Hinduism Before Reform

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Brian A. Hatcher
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , March
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Brian Hatcher’s Hinduism Before Reform is required reading not only for scholars of Hindu studies and South Asian religions but also for any student or scholar engaged in reflection on the concepts of reform, publics, modernity, and coloniality. The book is also highly recommended for anyone invested in interrogating the persistent colonial legacy of the concepts and categories used in the study of religion. Hatcher makes yet another contribution to the study of early colonial modernity in South Asia and signals a rethinking of scholarly approaches to reform and publics in particular. Scholars in any field who rely on such terms will benefit from serious consideration of this important volume.

Hatcher’s primarily historical project is quite theoretical and focuses on the late-18th- and early-19th-century adumbrations of the emerging polities he compares. Hatcher resists generalizing about the supposed historical rupture between premodern and modern India to focus on what Partha Chatterjee considers to be the more crucial transition between early colonial and late colonial modernity. His broader contribution to Hindu studies hinges on a reframing of late-modern to contemporary conceptualizations of reform, ones that Hatcher proposes are all too often encumbered by teleological presuppositions accompanied by awkward ideological baggage. Hatcher solidifies this point by introducing and concluding the book with stark distinctions between his own aims—to resist if not retire the language of religious reform—and those of Martha Nussbaum, whom he sees as haunted by reform’s specter in her very fixation on its latter-day failure, a perspective Hatcher suggests may in fact “double down on the tropes of colonial reform” (244).

In his most explicitly comparative project to date, Hatcher looks to two influential 19th-century religious luminaries, Sahanajand Swami and Rammohan Roy, and their respective Gujarati and Bengali “polities,” in a quest to understand these figures and their contexts through critical processes of comparison (and contrast), all while setting aside the overwrought category of religious reform. Hatcher’s goal is “to advance an alternate history” (73) of the early stages of the two movements. With such aims in sight, he asks why these two figures have so often been kept apart in scholarly reflection and what we might learn if we chose “to follow Sahajanand and Rammohun down some unusual paths of comparison and to think about them in some unaccustomed ways” (9).

Hatcher’s first chapter sets a familiar scene while also destabilizing commonly employed “chronotopic narratives” of an early colonial pan-Indian space time. This chapter also initiates a thread in the book that links the incipient study of modern geography with notions of the fluidity of landscapes that Rammohan and Sahanajand occupied, which comprises the topical focus of chapter 2. In these opening chapters we are also presented with an overview of the cast of characters and historical contexts of the era (late 18th and early 19th centuries). Following the theoretical substantiation of the project in chapter 3 (about which more is said below), chapters 4 through 6 alternate between a focus on Sahajanand and Rammohun with respect to their travels (4-5) and their strategies of polity rule (6-7). The book’s organization matches the explicitly comparative aims of the thesis, and by the time we reach the final chapter and conclusion, “Old Comparisons and New,” we find that Hatcher has followed through on his aim to give us a level-handed and informative treatment of Sahajanand and Rammohun, and certainly some new (if also long-forgotten) ways to compare the two. Furthermore, Hatcher provides not only new ways of thinking about these two figures but also fresh strategies for imagining their “kaleidoscopic” early colonial contexts.

Throughout the book, the particular strategy that Hatcher employs for “thinking before reform” is to understand the Brahmo Samaj and the Swaminarayan Sampraday in terms of “religious polities,” which is also to say how both movements “were first articulated.” Such an emic, constructive category (in contrast to derivative and reactionary focuses on “reform” or a retrojective employment of “publics”), Hatcher proposes, destabilizes a long history of normative discourse while contributing to “a new narrative of modern Hinduism that exits from such bordered and teleological histories” (8). Hatcher makes a strong case for this intervention and succeeds in seeing it through. The foundation for this approach is fleshed out in the theory-heavy third chapter, “Polities Before Publics,” wherein Hatcher harnesses the work of Ronald Inden, R. G. Collingwood, and Amrita Shodhan in order to build upon Inden’s engagement in Imagining India (Indiana University Press, 1990) with Collingwood’s concept of polity. Hatcher’s understanding of polity as “self-constituting,” “malleable,” and governed by forces of “complex agency” roughly echoes that expressed in Inden’s seminal text while extending the applicability of the term.

As the title of the third chapter suggests, Hatcher’s emphasis on “polities” is also a reaction to recent Hindu studies scholarship on “publics,” exemplified by the work of Elaine Fisher and Christian Novetzke. One of the most critically compelling flourishes of the volume is Hatcher’s alternative interpretation of the Chakradhar trial treated in Novetzke’s The Quotidian Revolution (Columbia University Press, 2016). By highlighting and questioning the risks of interjecting contemporary notions of public life into the past, Hatcher models a starkly different way of thinking about the trial in contrast to Novetzke’s anachronistic telling and interpretation, however self-conscious. Through this and other examples, Hatcher shows us a different way of thinking not only about colonial India, but also about what it means to read and understand texts in their respective contexts.

As a contribution to the study of South Asian religions, Hinduism Before Reform facilitates our deeper understanding of two religiously and politically significant individuals and their early colonial contexts while disrupting commonly held frameworks by which Rammohan and Sahajanand have so often been understood. As a contribution to religious studies and the humanities at large, Hatcher compels our careful consideration of the colonial tropes that persist in contemporary scholarship while exemplifying strategies for retiring rather than reformulating well-worn concepts and categories in place not of “new” terms but of “old” ones that more tightly bind and more deeply ground our comparisons between the past and the present.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bennett Comerford is a doctoral student at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian A. Hatcher is the Packard Chair of Theology at Tufts University. His previous books include Bourgeois Hinduism and Vidyasagar: The Life and After-life of an Eminent Indian.


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