'Hindu Protestantism': Nirad Chaudhuri on Hindu Reformers

I'm teaching a short excerpt of Nirad Chaudhuri's Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951). It's about 30 pages in Amitava Kumar's Away: The Indian Writer as an Expatriate, mainly concerning Chaudhuri's early understandings of England, the English language, and Englishness as a child in Bengal.

One part that caught my eye is his characterization of the Hindu reform movements, which would include the Brahmo Samaj as well as what he calls the 'orthodox counterblast' (I believe Chaudhuri's own family tended towards the latter). In truth, the two movements were not so far apart from one another, and many members of the latter community began as dissenting Brahmo Samaj members.

Here is Chaudhuri (hope you enjoy the long quote):

My father and mother believed in a form of Hinduism whose basis was furnished by a special interpretation of the Hindu religion. According to this interpretation the history of Hinduism could be divided into three stages: a first age of pure faith, in essence monotheistic, with its foundations in the Vedas and the Upanishads; secondly, a phase of eclipse during the predominance of Buddhism; and thirdly, the later phase of gross and corrupt polytheism. The adherents of this school further held that all the grosser polytheistic accretions with which popular Hindusim was disfigured had crept in at the time of the revial of Hinduism after the decline of Buddhism in the seventh and eighth centuries of the Christian era, and that they were due primarily to the influence of Mahayana or polytheistic northern Buddhism and Tantric cults. This degnerate form of Hinduism was given the name of Puranic Hinduism in order to distinguish it from the ealier and purer Upanishadic form of Hinuism. The reformers claimed that they were trying only to restore the original purity of the Hindu religion.

The very simplicity of the interpretation should serve to put historical students on their guard against it. But the reformers implicitly believed in it, and since they believed in, their belief gave shape to and coloured their attitude to the other religious movements of the world; they failed to detect the true filiation of their theory, to see that that was only an echo and duplication of the theory of the Protestant Reformation. Although their claim to be restoring the pure faith of the Upanishads by ridding it of Puranic excrescences was certainly inspired by an unconscious absorption of the idea of the Protestants that they were reviving the pure faith of the Scriptures, the Apostles, and the early Fathers, the Hindu reformers looked upon Protestantism as the product of a parallel religious movement and were deeply sympathetic to it.

This is interesting in lots of ways, one of which being of course the question it raises about where Nirad Chaudhuri sees himself (as I mentioned, I believe Chaudhuri's own parents would have counted themselves among the reformers he's criticizing above).

The other major point I draw out ot this is a reminder to anyone who advocates strong forms of cultural or religious purity, that everything is always already mixed, contaminated, and hybridized. That hybridity is particularly intense in the Indian context for historical reasons: both the Brahmo Samaj and the "orthodox counterblast" are heavily dependent on ideas derived from the Protestant missionaries in their midst. Their sectarian disputes, one could even say, mimicked the sectarian disputes between Protestant sects (Unitarians, Methodists, etc.).

Needless to say, the caution about false purity could well be applied to all religious communities.