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Hindu Widow Marriage.

Hindu Widow Marriage. By ISHVARACHANDRA VID-YASAGAR. Translated with an introduction and critical notes by BRIAN A. HATCHER. New York: COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2012. Pp. xxv + 242. $70 (cloth).

Ishvarachandra Vidyasagar (1820-91), a prominent Sanskrit scholar and educator of nineteenth-century Bengal, is best known today for his role as a leading social reformer during the culturally tumultuous period of British rule in India. According to practically all accounts his most important writings comprise his two essays advocating the practice of Hindu widow marriage, and the volume under review consists primarily of an annotated translation of these. Originally composed in Bengali and published in 1855, these fascinating documents are widely recognized as having played a significant role in the passage of the seminal Hindu Widow's Re-Marriage Act of 1856. The first of Vidyasagar's writings in support of Hindu widow marriage is a relatively short essay that lays down his basic argument in favor of the practice--an argument that is fundamentally exegetical in nature and hinges very much upon a particular verse of the Parasara Smrti (4.28). The second is more than ten times as long (although published only nine months later!) and consists primarily of detailed refutations of the various objections raised against his earlier essay. Here too the tenor of the debate is fundamentally exegetical with the assorted Dharmasastras and to a lesser extent Puranas serving as the authoritative scriptures upon which all admissible arguments must rely for support.

Scholars of Dharmasastra, especially of medieval Dharmasastra, will find much that is familiar, but also much that is new in the colonial debate on widow marriage reflected in Vidyasagar's writings. As Brian Hatcher rightly suggests in the introduction to his translation of these works, Vidyasagar's fundamental genius "lies in his decision to create a modern species of traditional legal reflection that could accomplish the goal of advancing a contemporary reformist cause in terms faithful to his own intellectual heritage" (p. 40). That is to say, the form and method of Vidyasagar's arguments in favor of widow marriage provide a clear demonstration of how pre-modern modes of juridical argumentation within the Hindu tradition persisted during the colonial period, where they were deeply influenced, but not wholly supplanted, by modern, Western modes of thought. Hence, one might cite Vidyasagar's essays as evidence for the general importance of Dharmasastra to the study of Hinduism and as strong counterevidence against the view that Dharmasastra played a historically insignificant role in Indian social life.

Sadly, however, until the publication of the volume under review, those unable to read Bengali have had quite limited access to the primary sources for the colonial debate on widow marriage, for although Vidyasagar himself translated the second of his two essays on the topic into English in 1856, his translation is both a very incomplete rendering of the original Bengali text and written in archaic and sometimes awkward language (see pp. 23-25). Thus, in creating the first complete English translation of both of Vidyasagar's essays advocating Hindu widow marriage, Brian Hatcher has performed a great service to scholars not only of colonial South Asia, but also of classical Indian law. The fact that his translation is extremely readable despite the esoteric nature of its subject-matter and contains abundant informative endnotes further enhances the value of his work.

Since the author justifiably intends for his translations of Vidyasagar's essays to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible, he provides for uninitiated readers a concise and useful discussion in the preface of the categories of Hindu thought pertinent to these works (pp. xvii-xxiv). For this same reason, he does not use diacritical marks anywhere in the volume--a decision that specialist readers are likely to find slightly off-putting. For ease of reading, he also does not translate the Sanskrit passages cited by Vidyasagar in his essays, but instead translates only Vidyasagar's Bengali renderings of these passages. Again, this may somewhat diminish classical Indologists' enjoyment in reading the volume. However, because Hatcher carefully cites all of the quoted Sanskrit passages by either chapter and verse or page number whenever possible, an interested reader should be able to track them down with little difficulty. Moreover, the volume includes a helpful glossary (pp. 217-22) wherein the author explains his English renderings of an array of technical Sanskrit terms, thereby putting to rest many of the doubts that are likely to arise in the minds of Indologists using his translations.

In addition, Hatcher has written a lucid, thoughtful, and generally illuminating introduction to Vidyasagar's essays (pp. 1-54). Here he first provides a brief biography of Vidyasagar himself and a short historical account of widow marriage among Bengali Hindus before discussing how best to interpret Vidyasagar's writings and to assess their broader social significance. In this, he demonstrates an impressive understanding of both colonial India, which is his area of specific expertise, and pre-modern Dharmasastra, a rather technical field of study in which he has clearly acquired considerable competence. In particular, the author's knowledge of classical Dharmasastra sets him apart from several other scholars of colonial India who have likewise studied prominent reform movements in nineteenth-century Bengal, in that he does not explain the strongly exegetical character of these reformist debates as entirely the result of hegemonic British influence (see especially pp. 42-44). Instead, Hatcher makes a compelling case that Vidyasagar's writings on widow marriage are best viewed as a combination of traditional Brahmanical and colonial British influences. Indeed, this seems to me to be a principal reason for interest in these texts. Brian Hatcher is to be commended for giving them such detailed and responsible treatment and, thereby, making Vidyasagar's documents accessible to a wide scholarly audience.


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Author:Brick, David
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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