Brian A. Hatcher


On his book Hinduism Before Reform

Cover Interview of August 12, 2020


So here we are. Today Calcutta is known as Kolkata and the city is sprouting skyscrapers and mega-malls. The tenor of politics is changing too, as decades of Marxist leadership have given way to new electoral tensions. Some of the parties making headway in Bengal today would have been almost unimaginable in pre-liberalization Calcutta. The Hindu majoritarianism of the BJP is making striking inroads, and side by side with the gleaming skyscrapers one spots the distinctive spires of North Indian nagara temples. It seems as if the twain has finally met—Rammohun’s Calcutta must make room for the Swaminarayanis (see image).

rorotoko.comBAPS Swaminarayan Mandir, Kolkata Photo by Brian A. Hatcher, 2018.

For many, changes like this strike a dissonant chord. And I am not thinking only of the spiritual and cultural heirs of Rammohun. Scholars of religion in modern India are themselves confronted with the challenge of rethinking some of their most cherished teleologies around progress in Indian religion and public life. Hard questions arise. Does the rapid expansion of the Sampraday in the past few decades register the return of the repressed in modern religious life? If the modern comparative study of religion has tended to celebrate the sober Vedantic inclusivism inaugurated by Rammohun, how will our textbooks make sense of the current landscape, with its soaring temples and exuberant devotional communities? If we continue to tell the story of modern Hinduism in terms of the inevitable spread of progressive religion across South Asia, we paint ourselves into an interpretive corner. Not only do the terms of our comparisons fail, but we face the uncomfortable challenge of confronting the colonial genealogy of our own disciplinary tools. But this is a task we must undertake. Along the way we should strive to develop new analytical tools, such as the model of religious polity construction I offer—tools that will allow us to bring together for comparison what scholarly accounts have for so long kept asunder. In the present-day confluence (or collision) of Gujarat and Bengal we face the challenge of assessing anew the place of religion in 21st century India.