Chapter 21: Caste, Class, and Conversion Under the British Raj

By Rebecca
Rare 100-Year-Old Photos of India from the British Raj Era

A group of British people playing tennis during the British Raj in India

Doniger uses this chapter to discuss the three waves of the British Raj, which parallel the three Hindu alliances in the sense that each part builds off of the previous one. She starts with the history of the British in India, focusing on war between different groups in present-day India and the British and the establishment of the East India Company. In addition to textiles and other material goods, the East India company dealt in policy, documents, and agreements, giving it power to participate in India’s government. Once the East India Company unnecessarily declared bankruptcy, the British government stepped in.

Over time, the British gained more and more control over the area until it eventually defeated the Muslim rulers in Bengal in 1757. That very year, the first wave of the British Raj began with the British inserting themselves into the pre-established caste system. Doniger writes that the British thought of their identity as, “…Englishmen with a God-given right to rule,” explaining their actions and relationships with the non-British people living in the area (Doniger 580).

The second wave of the British Raj began in 1813 introduced what Doniger describes as, “evangelicals and opportunists, who regarded India as a land of heathens and idolaters in desperate need of being missionized” (584).

The third and final wave started in 1857-1858, marking a time of Utilitarians, Anglicists, and extreme tension and violence after the Great Rebellion.

Doniger also writes about the implications of the British Raj for the Hindus. For example, the Westerners found themselves intrigued by the Gita, and gave it a sense of importance that it did not previously have. The British also were not amused by the sexual imagery in Hinduism, like the linga, so they enforced their sex-shaming attitude. Thus, the British rule in India was not simply a war on the people, but a type of war on Hinduism as well, which shaped the religion into something fairly different than before.


This chapter was almost painful to read at points for reasons other than Doniger’s confusing writing style. When I read that the British in India viewed themselves as, “…Englishmen with a God-given right to rule,” I could not help but think of a parallel that hits closer to home: Manifest Destiny in North America. As we — or at least I — read about the history of British colonial rule in India, I cannot help but feel bitterness towards the British. From the way they treated others to their mindset, it is hard for me to feel anything but upset. This is much the same as how I feel when studying colonization in North America. The British have consistently colonized others who they deem inferior because it is their “god-given right.” It never seizes to amaze me that certain groups of people act in such ways because they feel as though God has allowed them to do so. Such behavior is prevalent today, as evident by various terrorist groups, demonstrating that this trope is neither dead, nor is it restricted to a single religion.

Another part of the reading that really struck me was the discussion of the Gita and how Westerners who loved it moved it to the forefront of Hindu texts. In Freshman Studies, we all read the Gita and learned about it as a key piece of Hindu literature that penetrates many aspects of society. Funny enough, American transcendentalists adopted the piece for their own philosophical beliefs. This made me wonder if one of the reasons we study the Gita is due to the fact that it had already been a part of Western society. Although the answer to this question may be a no, it might have been subconsciously picked because it was already more familiar to Americans than other texts, like the Vedas.

I was not surprised to read about the British people’s disdain for sexual imagery as well. Through our studies of Hinduism, we have learned that sex was not always considered a “bad thing.” For example, one of the five m-aspects of the Tantras encourages people to fornicate. We also read very explicitly sexual texts, such as parts of the Upanishads, that describe sex and the symbolic meaning behind it. The British attitude on sex was adopted by the Hindus, which is evident by Hindu conservatives’, and other people’s, reactions to Doniger’s work. They claim she is “sex-obsessed,” but in reality, she is merely reflecting the earlier views of sex in Hinduism that had yet to be tainted by the colonialist opinions. Hinduism has been so heavily influenced by the British, and it is fascinating to me that people who consider themselves to be traditional Hindus align with beliefs that originate from outsiders. However, they may not — and most likely do not — view the situation the same was I, as I have a much different perspective from an outsider’s position.


  1. Now that you know that the Gita was not as important of a text before the British Raj, how do you feel about us reading the text in Freshman Studies?
  2. In your opinion, which of the three British Raj waves had the most impact on the people living in present-day India? Why?
  3. Knowing of the influence of the British Raj on Hinduism, should modern-day Hinduism truly be considered Hinduism? Why or why not?

