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SOUTH ASIA INSTITUTE PAPERS BEITRÄGE DES SÜDASIEN-INSTITUTS HEIDELBERG Amiya P. Sen (Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi) “Hinduism” and the Problem of SelfActualisation in the Colonial Era: Critical Reflections CONTACT South Asia Institute Heidelberg University Im Neuenheimer Feld 330 D-69120 Heidelberg ISSUE 01 2015 21. 8. 2015 ISSN 2365-399X P: +49(0)6221-548900 F: +49(0)6221-544998


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“Hinduism” and the Problem of Self-Actualisation in the Colonial Era: Critical Reflections Amiya P. Sen This paper is the text of a lecture delivered at the South Asia Institute, Heidelberg, on May 20, 2015, with footnotes added. It discusses how scholarly perceptions of colonial Hinduism have visibly shifted trajectory over the years. Relating how Hinduism has moved from being ‘discovered’ in the eighteenth century to be seen as discursively ‘invented’ or ‘imagined’ in the nineteenth, it argues that in colonial India, internally generated debates about the origin and nature of Hinduism paralleled ascriptions originating outside but failed to attract adequate attention. It also seeks to ask if not also to definitively answer certain key theoretical questions. For instance, even allowing for the fact that social and religious identities are always porous, does it still make sense to ask if unstable and fluid perceptions of the self too were invested with some meaning? I His Excellency, M. Sevela Naik, Consul General of India at Munich; Prof. Gerrit Kloss, Dean, Philosophical Faculty; Prof. Stefan Klonner, Executive Director, SAI; Professor Gita Dharampal Frick, Head, Department of History, SAI; Dr. Martin Gieselmann, Executive Secretary; SAI, Dr. Eleonore Schmitt, Librarian, SAI; and other distinguished members of this audience. Thank you all for coming. When speaking about religion in general and on Hinduism in particular, Heidelberg is undoubtedly a more encouraging and safer platform than those available back home. Within many influential streams of the Indian South Asia Institute Papers Issue 1 2015 1 South Asia Institute


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Amiya P. Sen: “Hinduism” and the Problem of Self-Actualisation in the Colonial Era: Critical Reflections academia, the choice of a subject such as this one, I fear, may well be dismissed as regressive or reactionary both in its orientation and content. It is only apt, therefore, that I use this occasion to express my anguish and concern at the fact that notwithstanding the richness and diversity of Indian religious culture, there are less than half a dozen institutions within India today which seriously engage with the academic study of religion. Sadly, some institutions appear to do so in the name of political correctness; they encourage the study of comparative religion only in as much as this lends strength to our ‘secular’ fabric. As an academic discipline in India, religion fares rather poorly; in many cases, it is the last refuge for students and scholars who have been unable to secure higher rated disciplines or more lucrative vocations. The case for “Hinduism” is particularly bad. Whereas even the University of Oxford in the U.K. hosts the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, there is no comparable institution worth the name in Hindu majority India. In the presentation that I am about to make before you this evening I intend to put across essentially two points of criticism. First, I argue that claims that have been made about a pre-existing “Hinduism” being either discovered in the eighteenth century or else its being ‘imagined’ or ‘invented’ in the nineteenth, are both outsider perceptions and do not adequately take on board the question of just how the Hindus might have dealt with this question at given historical conjunctures. But even when looking for internally generated debates and differences, we often end up with a confusion of heuristic categories. Particularly in the context of colonial India, it is commonplace to conflate intellectual representations of “Hinduism” with attempts to determine it in cultural or religious terms. This is a point well worth pondering since no religion or cultural system is exhausted by acts of cognition alone. It is my belief that what colonial India witnessed was not so much a debate on “Hinduism” itself as contesting Hindu hermeneutics. A closer look at this phenomenon such as I shall attempt in the course of this lecture, will reveal some muddled thinking, palpably on account of two reasons. In British India, representations of “Hinduism” originated in a new class of interpreters who adopted western categories of thought even when expressing themselves in the vernacular. Colonial “Hinduism” was rarely, if South Asia Institute Papers Issue 1 2015 2 South Asia Institute


