Thursday, January 19, 2006

'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.

9 comments:

markmartinez2900 said...
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badmash said...

At the risk of being a stickler, I've always wondered if it wouldn't these reform movements actually drew more from the development of Liberal Protestanism than the actual Reformation. As I see it, the notion of "purity" becomes important in Europe only with the rise of post-Enlightenment pietism, which is ultimately secularized into 20th century European politics of exclusion. I see some similarities here since the reform movements absorbed Englightenment values and ultimately emphasized older notions of purity - ultimately also secularized into the politics of Hindutva. Too much of a generalization?

Btw, I haven't commented for a while as I don't have a blogger account, but I've been reading your blog with interest. Great stuff - keep it coming!

Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

Nirad Chaudhuri's brother, Charuchandra Chaudhuri (former MP Krishna Bose's (who is the wife of the late Sisir Bose (the nephew of Subhash Bose (and son of Sarat Bose)) father) was definitely an atheist. At his "funeral" there were maybe 20 friends and family members who sang Rabi Thakur's songs, read his writings and shared reminisces. Now how would NCC characterise his brother's atheism? Plain old fashioned disbelief? Or copying of some other western "belief" system. Brahmo Samajists never denied the syncretic nature of their beliefs. Rabi Thakur was clear in his enunciation of the Brahmo understanding of the fundamental unity of all beliefs. To look at the protestant movement exclusively is to deny the Islamic connection to Brahmo beliefs. Raja Rammohun Roy was educated in Farsi before he learnt English.

Eddie said...

I think "Hindu Protestantism"--the term that characterizes the Hindu movements that arose in the period of British occupation, to be highly problematic--it proves that Christian categories still dominate historical discourse.

The Brahmo Samaj was influenced by modern science, Islam, its own rereading the the Upanishads, Unitarianism, the findings of modern science and a host of other phenomena. It is not isopmorphic with European "Protestantism", nor is it dependent upon it.

Other movements in India reread indigenous Maharastrian Bhakti traditions to make a case for fair play between castes; some had negligible Western influence and wre entirely non-elite (like the efforts of Narayana Guru).

Eddie said...

Now how would NCC characterise his brother's atheism? Plain old fashioned disbelief? Or copying of some other western "belief" system.

Amartya Sen categorizes himself as "Lokayata" to describe his disbelief. Chaudhury, always nostalgic for empire, would probably never have chosen such a description.

The King of Ghosts said...

The Brahmo Samaj was influenced by modern science, Islam, its own rereading the the Upanishads, Unitarianism, the findings of modern science and a host of other phenomena. It is not isopmorphic with European "Protestantism", nor is it dependent upon it.

Keshav Chandra Sen clearly stated that Brahmoism is an attempt to incorporate christianity into Hinduism.Nirad Chaudhury said that Brahmoism is an application of Christianity on Hinduism as much as Sikhism an application of Islam on Hinduism.Devendranath Tagore believed that Brahmoism stemmed from monotheistic quotes from Upanishads.

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.

Chaudhury an his family were Bramho sympathesisers and hated the Neo Hindu movement(bereft of old superstitions and caste biases)initiated by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Vivekanda.

Eddie said...

Keshab Chandra Sens faction of the Samaj was undoubtedly influenced by Christianity. But his New Dispensation was hardly Protestantism.

Devendranath Tagore had difficulty with the "monism" he perceived in the Upanishads which did not accord with his "dualism".

Calling all this Protestantism is weak.

badmash said...

Eddie - the phrase "New Dispensation" itself comes from the language of the Protestant Plymouth Brethren revivalists of the nineteenth century. I concede your point about the larger influences on the reform movements, however I think that in their rhetoric and image they did emulate the current Protestantism.

Eddie said...

I concede your point about the larger influences on the reform movements, however I think that in their rhetoric and image they did emulate the current Protestantism.

Badmash:

My only point is that the complex phenomenon of "reform" movements that originated during the British occupation are not accurately described by the term Hindu Protestantism. European historians once cast the Buddha as another Luther and Buddhism as Hindu Protestantism as well. This is due, in part, to Eurocentrism.

Transcendentalism was undoubetdly influenced by Emerson and Thoreau's readings of Hindu texts--virtually every scholar concedes this. But no historian I know describes the phenomena as New England Vedanta :-). In fact, modern admirers of Emerson, like Harold Bloom, tend to efface the Hindu influences altogether.

Categories do matter...

Peace out.