Leigh Denault (Newnham College, Cambridge University)

The Domestic as a Prism for the Universal: North Indian Households and Nineteenth-Century Hindu Social Reform

During the nineteenth century, Hindus increasingly saw their faith in comparison with, and in opposition to, Christianity, Islam, and Western scientific knowledge. Hindu reformers worked to transform Hinduism into a more formalized religious doctrine, juxtaposed with other powerful “universalities” on the Indian subcontinent. This paper will consider nineteenth century North Indian urban households as social institutions which mediated among religious communities, social reform movements, state-level policies and ordinary experiences of social and cultural change.

The household and family are often represented in historical scholarship solely as the site of female experience, but in equating “women” with “household” we risk losing sight of the household as an important middle-layer institution with ties to all arenas of human activity. Recent studies by Charu Gupta and Judith Walsh exploring prescriptive literature aimed at Indian women highlight the contested nature of domestic relationships and of the importance of these relationships in defining community identities, pointing to ways in which studies of the domestic enrich our understanding of macro as well as micro questions in history. However, family history has been, as Indrani Chatterjee put it, the “poor relation” among topics of study in Indian history, and histories which focus on communities at the level of the household are equally uncommon.

Competing universalities wooed Hindu households: Western science, reformist ideologies propounded by the Arya Samaj, Brahmo Samaj and others, and a panoply of measures to “purify” Hinduism. While the Anglo-Indian courts had a significant impact on questions of group identities through their administration of Indian customary law, indigenous institutions also sparked social reform debates and movements. Through caste associations, social reform movements or religious communities, members were urged to raise the status of their family, clan, caste or community by adhering to new orthodoxies in the observance of domestic religious rituals and festivals. Other Indian religious groups began similarly to define themselves through domestic practices and household organization. Contemporary topics of debate, beyond questions of sati, widow remarriage, and child marriage, included marriage expenditure, proper household management and hygiene, and defining or reforming “caste customs” associated with domestic practices.

For reformers in nineteenth century North India, household and family were key in forging social and religious unities. Bringing together sources such as novels, songs, case law, vernacular newspapers, caste association publications, and pamphlets on household management and social reform, this paper will argue that rather than an inward-facing space defined by exclusions, the nineteenth century North Indian household was central both to contemporary public debate and to the acculturation of universalities into broader communities.

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