Spiritual DespotsModern Hinduism and the Genealogies of Self-Rule

Spiritual DespotsModern Hinduism and the Genealogies of Self-Rule

J. Barton Scott

Print publication date: 2017

ISBN: 9780226368672

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


Although attacks on priestcraft were ubiquitous in colonial India, the period’s rich archive of anticlerical writing has seldom been systematically studied. As this book shows, however, the spectre of the crafty priest was crucial to how the politics of religion were understood at this time. At least as important to British rule as the Orientalist representation of Hinduism and other religious traditions was the effort to reform human subjects by freeing them from external religious influence. This book traces how the critique of spiritual despotism in colonial India gave rise to ideal of the self-ruling subject. Even as reformers decried the spiritual power of priests, they promoted new types of religious discipline by mobilizing Hindu and Protestant ascetic practices and extending them to worldly householders. The result was a notion of disciplined self-governance that was crucial to both nineteenth-century reform culture and early twentieth-century anticolonialism. A work of historicist cultural studies, the argument of Spiritual Despots unfolds through readings of diverse texts from India and Britain. By using a contrapuntal method that criss-crosses colony and metropole, the book shows how South Asian writers intervened in period debates about the nature of the self and thus suggests an alternative genealogy for the liberal ideal of the self-governing individual. Relatedly, the book asks how the discipline of comparative religion can be re-imagined for the twenty-first century, rerouting some of that discipline’s key terms (most notably Max Weber’s notion of “worldly asceticism”) through empire to reveal them in a new light.