Reform and Reaffirmation of South Asian Religious Traditions in the Colonial Period
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.