. There was no centrally co-ordinated traditionalist movement of subcontinent breadth. To these efforts to defend tradition which had certain features in common were added the more radical reform movements which have often been lumped together under the category neo-Hinduism. This so-called neo-Hindu rejoinder foremost in formation such as the Brahmo and Arya Samaj has been taken to represent the modernization of Hinduism. The more widespread less radical movements which together went into the making of modern sanatana dharma have often been seen as the slow adjustment of traditional Hinduism to the challenge of the modern age. Thought the more radical reform movements served as catalysts the most vital issues concerning notions of cultural religious and political identify were thrashed out in the traditionalist quarters as well and perhaps identity were lasting effect and it was here that the face of modern Hinduism – within which temple and varna continue to play a prominate role – was finally culation whereby usually only the so-called neo-Hindu movements are taken into consideration is generally described as the Hindu renaissance or simply renaissance. A closer inspection of the categories used to circumscribe and distinguish the movements may help to clarify the perspective adopted in this study.
Kenneth Jones who has to his credit detailed studies of the social and ideological impact of the Arya Samah in Punjab in the Period comes to the conclusion that in fact two broad types of response can be established (1989-:39). The one he sees as transitional i.e. when the movements concerned had their roots n the pr-colonial world were based on traditional forms of socio-religious dissent and had little or no contact with the colonial milieu, though later whey they perforce came in touch with it they had to make limited adjustments to it. The other kind of movements which he terms acculturative to it. The other kind had enjoyed English education he sees as originating in direct transaction with the colonial milieu. It is telling fact that when Jones comes to consider the situation in the North-western Provinces though the records the Deoband movement as specimen of the transitional variety form Islam there is no documentation of any Hindu formations of the sort. The changes in traditional formations widespread as they are, are simply not registers since they do not choose to define themselves as different and in fact emphasize the constancy of the tradition they stand for. As against this the arya Samaj allows itself to be readily classified as acculturative though its founder stemmed form as traditional milieu as any. Thus the social origin of the founders of the respective movements does not necessarily betray their programme. Further though Jones is a useful distinction it is equipped only to deal with movements which in the intensification of their position stand out sharply form the rest. Then applied to the actual situation in colonial India it leaves much of the broad based developments and changes undocumented. The task then is to collect evidence and locate the features which gained new emphasis in the confrontation with Christianity and the learning from the west and which in their turn made for cohesion in the broad base as it constituted itself at any satisfactory level of abstraction once the evidence for the subcontinent can be pieced together from a number of regional studies.
The Hindu response can obviously be divided into two broad groups for the purpose of analysis. Is it meaningful to retain the terms revivalist and reformist to distinguish between the two? Revival or Revivalism has n the past often been seen in opposition to modernization. At first sight this seems justified since the sanatana dharma movements propagate concepts and practice rooted in Sanskritic traditions. As we shall have occasion to not time and again in the course this study the nineteenth century social and religious leadership specially when defending sanatana dharma developed its own deliberately antiquarian vocabulary it set itself off from the modern. The traditional/Modern/ polarity used to establish the distinction between the indigenous and the alien was a part of the self representation of those of change. Yet to accept these poles as genuinely apart and immune to the influence of the other would be contrary to all the evidence presented in the documents of the period which bear witness to incessant change and exchange. There was intense interaction with missionaries orientalists and western ideas and many of the positions occupied by the votaries of sanatana dharma were commonly shared with the leaders of the reform movements who more explicitly propagated change. Though it needs to be noted here that if indeed there was change there were continuities as well and for certain strands of traditions continued to maintain their own and were set forth in one guise or another. The creative act of invention consisted in the rearrangement of older and newer concepts and practice and the historical links in time and space that were forged anew. A century later then it is important neither to be taken in by the antiquarianism of this language nor to fall into the trap of tracing all that was taking shape as sheer imitation of western models nationalist or otherwise. Revival then is not only misleading since if disallows the possibility of change it has the added disadvantage of having been used pejoratively all two often as if it referred to no more than outmoded religious practice which had lain inert up to then but which had ultimately refues to be suppressed by the more enlightened reform movements such as the Brahmo or even Arya Samah Lables such as revivalist have served to create closures and more often than not precluded any serious attempt to discern the selective criteria which were evolved in order to transpose traditional practice into a modernist mould a process which ostensibly functioned will enough to enable the varied streams of tradition which subsumed themselves under sanatana to flow into what was to constitute. Hinduism as a single religious and by extension political and national tradition.
The differences between the so called neo-Hinduism and traditional Hinduism have been treated most explicitly by Paul Hacker (1978). He sees nationalism in its peculiar Indian garb as being the chief impulse and distinguishing feature of neo-Hinduism religion being made subservient to the nationalist objective. The common trait which binds there otherwise heterogeneous movements is the predominantly western orientation of their intellectual formations. Further characteristics of neo-Hinduism are the assertion that Hinduism is a spiritual unity and that it has a message to proclaim to the world. While Hacker concedes that the traditionalists also share some of these concerns it is only in subsidiary fashion for as he sees it they owe primary allegiance to and stress the continuity of the Hindu tradition which by and large remains impervious to changes in the modern world. As Monika Horstmann has pointed out these assumptions cannot really stand the test of a closer inspection of the traditionalist positions. They not only constantly reinterpret and modify inherited practice they re fiercely nationalist as well and develop increasing missionary fervor with time.
What of the label reformist? Social reform was the one great concern of the century and reformist tendencies were common to all the movements. The difference lay only in selection and he degree of emphasis however formations such as the Brahmo and Arya Samaj were more radical in their approach and propagated more sweeping reforms than the dharma sabhas would have been prepared to concede.
What then are the differences and which nomenclatures can be meaningfully retained? I would suggest traditionalist as against revivalist to describe the one for their one binding rather than any breach with some original more pristine past which the more radical reform movements claimed to fill. The past invoked by the traditionalist was accessible in texts rituals social practice and institutions some of them going farther back in time while others were no older that the late eighteenth century. For the second group for lack of a better term while discarding neo-Hindu which reeks of Inauthenticity I would continue to use reformist.
The difference and similarities between to two groups can be broadly summed up as follows:1) The Traditionalist recognize the scriptural authority of both sruti and smrti where by itihasa and purana are considered a legitimate part of the evolution of scriptural tradition. As against this practice the reformists isolate one part of the scriptural traditional as exclusively authoritative this distinction being usually reserved for the Vedas. They tend to see the rest as corrupt or degenerate 2) for the first group the Dharmasastras remain authoriatives as sources for formulating religious and civil law and the essential validity of Varnasramdharma is not considered open to question. Though there is obvious modification and repeated concession to social change the authority of the Dharmasastra is sought to legitimate this thus the various Dharma Sabhas many of them short lived which were called into life by the exigency of British Legislative measure. The second group considers its own respective leaders as authoritative in this respect and does not recur to the authority of the Dharmasastra 3) the Traditionalists continue to lay stress on the centrality of the temple and ritual practice though here again various reformist measures are called for and sometimes even implemented. The reformists break way from all older places of worship and ritual and establish their own 4) The modes found to validate the respective traditions are often commonly shared for in addition to scripture the traditionalists also mobilize rationalist arguments is support of their cause as also historical scholarship foremost that of western orientalists 5) it is hereby the popular religious practice which continues to be considered a part of Hinduism branded as superstition and downgraded. Traditionalist as well as reformists are alike in their
Condemnation of this superstitious practice.
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