The Legacy of Vaiṣṇavism in Colonial Bengal

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Ferdinando Sardella, Lucian Wong
Routledge Hindu Studies Series
  • London: 
    , December
     266 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Legacy of Vaiṣṇavism in Colonial Bengal is based on a workshop titled “Bengali Vaiṣṇavism in the Modern Period,” held at Oxford University in March of 2015. Its purpose is to provide a corrective to the narrative that privileges the agency of certain characters and movements in the colonial encounter, the status of which has been “axiomatic . . . for observers of the period, becoming the entrenched historical paradigm" (5). They will be well known to most students of South Asia: Rammohun Roy, the Brahmo Samaj, the Ramakrishna Mission, and others—in short, the Bengali bhadralok or “gentlefolk” to which an idealized status of “agents of change” has been ascribed, social and religious, which marks a break with the precolonial past in the context of emerging nationalism. The corrective against this predominant paradigm is to emphasize instead “pre-existing Hindu religious currents and traditions (sampradāya)” (5; indeed, the idea of "sampradāyic Hindu currents" thoroughly informs the introduction).

The justification for this corrective is straightforward: privileging the agency of the bhadralok along the lines of modernity not only overestimates their significance in the fashioning of contemporary Hinduism, but also it paints a “dramatically impoverished picture of the colonial Hindu landscape” (6). The various currents of traditional Hinduism do not just disappear with the onset of modernity, but continue to “exert a potent hold over the Hindu imaginary in various ways” (6). The volume, then, focuses on the role of one such “sampradāyic Hindu currents,” Vaiṣṇavism, specifically its iteration associated with the Bengali cultural hero Caitanya (1486–1533)—that is, what is variously known as “Bengali,” “Caitanya,” or “Gauḍīya” Vaiṣṇavism—in the temporal context of colonial Bengal.

The eleven individual contributions to the volume are arranged in two parts. The first part, “Recovering the Legacy: How Vaiṣṇavas Adopted Colonial Modalities,” remains firmly entrenched in the bhadralok context and the attempts to fashion urban—and arguably universalist—Vaiṣṇavism against more traditional religious forms for which the bhadralok did not have much taste. “Reform” is very much the leitmotif here, anchored by Varuni Bhatia’s opening paper which discusses the discourse of religious reform and the explicit parallels to Luther that replaced old concepts, such as avatāra or divine descent, in the bhadralok engagement with the life of Caitanya and his appropriation as a cultural icon.

Next, Amiya Sen’s contribution tackles the question of why Bengali intellectuals found the theological and cultural discourse of Vaiṣṇavism so appealing, refracted in the thought of Bipin Chandra Pal (1858–1932). Shantanu Dey’s “Vaiṣṇava Institutional Processes in Colonial Bengal” goes on to argue that Caitanya Vaiṣṇavas in modernity built new, “hard” institutions, by reengaging selectively with, rather than disengaging completely from, varied forms of Vaiṣṇava devotionalism. Gerald T. Carney’s essay provides a very readable biography of Baba Premananda Bharati (1859–1914), the first follower of Caitanya to come to the United States some sixty years before the much more successful Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, importantly situating him in the context of Vaiṣṇava individuals and institutions whose tradition he inherited. Then, Kenneth Valpey’s paper reads two pieces on image worship and temple entry from the English periodical The Harmonist published by the Gaudiya Math of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati (1874–1937), uncovering in them what amounts to a Caitanya universalist doctrine of maintaining temple worship practices but rejecting casteism. Part one closes with a note by the late Joseph O’Connell that is sort of a conspectus-cum-prospectus on the research of Vaiṣṇavism in colonial Bengal.

Part 2, “Contending the Portrayal: How Ethics Shaped the Religion of Love,” looks at currents of Vaiṣṇavism beyond the bhadralok, which largely comes to mean sahajiyā or “Tantric-based transgressive body-oriented practices and precepts” (9) that were abhorred almost by every other Vaiṣṇava current at the time. Tony Stewart’s “The Power of the Secret: The Tantalizing Discourse of Vaiṣṇava Sahajiyā Scholarship,” is the absolute highlight of the volume, providing a meta-history of sahajiyā research and asking the hard question, if not providing an answer, of how one may—or even should—study and interpret a religious tradition that is intentionally secret, socially transgressive, and talks about itself in a code known only to its initiated practitioners. Arguably Stewart’s questions are answered in situ by Sukanya Sarbadhikary, whose is a fine anthropological account of sahajiyā philosophy and practice based on extensive fieldwork. Jeanne Openshaw’s study of a manuscript produced by someone called Rāj Khyāpā (1869–1946), a Bāul and a respected guru who eloped with a low-caste woman by the name of Rājeśvar in the pursuit of embodied love, is a fascinating case study of how personal matters inflect a genre that is otherwise studied outside of its context.

Kiyokazu Okita next reconstructs the history of the debate on the nature of the relationship between Kṛṣṇa and the gopīs or cowherd girls of Vrindavan—is it marital (svakīyā) or extramarital (parakīyā)—that is a very important theological issue in Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism. He argues that the issue posed similar problems for Vaiṣṇavas both in the early modern and the modern period, demonstrating thereby the importance of knowing how South Asia was before the onset of colonialism to understanding how it has changed in the encounter. The concluding paper of Lucien Wong problematizes the story of a rupture occasioned by colonialism with respect to sahajiyā practice and doctrine. By reading from the hagiographical literature and studying leading representatives of traditional Vaiṣṇava gosvāmī communities, Wong shows that popular precolonial Gauḍīya literature manifests Brahmanical partiality, a trend further fostered in the bhadralok Vaiṣṇava context. The last two papers, then, are exemplary case studies of continuity rather than change.

The volume certainly succeeds in its purpose of correcting the received wisdom about religion in colonial Bengal, although that is more of a consolidation of an already current trend in scholarship, indeed one that has been pursued for a while by its editors and contributors, than an earth-shattering innovation. To my mind, its greatest value consists in showcasing the work of scholars who have already changed the paradigm and increased our understanding of religion and colonialism. As such, many of the individual contributions will be interesting to specialists, and the entire volume will be greatly useful to students of Hinduism generally, and its context of modernity particularly.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aleksandar Uskokov is a lector in Sanskrit in the South Asian Studies Council, Yale University.

Date of Review: 
July 11, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ferdinando Sardella is assistant professor at Stockholm University, Sweden. He is a research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, University of Oxford, UK.

Lucian Wong is a postdoctoral fellow of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (OCHS), University of Oxford, UK and is co-director of the Bengali Vaiṣṇavism in the Modern Period Project of the OCHS.


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