Modernity and Hinduism

Modernity, Reform, and Revival

by Dermot Killingley


In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Hindu traditions have been understood and followed in new ways. Change was prompted by the political and cultural situation brought about by the British presence in south Asia, and by new means of communication. Challenges and opportunities came through contact with cultures which had hitherto been inaccessible or unfamiliar. Foremost among these was British culture, which was embodied, in various limited ways, by officials, teachers, missionaries, journalists, businessmen, soldiers, and others on south Asian soil. Further, British culture in all its variety surrounded those Hindus who traveled to Britain in increasing numbers through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hindus looked not only to Britain but to the United States, and to France, Germany, and other European countries, through books and periodicals, and sometimes through correspondence. In 1905 some were fascinated by the victory of Japan, another Asian country, over Russia; and from 1917, some were stirred by events in what became the Soviet Union.

At the same time new facilities for communication with the past led to a concern with the literary, cultural and religious heritage of South Asia, which will be discussed below. This was also the period in which Indians acquired a common identity. Hitherto they had identified themselves as Bengalis or Tamils, as Śaivas, Jains, Muslims, and so on. To the British they were all “Asiatics” or “Natives,” as contrasted with “Englishmen” or “Europeans.” With the consolidation of British India as a political entity in the first half of the nineteenth century, the term “Indian,” which hitherto had often meant the British in India, came to mean the indigenous inhabitants. It thus becomes appropriate for us to use the term “Indian” rather than “south Asian” when referring to this period, remembering that in terms of present boundaries it covers not only India but also Pakistan and Bangladesh. In the same period the term “Hindu,” which had been first a geographical and then an ethnic label, came to be used as a religious one, and a religion called Hinduism was discovered or invented.

The period referred to as “modern” in which these changes took place extends, very roughly, from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth. Some twentieth-century developments are considered in chapters in the present volume (Prasad, Ramaswamy, Viswanathan, Smith). For our present purposes, India becomes modern when communication is facilitated by means

such as printing, translation, and education, both in Indian languages and in English, forming an arena in which public debate can take place. This arena, however, was a restricted one, to which most of the population had no access; it functioned mainly in large cities, and even there it was the preserve of an elite. It follows that in the modern period some parts of India, and some classes in Indian society, were more modern than others.

The Political Framework

Most of the religious thinkers we shall mention were involved in politics, and all were aware of the great political fact of foreign rule. Much has been written about colonialism as a factor in Western (or more precisely North Atlantic) understanding of India, and in Indian self-understanding (e.g. Kopf 1969; Inden 1990). However, the use of this term, suggesting a single relationship of power and exploitation, conceals the variety of relationships that existed at different times and places between different groups of Indians on the one hand, and different British groups on the other.

In the eighteenth century the East India Company, which embodied British power in India from its establishment in 1600 to its abolition in 1858, still regarded itself as a trading company, and as deriving its political and fiscal authority from the Mughal Emperor and other indigenous powers. However, successive renewals of the Company’s charter, at twenty-year intervals from 1773 to 1853, brought it increasingly under the control of Parliament until the government of British India was placed directly under the Crown in 1858.

From the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century the Company acquired power in different territories at different times, by different means, and with different intentions. Moreover, even from the 1850s, when the political map of India reached the form which it retained, with a few changes, until 1947, about a third of the area was not ruled directly by the British, but by indigenous princes bound by treaties requiring them to accept the advice of officials who were partly diplomats and partly colonial governors. Some enclaves, again, were colonies of European powers other than Britain: Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal.

The policies of the Company’s directors in London were often at odds not only with those of the British government but with those of its employees in India, 510 dermot killingleywho themselves were not unanimous. Most notably, while the Company traditionally held that its position required it to refrain from interference in Indian society, some of its high officials thought that reform of society was a positive duty, without which its presence in India would be unjustified. Such officials included Lord Bentinck (1774–1839), Governor-General from 1828 to 1835, who came to India imbued with the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, and Sir Charles Grant (1746–1832), a member of the evangelical Clapham Sect, who believed that society could only be reformed by conversion to Christianity.

Besides the Company’s employees, the British in India included independent entrepreneurs, journalists, and missionaries, all of whom were regarded with hostility by the Company. Matters of public policy were debated by members of all these groups, and by an increasing number of Indians. Debate was carried on in print and in public meetings; and these, together with formal petitions, influenced the Governor-General and his subordinates to the extent to which they were willing, or considered themselves obliged, to listen. One of the recurrent questions was whether there was, or ever could be, a truly representative public opinion in India.

