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Religion Through Language

By Srinivas Aravamudan
Penguin Books, New Delhi, India, 2007, pp. 269, Rs. 395.00


This is a work in which, sadly, conceptual brilliance and persuasive argument have been marred by a particularly difficult prose. At places, the text looked obfuscating if not entirely opaque with the result that the narrative flow, I thought, was ruptured more often than it might have been otherwise.   Aravamudan understands ‘Guru English’ to be a language variant of South Asian origin, employed by the new intelligentsia to globalize, what on closer examination appears to be a culture and region-specific discourses. The use of English, to put it more concretely, became indispensable to the agenda of projecting Hinduism as a universalist spirituality. This implies that contrary to general belief, cosmopolitanism, other than being born in European Enlightenment thought, was also an idiom manipulatively negotiated and refashioned in colonial South Asia through religious movements and literary texts. The present work upholds this line of thought by analysing a wide range of writers and gurus, literary texts and modern religious movements, the political use of religion as also the literary content of what religious teachers wrote and spoke. Functionally, Guru English has been put to several uses. At one level surely, it remains pure literary discourse but that apart, it is also used as a register with which to search and secure audiences who connect only through the use of English. Neo-Hinduism, as one scholar had once aptly put it, was essentially ‘English language Hinduism’. For its more successful practitioners then, Guru English allows a purposive analysis of religion through language use and of language through categories of the religious. Finally, as our author effectively demonstrates, this allows for the creation of a trans-idiomatic environment by virtue of which, ironically, even religious vocabularies, strongly pacifist in intention, could be transformed into a rhetoric supporting cataclysmic nuclearism.   Aravamudan’s work is spread over six chapters and going by the author’s own suggestion, this may be divided into two equal halves. The first three chapters are a collective that closely examine the interpenetrating idioms of reform and revival, Orientalist curiosity and passionate, romantic nationalism, Indian religion and colonial language. Chapter 3 is specifically on the esoteric language of Theosophy and its critiques, focusing upon two well-known novels—Ulysses by James Joyce and All about H. Hatter by G.V. Desani, both of which confront the ‘creative obscurantism’ of Blavatsky with satire and derisive laughter. Beginning with Chapter 4, we take a big leap in time, ...

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