The Play of History: The Svaminarayan Religious Community in Modern India
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Providing a window into the pre-nationalist phase of colonial rule in modern South Asia, this study examines the role that devotionalism (bhakti) played in shaping ideas about the individual self, community and in forging notions about public good through the nineteenth-century Hindu formation of the Svaminarayan community (sampraday) in Gujarat. Under its founder Sahajanand Svami, the formation gained authority across western India in parallel to British colonial and Indian princely rule. By advocating new ways of thinking about social identity and ethics, Svaminarayan devotion served as an adaptive strategy of survival for non-elite practitioners facing hardships in the period. Foundational to this model was the position of modern re-enchantment. Specifically, it was represented in a conceptual apparatus termed the “play of history” (lila), which braided together notions of devotion and temporality. Engaging in “play” helped practitioners locate the sampraday and themselves in the world and explore new self-possibilities that surpassed their surrounding social constraints. This powerful apparatus underwritten by a heterogeneous outlook of wonder and reason was a form of sacred historiography. Based on textual, archival and ethnographic research, the four chapters of the dissertation trace repositories of time and space and the archival institutions themselves—including published hagiographic texts, temples, materiality, natural landscapes and paintings—which produced individual and collective formations by re-envisioning daily existence. In considering devotion historically, this research shows how expressing, creating, documenting, recalling and articulating the past allowed both for creating religious power and for unleashing individual agency. Drawing on ideas of ethnohistory, the case study reveals that maintaining a systematic relationship with the past using textual and non-textual tools resulted in change for the material conditions of practioners. It promoted an attitude of hope and action to change one’s life circumstances, rather than inhabiting a posture of despair or passivity. In considering how devotion was a transformative force in society, this dissertation contributes to scholarship in the field of South Asian history by participating in wider discussions of historical continuity between the early modern period and the colonial modern period, early colonial statecraft, and the emergence of princely states and their role in larger political and social debates in colonial India. More broadly, this project participates in ongoing discussions about non-European historiographical technologies and the diverse avenues of modern re-enchantment of the world.
- History