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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Religion, identity and cultural change; some themes from nineteenth century India Malhotra, Lorraine Margaret


The purpose of this thesis is to examine the psycho-cultural dynamics of the interaction between the British community in India in the 19th century and the class of Indians educated in the English school system both in terms of the stress the encounter placed upon individuals of both cultural communities and the response initiated thereby. Although the emphasis of the study is on the impact of Western values and attitudes it is recognized that the source of psychological stress for Indians was the response of the British to the stress of contact with an alien culture. The cultural change induced by the British in India focused upon the Hindu religion, requiring a deep rearrangement of cultural values, motivations and their corresponding institutional structures. But it is seen that this kind of change is not easily accomplished. Indians could not reject their own cultural values and accept the alien ones without destroying their sense of identity which, being derived from the Hindu religion, was incompatible with the value system of the West. Though intellectually they identified with some values and ideas of the West, emotionally and socially they were tied to the culture patterns of traditional Hinduism. This conflict caused some Indians to experience a crisis of identity. In this thesis identity is defined as a function of religion. The religious system of a culture forms the matrix of all cultural values, beliefs, attitudes, and the sense of identity and serves as the organizing, integrating, and stabilizing principle of the social system and the personality. A crisis of identity becomes for the individual a crisis of belief. This was what occurred when the cultural values and beliefs of the Hindus were challenged by the alternate value system of the British which, when defined by the racist ideology and the colonial relationship, destroyed the sense of security and integrity of the native personality. British cultural attitudes are discussed in terms of the changing images of India and of Indians in the 19th century and interpreted in the context of the ideologies that inspired them. It is observed that the images of 19th century Indian culture are uniformly condemning but that the images of India's past and future vary according to the ideological stance of the image makers. The cultural attitude which prevailed throughout most of the century was one of intolerance stemming from the belief in the superiority of the British culture. This attitude created an atmosphere of cultural polarity and manifested itself in an invidious comparison between the two cultural groups. A framework is established for interpreting the Indian response to the impact of British cultural attitudes or, rather, to the crisis of identity and the loss of self-respect that the impact produced. The response was basically a defensive one. It involved a search for a new cultural identity which would relieve the stress of commitment to opposing value systems by effecting a compromise. Indians attempted this realignment via cultural historiography or cultural classicism, a process whereby they interjected 19th century Western values into their own cultural past thereby making those values seem generic to their tradition. Historiography "proved" that present (19th century) moribund values represented a deviation from the true values of the Hindu religion. This interpretive act rendered adjustment to and acceptance of change easier. It produced a cultural identity compatible with the experience of the contemporary Indian and provided a framework for the interpretation of traditional Hinduism according to the 19th century world view. The reinterpretive schemes of Raja Rammohun Roy and Swami Vivekānanda are used to illustrate the Indian response. Their images of India and of Indians are contained in the "myths" of the Indian Golden Age and Indian spirituality which were calculated to regenerate India and Indians to a position of dignity and equality in a world culture.

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