Religion, class, and power: Bhaktivinode Thakur and the transformation of religious authority among the Gaudīya Vaisnavas in nineteenth-century Bengal
This dissertation explores the religious reform efforts of the Bengali neo-Vaisnava savant, Bhaktivinode Thakur, founder of a local religious movement that within a hundred years of its inception became one of India's leading spiritual exports to the world. This dissertation investigates the ways in which a neo-Vaisnava reformer appropriated the technologies and concerns of the dominant British culture in order to redress the growing anomie of the colonial middle-class in nineteenth-century Bengal. I argue that Bhaktivinode made use of British concerns and western importations such as the monthly periodical, the novel, the colonial market, voluntary organizations, geography, cartography, archaeology, and critical history, in order to address the concerns of an indigenous constituency. Within this context, I demonstrate that a dyadic model of social interaction which considers only two categories (“colonizer” and “colonized”) is not sufficient to the task of helping us to understand the complexities of the colonial environment in nineteenth-century Bengal. I argue that Bhaktivinode Thakur used modern technologies and western-inspired institutions not only to contest the forces of colonial domination in British India, but also to impose his own vision of Gaudīya Vaisnavism on the indigenous population. Betwixt and between the ruling elites and the subaltern masses Bhaktivinode Thakur ingeniously appropriated the institutions and technologies at his disposal in an attempt to arrogate the power of religious representation unto himself in an evolving and shifting socio-political context. This dissertation helps us to understand not just the specific historical situation of a minor Bengali religious leader but also sheds light upon larger cross-cultural and theoretical issues pertaining to the nature of religious authority as such, the complex intermingling of religious production and class consciousness, the complicated and ambivalent status of middle-classes in colonial situations, and the complicated relationship between “reform” and “revival” within the context of colonial modernity.
0305: Asian literature