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Amiya P. Sen: “Hinduism” and the Problem of Self-Actualisation in the Colonial Era: Critical Reflections ever, represented by traditional Hindu scholars and exegetes, who might have preferred to communicate through purely indigenous idioms of selfexpression. On the contrary, there are known instances of traditional Hindu scholars and missionaries quite speciously attempting to rationalise older Hindu thought and praxis by using the language of modern science and only ending up in acutely embarrassing their Anglophone compatriots. Such was the power of ‘English language Hinduism’. Second, it would be important to remember that to an extent, muddled thinking also arose in the fact that acts of interpretation or re-interpretation aimed not so much at self-understanding as presenting apologetic projections of the Hindu self before non-Hindus. I begin with the observation that the terms “Hindu” and “Hinduism” ordinarily function more as a noun than an adjective.1 It is far easier to define the Christian ‘calling’ or the Islamic ‘path’ than the Hindu ‘way of life’ that eminent Hindu thinkers and scholars like Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan or Chakravarti Rajagopalachari have tried to formulate. To a student or scholar researching “Hinduism” it would be also quite evident that over time, academic views on the subject, if not also general public opinion, has undergone a palpable paradigm shift. Broadly speaking, this rests on three inter-related and acutely revisionist critiques. First, there is the problem of origin or the historically determined age for “Hinduism”. In 1970, Peter J. Marshall had reason to believe that British travellers, missionaries and colonial administrators had come to ‘discover’ Hinduism in the eighteenth century; closer to our time, Geoffrey A. Oddie has argued that in truth, this had been only ‘imagined’ by the same classes of people in the nineteenth.2 1 An observation also made by Rajmohan Gandhi in his review of Srinivasan, Vasanthi (2014): Hindu Spirituality and Virtue Politics; Los Angeles, SAGE Publications. Cf. Gandhi, Rajmohan (2015), The Book Review (New Delhi), 31.4, 4. 2 Peter J. Marshall (ed.) (1970): The British Discovery of Hinduism in the Eighteenth Century; Cambridge, Cambridge University Press; Oddie, Geoffrey A. (2006): Imagined Hinduism. British Missionary Constructions of Hinduism, 1793‒1900; New Delhi, SAGE Publications. The argument of Hinduism being ‘invented’ typically occurs in Heinrich von Stietencron (1989): ‘Hinduism. On the proper use of a deceptive term’; in: Sontheimer, Günther Dietz & Hermann Kulke (eds.): Hinduism Reconsidered; New Delhi, Manohar; Dalmia, Vasudha & Heinrich von Stietencron (eds.) (1995): Representing Hinduism. The South Asia Institute Papers Issue 1 2015 3 South Asia Institute


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Amiya P. Sen: “Hinduism” and the Problem of Self-Actualisation in the Colonial Era: Critical Reflections Arguments similar to the one made by Oddie have often been coupled with the claim that the cultural and religious formation commonly called “Hinduism” did not exist in nature or originate in the historical and cultural experience of the Hindus themselves. On the contrary, this is seen as a synthetic category born of contrivance, ‘an orchid bred by European scholarship’ as one scholar has chosen to call it.3 Third, existing alongside such critiques are mounting doubts expressed about whether or not “Hinduism” at all fits the conceptual category of ‘religion’.4 W.C. Smith’s observation, made some five decades back about “Hinduism” being a ‘particularly false conceptualisation’, has only gained in strength in thoughts articulated since that time.5 Currently, the reigning discourse on this question is that rather than the timeless and continuous religious tradition that it was believed to be not so long ago, “Hinduism” may justly be proclaimed as the youngest of ‘world-religions’. At times, this is joined to the claim that effectively, the Hindu can do without any discernible religious convictions. “The chief concern of Hindu religious conviction is not the existence or non-existence of God or whether there is one God or many gods”, a scholar writes, “Hindus can choose to be monotheists, polytheists, pantheists, atheists, agnostics, dualists, monists or pluralists”.6 J.A.B. van Buitenen, writing for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, has even gone to the extent of claiming that “[…] a Hindu may embrace a non-Hindu religion without ceasing to be a Hindu”. In effect, this creates the extraordinary possibility of a Hindu not having to be a Hindu in order to be a Hindu!7 Such perceptions stand in visible contrast to the view, hitherto Construction of Religious Traditions and National Identity; London, SAGE Publications. 3 Küng, Hans & Heinrich von Stietencron (2005): Christentum und Weltrereligionen II: Hinduismus; München, Piper; cited in Llewellyn, J.E. (ed.) (2005): Defining Hinduism. A Reader; London, Equinox; p. 11. 4 Fitzgerald, Timothy (2005): ‘Problems with “Religion” as a Category for Understanding Religion’; in: Llewellyn, Defining Hinduism, 171‒201. 5 Smith, Wilfred Cantwell (1963): The Meaning and End of Religion. A Revolutionary Approach to the Great Religious Traditions; New York, Macmillan. 6 Nigosian, Solomon A. (2000): World Religions. An Historical Approach; Boston, Bedford/St. Martin’s; p. 20; cited in Llewellyn, Defining Hinduism, p. 4. 7 van Buitenen, J.A.B. (1974): “Hinduism”; in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. 5; Chicago, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 519‒58; p. 519; quoted in Brian K. Smith: “Ques- South Asia Institute Papers Issue 1 2015 4 South Asia Institute