New Communications

The nineteenth century saw rapid increases in communications, spreading from the three seaports in which British power was based: Bombay (Mumbai), Madras (Chennai), and Calcutta (Kolkata), the capital of British India and seat of the Governor-General until 1911. The Grand Trunk Road linking Calcutta with the upper Ganges basin was developed from 1836 onwards. The first telegraph line was laid in 1852, from Calcutta to Diamond Harbour, and the first 200 miles of railway were built between 1853 and 1856, starting at Bombay; by 1880 the railways had reached 4,300 miles (Schwartzberg 1978: 61; Bayly 1988: 198). Besides facilitating the movement of goods and people, the railways provided men from the presidency towns with employment opportunities elsewhere, which facilitated the spread of ideas: for instance, many of the branches of the Brāhmo Samāj which opened in the second half of the nineteenth century were formed by Bengali railway officials from Calcutta (Damen 1983). Developments in international communications included the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and a telegraph link to Britain in 1870.

The transmission of ideas was revolutionized by printing – in English, the vernacular languages and Sanskrit. Though missionaries had pioneered printing in Indian languages, starting with Tamil in 1577, there was no printing in Calcutta, even in English, until 1777 (Nair 1987: 26). English-language newspapers soon followed, in Bombay and Madras as well as Calcutta. Vernacular newspapers began in Bengali in 1818, followed by Gujarati in 1822 and Marathi in 1832 (Schwartzberg 1978: 105).

Another important development was in communication with the past. The study of the ancient Sanskrit literature of India had been carried on for centuries modernity, reform, and revival 511by pandits for whom it was a family tradition, but the patronage on which they depended declined in the eighteenth century. The British presence brought new forms of patronage, and a new kind of scholar: the European Indologist, who drew on the work of pandits and depended on their assistance, but interpreted the tradition through Western forms of thought. At first there were no professional Indologists: the only establishment for them at the beginning of the nineteenth century was Fort William College, a training college for the East India Company’s British recruits which lasted only from 1801 to 1854 (Das 1978). On the other hand, amateur Indology flourished, though it was rarely officially rewarded except for work on dharma, which was considered to have a direct application in the courts (Kejariwal 1988: 226f.). Pandits found new forms of employment at Fort William College, at missionary establishments, as teachers and translators to individuals, and in the law courts, where they were consulted on questions of Hindu dharma.

An unintended consequence of the introduction of a judicial system on the English model in 1773 was the appointment of Sir William Jones (1746–94) as a judge. He came to Calcutta in 1783, imbued with Enlightenment ideas about Indian culture, and eager to see it at first hand. He had drawn up a list of research topics during his voyage out (Mukherjee 1968: 74), and in January 1784, within four months of his arrival, he founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal, devoted to historical and literary research on India. The society had no Indian members till 1829 – not as a matter of policy, but because none applied (Kejariwal 1988: 152f.). However, the kind of research which it encouraged brought British amateur scholars into collaboration with Indian scholars. Similar collaboration was fostered by the employment of pandits in various educational institutions, and by missionaries.

For Hindus, such study led to a new view of the past. Ideas which had hitherto been the preserve of pandits trained in particular traditions of thought, could now be studied through printed editions, translations, and historical accounts. Most notably, Buddhism came to be part of the world of the Hindu intellectual: not as a system of errors to be refuted, as it appears in Sanskrit texts, but as a towering achievement of ancient Indian thought, and as a historical reality whose monuments still stood on Indian soil. Even if it was viewed as having been superseded by later developments such as Vedānta or bhakti, Buddhism was remembered as India’s spiritual gift to Asia.


These developments in communication opened Hindu practices and ideas to criticism from the outside. Such criticism had come before, of course, from Muslims; and we must not forget the bhakti traditions with their often trenchant critiques of particular social and ritual practices. But the new conceptualization of Hinduism meant that the hostile accounts of image-worship, the status of 512 dermot killingleywomen, or Advaita Vedānta, for instance, which were frequent in the nineteenth century, were taken as attacks on Hinduism itself, which had to be defended against them either by justifying the beliefs and practices in question, or by repudiating them as aberrations from the true Hinduism, or as misrepresentations on the part of its opponents. Moreover, the dominance of Enlightenment ideas in the arena of public debate, together with widely held assumptions of Christian and British superiority, meant that the resulting body of Hindu apologetic was presented in terms of Western ideas of reason and morality which were assumed to be common to all civilized people.

