Socio-religious reform movements in British India

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General editor GORDON JOHNSON

President of Wolfson College, and Director, Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge

Associate editors C. A. BAYLy

Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History, University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Sc Catharine's College

and Joun F. RIcHarps Professor of History, Duke University

Although the original Cambridge History of India, published between 1922 and 1937, did much to formulate a chronology for Indian history and describe the administrative structures of government in India, it has inevitably been over- taken by the mass of new research published over the last fifty years.

Designed to take full account of recent scholarship and changing conceptions of South Asia’s historical development, The New Cambridge History of India will be published as a series of short, self-contained volumes, each dealing with a sep- arate theme and written by a single person, within an overall four-part structure. Most volumes conclude with a substantial bibliographical essay designed to lead non-specialists further into the literature.

The four parts are as follows:

I The Mughals and their contemporaries II Indian states and the transition to colonialism III The Indian Empire and the beginnings of modern society

IV The evolution of contemporary South Asia

A list of individual titles already published and in preparation will be found at the end of the volume.

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III - 1

Socio-religious reform movements in British India




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CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sao Paulo

Cambridge University Press The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 2RU, UK

Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York Information on this title: 1249867

© Cambridge University Press 1989

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 1989 Reprinted 1997, 2003 This digitally printed first paperback version 2006

A catalogue record for this publication is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication data Jones, Kenneth W.

Socio-religious reform movements in British India. (The New Cambridge history of India; III. 1). Bibliography.

Includes index.

1. India Religion. 2. Religion and sociology India. I. Title. II. Series. BL2007.5.J65 1989 306’.6'0954 88-30433

ISBN-13 978-0-521-24986-7 hardback ISBN-10 0-521-24986-4 hardback

ISBN-13 978-0-521-03105-9 paperback ISBN-10 0-521-03105-2 paperback

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To PROFESSOR WOLFRAM EBERHARD who introduced me to the relations between society

and religion

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List of maps page viii Preface 1X Note on transliteration xl 1 Concepts and context I 2 Bengal and north-eastern India 15 3 The Gangetic core: Uttar Pradesh and

Bihar 48 4 Punjab and the North-West 85 5 The central belt and Maharashtra 122 6 The Dravidian South 152 7 The twentieth century: socio-religious

movements in a politicized world 184 8 Conclusion: religion in history 210 Glossary of Indian terms 222 Bibliographical essay 228 Index 235

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1 Bengal and north-eastern India page 16 2 The Gangetic core: Uttar Pradesh and

Bihar 49 3 Punjab and north-western India 86 4 The central belt and Maharashtra 123 5 The Dravidian South 153

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In keeping with the general intent of The New Cambridge History of India, this volume explores a single historical subject, that of social and cultural change in the British-Indian Empire as expressed in numerous religious movements. Because of the breadth of this study, which examines investigated religious developments among Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians, a diverse body of nine- teenth and twentieth-century literature in the social sciences and humanities was consulted as well as government reports and unpub- lished manuscripts. These included sources in English, Hindi, and Urdu. The volume that resulted begins with a chapter that presents a conceptual framework for socio-religious movements. It then exam- ines traditions of religious dissent within western, Perso-Arabic, and Hindu—Buddhist civilizations, traditions that interacted within the South Asian subcontinent and created the basic forms of socio-re- ligious movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Four regionally defined chapters follow that investigate these movements in the context of place, time, and culture. Next, a single chapter discusses five successful movements in the twentieth century and their role within the context of increasing politicization and competing national- isms. A final chapter analyses the interaction between the dynamic civilizations of South Asia and the imported British version of western civilization. This volume should provide a basic reference for those who seek to explore social and religious change in modern South Asia. It also contains a new vision of this change and a method of differ- entiating between what was new in the nineteenth century and what was a modification of long-standing cultural patterns.

Such an approach entails certain sacrifices particularly given the necessity of covering a vast scope within the limits of a single volume. Consequently, this meant that not every socio-religious movement nor every historical event could be included. The decision on what to include or exclude rested on several factors: the existence of infor- mation, the relative importance of a given group, and the value in illustrating examples of different forms of dissent. Scholars have just


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begun to explore the social and religious history of modern South Asia. Yet even today a complete and comprehensive picture would require several volumes rather than just one. This book has two levels of approach: first, it contains a wide-ranging examination of the period and of scholarship as it now exists; secondly, it presents one vision, one set of concepts that provide a manner of viewing socio-religious change. It is, consequently, a source from which students and scholars can initiate further reading or research.