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Amiya P. Sen: “Hinduism” and the Problem of Self-Actualisation in the Colonial Era: Critical Reflections commonly accepted, that although not a creedal religion like Christianity, “Hinduism” has long been invested with a doctrinal core, deviation from which would amount to ceasing, at least in an intellectual sense, to be a Hindu.8 Further, to argue that “Hinduism” has had no natural state of existence implicitly leads to the highly dubious claim that other religions like Christianity or Islam were naturally born and not determined by historical or cultural changes. The difficulties in defining “Hinduism” also spring from the fact that at no point of time were the several definitions offered applicable to all Hindus even though things were often made to look that way. It is quite unlikely that within the “Hindu” tradition, conformity rested on ‘intellectual’ grounds alone across the community of people that might have called themselves “Hindu”. Intellectual and textual accounts of “Hinduism” have not always documented lived religion and conversely, what is often deemed to be ‘religious’ in the everyday life of the Hindu, has not always found a place in textual studies on “Hinduism”. I take it, therefore, that particularly in the context of colonial India, the characteristic qualities attached to “Hinduism”, whether in a positive sense or the exasperatingly negative, originates not so much in the commonplace, pedestrian Hindu but members of the modern, Anglophone Hindu intelligentsia who have been actively engaged with heuristic problems of meaning or definition for over two centuries now. The latter are better understood as interpreters of “Hinduism” than its active practitioners; closer to the cultural construct of ‘religion’ than to matters of active faith. Such people did not habitually visit holy shrines and temples nor did they reveal any palpable interest in the ritual acts governing the daily life of the Hindu. They had practically very little knowledge or understanding of Vedic literature even when identifying that with the Hindu canon and lacked a working knowledge of the Sanskrit language which they otherwise saw as constituting both an inner unity of Hindu thought and the tioning Authority: Construction and Deconstruction of Hinduism”; in: Llewellyn, Defining Hinduism, p. 109. 8 Young, Richard Fox (1981): Resistant Hinduism. Sanskrit Sources on Anti-Christian Apologetics in Early Nineteenth Century India; Vienna, De Nobili Research Institute; p. 140. South Asia Institute Papers Issue 1 2015 5 South Asia Institute


