Accepted Paper:

Mythological biography and the biography of a myth: Guru Ghasidas, Satnamis, and Christians in colonial Chhattisgarh  


Chad Bauman (Butler University)

Paper short abstract:

In colonial Chhattisgarh, American missionaries working among the low-caste Satnamis reworked the biography of the Satnamis' deceased guru in order to portray him as a forerunner of Christianity and encourage conversion to the faith. This paper analyzes the history of this missionary mythologizing.

Paper long abstract:

In the nineteenth century, in what is now the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, Guru Ghasidas inspired a movement of religious reform among the low-caste, leather-working Chamars who, with his encouragement, began to call themselves "Satnamis." Some years after his death, American missionaries began working among the Satnamis. As they did, they began, with the help of inventive converts, to rework the biography of Ghasidas, publishing and promoting accounts which portrayed him as a kind of John the Baptist figure, predicting the coming of missionaries and encouraging his followers to embrace their Christian faith. Many of the details of the biography they created were almost certainly mythical, and yet the biography came to be considered a factual account, even among many non-Christian Satnamis. Counter to Orientalist stereotyping, therefore, in this case it was the American missionaries, and not their Indian interlocutors, who were engaged in the creation and perpetuation of myth.

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