Source: Biblio: March 1997, p. 27-28.
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Of saints and simple people
Peasants and Monks in British India

By William R. Pinch
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 164 pp., Rs 39 ISBN 0-19-564055-1


As we move towards a new sophistication in our understanding of Indian history, the complexity of our society acquires a novel configuration. Indeed, not only does recent historical scholarship enrich our understanding of the Indian past, it also becomes an active constituent of the living present and an instrument of praxis towards a possible future. William Pinch's study of Peasants and Monks in British India is an excellent illustration of the potential of the new historiography as richness in empirical detail and analytical depth are welded with a sensitive understanding of both the material and social culture of the popular classes.

In the opening sections of this scholarly book, Pinch spells out a radically new picture of the subtle relationship between popular Hindu religious Institutions and the rural classes during the recent centuries of Indian history. We know that the institutions of high culture within the Hindu fold were fairly well articulated structures since the first millennium A.D., if not earlier. But we know little of the institutions of popular religion in this period. When we turn to the medieval and modern centuries, there is a substantial corpus of literature on the great movements of bhakti, or devotional theism, which enriched the social and spiritual fabric of the regional cultures of India, and continues to dominate their cultural parameters. This literature has much to say about the saintly figures who translated the high culture of Hinduism in the languages of different regions, and through this initiative communicated the seminal concepts of Hinduism to the common folk. Very little of bhakti literature, however concerns itself with the institutions that the saintly figures devised in order to give a firm underpinning to the spiritual values they spread among the popular classes, in particular, among peasants and artisans.

Pinch makes a pioneering attempt to rectify this situation by tracing the trajectory of the Ramanandi denomination in the late medieval and modern centuries. This denomination, it is widely believed, has played a powerful role in shaping the social and spiritual climate of the populous Ganga valley. The Ramanandi movement owes its origin to the seminal figure of Ramanand, who lived in Varanasi in the 14th century, and drew around himself a remarkable coterie of saintly figures like Tulsidas and Kabir among others. The religious figures around Ramanand were in turn able to reach out to different urban centres and rural settlements within the Ganga valley. The message of devotional theism was thus carried to the artisan in the city and the peasant in the village, binding in the process the popular classes of North India through a profound sharing of social and spiritual values.

While the bhakti tradition focussed on the remarkable figure of Ramanand -- the most important among the saints who featured in the devotional movement of North India -- the life story of this seminal figure and the spiritual influences which shaped his worldview are a matter of considerable contestation Some accounts suggest that he was a brahmin from South India who originally drew spiritual sustenance from the great Vaishnava saint Ramanuja. Others tell us that he migrated to the sacred city of Varanasi to lay the foundations of bhakti in the Ganga valley, on a truly "all-inclusive" basis, as part of a great design of social and spiritual consolidation.

In tracing the subsequent history of the Ramanandi order in the 18th and 19th centuries, Pinch locates a new meaning in the conflicting traditions around the saintly Ramanand, arguing that these differing accounts are related to crucial social and ideological questions: what were the desirable castes and communities from which the sadhus of the Ramanandi sect were to be recruited? Was induction to be confined to the upper castes, or was a more open policy desirable? Further, what about the rank and file? Were the lay followers of the Ramanandi order to be drawn from those perched at the upper reaches of society? Or was the order to be shaped as an "egalitarian" community, accepting recruitment from the high and low castes alike?

Besides, there were sharp differences on the ideological content of the Ramanandi order. These focussed, in particular, on the relationship between the principles advocated by Ramanuja and those which informed the life and work of Ramanand. Some Ramanandi figures looked upon their founder as a disciple of Ramanuja, who had established a chapter devoted to his mentor's teachings in Varanasi. Others portrayed him as a product of the north Indian spiritual awakening of the 14th century, without any link with bhakti in the South.

This portrayal of tension and contestation within the Ramanandi order in the book under review, makes it clear that differences in the sect did not merely amount to "esoteric" ideological warfare within a closed monastic world. Instead, they concerned the openness, or otherwise, of the movement in the matter of recruitment of sadhus; as well as the laity. The ideological contestation within the Ramanandi church, there- fore, touched not only on metaphysical questions, but raised pressing issues about the sort of society that was to be created within the Hindu world. Were high and low to be admitted alike to the charmed circle of spiritual fellowship? Even more to the point, were the sadhus to draw the middle and lower castes within their lay following as readily as they drew the social and landed elites of the region? As we can see, these were questions of great social import, and they reflect a crucial debate within a denominational world, seriously seized of the social and spiritual questions affecting the wider community.