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Amiya P. Sen: “Hinduism” and the Problem of Self-Actualisation in the Colonial Era: Critical Reflections pan-Indian spread of Hindu religious culture. Finally, even as interpreters of their tradition, the modern Hindu intelligentsia was deeply divided. In nineteenth century India, when critical questions about what it meant to be a Hindu arose with some regularity, there also appeared deep differences over questions of authority, authenticity and canon. Consider for example, the question of Vedas as the accepted canon for Hindus. Among modern Hindu reformers both Rammohan Roy (1772‒1833) and Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824‒83) speak consistently of the Vedas, but their understanding and acceptance of these texts were very differently located. Rammohan Roy treated the Upaniṣads synonymously with the Vedas and had virtually no knowledge of the Saṃhitās which Dayanand, to offer a striking contrast, took as representing the core of Vedic wisdom. The spiritual successors of Rammohan Roy quite radically rejected the Vedas as pramāṇa (authority) and put together a religious source-book, which, contrary to past practice, was culled from both śruti and smr̥ ti.9 And whereas the Brahmos persistently displayed a broad cosmopolitanism and interest in non-Indic religious cultures, Dayanand’s Satyārth Prakāś was notoriously intolerant of these. It occurs to me, therefore, that even when re-interpreting or re-orienting the “Hindu” tradition, it was not easy for the modern Hindu intelligentsia to determine the exact nexus between values and structure, between idealistic visions and historical contingencies. Hence, it still remains a moot question as to whether the social and religious reforms initiated by this class made way for a ‘unified Hinduism’ or such reform itself postulated a unified religious system for the Hindus. In this paper, I proceed with the assumption that though elusive and difficult to pin down as a definitional category, there did exist in pre-colonial India, a certain cognitive view of the world or of life within it that may be called “Hindu”. That being said, one needs to be careful about leap-frogging across historical time by locating a continuum between medieval Indian doxography that brought together various Hindu philosophical schools 9 I am referring here to the two-volume Brāhmodharmagrantha (1849) of Devendranath Tagore, which, quite uniquely, incorporated theological and philosophical ideas from the Upaniṣads, sm̥ rti texts and tantra. Republished (n.y.) Kolkata, SBS Publications. South Asia Institute Papers Issue 1 2015 6 South Asia Institute


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Amiya P. Sen: “Hinduism” and the Problem of Self-Actualisation in the Colonial Era: Critical Reflections and the rhetoric of a unified “Hinduism” born in colonial India. “In unifying the āstika philosophical schools”, Andrew Nicholson writes in his Unifying Hinduism, “Vijñānabhikṣu and his contemporaries made possible the world religion later known by the name Hinduism”.10 Such formulations can be problematic. For one, within colonial “Hinduism”, the intellectual foundations of Hindu ‘unity’ lay not in any acclaimed philosophical coherence but apparently its very opposite—the hierarchized privileging of some philosophical schools over others. From Rammohan Roy down to Radhakrishnan, there has been a pronounced tendency to treat non-dualist Vedanta (advaita vedānta) alone as quintessential Indian thought. This, in itself, poses a problem yet unresolved in contemporary scholarship.11 Second, it would be reasonable to say that in colonial India as contrasted with the pre-colonial, the Hindu mind was faced with a palpably different order of challenges. Nineteenth century Hindu press and literature is replete with references to how Islam and the Muslims, when compared to the Christian (and modern) West, failed to throw an active moral and intellectual challenge to the Hindus. The nature of the Hindu-Muslim dialogue in pre-modern India, it is important to remember, was intrinsically religious, a fact that proved critical since religions, by themselves, have been known to be the most resistant to change.12 Barring few exceptions, the Indo-Muslim ruling class produced no active or systematized critique of contemporary Hindu theology or of the jāti system. The colonized Hindu, by comparison, was confronted with a two-pronged assault that deftly combined a theological contempt for the heathen with secular-scientific critiques of traditional Indian society and culture. Rev. Alexander Duff (1806‒78), notwithstanding his success with securing converts in early nineteenth century Bengal (some of whom were 10 Nicholson, Andrew J. (2011): Unifying Hinduism. Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History; New Delhi, Permanent Black; p. 6. 11 See for instance Daya Krishna’s treatment of this subject in Krishna, Daya (2002): Developments in Indian Philosophy from Eighteenth Century onwards. Classical and Western; Delhi, Motilal Banarsidas; p. 40; Appendix I, pp. 345‒61. 12 See Sen, Amiya P. (2007): ‘The Idea of Social Reform and its Critique among Hindus of Nineteenth Century India’; in: Bhattacharya, Sabyasachi (ed.): Development of Modern Indian Thought and the Social Sciences; New Delhi, Oxford University Press/Centre of Studies in Civilizations; p. 115. South Asia Institute Papers Issue 1 2015 7 South Asia Institute


