Interview of Prof. Brian Hatcher

Every year, EHESS research centers invite foreign professors for a period of one month, during which they present a series of lectures.

In March 2016, the CEIAS was pleased to welcome Brian A. Hatcher (Professor, Packard Chair of Theology, Tufts University), as a Visiting Scholar.

Interview by Catherine Clémentin-Ojha and Raphaël Voix (CEIAS)

How did you become an Indologist, Brian?

That is probably the question I am most often asked. You would think that after twenty some years I might be able to provide a compelling answer. But to be honest I can’t easily explain how it came about. Obviously I can describe the graduate-level training I received at Yale and Harvard, but as for what originally led me to think of studying South Asia—that is still a bit of a mystery even to me. No doubt it was a constellation of factors.

For one thing, my father had grown up and been educated in England; as a result I was raised with an awareness of British culture, albeit filtered more through my mother’s Anglophilia than my father’s eyes. My father had served in the Royal Air Force and that’s what brought him to Canada and the US during WWII. He loved aviation and aircraft and military history so his stories were mostly about those things. My mother loved the royal family, English literature and popular culture; we all used to watch television shows like “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Monty Python” together. But my father’s family had no direct ties to India that I knew of and if anything his attitudes toward India and the British Empire were not ones I would have shared. I do recall him revealing an awareness of Anglo-Indian terms as they crept into military slang—words like Char-wallah (for the chap who served tea). And only later did it strike me as funny that he had built a wooden dinghy for my brothers and I to use. I don’t know that he even knew the etymology of the word or the cultural origin of the boat, though. Mine was a family that watched movies like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Khartoum” and mostly reveled uncritically in the glories of the empire rather than contemplating its moral, political or historical ramifications.

So how did I become interested in colonial India? Good question. I’ve always felt that a curiosity about language had something to do with it. My mother had a strong southern accent, having grown up in Virginia, and my father a mild British one, and between the two of them, they marked my family as somewhat odd for suburban Minneapolis. And since my mother taught Spanish in public school, there was further incentive to become interested in languages and foreign cultures. Add to that the fact that my father ended up working in the international division of the Pillsbury Corporation and thus travelled extensively from Hong Kong to Venezuela and Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. In fact, he used to bring Saudi visitors by the house when I was in high school and I can certainly recall how the sight of the flowing robes and kufiya were enough to make an impression. But for all that my father never travelled to India nor did he betray any kind of interest in South Asia.

It is also true that I came of age in the 1970s when there was a general counter-cultural movement, with people of my generation questioning their parents’ religion, leaving their Christian or Jewish traditions to turn instead to the likes of Swami Bhaktivedanta or Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. So much was in the air, on the album covers and in the music we listened to, from the Beatles to Hendrix and all that. I was never actively drawn to movements like ISCKON, but then again in a funny way religion itself wasn’t something I was really drawn to in any profound way. Oddly, the one vivid memory I have is from sometime in high school when we watched a film on India for some now-forgotten social studies class. It may have been around the tenth or eleventh grade, but I can still vaguely see images of Indian villages and bullock carts and am fairly certain the key thematic of the film centered on the caste system. How it was presented or what I would make of it all now, I can’t say, but the memory is among the earliest I have of being drawn in some way to the place and the people. But that particular moment, like the images from the film, just sank into my brain somewhere I guess. And so after high school I actually headed off to college with the goal of becoming a research chemist.

By the time you were, what, 18?

That’s right and I was set on a degree in Chemistry. However, I was fortunate to attend Carleton College and as part of their liberal arts paradigm, I was required to take a range of other courses outside the natural sciences and I have to be thankful for many of the choices I made—even if once again I can’t actually reproduce the logic behind them. Why, for instance, did I choose to take a course on Indian history with the late Eleanor Zelliott? I can’t say, and in all honesty, I was not her best student (this was the 1970s and I confess that, unlike Bill Clinton, I did inhale…). In any case, the way she presented India and the efforts she took to make it real and present to us in southern Minnesota in the years before South Asia was particularly visible in US were pretty compelling, including Indian meals at her home near campus. But I also took other courses that in retrospect certainly reveal my budding (if still unfocused) interest in Asian culture and religion: Chinese philosophy, the modern Japanese novel, the parables of Jesus. Great professors like Bardwell Smith and Richard Crouter gave those courses a kind of gravitational pull that my studies in Chemistry didn’t have, despite my working in a professor’s lab and carrying on with my original game plan.