Eighteenth-century Western writers – for whom, it should be remembered, there was no such word as “Hinduism” – had often believed that the Hindus possessed an ancient wisdom of immense value, even if its contemporary heirs did not fully understand it. Brahmins were idealized as wise law-givers who gave up all claim to political power: an ancient embodiment of the separation of the legislative and judicial departments of government from the executive. Hindu religious beliefs were upheld as supremely rational and moral; Sir William Jones, for instance, wrote in a letter of 1787:

I am no Hindu but I hold the doctrine of the Hindus concerning the future state to be incomparably more rational, more pious and more likely to deter men from vice than the horrid opinions inculcated by the Christians on punishment without end. (Mukherjee 1968: 119)

This liberal view was opposed by an evangelical view which is expressed in an extreme form by the pioneer Scots Presbyterian missionary in India, Alexander Duff (1806–78):

Of all the systems of false religion ever fabricated by the perverse ingenuity of fallen man, Hinduism is surely the most stupendous. (Majumdar 1965: 155)

Missionaries were banned from the East India Company’s territories until 1813, when evangelical pressure in Parliament forced a change. However, the Baptist Missionary Society, founded in 1792, had a base in the Danish colony of Serampore, near Calcutta, from 1800, and other missionary societies soon followed. A view of Hinduism as evil helped to raise funds for the societies in Britain; it also followed from an extreme Protestant interpretation of the doctrine of the Fall, in which all religion outside the Christian revelation is a product of human endeavor, and therefore inherently sinful.

The evangelical view of Hindu degeneracy was partly matched by the utilitarian one. This found an influential advocate in one of the foremost Utilitarians, James Mill, whose History of British India, first published in 1817, included a condemnation of Hindu culture. But whereas evangelicals considered that Hindu society could only be reformed through conversion to Christianity, Utilitarians believed that it was the duty of governments to reform society through education and legislation. In practice the two groups, both of modernity, reform, and revival 513which had followers among the Company’s officials (including Bentinck and Grant, already mentioned), often worked together. The missionaries put much of their effort into secular education, believing that the enlightened mind would naturally gravitate to Christianity (Laird 1972). They also supported campaigns for legislation in social matters. Most notably, the Baptist missionary William Carey was one of the foremost advocates of legislation banning sahamaraṇa, the burning of wives on the funeral pyres of their husbands, and his arguments, together with those of the Hindu pandit Mr. tyuñjay Vidyālaṃkār, the Hindu reformer Rammohun Roy, and numerous officials, led the utilitarian GovernorGeneral Lord Bentinck to introduce such legislation in 1829. (The woman who so burns herself, in principle voluntarily, is not regarded as a widow in the terminology of dharma. By accompanying her husband into the other world, she becomes a satī, meaning a true or good woman. The term satī, often in the older spelling suttee, was applied in English to the practice as well as the person; the Sanskrit term is sahamaraṇa “death together.”)

Thus groups which differed widely in their credal foundations could cooperate on issues of social reform. A practice such as sahamaraṇa could appear to an evangelical as evidence of the Hindus’ need of the gospel, to a utilitarian as calling for punitive legislation, and to a pandit as calling for a more accurate interpretation of the Śāstras, while to Rammohun it showed the evil effects of idolatry. Social reform became a topic for debate throughout the nineteenth century; its targets ranged from the fate of wives on the death of their husbands, to the proper form of dress for women. The agenda of social reform was set by an interaction between the actual state of Hindu society and the various ideologies of the reformers. It therefore changed in the course of its history, as we shall see. The movements which are loosely called orthodox or conservative arose as conscious responses to particular reform movements: the first such movement, the Dharma Sabhā in Calcutta, was formed to oppose legislation prohibiting sahamaraṇa, while the Bhārat Dharm MahāMaṇ (“great society for Indian dharma”) was formed in the Panjab in 1887 to defend image-worship and the position of Brahmans against the Ārya Samāj (Jones 1976: 109–11). Orthodoxy or conservatism, like reform, was a construct formed in a historical context.

Early Nineteenth-century Calcutta

The new influences first took effect in Calcutta, the capital. The British presence had encouraged the growth of a class known as  bhadralok (literally “good people”), who gained their wealth from new opportunities for employment and commerce, and came to dominate education and the professions. The ethnically diverse population of Calcutta included incomers from many parts of India and beyond, outnumbering and marginalizing its indigenous population (Sinha 1978; Killingley 1997); the bhadralok, who were equally incomers, were Bengali Hindus of high caste. Besides Brahmans, they comprised Vaidyas, traditionally 514 dermot killingleyphysicians, who rank themselves next to Brahmans, and Kāyasthas, traditionally clerks, who claim Kṣatriya origin (Killingley 1991: 16). Being highly conscious of their caste status, and sensitive to accusations of having forfeited it by taking up new occupations and consorting with foreigners, many of the bhadralok were meticulous about ritual purity, and lavish over rituals and patronage of Brahmans. Many of them also eagerly took up the opportunities for communication represented by printing, the use of English, the growing education system, and a new fashion for forming societies.

One such society was formed by Rammohun Roy (1772?–1833; the name is  sometimes spelled Ram Mohan Roy or Ray), the first notable Hindu to involve himself in the new forms of communication. He founded newspapers in Bengali and in Persian (which was a language of culture for Hindus as well as Muslims). He published books in Bengali and English which attracted favorable notice overseas and controversy at home, and he corresponded with writers in Britain and the United States.