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Amiya P. Sen: “Hinduism” and the Problem of Self-Actualisation in the Colonial Era: Critical Reflections Brahmins) believed that the philosophical and the scientific discourse of the contemporary West would more effectively shake the foundations of Hindu society than the acknowledged moral and theological superiority of Christianity.13 In post-Enlightenment Europe itself, there was a discernible tendency to gloss over the differences hitherto separating the scientific spirit from the evangelist. The successors of Locke and Newton did come to believe that disseminating modern, secular education was no less God’s work than propagating the ‘truths’ of the Gospel. Even allowing for Nicholson’s argument that the synthetic forging of Hindu philosophical unity, chiefly by the Vedantins, had peaked by the sixteenth century,14 there still remains the historical time separating this period from early colonial India, the intellectual contours of which are not as definitively known. Advaita Vedanta itself, to cite an apt example, does not appear to have enjoyed the exalted intellectual standing between the sixteenth and eighteen centuries that it increasingly gained after Raja Rammohan Roy.15 In early nineteenth century Bengal, where the first forays into ‘reformed’ religion were made, the local intelligentsia came to reveal a startling ignorance of śruti literature, hitherto accepted as canonical. Around 1815, when Rammohan Roy started translating and commenting upon select Upanishads, his orthodox adversaries accused him of dealing with texts that were forgeries.16 Rammohan Roy’s critics, however, met with deep embarrassment when told that the Raja’s most worthy opponent, Pandit Mritunjay Vidyalankar (1762‒1811) possessed a personal library that housed the best local collection of śruti manuscripts.17 This leads me to believe that the failure of the Hindu intelligentsia to more actively locate greater doctrinal coherence in their tradition points to a qualitative decline in contemporary Hindu scholarship. In his seminal essay, 13 Cited in Basu, Shamita (2002): Religious Revivalism as Nationalist Discourse. Swami Vivekananda and New Hinduism in Nineteenth Century Bengal; New Delhi, Oxford University Press; p. 46. 14 Nicholson, Unifying Hinduism, pp. 1‒23. 15 See note 12 above. 16 Robertson, Bruce Carlisle (1995): Raja Rammohan Ray. The Father of Modern India; New Delhi, Oxford University Press; pp. 1‒9. 17 Ibid. South Asia Institute Papers Issue 1 2015 8 South Asia Institute


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Amiya P. Sen: “Hinduism” and the Problem of Self-Actualisation in the Colonial Era: Critical Reflections ‘The Renaissance of India’, Sri Aurobindo (1872‒1950) makes the point that the West might have caught the Indian mind when it was intellectually at its weakest.18 Over time, I have also come to entertain the feeling that the substance and strength of Hindu orthopraxy has been somewhat overstretched. Such a view is possible even when allowing for the fact that in the Hindu tradition, the mechanisms of control are more structural than doctrinal. Contemporary India amply demonstrates that “Hinduism” has survived the visible weakening of caste structures in everyday life and this is visible even in those politicized Hindu groups or communities that openly adhere to the idea of a unified Hinduism. Perhaps the problem also lies elsewhere. Quite often, the academic study of religion arrogates to itself the right or authority to decide the boundaries of a religious community or what constitutes ‘orthodoxy’. I am persuaded to raise this especially to counter the view that ‘religions’ have virtually no existence outside the academia.19 Now, in the context of “Hinduism”, it would be one thing to question the ‘superiority’ that the Brahmins assign to themselves within the Hindu social and religious order and quite another to deny them the right or authority to create a doctrinal cover under which smaller and even mutually contesting religious particularisms may grow and flourish. If, therefore, there can be no one way of defining the “Hindu”, this would at least partly appear to follow from the possibility that the term ‘religion’ itself may be differently conceptualized in various traditions. In the 1880s, when the noted Hindu-Bengali novelist and thinker, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhayay (1838‒94) attempted to reduce the singularly complex term dharma to the category of a normative ‘religion’, he was in effect trying to foist an axiomatic moral and philosophical Truth upon a complex variety of social and cultural praxis.20 Bankim Chandra 18 Sri Aurobindo (1951): The Renaissance in India; Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo Asram; p. 25. The work was originally serialized in the journal Arya between August and November, 1918. 19 Jonathan Smith, quoted in Smith, Questioning Authority, p. 120. 20 See his Dharmmatattva (1888). This work is available in an English translation, cf. Ray, Apratim (2003): Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s Dharmatattva, with an introduction by Amiya P. Sen; New Delhi, Oxford University Press. The original Bengali text is South Asia Institute Papers Issue 1 2015 9 South Asia Institute


