Becoming Religious in a Secular Age

Becoming Religious in a Secular Age

by Mark Elmore

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Religion is often viewed as a universally ancient element of the human inheritance, but in the Western Himalayas the community of Himachal Pradesh discovered its religion only after India became an independent secular state. Based on extensive ethnographic and archival work, Becoming Religious in Secular Age tells the story of this discovery and how it transformed a community’s relations to its past and to its members, as well as to those outside the community. And, as Mark Elmore demonstrates, Himachali religion offers a unique opportunity to reimagine relations between religion and secularity. Elmore shows that modern secularity is not so much the eradication of religion as the very condition for its development. Showing us that to become a modern, ethical subject is to become religious, this book creatively augments our understanding of both religion and modernity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520290549
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/05/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Mark Elmore is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Davis.

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Becoming Religious in a Secular Age

By Mark Elmore


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96464-8


Becoming Sufficiently Developed in Himachal Pradesh, or How Religion Became a Problem

On March 18, 1948, the great Indian nationalist Sardar Patel cut deep into the buoyant hopes of early Himachali politicians when he informed them that the region of Himachal Pradesh was not ready for self-governance or autonomous statehood. The disappointment of this judgment was mitigated by Sardar Patel's assurance that the region would attain its "proper status and area" once it was "sufficiently developed." For more than two decades (1948-1971), the struggle for statehood precipitated by Patel's promise defined the activities and aspirations of Himachal's emerging intelligentsia. By improving literacy rates, bringing electricity to villages, and promoting pilgrimage sites, they sought to prove that the hilly areas were at least as developed, modern, and secular as any of India's new states. The requirement that the region become "sufficiently developed" jumpstarted a serious and far-reaching discussion on the meaning, scope, and content of development and its role in the attainment of modernization. What did it mean to be "sufficiently developed"? Moreover, what was Himachal's "proper" status and area? Did Himachal need to attain a certain literacy rate, a specific degree of industrialization, a particular percentage of fiscal independence, a greater cultural harmony with the rest of India, or some combination of these factors? No sphere of life was exempted from the need for development. Roads were built. Schools were opened. Hydroelectricity was harnessed. Cultural practices were scrutinized. Communications networks were developed.

Therefore, it is more than a little ironic that, in the heady years of reform following Patel's covenant, Prime Minister Nehru himself came to Himachal to inaugurate the Bhakra-Nangal dam project — a project that for him (and for much of the nation) represented the ingenuity and audacity of India's developmental progress. For Nehru, it was a landmark achievement that stood as "a symbol of the nation's will to march forward with strength, determination, and courage." He argued that there was no "greater and holier place" than the dam. In his words, it was the "biggest temple and mosque and gurdwara" that man could possibly construct.

Yet amid all of Nehru's and the nation's intoxicated self-congratulation that accompanied the inauguration of this unprecedented development project, no one seemed to have noticed that Himachal had become a colony within a country that had been decolonized less than a year before. Like the British before them, the new Indian national government exercised parental grace as it extracted the natural and human resources of the region, thereby consigning it to continued dependence. Although the dam flooded tens of thousands of homes, fields, and temples, Himachal has to this day received almost no benefit from the massive project. Despite paying an enormous environmental and human cost, the state receives less than 2 percent of the power generated from the project (for which it pays current market prices) and none of the stored water. The hydroelectric power generated was transported to the plains and distributed to large companies such as the nearby National Fertilizers Limited. The stored water was passed freely on to Punjab and Rajasthan. Nehru, echoing the feelings of a generation of optimistic nationalists, described the Bhakra Nangal Project as "something tremendous, something stupendous, something which shakes you up when you see it. Bhakra, the new temple of resurgent India, is the symbol of India's progress." If it was a symbol of India's progress, a harbinger of resurgent India, then the people of Himachal Pradesh needed to be very, very afraid. If they were not careful, they would continue to pay a very high price for the nation's forthcoming prosperity.


It was against this backdrop of becoming "sufficiently developed" that the people of the region gradually came to understand themselves as being religious. The political mobilization that accompanied the push to recognize Himachal Pradesh as a constitutionally autonomous state was the decisive force in forging a unified Himachali identity. This identity simply did not exist before the emergence of this political mobilization. Identity was largely confined to local forms of identification, which were based on family, village, or local princely state. The emergence of "Himachali" as a marker of identity was essential for the emergence of all other modifiers (Himachali religion, Himachali politics, Himachali character, Himachali literature, etc.)

Much of the argument of this book turns on my assertion that the creation of two new categories — the Himachali and the Himachali religion — was decisive for the formation of contemporary ways of being in Himachal. On the surface, this may seem to be a simple argument, but in the early twentieth century, it was clear neither that such categories would become important nor what they might consist of. When the British arrived in the Western Himalayas to beat back the advancing Gurkha army, the territorial entity now recognized as Himachal was a ramshackle assortment of tiny principalities with competing alliances to larger regional powers (those of Kashmir, Punjab, Mughal, Nepal, Tibet, etc.). Since these principalities were separated by glacier-covered mountains, raging rivers, and linguistic barriers and subject to ever-shifting alliances with neighboring powers, there was simply no need for a transregional alliance or the adjectival forms that would accompany such an alliance.

