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  • Hindu Iconoclasts: Rammohun Roy, Dayananda Sarasvati, and Nineteenth-Century Polemics against Idolatry
  • Chandrima Chakraborty (bio)
Noel Salmond . Hindu Iconoclasts: Rammohun Roy, Dayananda Sarasvati, and Nineteenth-Century Polemics against IdolatryWilfrid Laurier University Press. x, 182. $44.95

British colonial discourse identified religion, i.e., Hinduism, as one of the key factors that doomed India to colony status. Soon, revivalist leaders, indigenous literati, and nationalist ideologues attempted to reform their religion in order to establish their identity and construct a nation. Most scholarly work on 'neo-Hinduism' or 'revivalism' in nineteenth-century India see this as an example of 'Western' influence: Indian reformers judged their religion by the criteria established by the West and tried to reform their religion by adopting features from the West. Hindu Iconoclasts complicates this simplistic diffusion theory.

The book interrogates two Orientalist (and now commonsensical) premises: first, nineteenth-century Hindu iconoclasm is an anomaly, and second, nineteenth-century reformers argued against idolatry influenced by Semitic religions (Islam and Christianity). Salmond focuses on two famous nineteenth-century Hindu iconoclasts to make his case: Rammohun Roy, founder of the Brahmo Samaj, and Dayananda Sarasvati, founder of the Arya Samaj. He identifies image-worship as central to both Rammohun's and Dayananda's reform agenda. He engages in a nuanced analysis of their biographies and extant works paying detailed attention to social, historical, and political contexts.

In the first chapter, Noel Salmond establishes through wide-ranging research that a diversity of views and competing practices regarding image-worship have always coexisted in India. He draws attention to Orientalist generalizations of 'Western' versus 'Indian' religions (read Hinduism) and argues that aniconism is a religious universal. He gives a detailed history of image-worship in India (pre-Vedic, Vedic, and post Vedic) and the impact of Buddhism and Jainism on Hindu image-worship. To refute the equation commonly drawn between Hinduism and image-worship, Salmond cites examples of iconoclasm in India prior to its contact with Semitic religions. In the chapters that follow, Salmond argues that Rammohun's and Dayananda's personal disillusionment with idols and conflict with a parent who stridently upheld the supremacy of idols (mother in the case of Rammohun and father in the case of Dayananda) were partially responsible for their iconoclasm. In spite of their differing class positions, sectarian Hindu upbringing, and sociohistorical contexts, for both Rammohun and Dayananda Hindu influence in their childhood and adolescence was primary. Their iconoclasm was not derived from foreign influences, but definitely reinforced or encouraged by Orientalist writings and their personal contact with Islam and Christianity.

This assertion that their image-rejection was indigenous in origin destabilizes the equation that modernization equals westernization. Both [End Page 293] Rammohun and Dayananda saw idol-worship as a marker of degenerated Hinduism and the Hindu civilization. Their iconoclasm was tied to their desire for the modernization and regeneration of India. Thus, the book interrogates the linear trajectory of Western modernity and draws attention to the West's refusal to accept other possibilities for emancipation.

The final chapter is a cross-cultural perspective on iconoclasm, which considers data from non-literate cultures and the polemics on idol-worship voiced by ancient Hebrew prophets and Protestant reformers. Max Weber's and Sigmund Freud's attacks on idolatry are linked to their thesis on the rise of the spirit of capitalism and industrialization/modernization. However, Freud and Weber in the last few pages stand out as loose appendages; a sustained linking of the theoretical to the historical is lacking.

One of the downsides of the book is the absence of a proper conclusion. In the final chapter Salmond notes Mahatma Gandhi's and Swami Vivekananda's defence of image-worship. Why did these two reformers differ from their predecessors? Rather than fleeting references, an explanation of the differing choices would have been useful. Similarly, Salmond gestures to contemporary Hindutva's selective appropriation of Rammohun and Dayananda. Hindutva's rejection of these two reformers' iconoclasm is noted without much analysis. A substantive conclusion analysing the impact of Rammohun's and Dayananda's iconoclastic call and the reasons for their constituting 'only a moment, a moment in Hindu religious history connected with the conditions of India...


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