Spiritual Despots

Modern Hinduism and the Genealogies of Self-Rule

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J. Barton Scott
South Asia Across the Disciplines
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , July
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the context of nineteenth-century colonial India, Hindu reformers like Rammohan Roy, Keshub Chunder Sen, and Dayananda Saraswati challenged popular liturgical practices as well as social evils, such as sati, and altered the perception of Hinduism, at least on an elite level. Socio-religious reform movements and reformists have been the main focus of scholarship on religion in colonial India. Author J. Barton Scott interjects in this broad discourse by putting Michel Foucault, Thomas Carlyle, Max Weber, and Mahatma Gandhi into conversation to explicate how Hindu reformers used Protestant, liberal, and Hindu ideas in the context of South Asia, to criticize “priestcraft” and in developing theories to construct what Scott refers to as the self-ruling, modern Hindu subject. Scott forges connections between reformist people, ideas, and movements in a transnational perspective.

Following the Protestant Reformation in Europe, the rejection of pope and priests did not simply democratize asceticism, as theorized by Weber, but also stimulated the creation of the self-ruling subject. The Reformation reconfigured the pastorate, moving the pope or priest’s function of spiritual governance to the individual. The individual became their own pope: the sovereign subject. To rule oneself, however, the subject was split into two, where one was the sacred governor and the other, the subject in the world. The methods of self-rule vary, as the “self” does not exist in isolation, but as part of cultures and in interaction with other subjects.

To illustrate this idea of the “relationality” of the individual to others, Scott narrates the story of Ekalavya from the Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata. Ekalavya was the son of a hunter who longed to master archery. He was turned away by Drona, the teacher of the Pandavas. Subsequently, he created a clay image of Drona, worshipped it, and began to train himself. Scott shows that although Ekalavya edified himself in the art of archery, he externalized the self onto the image of the clay guru. The clay guru was really Ekalavya’s higher self, which blurred the line between the self and the guru, and thus opened up the self to relations with those external to it. Accordingly, spiritual despotism becomes a way to describe the role of the clay guru in the lives of subjects.

In order to advance this highly nuanced argument, Scott provides a genealogy of the self-ruling subject through a close textual analysis of the works of British and Indian theorists. The first part of the book focuses on transnational debates concerning “priestcraft,” with particular reference to British philosopher James Mill; the English Quaker William Howitt; and the Brahmo Samaj thinker Keshub Chunder Sen.

Scott’s most interesting analysis occurs in the second part of the book where he considers selected Indian reformers and their techniques of critiquing and alleviating “priestcraft.” Karsandas Mulji’s scathing accusations against the moral transgressions and heterodoxy of the Vallabhachari Maharajas precipitated reform initiatives from both Mulji and the Maharajas. The ideal and virtuous housewife was the model for Mulji’s reformed priest. The good wife was the exemplary self-ruling subject who prayed to cleanse her heart and offered all her actions to the divine. On the other hand, Dayanand Saraswati attacked what he called “pope-lila.” By doing so, he not only shifted the discourse to Hindu theology, but also rejected the recognised concept of lila, which he felt was antithetical to Vedic science. Lila, the divine play of the priest, validated all actions of the priest as sacrosanct, and consequently duped followers into blindly following the priest. Dayanand combined the critique of priestcraft with the “bureaucratization” of brahmacharya (celibacy)—a “technology” he believed would help people control the self. He did not vitiate the role of the selfless renunciant in society, but instead preached a democratized form of asceticism that would protect subjects from the false whims of the priests.

Much has been written on nineteenth-century Hindu reformers. Scott’s intervention in this discourse, however, is unique and stimulating; written through the lens of postmodernism and using English, Hindi, and Gujarati writings. Scott effectively provides new insights into the role of these reformers and their connections to ideas and theorists beyond the subcontinent, thereby going beyond the boundaries of nation and culture. Although Scott notes that the history of priestcraft relates to the story of those who attacked it, it would be interesting to compare the responses of contemporary priests or gurus to the events and ideas Scott mentions. Was there a social reality to these ideas? At the same time these Indian theorists were attacking priestcraft, there was also a resurgance of Bengali and Gujarati Vaishnava renunciant traditions. Can these two seemingly oppositional narratives be reconciled?

Overall, Scott’s intellectual history will be essential for the student and scholar of neo-Vedanta and modern Hinduism. It is equally applicable to intellectual historians concerned with the transference and appropriation of ideas.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kirtan Patel is a graduate student in History at Utah State University.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

J. Barton Scott is assistant professor of historical studies and the study of religion at the University of Toronto.


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