British Imperialism in India

In many ways, British imperialism in India was far more significant than the presence of Muslims, although the British directly ruled India for only 90 years. The British brought with them western folk ways and culture. Many Indians sought to imitate them by speaking English, playing cricket and having afternoon tea. Yet the effects the British brought were deeper and more complicated than just this.

British presence introduced into India western values and social dynamics. Britain’s initial and foremost interest in India was commercial. The East India Company was Britain’s first established involvement on the subcontinent. The British developed the cities of Calcutta, Mombay (which they called Bombay), and Chennai or Madras into large and industrialized trading centers. Industrialization and urbanization had uprooting effects on the traditions of Indian society. All restrictions imposed by caste and family could be more easily disregarded in urban areas.

Traditional practices and beliefs were placed in doubt and reevaluated. Industrial economies also raised expectations of material success. India had for thousand of years explicitly favored the transcendence over the material world. Wealth and pleasure were goods, but moksha, the bliss of ultimate release was the sumum bonum, the supreme good. Now, in view of the western focus on the material world, many Hindus begin to reassess this world’s significance.

Many Hindus began to consider that perhaps the way to happiness is not to transcend the world but to transform it. The British encouraged literacy. Learning to speak and read English was and still is regarded as an avenue to success. This, of course, is not a uniform trend. Still today, 30% of the Indian population is illiterate. The encouragement of literacy and English was sufficient, however, to generate interest among many in reading the western classics, including the Bible.

When one reads the literature of the western tradition it is easy to learn the values of the western world, such as the principle of the equality of all persons, which stands at odds with the assumptions of the caste system.

The Responses to the New Ideas: The Brahmo Samaj

The founding of two important Hindu movements in the 19th century can serve to illustrate different Hindu responses to westernization. The first is the Brahmo Samaj or the “society of believers in Brahmins”. The Brahmo Samaj was founded in 1828 by Rammohun Roy, an important modern Hindu reformer.

Rammohun Roy, who was born just about the time the American colonies were beginning their revolution from the British, was educated by Muslims and early on developed an intense dislike for the British occupation. As a young man, however, Roy began to work for the East Indian Company. He learned English and came to appreciate western ways. Eventually, Roy came to support British rule and to value western education. The movement he initiated, the Brahmo Samaj, reflected Roy’s critical appreciation of the West.

The Brahmo Samaj might be described as traditional Hinduism transformed by encountering Christianity. Roy studied the Bible and admired Jesus, but he could not accept the idea of Jesus’ divinity. He was troubled by the polytheism of popular Hinduism and denounced it. He also criticized the practice of Puja, the veneration of images. He called it “idol worship”. Roy preferred the Upanishads to all other Hindu scriptures and he contended that they taught a simple form of monotheism.

He adopted what I would call a liberal approach to scripture, because he argued that the Vedas should be authoritative only when it is shown to be reasonable. In this respect, Roy’s view parallels that of 19th century liberal Christians, who said similar things about the Bible. He even established weekly congregational worship services like the Christians.

Roy may be best remembered, though, for his efforts to improve the treatment of women in India, specially the widows. He was instrumental in the abolition of Sati, “widow burning”, in 1829.

The Arya Samaj

While the Brahmo Samaj had a liberal approach to Hinduism, the Arya Samaj, another religious movement that began in the 19th century, had a more fundamentalist outlook. I am aware that I’m using western labels, but perhaps this adjectives may help us grasp the situation. The terms liberal and fundamentalist categorize two responses to modernity itself.

The Arya Samaj was fundamentalist in its approach to the Hindu collection of scripture. It not only regarded the Vedas as the only authoritative sacred text, thus denying the sacredness of popular books like the Bagahvad Gita and the Puranas, it also maintained that the Vedas were source of all truth: scientific and spiritual. Such view is not unlike that of Christian fundamentalists who consider the Bible historically and scientifically accurate. Just as Christian fundamentalists consider the Bible open and available to anyone for interpretation, the Aryasamage said that the Vedas are available to all for study.

The Arya Samaj was founded by Swami Dayanand, in the late 19th century, about the time fundamentalism got started in the United States. Like the more liberal Rammohun Roy, Swami Dayanand disliked much of what he saw in popular Hindu practice of his day, specially Puja and pilgrimage. He viewed much of popular Hinduism as mere superstition. Dayanand even went to deny divinity of popular avataras, such as Rama and Krishna, and to reject the idea of jatis, the hereditary birth classes, simply because these words do not appear in the Vedas.

Like Rammohun Roy, Dayanand was an advocate of fairer treatment of women. He contended that women should be educated and widows should be allowed to remarry. He also held that Hinduism was superior to other religions and that all other religions attempt to approximate to it. Anyone familiar with 19th and 20th century Christian theology might recognize that some Christians argue the same point about the superiority of their faith.

The Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj are both responses to the disrupting effects of westernization. They simplified the complex ways Hinduism encountered western culture and values. The Brahmo Samaj demonstrated a critical openness to Christianity and the values of reason and human equality. The Arya Samaj, like all fundamentalisms, reacted with suspicion towards the agents that bring change and it sought to restore authority to a single text.

The effects of the British in India of course had political as well as religious ramifications. The western idea of nation-state sovereignty stimulated a national spirit that would eventually lead to the movement that established India as an independent nation.

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