Peasants and Monks in British India.
In this solid historical study, William Pinch provides an in-depth examination of the role that Hindu monks played in the mobilization of rural farmers in Gangetic India during the struggle for independence. He begins with the well-known premise that the bulk of India's population is rural and agrarian, and that there is a great variety of monastic trends within the Hindu fold. Both points have, of course, been commented upon extensively in the historiographical literature, but less has been said about how monks and peasants have interacted over time in the interests of social justice. The particular focus of Pinch's book is the Ramanandisampradaya, the largest and most influential Vaisnava ascetic movement in north India, who trace their lineage back to Ramananda, the fourteenth-century sage from Banaras. The proclaimed aim of Peasants and Monks in British India is to explore how the lives of monks and peasants are intertwined through the related processes of religious identity-formation and the manipulation of caste for access to higher social status during the colonial era. Pinch is thus interested in the intersection of religion with political and social change. This is an important topic for both historians and students of contemporary India because it can shed light on, as Pinch states, "the ongoing crisis of religion and state in north India" (p. 3).
Pinch's justification for the volume hinges on the fact that much of the history written about agrarian movements during the colonial period only notes, but does not explain, the important role that religion plays in peasant rebellions. His argument, then, is that peasant movements are as much ideological, cultural, and religious as they are material, economic, and social. True enough, but we might ask if it is possible to expose and interpret the personal beliefs underlying an individual's faith. This would undoubtedly be problematic from a methodological and theoretical point of view. The author thus attempts to redefine "religion" in terms of political, social, and economic consequences to move beyond the predictable issues of labor, behavior, and rebellion. To make this shift, Pinch explores a wealth of documents in English, Hindi, and Urdu to reconstruct the collective "mental worlds" that provided meaning to actions in colonial north India. What the author finds is that there certainly has been a strong connection between the concerns of the peasantry and monastic orders, especially in the arena of social reform.
Pinch notes that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century peasants saw themselves not as sudras but as descendants of ksatriya warrior clans, and he deftly analyzes the different discourses and ideologies about status and hierarchy propagated by both the British and their Indian subjects. His analysis demonstrates that indigenous perceptions were conditioned by colonial constructs about the Indian social order. Pinch's dialogic approach is a welcome relief from more extreme positions which argue that caste was solely a colonial invention. While not denying that caste as we know it today is in part the product of colonial discourse, his approach allows him to acknowledge that social change was spearheaded at the turn of the twentieth century by populist scholars who wrote in response to British perceptions of hierarchy. Due to this interaction of British and Indian interpretations of caste, a strong peasant-ksatriya identity movement emerged in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Drawing on the official colonial literature produced in the twentieth century, peasant ideologues were able to put forth the notion of a peasant-ksatriya identity in the region that varied considerably from elitist conceptions of the so-called "warrior" varna.
Due to their adherence to Vaisnava ideals of equality and social reform, the Ramanandis were, perhaps, the most vocal proponents for social change in their critique of hierarchy. After a lengthy survey in chapter one of sadhus and sudras in north India from 1700 to 1900 Pinch turns his attention in chapter two to the religious, social, and, most importantly, political role of the Ramanandis during the decades preceding independence. In chapter three he elaborates on the way that being Vaisnava allowed for the possibility of becoming ksatriya, thereby enabling the healthy growth of respectability movements in the Gangetic Plain. His elaborations on the latter point clearly show that various communities had different needs and concerns that had to be worked out on the local level within a nationalist frame of reference.
Pinch correctly argues that the variety of ways peasants and their monastic advocates came to terms with the concepts of race, caste, varna, and jati affect post-independence conceptions. To be sure, such issues continue to be important concerns today, and understanding how "Hindu" ideas have impinged on social and political change during the course of colonial history in India can bring us to a better vantage point for interpreting recent trends in Indian nationalist and religious politics. For this reason Pinch's historical insights make a valuable contribution to the Subaltern project. But even more importantly for non-historians, the author's close reading of the cultural basis of conflict and violence should provide useful clues for contextualizing what he calls the mental worlds of contemporary India.
FRANK J. KOROM
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|Author:||Korom, Frank J.|
|Publication:||The Journal of the American Oriental Society|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1999|
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