Brian A. Hatcher


On his book Hinduism Before Reform

Cover Interview of August 12, 2020

In a nutshell

This is an ambitious book that grew out of a rather simple question. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, two Hindu leaders on either side of the subcontinent created new religious organizations. Each transformed their local contexts and also transcended them to become influential on the global stage. The strange thing is, only one of these leaders, Rammohun Roy (1772-1833), would go on to figure prominently in the literature on modern Hinduism. The other, Sahajanand Swami (1781-1830), has been largely overlooked by scholars. Why is that?

The answer boils down to a single word, “reform.” Reform is an interpretive category and narrative trope that has structured modern accounts of Hinduism since the moment Rammohun and Sahajanand first came to the attention of western observers. Even though both men were labelled reformers during their careers, it was Rammohun alone who became the face of Indian reform. To appreciate why, it helps to know that Rammohun was active at the epicenter of British rule in Bengal, while Sahajanand promulgated his teachings far from the cosmopolitan salons of Calcutta. Within the discursive chronoscape of reform, Rammohun figures as central and progressive, while Sahajanand is rendered peripheral and backward looking. And so the dominant narrative of modern Hinduism takes shape.

As a scholar of modern Bengal there was much to recognize in this story. And yet as a scholar of modern India, it is also clear how radically the landscape of religion is shifting. The current Prime Minister represents a political party committed to a brand of Hindu majoritarianism at odds with the vision of Rammohun. He also hails from Gujarat and represents the face of post-liberalization India, with its middle-class aspirations. Today Rammohun’s Brahmos are a vanishing community, while the followers of Sahajanand have built a massive temple-museum-theme park in India’s capital. It all strains the seams of the familiar narrative.

Clearly the time has come to rethink the accomplishments of Rammohun and Sahajanand and to search for new ways to tell the story of modern Hinduism. To do that we need to step back “before” the concept of reform came to exercise its critical pull on modern accounts of Hinduism. This requires, to begin with, attending more closely to the early colonial moment when Rammohun and Sahajanand were both active. This was a distinctive moment and must not be too quickly conflated with the later era of high imperialism. Equipped with a better understanding of their times, we then need to adopt a new set of tools for making sense of what they accomplished and how; we need tools not already shaped by the presuppositions of reform. I therefore buck convention and treat Rammohun and Sahajanand not as reformers but as religious lords at the head of two new religious polities—the Brahmo Samaj and the Swaminarayan Sampraday, respectively.

One could rightly say this is not a book about modern Hindu reform movements; it is a book about two colonial religious masters, each of whom embodied—and traded on—a distinctive mode of religious sovereignty. To think of Rammohun and Sahajanand as lords in this way is unsettling, not least for those accustomed to viewing Rammohun at the vanguard of India’s march toward enlightenment and freedom. Nonetheless, I take the risk because we do not need another history of Hindu reform; we need to revisit the period and their lives in a way that can help us reckon better with the India we see today. It may be unsettling, but much can be done by bringing together Bengal and Gujarat, Rammohun and Sahajanand, in ways that have not been done before.