Rammohun’s interests covered political and legal matters, education, and religion. He believed that each religious tradition had a core of truth consisting of belief in God and a humanitarian morality, but that each tradition had overlaid this core with unnecessary or even pernicious doctrines and rules of practice. In Hinduism – he was probably the first Hindu to use the word, in 1816 – one of his targets was “idol-worship – the source of prejudice and superstition, and of the total destruction of moral principle” (Roy 1906: 21). Another was the elaboration of ritual, which he claimed was promoted by Brahmans for their own profit. He claimed, however, that the rational worship of one formless God, without the use of images or rituals, was authorized by the Upaniṣads. It was thus quite possible to reject image-worship and other rituals and yet remain a Hindu, because “the doctrines of the unity of God are real Hinduism, as that religion was practised by our ancestors, and as it is well known at the present day to many learned Brahmins” (Roy 1906: 90).

To promote this “real Hinduism,” Rammohun published Bengali and English translations of some Upaniṣads, and the Vedānta-Sūtra or Brahma-Sūtra, following Śaṇkara’s commentaries in the main, but departing from them at crucial points (Killingley 1993: 95–9). He also published controversial tracts in which he supported his views with quotations not only from the Upaniṣads and Vedānta-Sūtra but from the Purāṇas, Tantras, and other Sanskrit texts. From 1815 to 1830, when he lived in Calcutta and wrote most of his publications, he led a society which was at first known as the Ātmīya Sabhā (“friendly society”); in 1828 it was given a more formal shape as the Brāhmo Sabhā or Brāhmo Samāj. Brāhmo is an English spelling of the Bengali word brāhmya or brāhm (these two spellings are pronounced alike), meaning literally “belonging to Brahman,” this being Rammohun’s preferred name for God. Members of the Samāj often translated brāhma as “theist,” and called the Brāhmo Samāj the Theistic Society. From Rammohun’s time the Brāhmos had links with the Unitarian movement in Christianity, which denies the doctrine of the Trinity (Lavan 1977; Kopf 1979). Rammohun’s followers were also known as Vedāntīs modernity, reform, and revival 515or Vedāntists (Killingley 1993: 103), since he based his teachings on Advaita Vedānta, often called simply Vedānta.

Rammohun attacked not only Hindu beliefs and rituals but the moral evils that he believed resulted from them. Besides sahamaraṇa, these included polygyny, infanticide, the placing of the dying in the Ganges, and caste discriminatioṇ Other societies had other aims. The Dharma Sabhā, already mentioned, was formed in 1830 to oppose legislation against sahamaraṇa, and any other interference with Hindu practice. One of its founders, Rādhākānta Deb (1783–1867), was at the same time active in promoting some of the same causes as Rammohun, particularly education, including the education of girls; another, its secretary Bhavāṇcaran Banerjee, had edited a Bengali newspaper founded by Rammohuṇ The Brāhmo Samāj and the Dharma Sabhā, like other societies in nineteenth-century India, cannot be understood in terms of a simple opposition of reform and reaction; each of them was negotiating a way of being Hindu in the modern situation.

Opposed to both was “Young Bengal,” a name which embraces many societies of young men, some still in their teens, which met in the 1830s and 1840s to put Indian society to rights in the light of utilitarian and other rationalistic ideas. Some of these men openly renounced Hinduism, and flouted its rules of purity. Such attitudes flourished especially among the pupils of the young Eurasian teacher and poet Henry Derozio (1809–31), who was dismissed from the Hindu College, the leading English-medium school in Calcutta, on a charge of corrupting Hindu youth and teaching atheism. One such pupil, Krishna Mohan Banerjea, was converted by Alexander Duff into the Presbyterian church in 1832 but was later ordained as an Anglican priest. Others remained rebel Hindus, proclaiming their rebellion by eating beef and drinking alcohol.

The Brāhmo Samāj

In 1843 the Brāhmo Samāj was reorganized by Debendranāth Tagore (1817–1905) around a “Brāhmo Covenant” in which members undertook to worship one God and to renounce idolatry. Debendranāth’s idea of God was influenced by his English education at the Hindu College, and he was sensitive to Western-inspired critiques of Hinduism. One such critique appeared in 1845 in the Calcutta Review, edited at that time by Duff, under the title “Vedāntism; – what is it,” professing a utilitarian standpoint but clearly based on evangelical theology. It accuses Rammohun of whitewashing Vedānta (meaning Advaita Vedānta, as was usual at the time), and denounces it as a form of pantheism which lacks an idea of God’s love, arrogantly identifies the self with God, denies the reality of the world, leaving no lasting value to moral action, and offers virtual annihilation as the final goal. This critique provoked debate within the Samāj, and eventually Debendranāth distanced himself from Vedānta and sought a theology grounded in the Vedas which was not liable to these accusations.