How far did you go in chemistry?

I loved studying Chemistry too and did complete my Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry. But then I had to decide what to do next. Thankfully my department, like many I’m sure, offered a meeting sometime late in the junior year dedicated to the theme of “Life after college.” The goal was to help students think about and share with others what they planned to do with their degrees. Naturally I went to the meeting; after all, I was a bit lost by this time. It is another of those moments I recall, in this case quite vividly. There were a number of students there and the question went around the room: What’s next for you? Predictably most students said they were planning to study dentistry or medicine or train in chemical engineering. I was very shy in those days so I waited for the question to go all the way round the room. I don’t think I ever spoke up. But then, after everyone had finished, one of the professors said something like: “Well, if you still don’t know, you could always go to Divinity School; that’s what one major did once.” He shrugged his shoulders and everyone laughed. And there I was in the back of the room and the lightbulb went on in my head. I thought, “Yeah that sounds good! I think I’ll go to Divinity School.” I mean, at the time I was taking a course in religion, so I thought, this sounds good. And as luck would have it, I was able (with support from my professors) to get admitted into Yale Divinity School.

But what about your parents? How did they take it?

You know, I am not sure they really understood my motivations at the time. I think my mother mistakenly hoped I would go on to become ordained in the church, while I don’t know quite what my father (quite a rationalist and not a “church” person at all) thought. But certainly they were proud of me.

And they trusted you.

Yes, that’s true, I think. The best illustration of their implicit trust was the morning when I was packing my car to leave their home in Minnesota and drive to Yale. I was outside loading my precious few belongings (some books, vinyl records, clothes) when my father came out and stood beside me in the driveway. He was not someone outwardly given to showing a great deal of affection, but I remember he put his hand on my shoulder and said: “I am sure you’re going to do well.” Then he just turned around and went back in the house. I’ve always thought it was his way of affirming what you said, “I trust you, you’re going to do fine.” So when I got my degree from Yale they naturally came for the ceremony, as they did again when I received my PhD from Harvard. In a way it is somewhat ironic. My family could not really boast any “intellectuals.” My father only completed grammar school in England as far as I know, although my mother did a teacher’s degree at what was once Longwood College in Farmville, Virginia and is now Longwood University. But as it turned out my parents always loved language, history and the arts and they certainly knew the value of a university education. Like many parents they committed themselves to making sure their children would have the opportunity to study at the university level. And in the end their efforts paid off: they wound up with three doctors in the family: two dentists and a professor. Not bad! But I’m sure my initial decision to attend Divinity School must have thrown them for a loop.

What does “Divinity School” imply?

Sometimes they are called seminaries. They are effectively professional schools that developed historically to prepare people to become ministers. A three year MDiv Master of Divinity would prepare you to be ordained in a protestant church, Methodist, Lutheran or whatever. I was raised Episcopalian but I did not intend to become a minister; in some still inchoate way I wanted to study religion and South Asia, and since I realized I really had no significant training in religious studies, there was no way I could go directly on to graduate school after a chemistry degree. Because I was not interested in the ministry, I wasn’t planning on attending a denominational seminary, but focused on schools like Harvard and Yale, where I hoped I would be exposed not just to Christian and biblical study but also to a broader, more liberal study of religion. I visited both schools but in the end I settled on Yale Divinity School.