In reviewing the history of the Ramanandi order in the recent centuries, Pinch raises interesting questions about rural society, which dwell as much upon political and economic aspects as upon ideological and spiritual issues. The picture which emerges is one of a society in which there was considerable circulation of organic intellectuals (in the Gramscian sense) among the urban and rural classes. There is also evidence of new trends in social and economic differentiation within rural society in the colonial era, as a result of which the Ramanandi spiritual cadres are confronted with pressing issues. in their bid to map out a trajectory of spiritual welfare for their followers. It is interesting to note that there is, at this juncture, little evidence of "communal conflict", as we know it today, in the form of Hindu-Muslim confrontation. Instead, we glimpse an increasingly differentiated Hindu society, in which the lower and middle sections of the peasantry were pressing for higher social status and spiritual salvation. This pressure obliged the leaders of the Ramanandi order to take stock of the situation, partly to accommodate the aspirations of their lay followers and partly to channelize these pressures in directions in conformity with dominant trends in Vedantic philosophy. We have, therefore, a firm location of grassroot religious institutionalization, 'political' in the wider sense of the term, and reacting sensitively to the material -- no less than the spiritual -- requirements of their constituents.

Predictably, the 20th century introduces a new era of contestation within the Ramanandi 'church'. This is partly related to social and economic trends -- more particularly, movements of peasant mobility and their acquisition of newly acquired economic capacities -- in the first half of the 20th

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century. These changes are caught in the wider framework of the 'freedom struggle' within the country. Indeed, in popular religion, no less than in popular politics, the post World War I years mark a new turning point in the history of the Ramanandi Church. The time-honoured debate over who could be admitted into the order acquired a new urgency; just as there was renewed disputation on the desirability, or otherwise, of a truly popular social base for the movement. A section of the initiated -- described as "radical pandits" by Pinch -- sought with conspicuous success to transform the ideological history of the sect, simultaneously as they tried to fashion a new intellectual genealogy for the saintly Ramanand, as someone who had no connection with the elite Vaishnava orientation of the great Ramanuja.

To anyone familiar with the thrust of the Gandhian movement, which swept across north India in the second quarter of the 20th century, this is a familiar scenario. This period saw a sudden mushrooming of folk religious preachers, or 'organic' intellectuals, who seek to guide the middle and lower sections of urban and rural society, through the use of an idiom that leaned heavily on the doctrinal message of the Ramanandi Church. One such spiritual leader was the enigmatic Baba Ramchandra, about whom we have substantial information drawn from the world of agrarian movements in the middle decades of the 20th century.

I have dwelt at length upon the tenuous yet crucial relationship between explorations in cultural and religious history, like Pinch's and existing literature on the social and ideological trajectory of the liberation struggle because of the seminal importance of this relationship in shaping the material conditions and mentalities of the popular classes. However, the seminality of this book reaches out beyond its formal temporal span, to the contemporary scene, as we ponder over the future of the Ganga valley, caught in a momentous struggle between the privileged and the deprived classes.

The backward classes movement of our times, for instance, clearly reflects in the second half of the century the social and the spiritual turmoil which Pinch traces in the first half of the 20th century. It is clear that the upwardly mobile backward classes locate for themselves a new moral poise in the path held out to them by the Ramanandi radicalism referred to earlier. Small wonder, then, that the upper castes in North India have rallied around the aggressive Hinduism reflected in the worldview of the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the political agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party. In a society structured in the moral orders of varna and jati, it should surprise none that this struggle between the established and the newly arrived should articulate itself in a religious idiom which sounds alien to liberal and radical alike.

In focussing upon the cultural antecedents of this conflict in the recent past, Pinch has created a work of historical scholarship of rare sensitivity and praxiological potential. I hope his book reaches out to audiences far beyond the normal audience for such specialized studies.

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