- Pedagogy for Religion: Missionary Education and the Fashioning of Hindus and Muslims in Bengal by Parna Sengupta
How might a pluralistic society—one historically fractured by tensions across differences of religion, culture, and political privilege—create a modern, unified national identity, while maintaining the integrity of communal religious identity? Both the Bengali Hindu bhadralok and the Muslim ashraf contemplated this question in the early twentieth century as Indians imagined a postcolonial future. As Parna Sengupta demonstrates in Pedagogy for Religion: Missionary Education and the Fashioning of Hindus and Muslims in Bengal, nineteenth-century Indian religious leaders had already begun to explore answers to this question as they lobbied the colonial state on behalf of local vernacular primary education that included religious instruction. Ultimately, Sengupta finds, the efforts of both Hindu and Muslim leaders in Bengal to craft a modern religious subjectivity through education in their communities made it possible “to imagine how separate religious curricula (and religious communities) could be folded into a single school system or nation”—in other words, Indians had already begun to forge a “pedagogy for tolerance” (p. 152) in a plural society.
Pedagogy for Religion challenges the assumption that religion and religious education are “backward-looking” or antimodern, and also counters the common belief that the Western imperial project in India had a primarily secularizing influence. Instead, Parna Sengupta comes to the surprising conclusion that nineteenth century Western Protestant mission schools in Bengal provided a model of education designed [End Page 721] to create a distinctively modern religious subject—a model that was then taken up by both Hindu and Muslim advocates for religious instruction in vernacular schools. As both bhadralok and ashraf sought to define modern Hindu and Muslim identities in the late nineteenth century, Bengalis “had to learn to possess and inhabit their religiosity in recognizable and acceptable ways” (p. 151). Their adoption of a modern religiosity played a key role, first, in obtaining the funding and support of the colonial government, and, second, in the formation and policing of community identities. Following the example of Western mission schools that privileged written over oral education, emphasized the creation of a moral, “civilized” individual, and embedded specific gender expectations into the curriculum, often with separate teaching for girls and boys, Bengali leaders sought to create vernacular schools that—far from inculcating reactionary loyalty to a static faith—taught Hindu and Muslim children how to behave as modern, “civilized” religious subjects who would themselves function as cultural emissaries, missionaries to their own cultures. Thus “religion and religious identity, rather than secularism,” came to define modern education in Bengal (p. 148).
In Pedagogy for Religion, Sengupta, who is associate director of Stanford Introductory Studies at Stanford University, brings together three fields of study that are rarely placed in conversation with one another: the history of Western missions, imperialism, and education. She draws source material from all of these areas, reading English-language colonial government sources, especially the reports and records of the Department of Public Instruction, pedagogical manuals like David Stow’s 1860 Object Teaching and Oral Lessons, and mission accounts from the Church Missionary Society, Baptist Missionary Society, and Scottish Free Church mission, among others, alongside the Bengali and English publications of teachers and education reformers like Gopal Chunder Bandhopadhyay and Abdul Karim. The sources range in time from English missionary William Carey’s 1792 Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen, to the 1942 Report of the Kamal Yar Jung Education Committee, a document written by Bengali Muslim leaders in the context of coming Indian independence. The book thus covers a wide swath of Bengal’s colonial history, though Sengupta spends most of her time in the late nineteenth century. Occasionally, the broad scope of the monograph does make its overarching argument less clear. It is difficult to pin down in early chapters exactly what Sengupta understands as constitutive of “modern religious subjectivity”—a list of characteristics of...