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Through the Prism of Entangled Histories

Seema Alavi

By William R. Pinch
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 280, price not stated.

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 10 October 2007

In 1996 William Pinch offered us a brand new insight into the peasant societies of Gangetic north India. In his hugely influential book, Peasants and Monks in British India, he showed us how religion in its non-denominational sense defined peasant action in colonial India. He drew our attention to the fact that sadhus (monks) and peasants have entangled histories. As he went on to unfold for us the complementary and yet competitive pre-modern world of peasants and the Vaishnava derived Ramanandi monasticism in particular, he revolutionized both the writing of modern India’s social history, as well as the history of religion in South Asia. He showed how the confluence of the religious and the political was not a simple consequence of colonialism and nationalist politics whether of the elite or the subaltern kind. Nor was religion only about crystallized political-communitarian identities that we associate today with being Hindu. Rather, religion had a longer history of changing lifestyles and attitudes to God, which indeed may have shaped nationalist politics of the later period.   With his refreshingly new and enabling definition of religion, Pinch lead’s us into the fascinating world of peasant mentalities through the Vaishnava saints and literature. His greatest contribution was that he left us with far more questions than his 1996 book could answer. Who were the other contenders in this soft underbelly of non-denominational religion? What about the Saiva roving warrior ascetics? How did they intersect with Vaishnavites and their peasant clientele? What did that interaction produce? What about the world of Muslim millenarianism—the Sufis, and the more conservative influences of the Wahabi revivalism kind? Did these intersect in any way with the non-denominational Hindu warrior sects? And of course what about the longer history of state formations in the Gangetic valley. Surely, such processes meddled in and produced changes in this soft religious underbelly of peasant society. In other words what happened before colonialism picked up its ‘cultural projects’ of ‘colonising the body’, ‘taming the frontiers’ and categorizing as ‘criminal’ what are the natural lifestyles of peasants, monks and ascetics.   The book in review Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empires (2006) answers all these questions and more. In this brilliant masterpiece of social history Pinch takes us once again through the Gangetic plains into peasant lives. However, this time he does so through the careers and lives of Saivite warrior ascetics, the Gosains. He captures for us the ...

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