Accepted Paper:

In opposition to Brahma and Brahmins: constructing the hagiography of the Matua Dharma founder  


Sipra Mukherjee (West Bengal State University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper looks at the hagiography of a leader from the Dalit community who lived in early 19th century Bengal. Beginning a religious sect that has, over two centuries, resulted in a powerful political movement , the paper explores the dynamics between the religious and the political as revealed by the hagiography, written in mid-twentieth century, of the founder Harichand Thakur.

Paper long abstract:

Harichand Biswas, popularly known today as Harichand Thakur, was born into the lowly Chandal community in early 19th century Bengal. His wisdom and vision guided the community towards education, social dignity, and a well-organised caste group, even as he inspired them with a faith that came to be known as the Matua dharma.

Conceived in opposition to idolatry, ritualistic Hinduism and Brahminical hegemony, members of the Matua sect rejected the generic name Chandal and gave themselves the name of Namasudra. In the rapidly changing circumstances of the late-19th century, the Matua faith spread across the demarcations of the lower castes, inspiring many and growing to one of the strongest religious movements in Bengal.

My paper will attempt to read the fairly recent hagiography of this religious leader in the light of the last two centuries. The colonial and post-colonial politics of numbers, along with the modern discourses of egalitarianism, identity and religion, have shaped the Matua sect, and consequently the biography of Harichand Thakur, revealing the diverse pulls that a religious sect faces. The construction of Harichand's hagiography, reveals the intimate associations that exist between the worldly and the divine, with the Matua sect poised delicately between a religious and a political identity in modern Bengal.

Panel P47
Of saints, converts, and heroes: hagiographies and conversion auto/biographies across religions in South Asia