Several individuals and one institution aided in the preparation of this volume. I would like to give particularly warm thanks to Kansas State University, the sole provider of financial support for the research and writing. They made possible several trips to Chicago, a semester sabbatical leave, and yearly research expenses. I also received invaluable assistance from Maureen Patterson and her staff at the University of Chicago Library. She graciously made available to me the card files used in preparation for her monumental bibliography, thus saving me hours of tedious work. I would also like to thank Mark Juergensmeyer and Elleanor Zelliot, who sent me their unpublished manuscripts, and Sheikh Mubarak Ahmad of the American Faz] Mosque in Washington DC, who supplied me with crucial literature on the Ahmadiyah move- ment. I wish to express my appreciation to the editors of The New Cambridge History of India, whose comments and criticism proved extremely useful, and my wife, Marguerite, for a great deal of support, patience, and helpful criticisms. The final results are, of course, my own and so responsibility rests solely with me and not with those who kindly aided in the completion of this study.

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The policy of transliteration in this volume is one of compromise since words rendered into the Roman alphabet are derived from one Semitic language, Arabic, a number of Indo-European languages of north and central South Asia, as well as from the Dravidian languages of the South. No standard transliteration system for such a diverse group of languages exists, nor in most cases is there agreement among linguists as to a single system for a given language. In addition, transliterations in the sources for this volume are often inconsistent and without relation to any linguistic principle. Consequently transliterations are founded on several basic principles. First, diacriticals have been kept to a mini- mum, with long vowels demarcated as much as possible according to the original language by tracing the word back to the script in which it was written. For languages using the Arabic script or a version of it, such as Persian and Urdu, the hamza is indicated with a’ and the letter ‘ain with a ‘. Some variations in regional languages are not shown in favour of an overall standardization: for example, the common spelling of guru in Hindi versus the spelling of gur# in Punjabi. In the case of names, which are spelt differently depending on the regional sources, preference is given to the spellings that appear in their place of origin and/or in common use. The same policy is followed in nouns; for example, ryotwari rather than the more accurate ra’ yotwari.

At times the transliteration of words into different languages pre- sents almost hopeless difficulties, since the present research is largely based on secondary sources. An excellent example of this problem can be seen in terms from Parsi, terms that originated in ancient Persian, then were written in Gujarati, and finally were put into the Roman script. It is hoped that the present transliterations will enable those who know various languages to recognize the words that appear here, and that those who do not know a South Asian language will be able to gain a more accurate idea of the spelling and pronunciation of these terms.

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Street preaching is very much in vogue here now-a-days. All along Anarkali, Hindu, Mohamedan, Christian, Arya and Brahmo preachers may be seen earnestly expatiating on the excellences of their respective creeds, surrounded by crowds of apparently attentive listeners.

Lahore Tribune, 30 March 1889


Professional missionaries, polemical tracts, and new rituals of con- version, were only three of the components of religious innovation in South Asia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Aggressive proselytism became the norm among sects and religions with new and refurbished forms of action, ranging from public debates on the mean- ing of scriptural sources to the use of printing to produce books, journals, and a multitude of pamphlets. Religious conflict was implicit in the competition for converts, and explicit in assassinations and riots. Sustaining religious pursuits were new organizations fashioned from the traditions of the subcontinent and modified by British culture. South Asians constructed religious societies fully equipped with elected officials, weekly meetings, annual published reports, bank ac- counts, sophisticated systems of fundraising, annual meetings, execu- tive committees, subcommittees, bye-laws, and constitutions. Religious societies founded and successfully managed a number of organizations including hospitals, schools, orphanages, and relief pro- grammes. Conflict, competition, and institution-building emerged from, and rested on, adherents to diverse ideologies made explicit in speech and writing. For many, religion became a matter of creeds that were explained, defined, and elaborated. It was an age of definition and redefinition initiated by socio-religious movements that swept the subcontinent during the years of British colonial rule.

