Mexico City is among the most distant places from India where Indian history and culture are taught and studied. The Centre for Asian and African Studies, part of El Colegio de México which was founded as the ‘Casa de España’ in 1938 with the purpose to offer a place of study to Spanish intellectuals who had fled the civil war in their country, is the largest and most prestigious of its kind in Latin America. Perhaps such a great distance from one’s object of study is conducive to developing a comprehensive approach. In any case, David N. Lorenzen, who has been teaching at the Colegio de México for more than three decades, is one of those (not many) scholars covering in research and teaching vastly different eras in the history of the subcontinent, comprising the ancient, medieval and modern periods.
His principal research interests are: The Kabir Panth, Nirguni literature in Hindi, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Gupta history, and, in recent years, Catholic, especially Franciscan missionaries and their relationship to indigenous Hindu society in the 18th century. How stimulating his work has been for other scholars, in India, Europe and America, becomes clear when reading a volume edited in his honour by two of Lorenzen’s colleagues in México City, Ishita Banerjee-Dube and Saurabh Dube. In their ‘Introduction’, after giving a brief sketch of the life and work of Lorenzen, the editors discuss some key categories of his intellectual endeavour which also represent the unifying theme of the book: religion, power, community.
Religion is understood by the Dubes not just as a ‘hermetically sealed off domain of the sacred’, it involves ‘inherently experiential, intriguingly historical sets of signifying beliefs and practices that simultaneously shape and are in turn shaped by social worlds’ (p. 5). Not only that religion is implicated in the production and reproduction of social life, transformations are central to religion itself. In the concept of power, too, the productive and historical aspects are highlighted. Power goes beyond the exercise of authority based on the control over political and economic resources. Forms of domination, hegemony, control etc. are also manifested in cultural schemes, disciplinary routines, representational regimes, discursive practices etc. The approaches to religion and power correspond to a similarly wide conception of community. Far from seeing community as a ‘tightly bounded entity, . . . as entailing allegiance to primordial tradition’, the authors follow current tendencies to write a ‘greater heterogeneity’ into it. New directions of research have also been facilitated, as is made clear, by recent efforts of rethinking the dominant concept of history.
The contributors to the volume come from quite different fields. But all of them seek to negotiate in some way or the other aspects of religion and power in the context of identity formation. Covering textual traditions as well as practical aspects, the essays deal with issues of internal conflict or differentiation in the various religious traditions, customs and interpretations.
In the chapters on early India, both Romila Thapar and R. Champakalakshmi deal with the puranic tradition and religion. Thapar (‘The Puranas: Heresy and the “Vamsanucarita”’) reads the Puranas as sectarian texts, associated with a specific deity, inclusive enough to incorporate new religious forms, beliefs and groups. This is shown with reference to the figure of Buddha who, after having been seen as a social and cultural threat by his contemporaries, was accepted later and perceived as an avatar of Vishnu. Buddha’s teachings which questioned the varna system, however, were rejected. Champakalakshmi (‘Shankara and Puranic Religion’) focuses on regional traditions in South India and seeks to capture the assimilative nature of Puranic Hinduism. In its regional manifestations (as in its encounter with Tamil Sangam literature and the bhakti cult), this is her argument, Puranic Hinduism was distinctly plural (more than in the Ganges valley). Even if, in later times, a normative Sanskritic tradition was used as a legitimating ideology for the creation of a supra-regional state (e.g. Vijayanagar), the tension between overarching traditions and local or popular forms persists until today.
David Gordon White in his contribution titled ‘Never Have I Seen Such Yogis, Brother’ questions the common association of the yogi and the lotus posture as popularized by the Bhagavad Gita. In early India the lotus posture symbolized royal sovereignty rather than the practice of yoga. While in the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita the practice of yoga is described with great uniformity, in other textual traditions it is ascribed a greater variety of meanings. Benjamín Preciado-Solís (‘Visualizations of the Horrific in Buddhist Tantric Literature’) explores a genre of portrayals (exemplified through Tibetan prints and frescoes), that many would have difficulties to associate with the peaceful doctrine of Buddhism: depictions of ‘sadistic torture and horrendous crime’. Tracing the beginning of horrific depictions in the Pali canon, predating Tantric Buddhism by many centuries, the author suggests that the confrontation with cruelty and violence may have been seen as a last challenge of the Buddha (or of an ordinary monk) on the path towards enlightenment. In the Tantric milieu, however, it could also be a step towards obtaining magical power.