4 thoughts on “Chapter 21: Caste, Class, and Conversion Under the British Raj

Add yours

  1. With regard to Question #3, Doniger’s book seems to indicate that the devotional practices of Hindus after Independence probably date to at least the Mughal era (p. 551), so I think we can hold that “Hinduism” is a polyvalent category with plenty of historical depth. With regard to the impact of the Raj, I think it is fair to identify and discuss a phenomenon among various Anglophone-educated Hindus which we might call “Hindu modernism,” and we can consider that this trend is just one among many ways of being a Hindu in the modern world. In one example of Hindu modernism, a future chapter of Doniger’s book discusses Rammouhun Roy (1774-1833), a social reformer of Brahmin birth who took an interest in comparative religion outside his own, promoted scientific education for Indians, and agitated for the ending of Suttee. Roy looked disparagingly upon the image worship practiced by most Hindus, and promoted a philosophically-minded monotheistic theology that drew upon the Upanishads and anticipated many of the preoccupations of deists and Unitarians in Europe. My take on this phenomenon is that some of the religious ideas and social reforms proposed by Hindu modernists may well have been a reasoned defense of the better parts of their wider religious and cultural heritage, in the face of criticisms of idol-worship, Suttee, or the caste system by colonial administrators and missionaries, but the modernists’ conception of religious thought appears self-generated and sincere, and not merely a reaction to Protestantism. A case in point would be the ecumenically-minded career of Swami Vivekananda (1862-1902), who attended the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago and established a Vedanta institute which still exists in that metropolis (p. 639).

    With regard to Question #1, let me just point out there is a wonderful book analyzing both the European discovery of the Bhagavad Gita and the scripture’s genuine relevance for twentieth-century Hindus: “The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography,” by Richard Davis (Bard College).


  2. The third wave (starting in 1857) has, in my experience, held the position of the “defining moment” in Indian attitudes towards the British. 1857 was the year in which Indians started fighting for independence, and growing up, I was taught that it’s when the “First War for Independence” started, with stories of people like Mangal Pandey serving as examples of Indian bravery and revolt against a mighty colonial power. This seems more political than religious, but the context of this first wave of violence for independence is rooted in frustrations regarding the use of pig and cow fat in cartridges for the Enfield rifle, which was forced upon Indian soldiers in the army of the EIC. Obviously, neither Hindus, nor Muslims were too fond of this rifle and this led to them staging a revolt against their bosses. This event is highlighted more than the 1757 Battle of Plassey in Indian schools since India had, by this time, been used to major shifts in political power, but was not used to the disrespect of religion(s?) in such authoritarian ways. That’s a big shift in the limits of power that most Indians seemed to disapprove of. As an example of how relations between the British and the Indians soured, consider how the event is addressed in history texts, even today: Indians are taught that the event was a move towards independence as a reaction to religious sentiments of ordinary people being offended; the British, on the other hand, refer to it as the “Sepoy Mutiny” (a sepoy or sipahi, is a soldier), which effectively seems to legitimise power by looking down upon the mutineers as just some offended soldiers to be dealt with fiercely, and not as people who held a variegated set of beliefs very different from their own.


  3. In response to your third question, I think that “modern Hinduism” should still be considered Hinduism. Trying to define what exactly a religion is can be extremely hard because there are so many varieties and individual differences in beliefs within each religion. I do not think that just because a part of a religion has influence from an outside source, it should be be considered less valid than any other part. We have talked many times in class about shifts Hinduism has made through history and people, such as Kabir and the bhakti movement, who have great influence on the religion. While I am not saying that I think the British influence is the same as Kabir’s, or thing else we have mentioned, I do think that “modern Hinduism” should not be disregarded as Hinduism. I also think that religion is built to change over time and this might come from internal changes, but it is possible to come from external influences.


  4. In response to your first question, I think it is incredibly unfortunate to read that the Gita isn’t as important in actuality. I still enjoyed reading it, because honestly, I wouldn’t want to read the whole Mahabharata. I do feel “dumbed down” knowing this because I feel that The British Raj wanted a simpler view of the ideals in the Mahabharata, so they were lazy and found what could be the shortest section in it and deemed it “important”. Although I believe the Gita is still a good read, I do feel cheated out of some sort of external knowledge I could have known.


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