Hindu Pasts

Women, Religion, Histories

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Vasudha Dalmia
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , September
     390 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Vasudha Dalmia is known for her work on Bharatendu Harishchandra, the 19th-century polymath and dramaturge of Benares, and for her essays on Hinduism from a historical point of view. Her new book, Hindu Pasts, is a collection of fifteen of her old essays organized into three thematic sections: “Colonial Knowledge-Formation,” “Vaishnava Renewals c. 1600-1900,” and “The Hindi Novel: 19th-Century Beginnings.”

The introductory chapter, “Where These Essays are Coming From,” seeks to locate the author in the context of her life. Dalmia’s birth into a conservative Hindu family following “a modernized version of traditional Hinduism” (2), her schooling in a Christian missionary convent, and her higher studies in the German philological tradition of Indology, all went into the making of a veritable “East-West encounter” in her own life that she has tried to examine critically in the context of colonial India in her work. The introduction is a valuable document, as rarely do readers get to see where the works of a scholar come from—a contingent factor that invisibly yet inexorably shapes the direction in which a scholar reads a text. It also underscores the possibility that a person with a different life trajectory might read these histories differently.

Chapter 2 is particularly exciting. It captures the nuances of a debate that took place in 1884 between George Thibaut, an “Orientalist” and principal of the Benares Sanskrit College, and Babu Pramadadas Mitra, an “Oriental” and former assistant professor in the college. Thibaut argued that despite their deep understanding of the Sanskrit texts, traditional Sanskrit pandits did not possess a critical historical knowledge of their own tradition. He argued that a revival of Sanskrit learning in the College should follow the European Indological model, which was more historical, while preserving the pandits' traditional command over their subject. Babu Pramadadas disagreed with this position and argued that a historical view was important, but not indispensable. Dalmia argues that Babu Pramadadas explicitly rejected “the universalist claims made by Western historical-critical scholarship” (58).The debate aptly reveals the difference between two modes of knowing. The pandits' knowledge was not historical, but it was more contextual. As Dalmia notes in her introduction, in Germany, she could access Sanskrit texts as independent objects of study, deracinated from their long-standing context: “This was knowledge rooted in itself. It had little connection to anything else, it barely needed India. The raw material had been supplied in the nineteenth-century” (5). Dalmia’s own experience, exactly a century after the 1884 debate, is symptomatic of this tendency in European Indology, especially its philological tradition.

Chapter 5—on vernacular histories in late19th-century Benares—is equally interesting. Just as the Sanskrit College debate reflected a persistent methodological difference between “Eastern” and “modern” “Western” traditions of knowledge, this chapter dwells on yet another central debate in colonial intellectual history: traditional and vernacular histories versus the post-Enlightenment discipline of history in Europe. Dalmia shows how in the amateur historical writings of Bharatendu Harishchandra, one can discern “a self-aware, self-confident use of sources other than the Orientalist, a new revalidation of oral tradition as ethnology, and of the Puranas as history” (135). Chapter 9 deals with Harishchandra’s defense of the Hindu practice of murtipuja (idol-worship). Dalmia underscores the specific difference between the positions of Raja Rammohun Roy (Brahmo Samaj) and Swami Dayanand Sarasvati (Arya Samaj) on the one hand, and that of Bharatendu Harishchandra on the other. While the former decried the Hindu practice of idol worship as a later corruption, Harishchandra, who was a follower of the Vaishnava guru Vallabhacharya (1478-1530), presented an intelligent explanation for and defense of the practice.

The sixth chapter is on the place of the guru in the Pustimarga tradition founded by Vallabhacharya. Dalmia tries to show how, contrary to the prevalent scholarly view that the sagunasampradayas of Hinduism had an elite following and adhered to Brahmanical strictures, Vallabha’s teachings ran counter to Brahmanical orthodoxy by refusing the mediation of priests and calling for a direct communion with Krishna, redefining religious practice by going against veda and loka, that is, ritual injunctions and social customs. In this context, it would have been interesting to also engage with Vallabha as the proponent of a distinct Vedantic school—Shuddhadvaita. As Dalmia points out, Vallabha criticizes mayavad and asceticism, but this criticism could have been inscribed within his larger philosophical criticism of Advaita Vedanta, and may not have been merely a rejection of orthodoxy and custom. It is important to understand the relationship between Veda and Vedanta—the latter is not a rejection of Vedic ritualism (for most people need karma or ritual action before the mind is purified enough to seek God), but a call for moving beyond ritualism.

In chapter 7, the author demonstrates how Vallabhacharya’s teachings provided a new space for women, in contrast to the practice of sati (immolation of wives on the funeral pyre of the dead husband) or the position of Manusmriti vis-à-vis women. If the point is that spirituality affords a space for women in defiance of social customs, the point is well taken. But to limit oneself to a few passages (which by themselves do not reflect the entire position of the text) from the Manusmriti, and declare that “all religious literature, mythological, legal, and narrative” sought to confine women to conjugality and social custom (178), is a bit far-fetched. A dharmasastra text is supposed to expound upon law and custom, not instruct in spiritual life, while spiritualism is a state where the mind has outgrown duty and custom.

In her other works, Dalmia has been a proponent of the “constructionist” view of Hinduism, which holds that Hinduism was a product of colonial knowledge production. While the present anthology does not deal with this issue, the assumption, that there was no Hinduism prior to colonial rule, surfaces every now and then. It has become a generic tendency among scholars of modern Hinduism to take this position for granted, while deeper engagement with pre-modern Hinduism in the context of this argument is relatively rare. As is evident in the anthology, much of Dalmia’s discomfiture is on account of the rise of Hindutva. The spectre of Hindutva in a way informs her reading of Hindu pasts.  

The volume showcases some of the best works of Dalmia on the mixed legacies of modernity and colonialism vis-à-vis history, religion, language, and gender. Notwithstanding differences of opinion, the work is valuable for highlighting the complexity of issues and for presenting before the reader a veritable wealth of sources that open a new window into the past.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Arpita Mitra has a PhD in History and is an Independent Researcher based in New Delhi, India.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Vasudha Dalmia is emerita professor of Hindi and modern South Asian studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She has written, edited, and translated many books, including The Nationalization of Hindu Traditions: Bhāratendu Hariśchandra and Nineteenth-Century Banaras; Poetics, Plays, and Performances: The Politics of Modern Indian Theatre; and Fiction as History: The Novel and the City in Modern North India.



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