The Emergence of Modern Hinduism

Religion on the Margins of Colonialism

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Richard S. Weiss
Fletcher Jones Foundation Imprint in Humanities
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , August
     222 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Richard Weiss presents an alternative history of modern Hinduism, one that does not privilege a Protestant-inspired liberal “reform Hinduism,” but instead looks to non-reform Hindu change through the life and activities of Ramalinga, a South Indian Shaivite who used “tradition” to effect religious change that was veritably “modern” in the late 19th century. Weiss alerts historians of modern Indian religion to discrepancies in studies of 19th-century Hinduism, where “Hinduism” has become synonymous with reform projects.

The Emergence of Modern Hinduism rethinks the terms “tradition” and “modern” to argue that tradition can be modern, too. Weiss demonstrates that there was significant religious and social change occurring on the fringes of colonialism, in turn following popular theoretical works on multiple modernities to argue that modernity existed outside Western history. He pushes back against studies that argue that colonialism was the only ideological and political force which brought substantial change to Indian religion. As such, rather than positioning tradition in opposition to modernity, Weiss acknowledges the perpetually evolving nature of tradition, as a force constantly in flux and capable of inspiring change. This book comes in a group of recent books and articles which radically rethink Hindu history in the colonial period, highlighting alternative forms of religiosity beyond reform (see Shruti Patel, “Beyond the Lens of Reform: Religious Culture in Modern Gujarat,” Journal of Hindu Studies 10.1 [2017]: 47-85; Brian Hatcher, Hinduism Before Reform, Harvard University Press, 2020).

After coherently laying out his theoretical and methodological frameworks, Weiss uses Shaivite texts, poetry, magazines, and polemics to demonstrate ways in which Ramalinga looked to Shaiva traditions to enact change. In chapter 2, he addresses Ramalinga’s practice of giving, which derives from scriptural and devotional sources, as well as siddha, yoga, and tantric traditions. Though scholarship has noted the influence of Christian missions on seva or service and gift-giving practices in colonial India, Weiss provides a different genealogy of influence. He does not completely deny missionary inspiration on Ramalinga’s charity enterprise but rather suggests that it may be better to think of webs of influences, where Christianity is simply one among a number of dynamic forces which inspired cosmopolitan Shaiva authors.

The third chapter discusses how Ramalinga and his followers used print to acquire authority and importantly, how print and the publishing of Tamil Shaiva texts “transformed relationships of authority, expanded the accessibility of texts, reshaped canons, and led to the emergence of new literary forms” (53). In contrast to Hindu reformers’ use of print, which served to rationalize Hinduism, Ramalinga’s followers had his poetry printed and sold at a premium to generate an aura of authority and authenticity. Chapter 4 then examines thispoetry in greater detail, particularly how Ramalinga used poetry to tell his own biography. The verses, while shaped by Shaivite devotional literature, are modern because of autobiographical elements, a critique of caste hierarchies, a message of equality, a novel approach to ritual, and a presentation of Ramalinga as a leader and saint aware of contemporary social and religious challenges.

Chapter 5 draws our attention to the conflict between Ramalinga and the Tamil Shaiva reformer, Arumuga Navalar. Weiss examines this conflict to demonstrate methods by which tradition and authority were continually being redefined in nineteenth-century south India. Much like many of the well-known reformers of north India, Navalar sought to reform Tamil Shaivism and purge it of heterodoxy and the miraculous in favor of a selected scriptural canon. His disagreements with Ramalinga reveal how different Hindu projects, inspired by different genealogies clashed in colonial India. It also reveals how print became an ideal medium for polemical debates. Weiss presents a rare case of interaction and debate between reformers and gurus and foregrounds the voice of “traditional” religion so often sidelined in histories of religious reform. In the final chapter, Weiss looks at Ramalinga the siddha, or the yogic and miraculous Ramalinga. But rather than labeling the miraculous as a marker of the “traditional,” Weiss sees Ramalinga’s claims to miracles as complementing his egalitarian preaching. The two worked together to create an “enchanted modernity.” The miracles were part of Ramalinga’s and his community’s project of Shaiva modernity.

While Weiss does an important job in arguing that Hindu traditions have inspired innovative conceptions of modernity, and while he does rethink the relationship between tradition and modernity, the concepts themselves have for long stifled histories of colonial religion. It allows those traditions which responded to and challenged antiquated norms to enter the realm of 19th-century Hinduism, and not those that do not. Weiss’s argument that Ramalinga was also modern, despite an expansive conceptualization of the term, may also be restrictive to our understanding of 19th-century Hinduism, as it continues to present Hinduism as simply moving towards modernity, albeit different forms of it. How may Ramalinga appear to us outside the framework of modernity?

Nevertheless, Weiss does acknowledge the scholarly obsession with tradition and modernity. He takes a necessary and ground-breaking step which will hopefully lead students and scholars to rethink and expand the boundaries of colonial Hinduism and break free from both the tradition-modern binary and paradigm of reform, to examine individual and community identity-formation, religious practices, and ritual that have animated Indian society for centuries. This book is an essential read for students and scholars of colonial South Asia and Hinduism. 


About the Reviewer(s): 

Kirtan Patel is a graduate student in the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin.

Date of Review: 
November 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard S. Weiss is Associate Professor of South Asian Religions at the Victoria University of Wellington.


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