Before turning to a discussion of the past, it is necessary to consider the concept of ‘socio-religious movements’ as used here, and its three crucial dimensions. The term ‘socio’ implies an attempt to reorder


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society in the areas of social behaviour, custom, structure or control. A movement may have sought to reshape any one of these components or a combination of them. All socio-religious movements demanded changes, ranging from the relatively limited approach of defensive and self-consciously orthodox groups to radicals who articulated a sweep- ing condemnation of the status quo. The term ‘religious’ refers to the type of authority used to legitimize a given ideology and its ac- companying programme. This authority was based on scriptures that were no longer considered to be properly observed, on a reinterpreta- tion of doctrines, or on scriptural sources arising from the codification of a new religious leader’s message. At times different types of auth- ority were combined to legitimize a particular programme. The teach- ings of an individual, once adopted by his disciples, were standardized, codified and transformed into an ideology, that is, a structured expla- nation of the present in terms of past events. Such formulae also outlined a path towards the purified future, either for an individual or for society at large. The leader initially, and later the ideology, fur- nished the vehicle for an individual’s participation in a particular move- ment. Here the term ‘movement’ refers to an aggregate of individuals united by the message of a charismatic leader or the ideology derived from that message. Such a movement might be loosely organized, especially during the lifetime of its founder, but if it was to last beyond his death, his disciples needed to create and sustain a formal organiz- ational structure. In short, a socio-religious movement advocated modifications in social behaviour, justified such advocacy by one or another form of religious authority, and then built an organizational structure it maintained over time.

This study will focus on socio-religious movements active during the period of British military and political domination. Beginning in 1757 they gradually expanded their hold and by 1849, either directly or indirectly, ruled the entire subcontinent. The experience of those who were conquered and then administered by the English varied sharply, depending on the time and the circumstances that saw them incorpor- ated into the new colonial world. Their reactions were also shaped by the regional culture in which they lived, by their place in the social hierarchy, and by their membership in a particular religious com- munity. The British themselves changed in their attitudes and in their own culture as the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth, and

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the nineteenth to the twentieth. This study will employ the term ‘colonial milieu’ to indicate areas of time and place where the indigen- ous civilizations of South Asia came into active contact with British culture. A sphere of military and political control was established first, while the zone of cultural interaction evolved slowly from within the conquered territories. Conquest did not necessarily create the colonial milieu for all individuals or for a given region; that was determined by human interaction, by those who found it expedient or necessary to become part of the new colonial world and the culture which it contained.

The uneven development of a colonial milieu and the persistence of indigenous forms of socio-religious dissent produced two distinct types of movement within the period of British rule, the one ‘tran- sitional’ and the other ‘acculturative’. Transitional movements had their origins in the pre-colonial world and arose from indigenous forms of socio-religious dissent, with little or no influence from the colonial milieu, either because it was not yet established or because it had failed to affect the individuals involved in a particular movement. The clearest determinant of a transitional movement was an absence of anglicized individuals among its leaders and a lack of concern with adjusting its concepts and programmes to the colonial world. Transitional move- ments linked the pre-colonial period with the era of English political domination and, if successful, over time with the colonial milieu. Once in contact with it, transitional movements made limited adjustments to that environment.

The second of the two types of socio-religious movement, termed ‘acculturative’, originated within the colonial milieu and was led by individuals who were products of cultural interaction. The founder of such a movement may or may not have been drawn into the world of British culture, but his followers and those who moved into positions of leadership were largely English-educated South Asians influenced by the specific culture of England. Acculturative movements sought an accommodation to the fact of British supremacy, to the colonial milieu that such supremacy had created, and to the personal position of its members within the colonial world. The basis of such movements and many of their declared aims rested on the indigenous heritage of social and religious protest. In no way were acculturative movements totally new or without roots in the general high cultures of South Asia and the

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specific subcultures of a given region. Thus the difference between the transitional and acculturative movements was primarily at their point of origin.

Because of the importance of regional cultures on socio-religious movements as well as the differing role of the English within the geography of the subcontinent, this study will focus on five geographic areas. The socio-religious movements of a given area must be examined in relation to British influence and political dominance, in terms of the local and regional culture, and according to patterns of interaction between different religious communities. The historic role of socio- religious movements can only be understood within the context in which they originated and functioned.

South Asia has been the scene of an extremely complex pattern of cultural interaction. The indigenous Hindu-Buddhist civilization evolved in semi-isolation. Different cultural groups entered the sub- continent from the North-West and were incorporated into the ex- panding civilization of South Asia. At the close of the twelfth century and the beginning of the thirteenth, Muslim conquerors swept across north India and by the mid-fourteenth century gained political control of nearly two-thirds of the subcontinent. They carried a new civiliz- ation, the Perso-Arabic, that retained its identity in spite of numerous cultural adjustments. Next the British introduced their own version of western civilization as they gained control of South Asia in the eight- eenth and nineteenth centuries. By the nineteenth century, three layers of civilization interacted and moulded the socio-religious movements of that century. Each civilization contained its own tradition of protest and dissent that provided the basic past framework for socio-religious movements of the British period.