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Amiya P. Sen: “Hinduism” and the Problem of Self-Actualisation in the Colonial Era: Critical Reflections was just as aware as any of us that in the Hindu tradition, the term dharma carried a multiplicity of meanings, ranging from the social and pragmatic to the cosmic and transcendental and yet, as I have argued elsewhere, for him the pursuit of dharma also underscored no less an arduous spiritual apprenticeship (sādhanā) as the awakening of modern notions of civic responsibility.21 Bankim Chandra, incidentally, also anticipates contemporary scholarship in arguing that “Hinduism” was not one but several religions22. And yet, he also believed that a unified view of religion was possible within his tradition, provided that unity was not taken to be an absolute identity but close-knit affiliations and family resemblances. Perhaps it is in allowing this interplay of thought and structure and not their mutual exclusion that we may better understand how within the Hindu tradition, centering co-exists with de-centering, centripetal forces with the centrifugal, in a delicate balancing act that has demonstrably stood the test of time. This also enables us to understand “Hinduism” as a social and cultural category that combines the plasticity of orthopraxy with the fixity of certain given values. ‘Truth’ in the Hindu world-view is not necessarily doctrinal truth and it is equally the case that “Hinduism” does not judge other religions through the categories of ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’.23 On the contrary, what fortifies this world-view is the transcendental nature of Truth, never fully cognisable to the limited human mind. Individual experiences draw meaning from this larger and trans-worldly Truth. Hindu orthopraxy, when taken outside this synoptic model, represents only bewildering epistemic infirmity with no foundations in validating thought or practice. A purely relative theory of values, after all, cannot really be a theory of values. It was in the nineteenth century more than ever before that the colonized available in J.C. Bāgal (ed.) (1990): Baṅkim Racanābalī (Collected Works of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya), vol. 2; Kalikātā, Sāhitya Saṃsad, 584‒679. 21 Sen Amiya P. (2010): Explorations in Modern Bengal. C. 1800‒1900. Essays on Religion, History and Culture; Delhi, Primus Books; p. 154. 22 Sen, Amiya P. (2011): ‘Introduction’; in: Sen, Amiya P. (ed.): Bankim’s Hinduism. An Anthology of Writings by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay; Delhi, Permanent Black, 3‒41. 23 Balgangadhara, S.N. (2012): Reconceptualizing India Studies; Delhi, Oxford University Press; pp. 205‒6. South Asia Institute Papers Issue 1 2015 10 South Asia Institute


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Amiya P. Sen: “Hinduism” and the Problem of Self-Actualisation in the Colonial Era: Critical Reflections Hindu came to realize how the use of ‘Hindu’ as a term of self-description amounted to an alienation of the self since such use had origins in a culture that was non-Hindu. This realisation would have struck him with greater acuity in a cultural environment that was already under some interpretative stress. In colonial India, Hindus had been increasingly forced to acknowledge that a homogenised identity, based on some social consensus was pivotal to any progressive transformation of the self and society. At the time, new instruments of bureaucratic control such as the census clearly favoured aggregation and vastly exaggerated the value of numbers. And yet, the term “Hindu”, as we know, was also quite often a residual category that included peoples who could not for some reason call themselves non-Hindu. I imagine that given the circumstances, the determination of “Hindu-ness” assumed an importance comparable to that associated with the assessment of numerical strength. Evidently, it was no longer enough to assume that there was a community that could call itself “Hindu”; the Hindu had also to be sufficiently aware of just what supported this self-description. The use of the label ‘Hindu’, as I have hinted above, was not always flattering. Among other things, it historicized social and religious labels whereas what ‘reformed’ Hindus now needed more urgently was a ‘past’ as different from mere history, a trope that flattened time and created romantic visions of a flowing, uninterrupted continuum. It was hence that the colonized Hindu was pushed to place ‘religion’ before society as the site for all social change. There was something visibly contingent about society, framed as it was by time and space; by comparison, the building blocks for religion were seen to lie outside recorded history and in timeless values. “We are asked what good is your religion to your society”, Swami Vivekananda (1863‒1902) once complained. “Society is made the test of truth. Now this is very illogical. Society is only a stage in the growth which we are passing [through]. Society is good at a certain stage but it cannot be an ideal, it is South Asia Institute Papers Issue 1 2015 11 South Asia Institute