It turned out to be a good choice because, at the time, Norvin Hein was teaching Hinduism as a member of the Divinity School faculty. I took several courses with him and also began studying Sanskrit under Stanley Insler, who taught in Yale College. I have always been grateful to Harry Adams who was then Dean of the Divinity school because he allowed me to substitute Sanskrit for the Greek or Hebrew requirement after I made the case that my goal was to pursue a doctorate in Hinduism and South Asia. With Norvin Hein introducing me to Hinduism, Bengal and the likes of Ramakrishna and Rabindranath Tagore and Stanley Insler helping me get the first year of Sanskrit under my belt, I was at last ready to apply for doctoral study.

I was admitted to the PhD program in the Study of Religion at Harvard University in 1984. There I would work under the immediate direction of supervisors like John Carman and Diana Eck. I studied Sanskrit for several more years and—as my fascination with Bengal deepened—began the study of Bangla. Thankfully, a Frederick Sheldon travelling grant from Harvard allowed me to spend a year studying Bangla at Vishva Bharati University in Shantiniketan. It was during that year that I began to become aware of the enormous legacy of Ishvarchandra Vidyasagar and began to contemplate a plan for a dissertation on his life and work.

Because my two closest advisors were not themselves scholars of Bengal, while still in Shantiniketan I decided to write a letter to Edward C. Dimock at the University of Chicago (somewhere I very nearly chose to study, in fact). I told him I was thinking of Vidyasagar as a topic and asked what he thought of the idea. He replied with a very kind and supportive letter in which he encouraged me to absolutely pursue the idea. In fact, he gave me the name of a woman by the name of Rachel van Meter Baumer who had in fact worked on Vidyasagar and who had arranged to microfilm a number of rare Bangla works, including numbers of the journal Tattvabodhini Patrika. This was long before such works were made more accessible on Internet archives, and when I returned to the US, Ms. Baumer had mailed a small box of microfilms to me in Cambridge.

For some time it was like a treasure chest to me, and it would be some time before repeated visits to Kolkata, London and Oxford would allow me to track down print runs of the journal and to do the kind of work that not only supported my first book on Vidyasagar, but also the translation at the heart of my third book, Bourgeois Hinduism. So while I chose not to accept admission into Chicago’s program in South Asian Languages and Literatures, I have always felt a profound debt to Edward Dimock for his support early on in my career. Actually all the faculty I met while considering programs in South Asia would in time become important mentors for me, from Ed Dimock and Wendy Doniger at Chicago to Rosane and Ludo Rocher at the University of Pennsylvania—to say nothing of my many mentors at Harvard. It speaks to how much any one of us owes to the larger supporting network not just of our immediate families but of our academic “families” as well.

Can you comment on the origins of the originality of your work? My feeling is that you were often inspired by other researchers and were crossing boundaries—I am thinking for example about your article on Hervieu-Leger and Rammohun Roy.

I remember that back in graduate school, a colleague of mine remarked on how important it was, even when digging down into the details of one’s particular subject area, to also continue a pattern of reading outside that area. For me that suggested that while working on Vidyasagar in 19th century Bengal I might continue to read more widely in classical Hindu philosophical or legal systems, or even more broadly that while working on religion in South Asia I might pursue other interests in Christian iconography, American religion or whatever. It is not perhaps a revelatory insight, but I do think that it is by introducing the specifics of one’s research into the larger crucible of theory, method, or historiography that one creates an occasion for surprising discoveries, almost by a kind of catalytic reaction.

So while researching Bourgeois Hinduism at the Bodleian Library, I picked up a copy of Hervieu-Leger’s book Religion as a Chain of Memory at a bookstore in Oxford. Reading her analysis in the evenings, as it were, led me to suddenly see something about the historical development of Brahmo thought from Rammohun through Debendranath Tagore to Keshub Chunder Sen. This is what precipitated the essay “Remembering Rammohun” which considers the kind of “crisis of memory” within Brahmo circles that I argue led to the re-scripting of Rammohun’s role as “founder.” And this kind of catalytic model seems to have worked well for me over the years, whether I think of the impact of Edward Said on my early understanding of Sanskrit pandits in Bengal or my more recent use of a passage from Malcolm Bradbury’s novel To the Hermitage as the basic framing conceit for my study of the “life and after-life of Vidyasagar.”