Within the Eurasian land mass and the islands associated with it, four civilizations evolved, three of which were directly relevant to South Asia.' As each civilization matured, patterns of dissent emerged as

individuals and groups challenged the established order. Religion The fourth civilization of the Eurasian land mass, the Sinitic civilization of East Asia, does not fail within the scope of this volume, since it did not have a direct impact on South Asia. It

did, however, exhibit a similar pattern of protest, legitimized by religion throughout the 2,000 years of Chinese dynastic history.

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played a dual role within each of these three civilizations. In its ortho- dox forms, it supplied much of the legitimization for the status quo, but as heterodox sects, foreign religions or orthodox ideals were carried toa logical extreme, religion furnished sources of authority available to dissenters. Within the three civilizations were socio-religious move- ments of protest and dissent. Yet each had its own unique pattern of relationships between the spheres of religion, politics, society, and economics that shaped the nature of protest.

Western civilization evolved from a rich heritage of diverse religions that lay within the Mediterranean and Near Eastern regions. From the Iranian plateau came Mazdaism with its dualistic struggle between good and evil; the heretical monotheism of Zurvan and the teachings of Mani (AD 216-76), whose ideas, in the form of Manichaeism, inflyenced both the Roman and post-Roman worlds. A variety of mystery cults that existed, at times openly and at other times as suppressed under- ground associations, supplied additional forms of religion. To this religious complexity Judaism contributed a line of prophets and an apocalyptic tradition with its millennial promises of a final stage of human existence when injustice and oppression would be replaced by an ideal world of peace and divine justice. As Christianity grew from its Judaic heritage, it elaborated its own messianic concepts and interacted with the religious heritage of the Mediterranean cultures. Initially, Christianity was a socio-religious movement of dissent, which at- tracted those who wished to challenge the norms of society.

During the process of defining Christianity and codifying acceptable texts as well as doctrine, prophets arose repeatedly with their own visions of a new world, and were rejected as heretical, as were various ‘false’ scriptures. As Christianity achieved dominance in the late Roman world and was brought under control of a single religious institution, the Roman Catholic Church, dissent continued. Jeffrey B. Russell noted that prior to AD 700 it remained largely theological and was led by members of the clergy. This pattern shifted afterwards to movements of reform and change led by laity and based on moral themes.? These movements were legitimized by one or another re- ligious authority. After the eleventh century, religious dissent and protest took a violent turn both by those who engaged in it and by the

2 See Jeffrey B. Russell, Dissent and Reform in the Early Middle Ages (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1965), p. 4. Also a useful reference is Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (Fairlawn, New Jersey, Essential Books, 1957).

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authorities who used force to suppress them. Religious dissent often attracted dissatisfied and suppressed elements of society who, in the process, challenged the Church with its wealth and power as well as governments to which it was closely allied. From the communal up- rising at Cambrai in the eleventh century that responded to the teach- ings of Ramihrd, to the Bundschuh of the sixteenth century with its vision of an egalitarian future, socio-religious movements appeared, took violent form, and were suppressed. Orthodox Christianity as with other religions, faced challenges from mystics who found authority in their own direct experiencing of God and then developed an ideology to explain and elaborate on their achievements. Tanchelm and his ideological descendants, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, found God within them and so rejected the Church as a hindrance to their search for salvation as they mobilized individuals to reject all religious auth- ority except for their own. The concept of a ‘spirit within’ remained a permanent part of western civilization and the basis of protest movements.

Concepts and symbols for the opponents of orthodoxy were also available from pre-Christian religions. As Christianity spread north- wards through Europe, elements of existing religions were either adopted and included within Christianity or defined as ‘Satanic’ and forbidden. They did not totally disappear, however, but remained below the surface as vehicles of dissent. From outside the expanding Christian sphere, both ancient and existing religions provided Europeans with sources of symbols and possible legitimization for socio-religious movements. The rise of Freemasonry in the fourteenth century, with its legendary beginning in pre-Islamic Egypt, and its use of Islamic symbols fused with Christian doctrines, exemplifies the pattern of adapting elements from non-Christian religions to give form to protest within western civilization.

