Hindu Iconoclasts: Rammohun Roy, Dayananda Sarasvati and Nineteenth-Century Polemics against Idolatry

Hindu Iconoclasts: Rammohun Roy, Dayananda Sarasvati and Nineteenth-Century Polemics against Idolatry

Hindu Iconoclasts: Rammohun Roy, Dayananda Sarasvati and Nineteenth-Century Polemics against Idolatry

Hindu Iconoclasts: Rammohun Roy, Dayananda Sarasvati and Nineteenth-Century Polemics against Idolatry

Synopsis

Why, Salmond asks, would nineteenth-century Hindus who come from an iconic religious tradition voice a kind of invective one might expect from Hebrew prophets, Muslim iconoclasts, or Calvinists?

Rammohun was a wealthy Bengali, intimately associated with the British Raj and familiar with European languages, religion, and currents of thought. Dayananda was an itinerant Gujarati ascetic who did not speak English and was not integrated into the culture of the colonizers. Salmond's examination of Dayananda after Rammohun complicates the easy assumption that nineteenth-century Hindu iconoclasm is simply a case of borrowing an attitude from Muslim or Protestant traditions.

Salmond examines the origins of these reformers' ideas by considering the process of diffusion and independent invention-that is, whether ideas are borrowed from other cultures, or arise spontaneously and without influence from external sources. Examining their writings from multiple perspectives, Salmond suggests that Hindu iconoclasm was a complex movement whose attitudes may have arisen from independent invention and were then reinforced by diffusion.

Although idolatry became the symbolic marker of their reformist programs, Rammohun's and Dayananda's agendas were broader than the elimination of image-worship. These Hindu reformers perceived a link between image-rejection in religion and the unification and modernization of society, part of a process that Max Weber called the "disenchantment of the world." Focusing on idolatry in nineteenth-century India, Hindu Iconoclasts investigates the encounter of civilizations, an encounter that continues to resonate today.

Excerpt

n 1992 I held an internship in the India section of the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum. Every day, walking to work, I would In 1992 I held an internship in the India section of the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum. Every day, walking to work, I would pass 48 Bedford Square, the London house where the Indian reformer and staunch opponent of Hindu “idolatry” Rammohun Roy lived for much of the last year of his life in 1833. I had been studying the writings of Rammohun, and I wondered what he would have thought of my working in that vast treasure trove of “idols” which constitutes the galleries and storage vaults of the magnificent Indian collection. I once told a staff member at the Museum that I was studying the writings of Rammohun and trying to get at the roots of his Indian version of iconoclasm. His immediate reaction was, “Oh, well clearly, his attack on images must be derived from Muslims or Protestant missionaries.” In other words, this is not Indian; it must be a by-product of contact with the Semitic religions. To this spontaneous reaction, this study replies, “No, it's not that simple.”

This book on the apparent incongruity of Hindu attacks on image-worship is intended first for a general audience interested in controversies over religious imagery and visual art. Perhaps the most explosive area of overlap between the study of art and the study of religion is the religious rejection of sacred art as idolatry. Why is it that some religious communities have seen in the veneration of cultic images the worst form of blasphemy and the font of moral degradation while other communities (sometimes within the same religious tradition) have seen in these images and icons the revelation of God, the means of grace, or the embodiment of divinity on earth? Why is the same image seen by one person as an icon and construed by another as an idol? Further, is contention over these polarized concepts (icon versus idol) a truly cross-cultural phenomenon or is it found across cultures only by reason of diffusion? Is the repudiation of visual sacra a foible of the ancient Israelites that, when it arises later and elsewhere, is always to be seen as a borrowing from biblical sources? Thus, secondly, my hope is that this study will engage those interested in the methodological and theoretical problems associated with the comparative study of religion and in particular with the question of how to explain similarities across traditions—in this instance, the apparent similarity of nineteenth-century Hindu attacks on image- worship to non-Hindu anti-idolatry polemics. Finally, my hope is that this study will inform even specialists in Indology and Hinduism (who have long known of image-refusal in the Brahmo and Arya Samaj) of the extent of the arguments made against images by the founders of these reform movements.

Perhaps a further autobiographical word is excusable here in order to explain my own interest in this subject. Brought up in the Anglican tradition of Christianity—a denomination that prides itself on being both Protestant and catholic, a sort of via media between the two major forms of Western Christendom . . .

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