Is this the kind of thinking that led to a book like Eclecticism and Modern Hindu Discourse?

Absolutely. That book came together around readings that I think many of us were consumed with during the 1990s in connection with post-modernism and post-orientalism. Reading the likes of Derrida, Lyotard, Jameson and others got me thinking whether it would be possible to use such work to think anew about the genesis and scholarly understanding of modern Hinduism while finding a way, in particular, to rescue the widely-remarked upon “eclecticism” of modern Hindu thought from the critical scorn of a certain kind of Indologist. So, on the one hand, I had steadily been noticing the use of words like “eclectic” and “eclecticism” in connection with forms of Hindu modernism (not least Brahmo leaders like Keshub Chunder Sen) and was eager to find a way to make sense of such observations; on the other hand, to use the then-current postmodern fascination with pastiche and fragments to rescue—as it were—modern Hindus from being denounced as sloppy thinkers whose purported cut-and-paste approach to gathering religious wisdom only served to render modern Hindu thought inauthentic. If I associated such suspicion with the likes of Paul Hacker and Agehananda Bharati, I looked to other contemporary scholars and creative thinkers to navigate a way out of such a critical dead end. I found resources for an alternate interpretation in authors as diverse as Salman Rushdie, Theodor Adorno, Richard Rorty and Raimundo Panikkar.

I confess I wrote the book rapidly, really as something of an extended “essay”; I thought it would serve best as a timely intervention at that particular moment. I also allowed myself to adopt a more playful stance in the book, trying to mirror trends of play and hybridity that were then rather popular. So I deliberately avoided giving the book a subtitle—the sure sign of an academic monograph! I also played around with somewhat light-hearted chapter titles like “Swami in Wonderland” and “My Own Private Bungalow.” In retrospect, while the book garnered generally positive reviews and is cited by others, it somehow never achieved any traction with my colleagues in the study of Hinduism. I think there is one lesson there for younger scholars looking to publish monographs: you have to create titles with keywords that will help readers to find your work. My decision to use a short and pithy title may have been ill-advised, in retrospect! But it may also be the case that the book tends to fall between the stools of critical theory and modern South Asian studies and thus has no obvious home. Which is ironic, since eclectic home-building is one major thematic within the book. Well, nevertheless I retain a real fondness for the book as an example of the wonderful and surprising ways one’s scholarship can be re-centered and invigorated by attending to a range of voices outside one’s immediate field of expertise.

Does that book represent something about how you work in general or the ways problems arise for you in your research?

I think in some ways yes, and in other ways no. I would have to admit that Eclecticism and Modern Hindu Discourse is a bit idiosyncratic, when viewed in relation to the bulk of my scholarly work. As I said, it emerged very much as a “thought piece” oriented to what I took to be a larger re-orientation in scholarship around cultural change, syncretism and colonial knowledge taking place in the 1990s. But it wandered more freely over wider realms of philosophy, criticism and even architecture than I’m probably known for or have attempted since. On the other hand, I think that book is emblematic of how a certain measure of serendipity is always a generative force for me. After all, I personally only stumbled across Vidyasagar’s legacy in Bengal because I originally went to Shantiniketan to learn about Rabindranath Tagore. In the course of my research on Vidyasagar I discovered a set of anonymous Bangla discourses in the British Library, two of which fueled my original arguments about Vidyasagar’s religious worldview. Later the entire set of those discourses would become the focal point for my arguments in Bourgeois Hinduism. In a similar fashion, research into Vidyasagar’s career led me to explore the lives and activities of several contemporary Sanskrit pandits, which in turn spawned another strand of my work on Sanskrit scholarship in colonial Bengal.