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Amiya P. Sen: “Hinduism” and the Problem of Self-Actualisation in the Colonial Era: Critical Reflections constant flux”.24 Understandably, this ‘religion’ also came to be associated more with principles than personalities, a strategy that helped it appear more rational and universal. Whereas in the 1880s, Bankim Chandra had taken some pains to project Krishna as a historical personality,25 some Hindus hereafter were never weary of arguing that the enduring quality about “Hinduism” lay precisely in the fact that it had no historically established founder.26 At a public lecture organized by some Hindu reformists at Bombay, G.Y. Chitnis, a spokesperson for the Brahmo Samaj, was persuaded to speak of the ‘great danger’ into which all historical religions fell. “They seek to avoid the danger either by adapting their creeds to the need of the time spirit or by making historical criticism subservient to their particular theological bias”, Chitnis warned. “In both cases, there is violence done either to religion or to historical criticism”.27 Quite clearly, such an argument was fraught with immense strategic value. It encouraged the turning back on the relativism of newly emerging disciplines like history and anthropology, the questioning of religions that claimed to have been founded on historically unique revelations and the rejection of utilitarian perspectives by which religions in India particularly had come to be judged. In hindsight, this also explains the recurring attempt within the colonial Hindu discourse (down to the days of Gandhi) to fall back on the older but consciously de-historicized term, sanātan, literally meaning that which was ageless and eternal.28 This move clearly carried great strategic value. It supported the proposition that the ‘purity’ or the ‘authenticity’ of a tradition could be best judged in terms 24 Cited in Sen, ‘The Idea of Social Reform’, p. 130. 25 In his magnum opus, Kr̥ ṣṇacaritra (1886). The original Bengali treatise is reproduced in Bāgal: Baṅkim Racanābalī, vol. 2, 407‒583. 26 Commenting on the historicity of Krishna and of the Bhagavadgītā, Vivekananda observed: “[…] there is no connection between the historical researches and our real aim, even if the historicity of the whole thing is proved to be absolutely false today, it will not in the least be any less true”. (Swami Vivekananda (1978): ‘Thoughts on the Gita’; in: The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 4; Calcutta, Advaita Ashrama; pp. 103, 105. 27 Chitnis G.Y. (1927): ‘The Faith of the Brahma Samaj’; in: Chitnis, G.Y. (ed.) Freedom, Religion and Reality. Essays on Liberal Religious Thought; Bombay, Y.V. Bhandarkar; 65‒6. 28 For an apt example, cf. Sri Aurobindo (1950): Uttarpara Speech; Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo Ashram. (This was first published in 1909 in the journal Karmayogin.) South Asia Institute Papers Issue 1 2015 12 South Asia Institute


