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Home arrow Sociology arrow Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire: Interfaith, Cross-Cultural and Transnational Networks, 1860-1950


What can this case study of the English religious liberal, feminist and writer Sophia Dobson Collet contribute to our broader understanding of the nature of cosmopolitanisms emerging out of imperial contact zones?

Collet’s life throws new light on the informal transnational network comprising members of an influential Indian religious and social reform movement, the Brahmo Samaj, and British and American Unitarians and religious liberals. This network, initiated in the 1810s to 1830s, revived in the 1860s to 1880s, and persisting into the 1930s, comprised a triangular web of connection between British, American and Indian activists that intertwined imperial and transatlantic circuits of exchange. As this chapter has discussed, Collet’s own religious liberalism and cosmopolitan outlook developed initially mainly within a transatlantic circuit of exchange among Unitarians and Transcendentalists, but already involved an awareness of religious and social reform in India through the figure of Ram Mohan Roy. Her cosmopolitanism was later enacted primarily within an imperial circuit involving links between members of the Brahmo Samaj and their

British supporters, but also encompassed the circulation of information on the Brahmo Samaj to Continental European and American religious liberals.

A cosmopolitan sensibility can take a variety of forms: it can involve fresh perspectives on the world gained through geographical travel or through an openness to new ideas; it can emphasise a stance of nonjudgmental cultural relativism or be a quest for areas of common ground across lines of difference; it can involve the forging of crosscultural friendships and exchanges across distance or involve an attempt to leave behind one’s own original cultural identity though complete identification with another culture. Cosmopolitanism can operate at the level of intellectual engagement, spiritual connection, affective bonding or practical collaboration to bring about social or political change. Collet’s own life is an example of sedentary cosmopolitanism, as she never visited India. It involved a quest for spiritual affinity across the lines of difference between liberal Christianity and Indian theism, which encompassed a shared critique of orthodox Hinduism rather than an espousal of cultural relativism. It was rooted in the cultivation of sustained and close friendships with Brahmo men and women, and this also involved her in some psychological repositioning, as reflected in the claim in her obituary that she referred to India, not Britain, as her home. Collet’s cosmopolitanism combined intellectual, spiritual, affective and social activist dimensions. She saw promotion of the Brahmo Samaj as her life’s work, and engaged over a period of over 20 years in the exchange of ideas with Brahmo friends on matters of religion, social reform and the position of women, diligently promoted the movement in the West through her writings, and put immense efforts into her role as record-keeper and historian and biographer of the movement and its leaders.

Collet’s cosmopolitanism was certainly ‘aspirational’ in Bose and Manjapra’s terms. She pursued conversations across lines of difference marked by race, ethnicity, religion, language, gender and nation, forging respectful egalitarian relationships across the coloniser/colonised divide. Her work with the Brahmo Samaj was a precursor to those ethical projects these scholars identify as complementing the political project of anti-colonialism at a slightly later date. However, Collet did not herself question Britain’s right to exert its imperial rule over India. One explanation for this may be that some of Collet’s own relatives had been employed by the East India Company. A second possibility is that her central preoccupation was with theology and that she was disinterested in imperial politics: it is noticeable that her 1857 intellectual diary makes no mention whatsoever of the Great Rebellion that shook Britain’s imperial self-confidence, while devoting several pages to a detailed discussion of a book about India’s ancient civilisations and religions. Third, Collet’s long-distance relationship with Brahmos in India did not force her to directly confront the racism of colonial society; her hospitality to Indian men in the London metropole did not threaten colonial hierarchies in the way that attempts to cultivate cross-racial friendships within colonial India would have done. Finally, and perhaps crucially, Brahmos themselves were among the nineteenth- century Indian social reform groups who had no qualms about trying to use the legislative powers of the colonial government to advance their own agenda. Collet was clearly comfortable with this approach to bringing about social change in India: She urged the British government to support the Brahmo Marriage Act, and later sent copies of her Brahmo Year Books to the India Office. Keshub Chunder Sen himself stressed his loyalty to the British and his admiration for Queen Victoria. It is perhaps significant that Collet’s attack on his decision to marry off his underage daughter to the Maharaja of Cooch Behar did not address the pressure that British colonial officials had put Sen under to agree to the marriage in order to advance their own strategic interests in the Princely State.75

Before the schism and decline in the movement caused by Sen’s actions, the Brahmo-Unitarian connection, nurtured by Collet through the 1870s, provided an important alternative to the endemic conflict that characterised relationships between evangelical Christian missionaries and orthodox Hindu religious leaders. It was distinctive in being based on a sense of spiritual affinity among groups operating on the radical margins of Protestant Christian and Hindu religious traditions. Theosophy was a new form of spiritual cosmopolitan, which seems to have displaced and marginalised this Brahmo-Unitarian eastwest collaborative axis from the 1880s onwards. It gained an influential following among Indian nationalists and their Western supporters, as instanced by the two Theosophists who feature in the following chapters of this book. Such broadly anti-imperial Westerners who networked with anticolonial nationalist elites were part of a later generation of ‘freethinking intellectuals, social reformers and radicals’76 than the one to which Collet belonged.

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