The Emergence of Modern Hinduism argues for the importance of regional, vernacular innovation in processes of Hindu modernization. Scholars usually trace the emergence of modern Hinduism to cosmopolitan reform movements, highlighting the centrality of elite religion and the influence of Western ideas and models. This book proposes, instead, that important projects of modernity were pursued on the colonial margins, by actors deeply embedded in tradition and deploying all its resources as the key means for change, using texts and languages not associated with centralized power or national or global discourses. It focuses on one such figure, the Tamil Shaiva poet and mystic Ramalinga Swami (1823–1874). Ramalinga emphasized the continuities of tradition, new revelation, the possibility of the miraculous, and an ethics of inclusion that challenged caste and class boundaries. His vision provided a counterpoint to reform Hinduism, yet his projects were no less modern than their cosmopolitan counterparts. By including Ramalinga, and figures like him, in historical accounts of religious modernization, we can develop new ways of thinking about modern Hinduism that more accurately reflect its diverse ways of being modern. The book thus effects a fundamental shift in the way we conceptualize the emergence of modern religion, as well as the concept of the “modern” itself, in South Asia and beyond.
For millennia, one of the most consistent characteristics of Hindu traditions has been variation. Scholarly work on contemporary Hinduism and its premodern antecedents ably captures this complexity, paying attention to a wide spectrum of ideologies, practices, and positions of authority. Studies of religion in ancient India stress doctrinal variation in the period, when ideas about personhood, liberation, the efficacy of ritual, and deities were all contested in a variety of texts and contexts. Scholarship on contemporary Hinduism grapples with a vast array of rituals, styles of leadership, institutions, cultural settings, and social formations. However, when one turns to the crucial period of the nineteenth century, this complexity fades, with scholars overwhelmingly focusing their attention on leaders and movements that can be considered under the rubric “reform Hinduism.” The result has been an attenuated nineteenth-century historiography of Hinduism and a unilin- eal account of the emergence of modern Hinduism.
Narratives about the emergence of modern Hinduism in the nineteenth century are consistent in their presumptions, form, and content. Important aspects of these narratives are familiar to students who have read introductory texts on Hinduism, and to scholars who write and teach those texts. At the risk of presenting a caricature of these narratives, here are their most basic characteristics. The historical backdrop includes discussions of colonialism, Christian missions, and long-standing Hindu traditions. The cast of characters is largely the same in every account, beginning with Rammohan Roy and the Brahmo Samaj, moving on to Dayananda Saraswati and the Arya Samaj, and ending with Swami Vivekananda’s “muscular” Hinduism. These narratives focus on expressions of Hindu reform that emerged out of an encounter between Hindu leaders and Western ideas and models. They assume a narrative that is dominated by colonial, cosmopolitan settings, that is national in scale, that is concerned with elite leaders and movements, and that posits a radical break between this new, modern Hinduism and prior traditions. At their most successful, these studies contribute insightful accounts of cosmopolitan processes within which Hindu leaders transformed their traditions through engagement with diverse actors, institutions, and sensibilities. However, as I will show, these accounts also reinforce dichotomies between Western modernity and Indian tradition, emphasizing the role of the West in Hindu innovation and consigning expressions of Hinduism that were largely untouched by Western ideas to the realm of static tradition.
In this book, I present a narrative of the emergence of modern Hinduism that challenges these conventional accounts. I do this through a close study of the writings, teachings, and innovations of Ramalinga Swami (1823–1874). Ramalinga was a Shaiva leader who spoke and wrote in Tamil in a local setting, was marginal to colonial and Hindu institutional authority, was grounded in Hindu traditions, and did not engage the West in any visible way. I argue that Ramalinga’s teachings were modern because they displayed an acute awareness of challenges of the present, innovated in ways that addressed those challenges, were founded on a desire to transform the world in specific ways, and presaged later developments in Hindu traditions. He drew on Shaiva tantric, devotional, and literary traditions in developing creative responses to contemporary challenges such as poverty, famine, and caste discrimination. He attacked social hierarchy, developed rituals of food-giving to the poor, founded a voluntary community, and promised ordinary householders yogic powers and immortality. When he gained popularity among a wide range of caste and class communities, leaders of the established Tamil Shaiva elite attacked his teachings and initiatives. By examining Ramalinga within broader narratives of Hindu modernization, I present a new model for Hindu modernity that emphasizes the capacity of Hindu traditions to provide inspiration for new forms of Hinduism that remain influential today. In a broader context, my findings have important implications for the ways that scholars think about the impact of colonization and Westernization on non-Western religious traditions.