The contingent and contentious factors in the creation of religious communities are at the centre of attention in Purushottam Agrawal’s ‘In search of Ramanand’. His topic is the ascetic order of the followers of Ramanand, who was the guru of Ravidas, Raidas, Pipa and others. Agrawal distinguishes between a ‘Hindi Ramanand’ and a ‘Sanskrit Ramanand’, according to the writings attributed to him and he traces the privileging of the latter to recent constructions of a specific image by members of a religious order. Linda Hess (‘Fighting over Kabir’s Dead Body’) exemplifies the inner tensions in the formation of a community around a militant figure which may be in contrast with its central teachings. Beginning with an account of the clash over Kabir’s dead body (burial or cremation?) between Hindu and Muslim followers, the essay shows the intense emotions and energies which are involved in the building of communities and their fight for survival. This motivates their members to make ‘strident claims on legendary heroes, origin myths, and ritual practices’. Lorenzen’s comparative analysis of Oriental scholarship in early modern times results in a contrast between the ‘slow growth’ under scholar-missionaries over the long period from 1500 to 1770 and the ‘exponential growth of such knowledge among British scholar-administrators’ after 1770. These findings are the point of departure for the next two chapters. Ines G. Zupanov’s contribution, ‘Orientalist Museum: Roman missionary Collections’, focuses on the Italian missionary Paulinus Bartholomaeo, who lived in South India from 1776 to 1789 and afterwards was a professor of Indian languages in Rome. His observations from a comparative perspective are recorded in his Viaggio alle Indie Orientali. Stefano Borgia, a rich aristocrat and Papal administrator, invited him to set up an Indian collection (containing manuscripts, sculptures, paintings, votive objects etc.) for his museum of antiquities at Velletri. Nevertheless, Bartholomaeo’s work, part of the universal Catholic mission, sank into oblivion with the emergence of scientific Orientalist research in the 19th century. Thomas R. Trautmann (‘The Missionary and the Orientalist’), however, shows that, notwithstanding the clear differences in perspective between the contending schools, there was also cooperation. Many missionaries were also Orientalist scholars and Orientalist scholars in general had strong Christian beliefs. The harsh opposition is to be related mainly to contemporary British politics, with Evangelicals and Utilitarians proposing social reforms that had to be exported also to India.
The policy of aggressive westernization was in contrast to the Orientalists’ sympathetic approach to Hinduism. Saurabh Dube’s essay, ‘Witnessing Lives. Conversion and Life History in Colonial Central India’ focuses on Indian rather than western actors. It deals with biographies and autobiographies of Christian converts in Chhattisgarh (1920s to 1940s) and seeks to explore in these narratives what is ‘at once vernacular and colonial, simultaneously contrary and common’. Based on archival studies (Eden Archives and Library of the American Evangelical Mission) as well as field work among Christians in India, it is part of a larger project on the evangelical encounter in central India and North America in the 19th and 20th centuries. Another point of departure for a critical rethinking of concepts and categories are Lorenzen’s studies on the ‘invention’ of Hinduism under colonialism (see his Who Invented Hinduism? 2006). Frank F. Conlon (‘Speaking of Caste? Colonial and Indigenous Interpretations of Caste and Community in Nineteenth-century Bombay’) questions established meanings of ‘caste’ and ‘community’ and their association with tradition and modernity respectively. While early EIC administrators found the reference to caste useful for the maintenance of public order, with the arrival of British missionaries in the 19th century caste was relegated to and associated with social backwardness. Indians, too, experimented with caste institutions; it was mainly the brahmin pundits who insisted on the static nature of caste. John Stratton Hawley (‘Sanatana Dharma as the Twentieth Century Began: Two Textbooks, Two Languages’) relates the claim of traditionalists towards the end of the 19th century that Hinduism was eternal, i.e. sanatana dharma, to current challenges of modernity whether expressed by Christian critics or Hindu reformers. Based on the analysis of two textbooks, one (written in Hindi) by Pundit Gurusahay of Shahjahanpur, the other (in English) by Annie Besant, Hawley distinguishes among the advocates of sanatana dharma two different universal perspectives: a national and a global one.
The element of contingency that always plays a part in the formation of community is highlighted in the last two chapters. Ishita Banerjee-Dube (‘Customs and Canons: Bhima Bhoi in the Literary Tradition of Orissa’) investigates the beginnings of a community of Mahima Dharmis which emerged among the followers of Bhima Bhoi, a poet-philosopher in Orissa, and its overlapping with the creation of a regional Oriya identity in the 20th century making political use of the poet and his work. Bhima Bhoi’s elevation to national poet of Orissa was possible in spite of the initial reservations about his low birth and lack of formal education. Daniel Gold (‘Living Above Hippopotamus Street: Religion and Community in Working Class North India’), describing and analysing the formation of a community on Satya Narayan hill in urban Gwalior adds the importance of neighbourhood to other factors such as religion, caste, personal friendship etc. Coherence can be created through ‘accidental political sparks’, religion under certain circumstances may be of only secondary importance.
Ranging from heretical and ascetic practices in the ancient and medieval period to everyday expressions of caste and community in the modern and contemporary era, the essays explore various aspects of religion in the context of identity formation and articulation of power. They frequently question established views and understandings thus stimulating scholarly debate and research on the important relation between religion and politics in India.
Michael Gottlob (Berlin) is based in Berlin.