Liberal intellectuals, whether in India or writing about India, may not take kindly to Brian A Hatcher’s latest book Hinduism Before Reform. But it is a book that they must read to examine the roots of their attitude towards everything perceived as right-wing Hinduism in India and the Indian diaspora.
The take-away from the book is simple: that categories like “orthodox” and “reformer” should be re-examined while discussing Hinduism. To help the readers see the point, Hatcher looks at two figures from the early colonial period in India and the communities they left behind: Swami Narayan’s Swaminaryan Sampraday and Raja Rammohun Roy’s Brahmo Samaj. Several scholars, including Martha Nussbaum, see the Swaminarayan Sampraday (as his followers continue to be called), and the Brahmo Samaj (the group of believers in monotheistic Hinduism or Brahmoism), as antithetical to each other. The former is regarded as a textbook example of Islamophobia, while the latter is regarded as progressive, a legacy of the man who strove to get the practice of sati abolished in India.
In order to see beyond these binaries, Hatcher writes about the times in which the two men lived and finds a lot of similarities between them. Both traveled: one as an ascetic while another as a scholar. Both wielded a lot of influence even among the EIC officials. Both founded organizations that Hatcher likes to call “religious polities”: formal groups founded in order to bring like-minded people together in dedicated spaces. Both groups followed certain rituals or code of behavior. For example, Swami Narayan advised all his followers to recite the names of God while Roy favored the chanting of the Gayatri mantra. Hatcher’s point is that “the two leaders sought to draw on and repurpose modes of premodern scriptural knowledge, moral regulation, and social organization”.
What has remained in the liberal memory, Hatcher shows, is the contrast between the two and not the similarities. The Brahmo Samaj was hailed by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and became the face of greatness, but, notes Hatcher, one should not be blind
to the fact that Brahmos have deployed and benefited from political power along their own path to cultural hegemony… The Brahmo role in shaping the modern liberal nation-state allowed that particular socioeconomic and cultural group to bypass significant engagement with the injustices and inequalities of caste, gender, and community.
On the other hand, Swami Narayan, by many accounts:
failed to weather the crisis of liberal faith, that inner battle for emancipation of the self that is supposed to be mirrored in an outer struggle to build forms of community that honor freedom and autonomy. But the liberal creates other kinds of crises, not least insofar as the desire for autonomy routinely runs afoul of the demand to honor difference.
Dwelling on the lives and times of the two men helps Hatcher arrive at the interesting point that terms like “reform” and “orthodoxy” are anachronistic. When contemporary intellectuals use these terms to put one man on the pedestal and attack the other, they set aside the fact that for British orientalists like Henry George Briggs, Swami Narayan was a “reformer” and Roy a mischief maker: the former “was of great political utility to the East India Company insofar as his practical philanthropy supported British efforts to establish a reign of peace and prosperity in the region—Pax Britannica” and the latter was “too radical”.
Hatcher goes about it quite systematically—making his point that reading the two men and their work “teleologically” and attributing reformism to one and placing the other at the origins of communalism are all quite wrong. He is also aware of the ways in which his position will be attacked: after all, the differences between Swami Narayan and Raja Rammohun Roy are far more numerous than the similarities. This exercise in comparing the two lives (because the exercise in contrasting them has been overdone) takes Hatcher too deep into the early 19th century, and, some might argue, stretches the point just for the sake of it. But to be fair, Hatcher does try to come back to the present to argue that using terms casually could amount to parroting the colonial logic, and the least that public intellectuals (like Nussbaum) can do is to avoid them and figure out newer, better ways to understand majoritarian mindsets and the threats they pose to minorities everywhere.
Hinduism Before Reform is a good reminder that one must look at the origins of critical terms thrown around casually; they may have had a problematic story/history of their own.