The nature of dissent in western civilization was fundamentally changed by the Protestant Reformation, which destroyed the idea of a single religious authority and taught that each individual could make his judgment of religious truth through a study of the scriptures. This ideological position was made feasible through three interrelated de- velopments: the technology of printing, translations of the scriptures into regional languages, and rising rates of literacy. Gutenberg’s print- ing of the Bible in movable type by 1456, and Martin Luther’s trans- lation of it into German in 1522, marked the beginning of this


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revolution. Religiously expressed dissent continued as part of western civilization. There was, however, another crucial development, namely the rise of secular systems of thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which supplied non-religious legitimization for protest. By the eighteenth century, Europe exported religious and secular concepts that justified social orthodoxy and social change. The Perso-Arabic civilization, by contrast, based social and political behaviour solely on religious authority.

Perso-Arabic civilization shared many of the same religious roots as western civilization. This similarity was clearly demonstrated with the emergence of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad drew on the Judeo- Christian heritage as well as other religions in the Middle East. In the seventh and eighth centuries, Islam swept over the existing religions and cultures from northern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula in the West, to the edge of Central Asia and India in the East. Islam evolved from the prophetic message of Muhammad as codified in the sacred scriptures, the Qur’an, and the record of Muhammad’s words and deeds, the hadith. For the majority of Muslims the Sunnis ~ religious authority originated with Muhammad and after his death rested with the Qur’an, the sunnah (established practices), hadith, ijma (the con- sensus of the Muslim community), and figh (Islamic law as interpreted by generations of legal scholars). Muslims were to follow the sunnah until the arrival of the madhi (the rightly guided one), who would descend to earth, destroy those who held erroneous beliefs, and estab- lish a period of religious perfection. Thus Islam contained a form of both the messianic vision of an ideal future and prophetic tradition, on the line of prophets from Abraham to Muhammad. Not all Muslims, however, considered Muhammad as the final figure of religious authority.

Those who accepted Shi‘ah Islam maintained that special knowl- edge and power passed from Muhammad to his son-in-law, ‘Ali, and to ‘Ali’s descendants. This concept resulted in a line of imams (living religious leaders), who possessed authority as successors to the Prophet Muhammad. The Shi‘ah system of religious leadership led to numer- ous controversies over who was or was not the proper and legitimate imam. More than one line of imams emerged. The Itna ‘Ashariyas, a major subdivision of the Shi‘ahs, followed a progression of twelve imams, the last of whom disappeared and would reappear some time in the future. By contrast, the Isma‘ilis claimed only seven imams.


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Sufis or islamic mystics existed both in Sunni and Shi‘ite Islam. They contained a rich heritage of asceticism, of religious discipline and theological speculation, centred on religious teachers, pirs and shaikhs, and organized ‘nto orders, silsilahs, or tarigahs, that is paths to truth. As with other forms of mysticism, Sufis sought to experience God directly and in doing so became divided into orthodox and heterodox Muslims, under the leadership of a pir or shaikh. Pirs taught a wide variety of religious concepts and practices. When alive they built repu- tations for sanctity and wisdom, initiated their disciples through bai‘at, and provided counsel for their followers. After their deaths a pir’s tomb often became a place of pilgrimage and worship. The Sufis provided an extensive pool of symbols, organizational structures, and rituals utilized by Islamic movements of return.

The belief in a madhi or an imam and the practices of the Sufi mendicants created a reservoir of symbols, myths, institutions, and ideas that legitimized protest in terms of religion. Since Islam was a fusion of religion and polity, religious dissent contained a political dimension, as illustrated by the Khawarijites. The earliest of the sec- tarian Islamic movements was sparked by the controversy that sur- rounded ‘Ali and his claim to be the rightful successor to Muhammad. The puritanical sect, the Khawarijite sect, opposed ‘Ali and later the Umayyad state. Expressing an extreme egalitarianism and strict adher- ence to Islamic principles, they represented a reassertion of nomadic attitudes against what they saw as ‘sedentary conformists’ who had been unfaithful to Islamic teachings.> The Khawarijites were the first of a long line of ‘movements of return’ that sought to rediscover the period of righteousness and purity that existed during the life of Muhammad and his immediate followers. As in all religions that have at their base a prophetic message, debates continued within Islam as to what constituted proper belief and practice. In the eighteenth century, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab founded a puritanical movement aimed at removing all erroneous innovations within Islam, including the worship of saints, the use of a rosary, and the veneration of shrines. This socio-religious movement was reminiscent of the Kha- wariites. Though suppressed by the Ottoman Empire, the Wahhabi movement survived and continued to be influential in the Islamic world.