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Amiya P. Sen: “Hinduism” and the Problem of Self-Actualisation in the Colonial Era: Critical Reflections of antiquity and certain given values and not necessarily, the historical past. Here, the trope of degenerative time, common to both Anglican Protestantism and Brahmanical Hinduism, also forced ‘reform’ to speak in the language of a ‘revival’. The colonial Hindu apologetic took birth in a self-reflexivity that had to negotiate some confounding characterisations of “Hindu” and “Hinduism”, originating in the West but subsequently also advanced by Indian critics. In the historiography of nineteenth century India, a ‘unified’ Hinduism is shown to be the work of Anglophone neo-Hindus who, allegedly, employed gross cultural essentialisations in order to establish the credentials of Hinduism as a distinctly identifiable religion. According to the Indologist Paul Hacker, the term ‘neo-Hindu’ was first used by Rev. Robert Antoine in 1953 to describe the new discourse that was brought into play in late nineteenth century India.29 However, the use of the term nabya hindu (neo-Hindu) as evident in colonial Bengal, has an older history30 and reportedly, some English-educated Hindus themselves often used it in a derogatory sense.31 In the case of Bankim himself who is known to have used it, the term proved pivotal to a polemical debate that occurred between the more traditionalist elements within the community of anglicized Hindus and those who employed greater hermeneutical freedom. From a scrutiny of an essay by Bankim Chandra titled ‘Ādi brāhmo samāj o nabya hindu sampradāẏ’ (The Adi Brahmo Samaj and the community of Neo-Hindus) it emerges that Bankim Chandra tried to defend himself against criticism from Dvijendranath and Rabindranath Tagore (both of whom were then associated with the conservative wing of the Brahmos, the Adi Brahmo Samaj), accusing men like Bankim Chandra, who they counted among ‘neo-Hindus’, of rather spurious re-interpretations of traditional Hindu notions of moral and religious ‘truth’. 32 Now if 30 I owe this point to Prof. Hans Harder of the South Asia Institute, Heidelberg, who kindly agreed to read an earlier draft of this paper. 31 Harder, Hans (2001): Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s Śrīmadbhagabadgītā. Translation and Analysis; Delhi, Manohar; pp. 240‒1. 32 The debate, interestingly, was over the question of whether the Hindu tradition allowed temporary lapses into untruthfulness for the sake of greater public good. Bankim, South Asia Institute Papers Issue 1 2015 13 South Asia Institute


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Amiya P. Sen: “Hinduism” and the Problem of Self-Actualisation in the Colonial Era: Critical Reflections the use of this expression in relation to Bankim and like-minded writers was indeed derogatory, this probably also points to its ineptness, even in the eyes of some contemporary Hindus. To the Tagores, apparently, the ‘nabya hindu’ represented a new-fangled Hinduism that had no roots in tradition. My own argument though also strives to proceed in other directions. Arguably, the term ‘neo-Hinduism’ clearly postulates a “Hinduism” both earlier fixed in time and as a finished product. This, as I shall presently argue, could not have been readily accepted by the Anglophone Hindu himself who saw Hinduism as essentially evolving over time. From this perspective, ‘nabya hindu’ as a term of self-description for men such as Bankim appears to have been problematic. How confounding this flaw was is something that I hope to demonstrate in the course of this talk and in relation to Bankim Chandra himself. Further, if, as argued by some critics, the expression ‘neo-Hinduism’ is validated by formative influences originating outside the religion of the Hindus, as for instance by the Christian West, one may justifiably ask why the term could not be used in other instances when non-Hindu influences are known to have significantly shaped Hindu thought. Thus, if Paul Hacker is right in labelling colonial Hinduism as ‘neo-Hinduism’ purely on account of influences derived from Christian thought,33 it should be equally possible for us to call the Ādi Śaṅkara, who borrowed elements from contemporary Buddhist philosophy, a neo-Hindu and not a crypto Buddhist (prachanna baudha) as commonly done. Not to argue thus would be tantamount to suggesting that only modernity and the Christian West had the capacity to produce something ‘new’ in the realm of Hindu thought. This could be problematic on yet another level. At times, Hindus in colonial India appear quite oblivious (perhaps deliberately so) of mental and social changes produced by their intellectual engagement with the West. Even when deeply influenced by European and Christian categories of thought and sometimes departing radically from him in interpreting the philosophiadopting a more utilitarian position, thought that it did. This was fiercely contested by the Tagores. See Bankim Chandra Chattopdhyay (1973): ‘Ādi brāhmo samāj o nabya hindu sampradāẏ’, reproduced in Bāgal, Baṅkim racanābalī, vol. 2.; Kalikātā, Sāhitya Saṃsad, 913‒9. 33 Ibid. South Asia Institute Papers Issue 1 2015 14 South Asia Institute



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