J. Barton Scott

Unsaintly Virtue: Why Arya Samajis Shouldn’t Write Hagiographies (But Do Anyway)

Before he died in 1883, Swami Dayanand Saraswati made it very clear that he disapproved of saints and had no intention of becoming one. His entire reform project had been meant to cleanse India of the “smell of gurudom.” Nonetheless, when the Arya Samaj (his reform society) rose to prominence in the early decades of the twentieth century, its members extolled the uncommon virtues of Dayanand in a series of hagiographic texts in Hindi and English. This put these hagiographers in a difficult position, and they twisted their genre so that it could simultaneously assert and deny the Swami’s sainthood. Through close readings of biographies of Dayanand published between 1897 and 1946, this talk will consider the allure of the saint and trace its hold on print Hinduism.

J. Barton Scott is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Montana State University, where he teaches courses on South Asian religions, cultural studies, and critical theory. His book manuscript, Spiritual Despots: The Politics of ‘Priestcraft’ in Colonial India, traces how Protestant attacks on priestly authority were translated into a Hindu idiom. Through readings of texts in English, Hindi, and Gujarati, it draws out the political theory of the priest that was central to how nineteenth century reformers sought to remake Indian society. Scott is currently working on a series of articles about print culture and concepts of the public in colonial India.