Here he found insuperable difficulties. In the modern situation Vedic texts were becoming accessible, even to non-Hindus, through printed editions, translations, or descriptions; and it was becoming apparent that they spoke of many gods and of elaborate rituals for their worship. Already in 1833 Krishna Mohan Banerjea had attacked Rammohun’s Vedānta, albeit using very imperfect knowledge, partly on the grounds that it was incompatible with the actual Vedas (Banerjea 1833). In the 1840s Duff took up the same argument, driving a wedge between Debendranāth, who wanted to believe in the literal truth of the Vedas, and his rationalistic associate Akshoy Kumar Datta. In 1850 Debendranāth reluctantly abandoned the Vedas as his authority; he soon abandoned textual authority altogether, in favor of “the pure heart, filled with the light of intuitive knowledge” (Tagore 1916: 161; Rambachan 1994).

The Brāhmo Samāj took a new direction when Keshub Chunder Sen (1838–84) joined in 1858. Debendranāth was a Brahman, whose father Dwarkanath Tagore was one of the wealthiest of the bhadralok; Keshub was a Vaidya who earned his living in a bank. Nevertheless, Debendranāth became like a father to Keshub, and in 1862 made him anācāryarya of the Samāj. Ācārya, a Sanskrit word meaning “teacher,” was the term used for the Brahmans who expounded Sanskrit texts and led worship in the Samāj. The abandonment of Sanskrit texts as authorities, and the appointment of Keshub, a non-Brahman, changed the nature of the acaryas; they were referred to in English as “ministers,” and Keshub wore a black gown like a British nonconformist minister. He also insisted that, whether Brahmans or not, they should not wear the sacred thread which was the mark of Brahman status.

The group of younger Brāhmo who gathered round Keshub wished to abolish caste distinctions; they promoted intercaste marriage, interdining and the abandonment of the sacred thread. They tended to identify reform with the adoption of Western ways of thinking and behavior; and while they saw Brāhmoism as a bulwark against Christianity, they emulated the missionaries’ self-denying zeal for their faith, opening branches of the Samāj outside Calcutta, and refuges for young men and women who had broken with their families over religious practice. They also wished the Samāj to be directed by a representative body rather than an unelected leader. All these points separated Keshub from Debendranāth, who envisaged a movement rooted in Hindu tradition and fitting into bhadralok society rather than separating itself from it. In 1866, after an incident in which Debendranāth allowed Brahmanācāryas to wear the sacred thread, the Samāj split, and the majority joined Keshub in a new organization, the Brāhmo Samāj of India. Tagore’s party, consisting mainly of his relatives and friends, became known as the Ādi (“original”) Brāhmo Samāj.

Keshub went on lecture tours, demonstrating his commanding rhetoric, his devotional enthusiasm, and the power of steam travel and the English language to spread ideas throughout India and beyond; in 1870 he visited England. His message was that God was to be found not in “the dry wells of ancient traditions and outward symbols” but in “the deep fountain of divine revelation” (Scott 1979: 75); and revelation could only be apprehended by spiritually sensitive modernity, reform, and revival 517persons. He was such a person; so too were his hearers, if they would open themselves to God’s inspiration as he exhorted them to do. This spiritual awakening would be the key to social reform. His success depended on his audiences’ knowledge of English, and on other forms of knowledge which came with an English education, enabling them to recognize his references to the Bible, English literature, European history and contemporary philosophers. Keshub used ideas from Christian theology, including Jesus himself, for whom he expressed a fervent devotion. Jesus, he pointed out, was an Asiatic, and Asiatics were better able than Europeans to understand him (Scott 1979: 64). This argument, which exploited the English habit of referring to Indians as Asiatics, gratified nationalistic sentiment by taking Jesus out of the hands of the missionaries and placing him in those of Hindus.

Keshub’s emphasis on individual intuition of God made him indifferent to religious traditions; it is impossible to identify him as a Hindu or a Christian, because he interpreted doctrines such as the atonement or avatāra in his own way. This opened him to the charge of arbitrariness, and some of his followers objected to his acceptance of doctrines and practices which Brāhmos had rejected as idolatrous; around 1875 he became an admirer of the uncouth sage Ramakṛṣṇa (1836–86), who despised Brāhmoism and social reform. As Keshub’s interest in Hindu traditions increased, his zeal for social reform seemed to wane, and like Debendranāth he was judged autocratic.

