Rammohun Roy, Dayananda Sarasvati, and Nineteenth-Century Polemics against Idolatry
Publication Year: 2004
Why, Salmond asks, would nineteenth-century Hindus who come from an iconic religious tradition voice a kind of invective one might expect from Hebrew prophets, Muslim iconoclasts, or Calvinists?
Rammohun was a wealthy Bengali, intimately associated with the British Raj and familiar with European languages, religion, and currents of thought. Dayananda was an itinerant Gujarati ascetic who did not speak English and was not integrated into the culture of the colonizers. Salmond’s examination of Dayananda after Rammohun complicates the easy assumption that nineteenth-century Hindu iconoclasm is simply a case of borrowing an attitude from Muslim or Protestant traditions.
Salmond examines the origins of these reformers’ ideas by considering the process of diffusion and independent invention—that is, whether ideas are borrowed from other cultures, or arise spontaneously and without influence from external sources. Examining their writings from multiple perspectives, Salmond suggests that Hindu iconoclasm was a complex movement whose attitudes may have arisen from independent invention and were then reinforced by diffusion.
Although idolatry became the symbolic marker of their reformist programs, Rammohun’s and Dayananda’s agendas were broader than the elimination of image-worship. These Hindu reformers perceived a link between image-rejection in religion and the unification and modernization of society, part of a process that Max Weber called the “disenchantment of the world.” Focusing on idolatry in nineteenth-century India, Hindu Iconoclasts investigates the encounter of civilizations, an encounter that continues to resonate today.
Published by: Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Series: Editions SR
In 1992 I held an internship in the India section of the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum. Every day, walking to work, I would pass 48 Bedford Square, the London house where the Indian reformer and staunch opponent of Hindu "idolatry" Rammohun Roy lived for much of the last year of his life in 1833. I had been studying the writings of Rammohun, and I...
I would like to express my gratitude to professors Richard P. Hayes and Katherine K. Young of the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University. I am indebted to Dr. Dermot Killingley of the University of Newcastle in England for suggestions and for sending me photocopied materials on Rammohun Roy. Dr. J.E. Llewellyn of Southwest Missouri State University sent...
Note on Orthography
My transliteration of Sanskrit terms follows standard international usage. For the sake of simplicity, I have omitted diacritical marks from the names of the two reformers: hence, Rammohun Roy and Dayananda Sarasvati for Ràmamohana Ràya and Dayànanda Sarasvatã. Similarly, Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj are...
Introduction: Hindu Iconoclasts: An Anomaly?
In 1838, seventeen years after the words above were published in Calcutta by Rammohun Roy, and in an entirely different context, a fourteen-year-old brahmin boy from a small town in Gujarat accompanied his father to an all-night vigil at a Shiva temple. Sometime after midnight when his father and even the temple priests had been unable to resist falling asleep, the boy was...
The Terminology of Images and Image-Rejection
Before returning to the problem of explanation for Rammohun Roy's and Dayananda Sarasvati's image-rejection, it is incumbent on me to clarify my usage of terminology associated with image-rejection, beginning with the expression from my title, "Hindu iconoclasts."...
If the iconoclastic attitudes of Rammohun and Dayananda appear anomalous in the Indian context, this is precisely because they appear so similar to the polemics voiced on this subject by ancient Hebrew prophets or sixteenth-century Protestant reformers. The question then becomes, how do we explain this similarity? This question leads beyond this particular instance to the wider issue of how we...
One: History of Image-Worship in India
Although popular (Western) opinion associates India with images, both Rammohun Roy and Dayananda Sarasvati claimed that original Hinduism (which for them was Vedic) was purely aniconic. A claim about the time of origins is a tacit appeal for a return to the true, the pure, the...
History of Images in India: Pre-Vedic, Vedic, and Post-Vedic
The earliest known images in the Indian subcontinent are Stone Age paintings and sculptures. The paintings, done on cave walls, are difficult both to date and to interpret. Images of cows and bulls that exist as rock paintings in Madhya Pradesh date possibly as early as 8000 BCE. As with European cave...
The Great Medieval Theologians: Sankara and Ramanuja on Devotion and Image-Worship
Sankara (c. 788--820 CE) is an authority frequently cited by Rammohun Roy and the root preceptor of the lineage of ascetics into which Dayananda Sarasvati was inducted. Sankara, the definitive exponent of the monist philosophy of Advaita Vedànta, teaches that at the highest level Brahman is nirguõa, without attributes, ineffable, unknowable by means of the subject-object...
Precedents for Aniconism in Indian History
Neither Rammohun nor Dayananda discuss Buddhism in detail in their writings. Rammohun makes little mention of Buddhism; Dayananda has a brief discussion of various Buddhist schools in chapter 12 of his Satyarth Prakash but devotes far more space to his critique of Jainism. Buddhism was not a force in the India of their day, having become virtually defunct in its land of origin by the...
