Brian A. Hatcher


On his book Hinduism Before Reform

Cover Interview of August 12, 2020

A close-up

When it first dawned on me that Rammohun and Sahajanand were nearly exact contemporaries my immediate thought was: What a wonderful opportunity to bring into view the character and complexity of a short-lived moment in South Asian history. One of the things I try to do is to provide a sense for what is distinctive about the period from roughly 1750 to 1850. I refer to this as the early colonial period in order to stress that many of the developments we associate with “colonialism” in India are features of a world that only really began to emerge after the 1857 Rebellion. The early colonial period, though colonial had not yet become the British Raj. As such, when one looks at this earlier moment, one notices it is less rigidly structured by racist attitudes; that the actors on the ground, Indian and Briton, often inhabited shared spaces and enacted shared agendas. This is not to ignore the implementation of colonial legislation, the devastating economic policies of the East India Company, nor the fact of British supremacy; but it is to say that the early colonial moment was one in which a figure like Rammohun could articulate his leadership in relation to Indo-Persianate norms of learning and ethics while cultivating British connections to advance his religious agenda. Similarly, a figure like Sahajanand, who is often pictured as being aloof from British power, was in fact deliberate in his efforts to meet East India Company officials and open to theological discussions with Christians in the area.

Chapters like “Fluid Landscapes” work to bring these issues to light by sketching economic, political and religious life in early colonial Bengal and Gujarat. One has a chance to appreciate the agency of various actors like peasants, landholders, urban merchants, and nouveaux riches, not to mention the complex legacy of mendicant communities and devotional polities. Here the historiographical goal is to move beyond the still prevalent idea that eighteenth-century India was the site of economic decay and socio-political anarchy. One can easily appreciate how this trope has helped underwrite both imperialist and nationalist narratives of reform. Once one commits to looking anew at this period, one realizes that the era of Rammohun and Sahajanand was one of incredible fluidity and immense opportunity.