On October 21, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered an address inaugurating the annual festival of Durga Puja. His remarks were addressed to the people of West Bengal and his point was simple: Bengal has always led the way when it came to India’s progress.

As proof, the prime minister recited a litany of names, the famous reformers, poets, musicians, and religious figures whose names, for him, are synonymous with both Bengal and India’s greatest accomplishments: Ramkrishna, Bankimchandra, Rammohan, Abanindranath and Surya-da.

So what is interesting here?

A tale of two states

Well, for one thing, we have the former chief minister of Gujarat praising the cultural accomplishments of a state that might be thought of as almost diametrically opposed to Gujarat – geographically and politically, to say the least. If Bengal stands for progress and reform, Gujarat – not least during Modi’s time as chief minister – came to be associated most tragically with the forces of recidivism, chauvinism and inter-religious violence.

To remember Godhra 2002 is to say enough. And of course, the unfortunate pairing of Gujarat and Bengal along the axis of tolerance has found expression in works of scholarly and political commentary, perhaps most notably in Martha Nussbaum’s book, The Crisis Within.

For Nussbaum, looking at the rise of Hindutva in India and pondering the prospect of religious fundamentalism in the US, the question was why was India trending in the direction of Gujarat and not returning to the noble example set by its Bengali pathfinders?

The narratives of modernity

The spatial tropes fit so easily into the narratives of Indian modernity, and that is why Modi’s praise of Bengal for “always leading the way” is both mundane and a bit remarkable. I say this because, in my recent book Hinduism Before Reform, I attempt to unsettle the chronotopes that shape our understanding of religious modernity in South Asia.

Why is Bengal the epicentre? What does it mean to assert that progress began there and not somewhere else, least of all across the subcontinent in Gujarat? What happens when this spatio-temporal idea of the gradual diffusion of progress, enlightenment and “jagaran” becomes normative for a nation’s understanding of its history?

What role have intellectuals and historians, not least Euro-American observers of South Asia, played in promoting, ratifying, and perpetuating a story of modern religion in which progressive religion comes from Bengal (think of the Brahmo Samaj) and retrograde religion lingers on the margins of modernity’s advance – “way off” in places like Gujarat?

What if it turned out that the celebrated “father of modern India” – the Bengali polymath Rammohan Roy – was contemporaneous with another modern religious leader in Gujarat who took advantage of the same historical moment, and not entirely dissimilar conditions, to promote another new religious movement? That would be Sahajanand Swami, the founder of the Swaminarayan Sampraday, and for members of that order, god himself.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

How might our understanding of religious modernity change once we realise that the father of modern India and Lord Swaminarayan, were nearly exact contemporaries? More importantly, since both of these remarkable individuals created enduring and transformative religious movements – the Brahmo Samaj and the Swaminarayan Sampraday – do we have in the coincidence of their contemporaneity and influence an opportunity to explore new models for the emergence of what we think of as modern Hinduism?

In my book Hinduism Before Reform, I argue that this is precisely what we have and I explore the possibilities for setting Rammohan Roy and Sahajanand side by side. The goal here would not be to crown one a modern and judge the other medieval (which the standard chronotope of religious change cannot help doing) but to ask if there are any similarities in how and what the two men sought to accomplish.

Again, my argument is that there are fascinating similarities, not least in the way both of these men can be viewed as “religious lords” who create, expand, and promulgate new religious polities. One we call the Brahmo Samaj, the other we call the Swaminarayan Sampraday.

And my book simply asks, “before” we judge the one progressive and assume that it correlates with the spatial expansion of progress from Kolkata, what might we see if we looked at the work of these two men accomplished as religious lords.

The exercise seems especially relevant, not least in light of Modi’s recent remarks. As I have noted, his inaugural broadcast rehearses – and celebrates – the spatio-temporal narrative of India’s coming into being. That calls out for recognition and critical scrutiny in itself. But there is more, insofar as Modi leads the Bharatiya Janata Party and therefore represents the official promotion of a Hindu nationalist vision of India.

‘Samaj’ and the ‘sampraday’

Now, by most accounts, the work of Hindutva is regressive if not retrograde. If that is true, then we might simply chalk up the celebration of Bengal’s progressive DNA as mere hypocrisy in the service of vote generation in a region not hitherto receptive to the BJP.

We could leave it at that, but this would mean passing on the chance to ask: how did India get here and is there no other way out? To answer the former question is to engage in the work of history and a considerable amount of self-reflection around the way categories and tropes have operated over time within a variety of discourses around nation, religion and progress.

The latter question is the ongoing challenge of the moment: what is the proper place of religion in Indian public life? In the standard account, the “progressive” samaj of the Brahmos is the antithesis of the “medieval” sampraday of the “Swaminarayanis”. And as a result, “sampradayikta” becomes a dirty word.

But if the “samaj” and the “sampraday” are but two historically contingent formations, two modern religious polities, is there a prima facie reason to praise the one and suspect the other? Is this rather a legacy of colonial-era categories of religion, not least regarding the victory of “spirit” over “law.” Or are they to be judged on how they both articulate and promote civic values and support the kinds of inclusion we look for in all areas, be it caste, gender or religious community?

In between, there is another task, which is to watch carefully how the proponents of a Hindu nation work to appropriate and perhaps vitiate the better elements of either religious modality.

Brian A Hatcher is Professor and Packard Chair of Theology in the Department of Religion at Tufts University, USA; his latest book is Hinduism Before Reform (Harvard, 2020).