Universität Erfurt

Max-Weber-Kolleg

Prof. Dr. Angelika Malinar: Fellow

Universität Erfurt
Max-Weber-Kolleg für kultur- und sozialwissenschaftliche Studien
Postfach 900221
99105 Erfurt

Forschungsprojekt

Europäische Frauen als Interpretinnen des Hinduismus (1875-1947)

The project focuses on European women as interpreters of Hinduism in the colonial-modern period. The interpretations of Hinduism as well as the “woman question” were prominent arenas of the political-cultural debates that characterized the entangled history between India and Europe at that time. From the last decades of the 19th century onward, women not only in India but also in Europe increasingly participated in the debates about Indian religion and society. Annie Besant (1847-1933) and Margaret Noble (1867-1911), for instance, did not only pursue their own spiritual interests but were also actively engaged in socio-political and educational projects. In doing so, they challenged constructions of gender and regimes of power both in India and Europe, which resulted in complex biographies as well as in various interpretations of religion. While their political activities received some scholarly attention, their interpretations of Hinduism did not. One reason for this is that these interpretations were often seen as intellectually irrelevant or mere apologetics. This view seems to be based on the application of certain paradigms in the interpretation of female agency and individuality in the colonial context. The European women were considered as being either mere mouthpieces of “Indian Gurus” or agents of imperialism (even when they saw themselves fighting against it). Such unilateral views of colonial history have been challenged in recent years by emphasizing the entangled, multi-layered interactions between Indians and Europeans as well as the complex personal relationships they entertained. In following this approach, I shall explore the individual biographies, the social and political networks of the European women, and the larger intellectual contexts of their interpretation of Hinduism.

Particular attention will be given to processes of individualization and de-individualization they encountered in institutional, legal, and socio-political frameworks as well as in the personal relationships they entertained. The study combines theoretical perspectives from post-colonial and literary studies, religious studies and philology in dealing with the interpretations of Hinduism as forms of “cultural translation”. In continuation of my research on Annie Besant that dealt with her self-perception as political “rebel” and spiritual teacher, her interpretation of the doctrines of karman and bhakti (devotion to God) in the Bhagavadgita (a foundational text of Hinduism) will be analysed. Her views will be confronted with the severe criticism that was raised by Indian social activist and lawyer Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) against Besant. I will then study the life and writings of Margaret Noble (“Sister Nivedita”). After having met Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) in London, she went to India in 1895 in order to join Vivekananda’s “Ramakrishna Math und Mission” and to set up educational projects for girls and women. In her interpretation of Hinduism, she stressed the importance of the bhakti-traditions of Hinduism and propagated devotion to Goddess Kālī as a source for spiritual and political activism. In contrast to the representation of Hinduism as a tolerant religion, which became popular and even dominant at that time in the West, Noble stressed the potential of Hinduism for political fight against oppression and as a source for an aggressive assertion of freedom.

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