The incident which brought these concerns together was the marriage of Keshub’s daughter in 1878 to the crown prince of Cooch Behar, a state under indirect British rule. She was 13 and the prince 15 (Borthwick 1977: 180); the ritual included elements which Brāhmos condemned as idolatrous, and polygyny was traditional in the family. The intention of the British officials who arranged the marriage was to bring modernity into an underdeveloped state (Borthwick 1977: 174–8), and this was successful (Kopf 1979: 328f.); but to many Brāhmo it was a betrayal of their struggle against child marriage and idolatry, and showed an arrogant disregard of their views. Rejecting Keshub’s leadership, they formed a more democratic organization, the Sādhāraṇ (“general”) Brāhmo Samāj, in 1878. In 1881, Keshub formed his remaining followers into the Church of the New Dispensation, which was more interested in worship and spiritual experience than in social reform.

The example and missionary effort of the Brāhmo Samāj, particularly Keshub’s tours, led to similar societies being formed elsewhere. The most influential was the Prārthanā Samāj (“prayer society”) in Bombay. The situation in Bombay Presidency was very different from that in Bengal: British power was established later and more quickly, from 1800 to 1818, and followed a more concerted policy. High positions were given to Indians, most of whom were of the Chitpavan Brahman caste which had run the Maratha empire which the British had conquered. They and other Hindus took up English and Western learning eagerly, while continuing also to write in Marathi. The Prārthanā Samāj, avoiding the problems over tradition and authority which split the Brāhmo Samāj, showed its continuity with the past by using the Marathi poems of Tukārām and other bhakti saints in its worship.

Social Reform

One of the points which distinguished the Brāhmo Samāj of India from the Ādi Brāhmo Samāj, and in turn distinguished the Sādhāraṇ. Brāhmo Samāj from the Church of the New Dispensation, was zeal for social reform. The main areas of concern were caste and the position of women; each of these involved several issues.

Discussion of caste in the twentieth century has centered on the privileges of higher castes, the oppression of lower castes, and the economic disparities between them. Many nineteenth-century discussions dwelt more on the divisions among the higher castes, and restrictions on their conduct. In the Brāhmo Samāj, the movements to discard the sacred thread, to allow intercaste marriage, and to encourage interdining were aimed not so much against caste privilege as against the division within the  bhadralok between Brahmans, Vaidyas, and Kāyasthas. Caste also meant pressure to follow rules of purity which were especially irksome to those members of the higher castes who were most affected by modernity; relaxation of such rules provided a middle way between the ostentatious observance of purity by many of the new urban class, and the ostentatious rejection of it by Young Bengal.

Use of the word caste can give a misleading impression that we are talking about a single phenomenon, or even a system inherent in Hindu society. It is better to think of it as a cover term for a number of phenomena which may vary from region to region, and are constantly open to change. The situation in Bengal, where elite status is shared between brahmins, Vaidyas, and Kāyasthas, is different from that in Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu, where there is a clear division between brahmins and those below them, and another between Dalits and those above them. The modern situation in some ways rigidified caste identity: the use of caste titles became more widespread in the early nineteenth century, while increasing contact between communities, and the British attempt to codify Hindu law, brought matters which had been the preserve of specialists into the arena of public debate (Bayly 1999: 94, 168). In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the methods and theories of physical anthropology with which the British reinforced the boundary between Indians and themselves, and classified Indians into hereditary types with different abilities, were also used by Hindu theorists to justify caste divisions. At the same time, the increasing accessibility of the Sanskrit tradition facilitated the discussion of caste issues in terms of dharma.

Dharma literature says far less about caste than it does about varṇa, the theoretical division of society into Brahman, Kṣatriya, Vaiśya, and Śūdra. The first of these categories can be identified, in any given region, with a particular group of castes, since in Hindu society the boundary between Brahman and nonBrahman is usually clear, though not always undisputed. It is harder to identify any of the other three divisions with a group of castes, since castes which claim to be Kṣatriya or Vaiśya may be regarded by others as Śūdra. When writers discuss caste in terms of dharma, modernity, reform, and revival 519therefore, they do so in theoretical terms which may not be easily related to the realities of caste in the region where they live.

In south India, the most fiercely contested intercaste issue was between the Dalits and the rest. The boundaries were clearly marked, socially, ritually, and spatially: members of Dalit castes had to keep a certain distance from others, and not walk on the same road. When economic advancement encouraged a lowcaste group to transgress these boundaries, fighting broke out; another possible outcome was a mass religious movement. Such movements include the conversion to Christianity of many of the Nadar caste, first by Jesuits in 1680, and later by Anglicans from 1784 onwards (Jones 1989: 156–60). The traditional occupation of the Nadars is to tap juice from palmyra palms and ferment it into a liquor known as toddy; their economic dependence on this disreputable trade, and their personal dependence on toddy, justify their low status in the eyes of higher castes, while the Christian Nadars set great importance on abstinence. A caste of similar status and occupation, the Izhavas of Kerala, was transformed by a movement initiated by one of its members, Nārāyaṇa Guru (1854–1928). This too sought independence from toddy, but it was also a Sanskritizing movement, using Advaita Vedānta to show that caste is not essential to a person (Jones 1989: 179–82, 203–7; Samuel 1977).