Not all Islamic sects remained within the limits of their parent

3 Fazlur Rahman, slam, 2nd edn. (University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 167.


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religion. In the nineteenth century a Persian, ‘Ali Muhammad, came into contact with the ultra-Shi‘ite doctrines of Shaikh Ahmad ibn Zayn al-Din al-Ahsai. As a result, ‘Ali Muhammad declared himself the madhi and took the title Bab (the gate). He taught a messianic, egalitarian Islam that rejected the use of a veil for women, circumcision for men, and ritual ablution before prayer. He ordered a variety of other changes and legitimized them by allegorical interpretations of the Qur’an. This new prophet attracted followers from among the dis- enchanted in Persian society‘ and acquired othodox opponents with the result that ‘Ali Muhammad was executed in 1850. After his death his disciple, Baha-Allah, stepped forward as his successor. Baha-Allah and his son, Abbas Effendi ‘Abd al-Baha, moved beyond Islam and launched a new religion, Bahaism.

Within the South Asian subcontinent the two imported civilizations interacted with the indigenous Hindu—Buddhist civilization that evolved from an interaction between three cultures: the agricultural and urbanized civilization of the Indus Valley, the nomadic Aryans, who became militarily dominant over the Indus civilization around 1700 to 1500 BC, and the Adivasis, indigenous inhabitants of the sub- continent, many of whom lived at pre-agricultural stages of develop- ment. The Aryans contributed their language, Sanskrit, the sacred literature of the Vedas, plus their own deities and rituals. Remnants of the Indus Valley people provided many elements of the later civiliz- ation, particularly as the nomadic Aryans began to settle into an agri- cultural existence. The Adivasis were either incorporated into the expanding civilization or pushed back into the hills and jungles. By 1000 BC, urban life began to re-emerge after the fall of the Indus cities and with them came a rise of small city states. The process of political consolidation gained speed in the next few centuries. Small kingdoms became larger until the establishment of a subcontinental state, the Mauryan Empire, c. 322-183 Bc. During these years of rapid social, economic, and political change the older ways of life and much of religion as it then existed were no longer compatible with the reality of urbanization and political growth.

In the texts of the Upanishads, eighth to fourth centuries sc, there appeared a trend toward indirect criticism of the existing sacrificial religion with its expensive and elaborate rituals conducted by Brahman

Philip K. Hitti, The Near East in History: A 5000 Year Story (Princeton, New Jersey, D. Van Nostrand Co., 1961), p. 404.

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priests. The Upanishadic thinkers, Brahmans, who had left the ordi- nary world of religious practice, pursued immortality as a final answer to the problems of life, death, and rebirth. For them sacrificial rituals produced only transitory gains, and were thus useless. They did not directly attack orthodoxy, but brushed it aside in a search for more lasting solutions to life’s problems. These renegade Brahmans did not found socio-religious movements. Theirs was an elite doctrine for the chosen few. The Upanishads, however, marked the beginning of a long tradition of criticism and religious dissent, through which those who rejected established norms of society could find expression.

In the sixth and fifth centuries Bc a number of socio-religious move- ments appeared; two of these, Jainism and Buddhism, began as Hindu cults, and eventually became separate religions. Both disagreed sharply with existing orthodoxy. They rejected the authority of the Vedas, the use of sacrifices, and the role of Brahman priests. As movements preaching new doctrines, they used the vernaculars rather than San- skrit, were open to all social classes, including women as well as men, and discarded the current social distinctions. Both of these religious movements found support among a variety of classes: the ruling elite, merchants, artisans, and those at the bottom of the social structure. Buddhism and Jainism spread first throughout the Gangetic Plain, then southwards, finally to the peninsular world of the Dravidians.

The four centuries, from roughly the second century Bc to the second century AD, remain unclear as to the pattern of historical de- velopments, especially in northern India. By the sixth to seventh cen- turies AD, however, a new type of Hinduism appeared with the rise of bhakti (devotionalism), with a highly emotional and personal focus on a single deity. There is considerable scholarly debate as to whether the roots of bhakti were in the northern cults of Pancharatras, Bhagavatas, and Pashupatas, or in the Dravidian South. Not open to question, however, was the beginning of a wave of bhakti movements in the Tamil area of peninsular India during the sixth to seventh centuries aD.

