The Nationalization of Hindu Traditions: Bharatendu Harischandra and the Nineteenth-century Banares

Review: VASUDHA DALMIA, The Nationalization of Hindu Traditions: Bharatendu Harischandra and Nineteenth-century Banares. Delhi: Oxford University Press 1997, 490pp. INR660(hpk)

During the last decade, Hindu-nationalism developed to a major political force in India. In face of these political realities, it attracted also the interests of the academic circles as many questions about the emergence of this religious and political phenomenon needed still to be answered. In this respect, the book under review fills a gap in the current discussion.

Dalmia (D.) is a teacher of Hindi. During her work, she came across of the pioneering activities of Bharatendu Harischandra (H.) (1850-85) in the development of the Hindi language. D.’s main idea of the book is that she gives not only an account of H.’s work in the various literary genres (chapter 5) as he edited several Hindi journals.  Instead, she discovers also its political and social content. (see for example pp. 237-69, 315-22) She proves her approach by taking one of H.’s latest addresses given in November 1884: “How can India make progress?” as a running theme of the whole book. This address and other works of H., however, are quite un-known to today’s historians and it is, therefore, good that D. makes the public more familiar with one of personalities who was involved in the development of Hindu-nationalist ideas in their earliest stages.

For H., Dharma (religion) was “the root of all progress” (p 25). Unity that was in this respect needed, however, was hardly experienced. According to him, the different sects and religious opinions, etc., were asked to bury their differences and to discover their commonness as being Hindus. Three important aspects in that matter were to be considered: language and literature (Hindi), religion (Hindu), and territorial allegiance (Hindustan). D., somehow, defends the view that the concept of being a Hindu had not been used to denote a religious community in particular. Accordingly, in those times, whoever lived in Hindustan could be considered to be a Hindu.

The book under review, however, has a number of advantages. D. puts H.’s work in its space and time. At this stage of consideration, D. relies heavily on findings of other authors in her work. But they enable her to make her points clear and describe the situation and circumstances prevailing in the middle of the 19th century in Benares. D. dwells, here, extensively on the elements which supported the special development of this region as they were: British interests as colonial administrators, pp. 55-60, 75, and Hindu Kings of the region, pp. 64-82. At the turn to the 19th century, “a new configuration of power” (p. 73) eventually emerged which led to an expulsion of Muslims from the city with “was matched by the growing wealth of the Hindu classes” (p. 75). From now onwards, specific religious (Hindu) activity and Hindi education were favoured and patronaged. In the final analysis, the Hindu-merchants found themselves vis-à-vis the colonial administration in a disadvantaged position (p.93-4). Thus, a further impetus on finding a distinct and “own” identity which would serve the interests of these classes developed. Here, a separation of Hindi from Urdu became a major mean in achieving this end (pp. 147-221). This development, in turn, was directly linked in finding a common Hindu religious ground. D. gives an excellent insight of H’s view on tradition (pp. 386-8) and his contribution in making “bhakti” (love to God) as a “unifying instance” (p. 374) for Hinduism as a whole.

In the final analysis, she emphasises that the shaping of the idea about India was “a process of interaction with concerned and interested persons and groups in India” (p. 410) as Hindu middle classes and merchants searched for new public spheres and ways of expression. However, D. is not able to prove convincingly her point because at several stages of here consideration she recognises the active and creative part of the British administration, European Orientalists and Missionaries in this process and she admits that H. borrowed his ideas from Western and Christian notions. D., however, provides a lot of empirical material which can be useful for the on-going debate on the impact of Europe on modern Indian history.

On the issue to which extent tradition should play a role in society, D. shows that she shares a number of ideas with H. This circumstance reduces to a certain extent the scholarly content of the book and which might have led also to an over-estimation of H.’s influence on Indian history.

H.’s ideas stemed from his upbringing and direct social environment as well as his encounter with European knowledge. It did not reflect the reality of India. And as D.’s had to admit they excluded Muslims as Urdu-speakers, South Indians as speakers of Dravidian languages (pp. 220-1). H.’s work  revealed also Vaisnava biases which excluded a number of Hindu sects, as for example the followers of the Saivait belief who were influential in the South (pp. 410, 427-8). Thus, H.’s impact of unifying the Indian society was strongly limited and his ideas caused more frictions within the society (see pp. 426-9). D. does not dwell into the question whether H.’s perception might have contributed to the communal divide of the whole subcontinent. Instead, in her concluding remarks, she stresses its “emancipatory functions” (p. 436). She mentions only incidentally that “it was in its turn repressive …” (p. 437). Here, one would have wished a more critical assessment of H. In the opinion of the reviewer, H.’s potential of unifying India and contributing to her progress needs, therefore, some further consideration.

(Author. Michael Schied)

published in: Nations and Nationalism, Cambridge, 4(October 1998)4, pp. 592-3


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