Clearly Vidyasagar has been a unifying theme in my work, but it continues to amaze me how concentration on one such figure in one rich cultural period can ramify in so many fruitful directions, leading me to wrestle with the colonial legacy of Hindu law in my translation of Hindu Widow Marriage or even more surprisingly—via Vidyasagar’s contemporary Girishchandra Vidyaratna—to inquiries into the growth of a pilgrimage site like Tarakeshwar in Hooghly District, which is one focal point for some of my most recent work. I even briefly found myself drawn into translating the short fiction of Saradindu Bandyopadhyay, whose humor I think offers a delightful commentary on certain dimensions of modern Bengali experience with respect to spiritualism, the paranormal and modern Indian identity. I successfully placed a number of translations in various literary journals and would still like to return to that task in the future. Come to think of it, translation—both as practice and object of critical reflection—is another theme that runs through my work.

So would you say you belong to a specific school of thought in South Asian Studies or history in general?

You probably get the sense that I am given to somewhat promiscuous reading habits, which on one level means I have been less invested in the disciplined internalization of any particular micro-canon, such as Subaltern Studies. So in that sense, I suppose I don’t qualify as a member of any single school of thought. That said, I do think of myself primarily as an historian, and among historians I have perhaps taken more immediate inspiration from the work of the late Chris Bayly than from the Subalterns. Though it probably isn’t immediately apparent, if you look closely you can see how my first book (and before that my dissertation) was profoundly shaped by my reading of Bayly’s Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars, which probably single-handedly directed my thinking toward ways of conceptualizing continuity between the precolonial and colonial eras. Although to be fair, my thinking in that regard was equally impacted early on by Sumit Sarkar’s wonderful essay “Rammohun Roy and the Break with the Past.” He is an author I continue to read with pleasure, and perhaps his own on-again off-again relationship to the Subalterns resonates with me. What I liked about his essay on Rammohun was his interest in conceptualizing continuity and change, which has been another guiding thread through my work, not least on the transmission and transformation of Sanskrit learning in colonial Bengal, as in my essay “Sanskrit and the Morning After.” In the end, though, I suppose I’m a gleaner and a bit of a nomad. I feel pretty certain that many of the scholarly camps I might have wandered into over the course of different research projects would perhaps not really recognize me as a fellow-traveler.

What about your future projects?

In my future work I’m attempting to build on my established knowledge of and interest in 19th century Bengali religious and intellectual life while branching out into some new regions and modes of analysis. So on the one hand, I have a journal article forthcoming on the mediation of the concept of anuvada in early colonial Bengal as this helps us think about South Asian translational practices, and another forthcoming on factors shaping the emergence of philanthropy in early colonial Bengal, not least situations of intimate contact and patterns of intimacy.

I’m also carrying forward an interest in the trope of “reform” as this emerges within and becomes a factor shaping the world of religion in colonial South Asia. That interest led me recently to write about a very different tradition (for me, that is), namely the Swaminarayan Sampraday and the way it has been situated in the historiography of religious reform in South Asia.

But on the other hand, I have a book under contract with Harvard University Press tentatively entitled Religion before India, in which I want to step back and think in bigger-picture terms about the ways we might conceptualize the shape and history of religion in South Asia on and around that elusive cusp between the precolonial and the colonial, not least by disarticulating our narratives of religious change from the sometimes powerfully consuming narrative of an emergent Indian nation. The teleology of that latter narrative, it seems to me, has played a significant role in swaying interpretations of religion, reform, revival and community in modern South Asia that could bear careful rethinking.

As if that weren’t enough, thanks to a stimulating few years guiding the work of a remarkable undergraduate researcher at Tufts, I have been led into a project exploring the movement and emplacement of Shaiva religion in early colonial Bengal, especially in the Rarh region west of the Hooghly River. This has taken me into modes of field research and engagements with archaeology, ecology and architecture that are really unprecedented within my established body of scholarship. That work carries on apace and I’m eagerly and somewhat uncertainly watching myself to see where it will lead. All I can say there is, Stay tuned!