“All This is Indeed Brahman” Rammohun Roy and a ‘Global’ History of the Rights-Bearing Self

In: Asian Review of World Histories
Milinda Banerjee Presidency

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This essay interrogates the category of the ‘global’ in the emerging domain of ‘global intellectual history.’ Through a case study of the Indian social-religious reformer Rammohun Roy (1772/4-1833), I argue that notions of global selfhood and rights-consciousness (which have been preoccupying concerns of recent debates in intellectual history) have multiple conceptual and practical points of origin. Thus in early colonial India a person like Rammohun Roy could invoke centuries-old Indic terms of globality (vishva, jagat, sarva, sarvabhuta, etc.), selfhood (atman/brahman), and notions of right (adhikara) to liberation/salvation (mukti/moksha) as well as late precolonial discourses on ‘worldly’ rights consciousness (to life, property, religious toleration) and models of participatory governance present in an Indo- Islamic society, and hybridize these with Western-origin notions of rights and liberties. Thereby Rammohun could challenge the racial and confessional assumptions of colonial authority and produce a more deterritorialized and non-sectarian idea of selfhood and governance. However, Rammohun’s comparativist world-historical notions excluded other models of selfhood and globality, such as those produced by devotional Vaishnava, Shaiva, and Shakta-Tantric discourses under the influence of non-Brahmanical communities and women. Rammohun’s puritan condemnation of non-Brahmanical sexual and gender relations created a homogenized and hierarchical model of globality, obscuring alternate subaltern-inflected notions of selfhood. Class, caste, and gender biases rendered Rammohun supportive of British colonial rule and distanced him from popular anti-colonial revolts and social mobility movements in India. This article argues that today’s intellectual historians run the risk of repeating Rammohun’s biases (or those of Hegel’s Weltgeschichte) if they privilege the historicity and value of certain models of global selfhood and rights-consciousness (such as those derived from a constructed notion of the ‘West’ or from constructed notions of various ‘elite’ classicized ‘cultures’), to the exclusion of models produced by disenfranchised actors across the world. Instead of operating through hierarchical assumptions about local/global polarity, intellectual historians should remain sensitive to and learn from the universalizable models of selfhood, rights, and justice produced by actors in different spatio- temporal locations and intersections.

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