Rammohun and Dayananda were probably right in their belief that the earliest Vedic religion (the religion of those who called themselves àrya)39 was aniconic. This is supported by the absence of textual and archeological evidence for image-worship for the period--textual, in that the Saühitàs very rarely mention...
Two: Rammohun Roy
The Life of Rammohun Roy
Rammohun Roy (1772--1833), frequently heralded as the "Father of Modern India," is well known as a campaigner against social abuses and as the founder of the Hindu reform movement known as the Brahmo Samaj. Rammohun1 was a monotheist, and part of his theological agenda was the repudiation of "idolatry," the worship of images of deities...
The Writings of Rammohun Roy
Rammohun's earliest extant religious writing is the Tuþfat al-Muwaþþidãn (A Gift to the Deists, or Gift to the Monotheists). This tract, written in Persian with an Arabic introduction, was first published in 1803-4 when Rammohun was about thirty. Although mention is made of idolatry, it does not focus on this...
Rammohun represented a new class of Indians in Bengal (the bhadralok) who were educated, wealthy, and financially dependent on interaction with the British. Many in this group wanted a religion which would not embarrass them in the eyes of the Europeans. On the other hand, most were not at all willing to convert to Christianity. Rammohun experimented with a sort of Indian...
Three: Dayananda Sarasvati
The Life of Dayananda Sarasvati
Dayananda Sarasvati (1824--1883) was a major figure in nineteenth-century India. Like Rammohun before him, he denounced image-worship with vehemence--in fact, with unbridled vehemence in that, unlike Rammohun, he was absolutely uncompromising on this issue. This is somewhat...
The Writings: Satyarth Prakash
The discussion which follows concentrates on Dayananda's most influential work, the second edition of the Satyarth Prakash (Hindi: Satyàrth Prakàs; English: Light of Truth) completed in Rajasthan in 1882.9 This work came at the end of Dayananda's life and is a summation of his thought. My examination...
Dayananda on Non-Arya Religions
In Dayananda's historiography, the Jains corrupted the Hindus, whose self-seeking priests sought to emulate Jain practices in order to prevent the loss of their constituency through conversion to Jainism. Note the sequence of odious phenomena attributed to Jain influence--incarnations, temples, images,...
Aniconism and the Nation
Dayananda wanted a reformed Hinduism that was fully Indian. Although sharing many of their reform perspectives, he criticized the Brahmo Samaj of Bengal and the Prarthana Samaj of Bombay for imitating foreigners (467, 475). To Dayananda, the position of India under foreign rule was tied to the decline and...
Four: Rammohun and Dayananda
Possible Psychological Factors
One of the perennial questions in historiography is how much importance to ascribe to individual movers, geniuses, "Great Men" who propel historical change through the power of their personalities in relation to the impact of ground swells of social change which are little dependent on particular individuals or personalities. In other words, does the Zeitgeist get shaped...
Historical and Social Influences on Rammohun and Dayananda
Dermot Killingley (1978) suggests three distinct literary traditions by which Rammohun was formed: the Sanskritic, the Islamic as embodied in Arabic and Persian, and the European tradition, including Christian and rationalist, classical and biblical (from about the age of thirty on). However, he cautions...
Rammohun and Dayananda Compared
Rammohun and Dayananda had much in common. Both were brahmins from well-to-do families. Both entered early into conflict with their respective families over the issue of image-worship. Both were strict monotheists. Both argued for a return to the Vedas. Both held this-worldly and inner-worldly ascetic attitudes...
Five: Hindu Iconoclasm: Cross-Cultural Dimensions?
Universal Aspects of the Refusal of Images
Is there a cross-cultural or universal aspect to a refusal of images, in other words, is the refusal of images more than a Hebraic foible diffused to other cultures? In answer to this question, one can consider the evidence from the history of religions and ethnology. Chapter 1 outlined something of the history of practices related to images in India and noted several examples of image-refusal...
Image-Rejection, Religious Rationalization, and Modernization
It appears that both Rammohun and Dayananda wanted a form of Hinduism that was abstract and rationalized, one that stressed the transcendence of the divine and the impossibility of its immanence in matter, in the consecrated images or mårtis of the temple or household shrine. To attack image-worship was...
The Impact of Rammohun and Dayananda's Iconoclastic Call
What has been the outcome of Rammohun and Dayananda's position regarding idolatry for Hindu India? While many of the substantive matters of reform, such as issues of widow remarriage, satã, child marriage, class (caste) discrimination, and so on which these reformers agitated for have been met in the...