Reform and Reaffirmation of South Asian Religious Traditions in the Colonial Period
Statue of Buddha in India
The advent of British power and waning of centralized Mughal power
brought about key changes in South Asian religious life in the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Religions came to be defined in
particular ways through the enactment of the census with its discrete
categories for “Hindu,” “Muslim,” and for separate castes. In
actuality, these categories may have been much more fluid than the
census allowed for. Many groups—Sikhs, low-caste people, those who
followed syncretic traditions that blended elements of separate
religions—were left in the margins and had to fight to be recognized.
The cultural critique and racism associated with the colonial regime
also meant that many Indians found themselves in defense of
“tradition.” All the movements of the period tended to position
themselves in relation to the British challenge, explicitly or not.
Thus Ram Mohun Roy, the famous Bengali founder of the Brahmo Samaj in
1828, modeled his vision of religious life along pluralistic and
universalist grounds. In the late nineteenth century, Dayanand
Saraswati, embracing the Vedic tradition, founded the Arya Samaj and
attempted to purge Hinduism of such “impure” elements as image worship
(based on an understanding of Vedic traditions as more authentic, as
also articulated by Western scholars). This organization was very
active in building Hindu consciousness in Punjab and elsewhere.
Certain organizations, educational institutions, and political
movements came to be centered around religion as well as caste and
other identities. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan founded Aligarh University to
promote the position of Muslims, many of whom had not benefited from
colonial patronage as much as Hindus. Many debates were couched in
religious terms. A community sought to gain the patronage and attention
of the British administration, and those who could “speak for” a
particular group were given the ability to influence government policy.
In Punjab different communities came to compete with one another for
representation on government committees and in fledgling
representational institutions. One’s political affiliation and one’s
religion became intimately intertwined as groups of people attempted to
align themselves in ways that would allow them a voice within the
colonial structure—particularly as the promise of independence took
shape. These loyalties and communities were reconfigured and
politicized in a way that fundamentally transformed both religious
identity and how people engaged in political organization. It is within
this context that one must understand the formation of the
nation-states that succeeded the British colonial state through the
partition of the subcontinent: India, Pakistan, and after 1971,
Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan.
To the Present—Conflict, Accommodation, New Directions
Modern India, the world’s largest democracy, has seen periods of great
triumphs in the formation of modern religious identities and practices,
as well as great tragedies. Caste continues to exert a profound
influence both in individual lives and in regional and national
politics (as shown recently in Bihar). However, leaders like Ambedkar,
who chose to convert to Buddhism to combat the stigma of
untouchability, and others have challenged the status quo like the
bhakti poets and Buddhist thinkers of centuries ago. Change and
continuity still characterize the development of religious traditions
in South Asia as they have in the past. Pakistan and Bangladesh have
experimented to different degrees with the integration of Islamic legal
structures into the running of the nation-state, but in neither nation
has conservative Islam exerted a definitive influence on governance.
The legal system in India has retained differing systems for Hindu and
Muslim personal law (more than 10 percent of the population of India is
Muslim). The Sikhs have battled for their own homeland, since 1997 a
relative peace has returned to the Punjab, but the issue may emerge
again. Fundamentalist Hinduism, especially after the destruction of the
mosque at Ayodhya in 1991, has raised concerns for all religious
minorities in the region—Sikh, Muslim, and Christian alike. South
Asia’s dynamic religious present is manifested throughout the world,
since the South Asian diaspora is a vital and growing community.
Religious traditions are transformed by this increasingly small world,
influenced by economic and political change, new media, and altering
social expectations. Core religious beliefs and practices will continue
to change, as living cultures do, in the future.
Author: Anne Murphy.