The most radical attack on caste using arguments from the Sanskrit tradition was made by Dayānanda Sarasvat (1825–83). Dayānanda was a Brahman from Kathiawar in Gujarat, but spent much of his life wandering as a sam. nyāsin over north India; the Ārya Samāj, which he founded in 1875, had its greatest success in the Panjab, a region where Brahman authority was weak. Though he learned from pandits, knew no English, and appealed to the Veda as his authority, he was influenced by modern ideas, especially after a visit to Calcutta in 1872 (Jordens 1978: 75–98). He denounced the worship of images and elaborate rituals, and taught the worship of one God through homa, the Vedic offering of ghi and plant products in a fire. He aimed to restore the practices of the ancient Āryans (hence the name of his society); people should therefore be divided not into hundreds of castes but into the four varṇas known in the Veda. Moreover, membership of the varṇas should not be hereditary, but should be decided by public examination at the age of 16 for girls and 25 for boys (Sarasvatī 1972: 87). On intermarriage and interdining, Dayānanda was conservative: they should be prohibited between the true, nonhereditary varṇas (Killingley 1991: 27f.). His proposals have never been put into practice, but the idea of four varṇas, based on merit and not birth, has become generally accepted in modern Hindu discourse (Killingley 1991: 30f.).

Reform of the position of women again involved several issues. After sahamaraṇa was made illegal, attention focused on the situation of widows. According to the dharma books widowers can remarry, but a woman can only be one man’s wife; and since girls could be married at five or even younger, they could becomewidows at any age. A widow, being neither an actual nor a potential wife, was a person without status, an unwanted burden on her marital family. The voice which was heard most clearly on this subject was that of īśvarcandra Vidyāsāgar 520 dermot killingley(1820–91), a paṇd. it who was a close associate of Debendranāth Tagore. Like Rammohun’s against sahamaraṇa, his arguments were both textual and humanitarian; the outcome was the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856. īśvarcandra was also among those who attacked polygyny, which was widely practiced by Brahmans in Bengal; but this attack did not lead to legislation.

Another issue was child marriage, in particular the early marriage of girls. This was common among upper castes in many parts of India, and was opposed by the Brāhmo Samāj, the Prārthanā Samāj, Dayānanda, Īśvarcandra, and others. In 1860 the first relevant legislation, affecting not marriage but consummation, set the age of consent for girls at ten. Renewed controversy, heightened by the death of a girl of eleven in Calcutta in 1890, led to the raising of the age to 12 in 1891. The law was controversial but ineffective, as was the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, which set the ages of marriage at 14 for brides and 18 for bridegrooms (Forbes 1996: 83–90).

While the government was wary of prohibiting any Hindu custom, it was more ready to pass permissive laws if there was demand for them, as shown by the Widow Remarriage Act. Another example is the Marriage Act of 1872. This was passed in response to demands from the Brāhmo Samāj for a legally recognized form of marriage which disregarded caste, was monogamous and did not involve idolatry; the bride had to be at least 14 and the bridegroom 18. To avoid attempting to define Brāhmos as a community, the legislators required the participants to declare that they were not Hindus – nor Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Muslims, or Parsis (Kopf 1979: 103–5). This law was part of the background to the Cooch Behar marriage (p. 518 above): although the marriage did not contravene it, since the Act did not apply in a princely state, it betrayed the principles underlying it.

These movements to improve the condition of women were the work of men, and treated women as passive rather than active. They were partly prompted by the view of James Mill and others that ill-treatment of women indicated a low degree of civilization (Forbes 1996: 13). While the male reformers had genuine regard for women as persons, they also thought of them in terms of their procreative and nurturing roles: child marriage was condemned as pernicious to the health of (male) offspring. Women’s education could be a way of furthering the concerns of men, whose efforts at reform were hampered by the conservatism of their wives and mothers. A Bengali wrote in 1848:

An educated native who is even at the head of his family is connected with poojah [pūjā, worship of images] which he under the existing state of Society cannot remedy and thinks it expedient for preserving domestic happiness to perpetuate it so long as education is denied to our females. (Palit 1972: 67)

It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that women themselves became public champions of reform (Forbes 1996).

There was also a caste dimension to gender issues which the reformers tended to ignore. As the Bengali preacher Swāmi Vivekānanda (1863–1902) put it, modernity, reform, and revival 521

All that you mean by your social reform is either widow remarriage, or female emancipation, or something of that sort . . . And again these are directed within the confines of a few of the castes only. (Vivekānanda 1972–8: 5, 333).