For centuries south India had been penetrated by northern culture with its emphasis on Brahmanical rituals, priestly superiority, the sanctity of the Vedas, and the use of Sanskrit in ceremonies and rituals. This influence, however, did not extinguish Dravidian culture, which reasserted itself with the rise of the new devotionalism. Poet-saints flourished who expressed themselves in Tamil and later in other languages of the South. They came from all social classes including the


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lowest and most disadvantaged. For the exponents of bhakti, devotion and faith were all that truly mattered. God, in his mercy, would release them from rebirth and the misery of life, if only the devotees were true to their faith. Caste, rituals, and priests were all irrelevant. The devotees could, and occasionally did, leave their normal social roles and re- sponsibilities to concentrate on worship. In the process social control was lost and dissent made a reality.

The early radicalism of bhakti slowly declined. Devotional hymns were collected, standardized, and brought within the sphere of ortho- doxy. The Hindu saint, Ramanuja (d. aD 1137?), argued successfully that bhakti could be considered one more path to release from rebirth. He accepted both the caste system and the authority of orthodoxy. Asa Tamil Brahman, Ramanuja incorporated bhakti into orthodox Hin- duism and brought non-Brahmans into greater prominence within that orthodoxy. His compromise also muted the earlier radical dissent of the Vaishnavite devotees. A similar process took place among the poet-saints of Lord Shiva. In time the Shaivite bhakti hymns were codified and given a sophisticated system of philosophy to create the Shaiva Siddhanta form of orthodox Hinduism. Two schools of thought emerged in Shaiva Siddhanta, one based on Sanskritic literature as interpreted by Brahmans and the other, using Tamil texts, expounded largely by upper-caste non-Brahmans. Thus the social and cultural radicalism of southern bhakti was drawn into a broadened orthodox Hinduism becoming one more acceptable path to release from the cycle of rebirth.

One socio-religious movement in southern India, Virashaivism, stands out for its radical ideas and its institutional success. Founded by Basava (?1125—70), this movement centred on the worship of Shiva. It was an aggressive, proselytizing, and uncompromising sect that re- jected Vedic authority, the role of priests, caste distinctions, and the rite of cremation, favouring burial instead. The Virashaivas also attempted to restructure the place of women in society. They considered men and women equal; allowed widows to remarry; condemned child marriage and arranged marriage, and no longer classed women as polluted during their menses. Their strict moral code included vegetarianism and a ban on the use of liquor and drugs. The Virashaivas entered into compe- tition with the Jains, Buddhists, and orthodox Hindus. In order to maintain their separate communal identity and to replace the Brah- mans, they created their own priests, and founded a number of monas-


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teries as focuses of religious authority. This system is stil] maintained today, as is a sense of separateness among the Virashaivas.

The wave of devotionalism moved northwards as poet-saints became active throughout the Deccan, then in the Gangetic plain, Bengal, and the North-West. Bhakti saints wrote in the vernacular languages and thus extended Hinduism to all levels of society. The arrival of devo- tional Hinduism in the North followed a fundamental change in the political-religious structure, as Islam, with the values and attitudes of the Perso-Arabic civilization, entered the subcontinent. The years aD 1192~1206 witnessed the conquest of the North from the borders of the Mid-East to Bengal with pockets of Hindu resistance in Rajasthan and the Himalayan foothills. During the fourteenth century the Muslim ruling elite pushed south into the Deccan, gaining control over roughly two-thirds of the subcontinent.

Islam arrived in its various forms: Sunni, Shi’ah, and Sufi. At the orthodox level, Islam and Hinduism clashed, since they expounded almost diametrically opposed doctrines. At the popular and mystical levels, however, it was possible for the two religions to interact. The popular Islamic reverence for saints, miracles, and religious healing, as well as the institution of wandering Sufi mendicants, were compatible with Hindu practices. Also, the more fundamental concepts of mono- theism, egalitarianism, and the rejection of idolatry, paralleled many of the teachings found among Hindu followers of bhakti. Devotionalism and the movements of protest that it often sustained coexisted within the context of the indigenous and the new-conquest civilization with its own tradition of dissent.

