Brian A. Hatcher


On his book Hinduism Before Reform

Cover Interview of August 12, 2020

The wide angle

Typically, the origins of modern Hinduism are traced to a single place, a decisive moment, and a compelling religious figure. The place is Bengal or, to be more specific, Calcutta. The moment is the turn of the nineteenth century, just as the East India Company began to imprint its policies and propagate its institutions in South Asia. And the figure of interest in this place and this moment is routinely said to be Rammohun Roy, the celebrated “Father of Modern India.” To Rammohun is traced the beginning of India’s modern reformation. Analogies to Luther are made, suggesting Rammohun’s goal was to return Hinduism to its roots, purify it of “medieval” error, and render its scripture accessible to all. With the creation of the Brahmo Samaj, Rammohun is understood to have set in motion a wave of change that would in time sweep across the subcontinent, revitalizing Hinduism and setting India on the path to freedom.

Hinduism Before Reform asks us to hit the pause button long enough to imagine another scenario. To do so the book introduces a second figure, someone who also took advantage of the early colonial moment to propagate a compelling religious message and establish a new religious polity. And rather than assuming Sahajanand Swami was a provincial figure working on the periphery of power, I remind readers of the active British presence in early nineteenth-century Gujarat; and I call attention to Sahajanand’s astute efforts to insert the Swaminarayan Sampraday into the socio-political landscape of Gujarat. Ironically, this actually led some observers to dub him a reformer. Some even compared him to his contemporary, Rammohun, who was just then gaining widespread fame as a reformer in his own right.

Yet the two men differed radically, and we discover that the plausibility of the reform narrative is strained from the very start. For one thing, we can no longer speak of one epicenter and one heroic reformer. We must now reckon with two fluid landscapes and two innovative religious lords. Both may have been styled reformers, but what did that imply? The reforms of Rammohun were celebrated for their resistance to the “medieval” world of Hindu images and polytheism, but in Sahajanand one had to do with a guru whom followers revered as an incarnate deity, if not supreme Lord. Finally, while apologists for the nascent empire sang the virtues of progress, some British observers argued that Sahajanand’s strict disciplinary code would help underwrite Pax Britannica. Over in Bengal, Rammohun was making much more radical noises.

One begins to appreciate that the story of reform in India is a story predicated on a set of recognizable, but not always reconcilable values—Protestant notions of true religion, British imperial visions for the improvement of India, and even (by the later nineteenth century) nationalist commitments to Indian awakening. The teleology should be evident. India was to become independent. What story best explained the journey from colonial subjection to national freedom? The story of Hinduism moving from backwardness to progress, from the medieval to the modern. And so Rammohun became the father of modern India, not Sahajanand. It could be no other way. These discursive threads were effectively tied off with the rise of what I call the Empire of Reform, the late nineteenth-century crystallization of history and metaphor that generated the chronoscape of Hindu reform.

But as I have noted, this does not seem to be how the story has trended over time. Today the Swaminarayan Sampraday is among the most globally visible of modern Hindu movements. The vast wealth and material exuberance of the community is on display from New Delhi to New Jersey. Meanwhile, the modest houses of worship first established by the Brahmo Samaj are nearly forgotten and a century’s worth of Brahmo cultural production is heritage more than habitus. For when it comes to religious appetites, India’s new middle classes are increasingly oriented to the sumptuous world of Sahajanand; the high-toned Vedic religion (aka Vedanta) of Rammohun has become the generic spirituality of the day.