The issue of widow remarriage did not affect the lower castes, among whom widows traditionally remarried; while interdining and intercaste marriage, as well as female education, were mainly concerns of the bhadralok. Vivekānanda considered that effective social reform could only be built on a spiritual basis of Advaita Vedānta. The identity of the self and Brahman, he said (echoing Paul Deussen, the German interpreter of Advaita), was “the basic metaphysical truth underlying all ethical codes” (Vivekānanda 1972–8: 1, 385; cf. Hacker 1995: 292–8; Killingley 1998: 145–9). Hindus did not need alien moral norms.

Re-presenting the Past

We have seen how Rammohun and Īśvarcandra questioned prevailing customs by reference to ancient Sanskrit texts. In 1891, during the age of consent controversy, M. G. Ranade (1842–1901) and R. G. Bhandarkar (1837–1925), both members of the Prārthanā Samāj, opposed the early marriage of girls by showing how the age prescribed for a girl’s marriage had been progressively lowered in the course of history (Ranade 1902: 26–52; Bhandarkar 1928: 538–83). We have also seen how Dayānanda used texts to argue that the ancient Āryans practiced nonhereditary varṇa. Those who opposed reform also appealed to the past; but as Ranade (1902: 170) put it, “When we are asked to revive our old institutions and customs, people seem to me to be very much at sea as to what it is they seek to revive.” Ranade and others used a consciously selective approach to the past, guided by “the voice of God in us” (Ranade 1902: 174). Bhandarkar saw the past as a progressive revelation to which the Vedic sages, Buddhism, the Gītā, and the bhakti tradition had each contributed (Bhandarkar 1928: 615f.).

Another Chitpavan Brahman, B. G. Tilak, used textual study, astronomy, and geology to argue that the Vedas were composed in 4,000 or even 8,000  bce (Wolpert 1962). His reading of history, like Dayānanda’s, pointed to the Vedas as records of an ancient and divinely ordained culture. Unlike him, however, he presented the Brahmans as the heirs and guardians of that culture. Tilak also extolled the seventeenth-century Maratha king Śivājī as a Kṣatriya protector and patron of the Brahmans, and hinted that resistance to British rule was a duty which Hindus owed to his memory.

A very different history of Brahman and Kṣatriya was presented by Jotirao Phooley (or Phule, 1827–90), a member of the non-Brahman Maratha peasantry. In Phule’s narrative the Brahmans had invaded India, seized the land from its rightful owners the kṣatriyas, and attempted to destroy them as recorded in the myth of Paraśurāma . They enslaved the survivors by inventing the caste system, classifying them as Śūdras. Śivājī was the 522 dermot killingleychampion of the indigenous non-Brahman against the alien Brahman, and his role as protector was now taken by the British. Phule thus combined a common mythical motif in which low castes claim to be descended from Kṣatriyas who were cheated of their status, with the Indologists’ narrative of an Āryan invasion (O’Hanlon 1985: 141–51). The view of the Brahman as an alien oppressor was taken up and elaborated by the Tamil anti-Brahman movement in the twentieth century, which was able to point to a 2,000-year-old Tamil literature independent of Sanskrit.

Religious and Secular

In the course of the modern period, movements to reform Hindu society became more varied, and leaders emerged among oppressed groups as well as elites. Yet there was general agreement that Hindu society must have roots in the past, and it must have a religious basis. The emphasis on the past refuted both those who thought reform could only come from the West, and those who thought it was precluded by an unchanging dharma. The emphasis on religion was natural when so much criticism of Hindu society attributed its evils to religion, while most of the ancient literature which became accessible was religious, or used religious motifs. Keshub, Vivekānanda, Rādhākrishnan and others promoted the idea that Indian culture was essentially spiritual, in contrast to the materialism of the West (King 1985).

There are exceptions to this religious approach to reform. E. V. Ramaswamy Naicker (1879–1973), leader of the Tamil anti-Brahman movement, denounced belief in God along with Brahmans and their texts and rituals; however, others in the movement discarded these while retaining God. Apart from Ramaswamy and some extreme nineteenth-century Utilitarians, secular programs have come mainly from twentieth-century Marxists, and it is notable that many of these were Brahmans: M. N. Roy, D. D. Kosambi, E. M. S. Namboodiripad. The Marxists, like others, used the past as an arena for the ideological contest; one of their methods was to reclaim ancient Indian materialism, which they believed had been deliberately forgotten in favor of a false picture of Indian spirituality (e.g. Chattopadhyaya 1968). Another Brahman secularist was Jawaharlal Nehru, whose book The Discovery of India is a personal reflection on the past and what it can say to the future; he too extols ancient Indian materialism, but also the Bhagavad-Gītā, Buddhism, and even Śaṇkara. Revival is not opposed to reform; it is the idiom in which it speaks.


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