A powerful mixture of social criticism and devotion grew from the teachings of Ramananda (1360-1470). He was a Sri Vaishnava leader, fifth in the line of succession after Ramanuja. Ramananda taught an egalitarian devotionalism focused on Rama, used simple Hindi as his language, and accepted disciples from all segments of society. Rama- nanda’s teachings spread throughout the northern plains and were carried forward by his disciples, often in more radical forms than his own. Kabir (1440-1518), a weaver, possibly a Muslim by birth, became a disciple of Ramananda. Kabir taught a strict monotheism, arguing that each devotee should seek God directly and that he could do so without becoming a mendicant and abandoning his family. Kabir re- jected both orthodoxies, Hindu and Islamic, as well as all forms of caste. His doctrines enjoyed broad appeal among peasants, artisans,


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and untouchables. This was a sustained attack on the established order; one that envisioned a new egalitarian society.

A similar message was proclaimed by Guru Nanak (1469-1539), a householder and a clerk for the provincial Punjab government. Guru Nanak created a quietist movement that rejected priestly Hinduism, its rituals, idols, and basic authority. He also taught equality. Nanak was followed by a succession of nine gurus. The Sikhs, as his followers came to be known, created their own scripture, the Granth Sahib written in Punjabi, using the Gurmukhi script. They developed new life-cycle ceremonies conducted by their own members, thus gradually cutting their ties with Hinduism. Beginning as a quietist sect, the Sikhs evolved into a structured socio-religious movement and finally a separate religion.

The tradition of dissenting bhakti initiated by Ramananda persisted throughout the North. Dadu (1544-1603), a disciple of Kabir, marked the emergence of the next generation in this line of bhakti. He was a mystic who preached egalitarian ideas, rejected rituals, priests, pilgrim- ages, and temples, calling for all to worship Brahma as a deity without form (nirguna). His adherents, the Dadupanthis, were strongest among the lower castes of Rajasthan. Malukdas (1574-1682) continued Rama- nandi devotionalism as did Charan Das of Delhi (1703-82). Some bhakti leaders attempted to draw upon both religions thus creating a bridge between them. The Damis, founded by Pran Nath in the seven- teenth century, used excerpts from the Qur’an and the Vedas to express their ideas. Similarly Bab Lal, also of the seventeenth century, turned to the Vedanta of the Hindus and to Sufi writings from Islam as inspiration for his own ideology.

By contrast, two very successful bhakti movements demonstrate that devotionalism was not inevitably associated with dissent. In Bengal, Chaitanya (1486-15 33) taught an intensely passionate worship of Lord Krishna, which utilized music, singing and dancing as its major modes of expression. As with many devotional sects, it was open to all, even Muslims. Chaitanya prohibited animal sacrifice, permitted widow re- marriage, and preached a strict moral code, but his main approach to orthodoxy was to ignore it. Devotion to Krishna was all that mattered. His disciples used both Bengali and Sanskrit in their literature, a compromise position to begin with and one that saw them soon incor- porated into Hindu orthodoxy. Similar to and contemporaneous with Chaitanya’s movement was the one founded by Vallabhacharya (1479-


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1531). It soon became popular in Gujarat and the surrounding areas. Vallabhacharya focused on Krishna and the erotic interaction between Krishna and the gopis (milk maids). This was a devotional movement of passion, joy, and religious exaltation. It raised no issues of social or religious revolt and was orthodox from the beginning. Bhakti, then, cannot be equated with dissent and protest; it was instead a source of ideas and institutions that could legitimize the condemnation or the maintenance of established society.

With the evolution of Hindu—Buddhist civilization, the introduction of Perso-Arabic and western civilizations, religion played a dual role. It sustained and justified the established social order while also providing an instrument for challenges to that order. Repeatedly socio-religious movements arose which called for the creation of an egalitarian society, rejected the role of priests and the rituals they conducted, turned against the worship of idols, and promoted the concept of monotheism. Such movements often attempted to redefine the role of women, grant- ing them equality that included marriage customs, the right to edu- cation and, at times, relief from the restrictions of ritual pollution. It is against this background that we must attempt to understand the socio- religious movements that flourished during the years of British political rule and within the context of three interacting civilizations.


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The first region under consideration is Bengal and its adjoining terri- tory of Assam in the North-East. Bengal proper is a huge delta built up by the combined river systems of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. Bengal and its environs are ringed by mountains in the North and East, by the bay to the South, the hills of Orissa and Chota Nagpur to the South-West, and Bihar to the West. Divided by numerous rivers and consisting of swampy land with abundant rainfall, Bengal was de- veloped late in the history of South Asia and remained at the edge of Hindu—Buddhist civilization. Eastern Bengal, Assam, and the hill tracts bordering