How Indian reformers understood Protestant Reformation?


In the second half of the nineteenth century, some western-educated, Bombay intellectuals came together in the Prarthana Samaj (inspired by Keshub Sunder Sen of the Brahmo Samaj). Perhaps the best known members of the Prarthana Samaj were Mahadev Govind Ranada and Narayan Chandavarkar (the Vice-Chancellor of Bombay University). Both reformers advocated what they literally called Hindu Protestantism. Below, I will present what I believe to be illustrations of the distortion that occurs when these intellectuals talk about reform.

As advocates of Hindu Protestantism they argued that the old religion was a good religion but it had to adjust itself to the requirements of the modern times. At variance with Europeans who argued that their tradition embodied the Word of God, some intellectuals continued to claim that the Hindu-religion — like any other religion, they said — was man-made. The Hindus, therefore, had every right to change it according to their present needs. This claim was often accompanied by arguments in favor of rewriting the Indian scriptures.

To give another example, Hindu Protestantism also meant that they would work — quote Chandavarkar (1893) — “with the fresh materials which Christianity has supplied to it.” In other words, Hindu Protestantism meant to expose the Indian religion to the positive influences and truth claims of Christianity. After all, and as Chandavarkar saw it, Christ had been a bhakti too. Hindu Protestantism meant that the Indians had to study other religions in order to correct the negative aspects of their own religion.

Though not exactly related to reform, this might be another interesting example of the distortion. In a speech on what he called the Hindu religion (1902), the so-called conservative thinker, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, claimed that the Vedas were Revelation. However, he did not refer to the Word of God, yet argued that they were Revelation for the obvious reason that “they were handed down generation to generation from pre-glacious times.”

Did the Europeans see the distortion? I am not sure about this but I can direct you to some interesting comments in the Dnyanodaya, the most important Anglo-Marathi missionary periodical in Western India. Though they do not formulate it the way Balu formulates it (that Indians distort a concept to the extent that it makes sense to them)— of course— these missionaries very well knew there was something suspicious going on. This is one example: The Lokahitavadi (a Well-Wisher of the People) published many letters in the Bombay newspapers. (In case you have Marathi, his Satapatre (A Hundred Letters) must be very interesting to read.) His real name was Gopal Hari Deshmuk, the founder of the Arya Samaj Bombay. In a letter which was reprinted in the Dnyanodaya, the Lokahitavadi had argued for reform in the same way as in the examples in the above. This is how the missionaries replied:

“Hinduism cannot be reformed, as now professed, and retains any binding authority as a Divine Revelations. The proposal is not to reject modern corruptions and to go back to the religion of the Purans, or the Vedas, or any other professedly sacred books. No; our Reformers have little veneration for the gods or tapasvis of the Purans, and little heart to defend their abominations. And the elemental worship of the Vedas has for them little, if any stronger attractions. To go back to Hinduism as it has existed at any one period would be to them no reform, but the contrary. They cannot go back to the Vedas; they cannot go back to the Purans; they cannot receive any class of Hindu sacred books as worthy of confidence. And yet they do not pretend that the Vedas have been corrupted and changed; neither do they complain of changes in the Purans. Those sacred books however are found to contain much that is unworthy of credit, and it is therefore proposed to reform Hinduism by reforming its sacred books to suit the exigencies of the times! This however would be not a reform but a subverting of Hinduism”

“We are told that Christianity became corrupt and was reformed in the sixteenth century, and that this shows the plan now proposed to be feasible. But how utterly different was that reformation! It consisted not in reforming the Scriptures to suit the tastes of the Reformers, but in casting away all human inventions and returning to the Bible as it was. The Bible was not reformed. On the contrary, its authority was vindicated. It was received as a Divine Revelation – the only and sufficient rule of faith and practice. The Reformers of the sixteenth century did not set themselves above the Bible: on the contrary they appealed to it as the authority for all they did. They had no Reformed Shastra, and they would have looked upon a proposal to prepare one, as gross, heaven-daring impiety. How different from this is the proposed reformation of Hinduism.” (Dnyanoday, August 15, 1849)

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