US Professor publishes work on 19th-century Hindu modernism

published on July 22, 2008

Author:Steve Arney

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — When Brian Hatcher, now a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, first gazed upon a pamphlet of obscure Hindu writings in a library in London, he knew he had happened upon something significant.

The writings in the British Library were buried in the back of a collection of pamphlets. The pamphlet had a generic title and lacked decoration on the cover.

Not the stuff of an “Indiana Jones” movie or even a Discovery Channel program, but his find, in 1990, marked an exciting moment for a professor delving into his topic: the modernist Hindu movement of the 19th century.

It was written by intellectuals who espoused modern life and its comforts to be the blessings from a creator but warned against greed, espoused virtues and called for knowledge and exploration as well as examination of the spirit.

Hatcher translates the Bengali-language pamphlet title as “Discourses by Members” — the members being prominent Indians who called themselves the Truth-Propagating Society (“Tattvabodhini Sabha”). The writings dated to 1839 and 1840. The publication date was 1841.

There was no table of contents and only initials to identify authors of 21 discourses.

Research enabled Hatcher to identify with reasonable certainty most of these authors, and through his research he knew the group well. The Truth-Propagating Society was a piece of a Hindu reform movement that was taking an ancient religion and applying it to the modern world.

At the time, he used pieces of the writings, attributed to Isvaracandra Vidyasagara, a giant of the Hindu reform movement, for his doctoral dissertation, which he then made into a book.

Then he moved on — for the time being.

“Years went by. It kept nagging at me,” said Hatcher.

He decided the passages were worthy, from historical, literary and spiritual perspectives. He translated them in full from Bengali to English, added commentary and context in preceding chapters and got them published this year, through Oxford University Press.

Reflecting the term for the middle-class authors, the bourgeois, he called it “Bourgeois Hinduism, or the Faith of the Modern Vedantists.”

Hatcher believes it at least inches forward the study of modern Hinduism.

It gives a glimpse of time, place and spirituality among an emerging middle class.

“It is remarkable in its moment,” said Hatcher.

Among themes of the writing is living well, materially, while remaining spiritually fit — partially immersing a person in Hindu study while keeping the good day job and bringing a Hindu worldview into everyday life.

Said Hatcher: “They wanted to be able to live in the world and make money and be successful. But they liked the truth. So they put them together.”

“Restraining passions is a theme — but not becoming a yogi and living in a cave,” he continued. “Learn how to restrain passions while living in this world.”

For Christianity, the emergence of the intellectual Hindus was problematic.

Britain was colonial ruler of India at the time. Western Christian missionaries had believed education would bring conversion as a natural progression, Hatcher said.

But the Indian elites were instead turning inward, using their own Hindu tradition to guide their discussions of faith, eternity and truth, while also questioning tradition and superstition and forming a modern incarnation of their faith.

Some were boldly suggesting that the Christians ought to be learning from the Hindus instead of trying to convert them, Hatcher noted

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