It is clear that, before the arrival of Europeans in the Western Himalayas, a category that would link the various peoples of the hills into a singular unit was not necessary. The people living in Kangra and Kullu, who occasionally killed one another, had no need (administrative, promotional, defensive, or otherwise) to discuss a category of person that would include all people living in the region. The situation was very different for the British men and women who began to populate the Western Himalayas in the early nineteenth century. For these folks, coming up with a classification for the particular type of people inhabiting these hills was necessary for a couple of reasons. First, these settlers obviously saw themselves as being very different from the "natives" who carried them up the mountains and brought and prepared their food. There is nothing interesting or surprising about this. Yet what is surprising is that they also made a series of important distinctions between those who inhabited the hills and those who lived in the plains of North India, the most significant of which was that the hill dwellers were more peaceful and healthy than their counterparts on the plains. In the tumult that followed the chaos of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the character of the hill people became a critical rationale for the official relocation of the Raj's summer capital to Shimla. A letter sent by Viceroy John Lawrence to Secretary of State Charles Wood in 1864 sums up Shimla's many strategic advantages: "This place, of all hill Stations, seems to me the best for the Supreme Government. Here you are with one foot, I may say, in the Punjab, and another in the North-West Provinces. Here you are among a docile population and yet near enough to influence Oude. Around you, in a word, are all the warlike races of India, all those on whose character and power our hold in India, exclusive of our own countrymen, depends."

The people of the hills were seen as isolated from the corrupting influence of power and politics so pervasive in the plains. Raised in the "invigorating air" of the mountains, they were perceived as having risen above the languor and lethargy of others in the subcontinent. This quality of docility — although how true it was is more than a little debatable — is one of the more important facets of self-constructed identities in modern Himachal.

The way that Shimla's British residents imagined the people they lived among was inflected by two interrelated theories of distance, one geographic and the other cultural. This cultural and geographic distance gave Paharis a special place within the colonial imaginary. They were simultaneously lauded and infantilized. They were not believed to require any of the moral recalibration that was thought to be necessary to "civilize" as the Indians who lived on the plains. Envisioned as having the same moral capabilities as the Brits while remaining innocent of so many human vices, they needed only protection. Both the physical isolation and the noble innocence of Paharis were critical for how these people "became religious" in the second half of the twentieth century.

The first and most pervasive of these theories of distance equated the hills with health, vigor, and moral character. This theory was predicated on a climatological understanding of the relationship between heat and civilization that was pervasive under colonial rule. It was famously summed up in Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws: "The heat of the climate may be so excessive as to deprive the body of all vigor and strength. Then the faintness is communicated to the mind; there is no curiosity, no enterprise, no generosity of sentiment; the inclinations are all passive; indolence constitutes the utmost happiness; scarcely any punishment is so severe as mental employment; and slavery is more supportable than the force and vigor of mind necessary for human conduct. ... The Indians are naturally a pusillanimous people; even the children of Europeans born in India lose the courage peculiar to their own climate."

The British saw a sharp contrast between the peaceful and industrious people of the Western Himalayas and the indolent people of the plains. The British seemed to recognize themselves in the hill people, although they considered the hill folk more innocent than themselves. With this as a sort of cultural prerequisite at work, it is less than surprising that Shimla was an attractive place. My assertion is that the British occupation of Shimla, particularly by British women and children (who lived in the city year round, whereas the mostly male government officials were only there in the summer), helped to produce a new understanding of religious life in the hills that came to define both the future political struggle and the public forms that evolved in the postcolonial state. We have already seen that colonial officials often noted the "passive" nature of hill people when they were arguing that the Raj should move his offices to Shimla each summer. This "passivity" continued to be an important descriptor of villagers. In official letters, reports, diaries, and plays, the "Paharees" were applauded for their excellent physical and moral character. For example, Fanny Parks, after an excoriating remark about the "disgusting" marriage practices of the hills, closed one particularly telling section with: "I am told that honesty was the distinguishing characteristic in former times of the Paharis, but intercourse with civilized Europeans has greatly demoralized the mountaineers." This quote points us in an important direction. Just as the hills were closer to the natural state of things — "natural" here being defined by its relationship to a British archetype — the people were understood as being closer to a state of nature. While the usual quips about the "backward" character of the Paharis punctuate the colonial archive, more often than not, it is this idyllic caricature of the hill people living close to the state of nature that pervades these writings.

This imagination was predicated on two interrelated theories of distance: one geographic, the other cultural. The first and most pervasive of these theories equated the hills with health, vigor, and moral character. This perception drove the British to the hills in the first place, and it underpins much of the ideology that supported the colonial conquests of "the South." The belief was that, because the British were from a cooler climate, they were more civilized and not as culturally or morally debased as people from the south. According to many, as one moved from the plains to the hills, the character, temperament, and honesty of the native populations improved considerably.

James Fraser, one of the earliest British visitors to the Western Himalayas, suggested: "The farther removed from the plains, the heat, and the more accessible parts of the country, the higher does the highlander rise in activity of mind and body." When he made this remark, Fraser was on a tour securing control from the Gurkhas. He was contrasting the differences between the people of the lower hills (Sirmaur and Nahan) with those of the upper hills (Bushahar and Jubbal), a distinction that continues to hold for many in the region. The people of the hills were understood to be closer to the natural state of being; they were uncorrupted by the sins and indolence of the heat of the plains. They were, moreover, largely free of the corruption of civilization.

Pahari women are often described as beautiful, pure, and much "freer" than British or Indian women. For example, George Powell Thomas, sounding like a tourist visiting the interior regions of Himachal, wrote: "I have seen some beautiful and sinless little hill girls of grace and air so innocent, so pure, so cherub-like, that it seemed impossible that they should become sensual — impossible that they should have within them the seeds of lasciviousness and guilt." Yet, as we will see below, it wasn't only the male colonialists that found the beauty and purity of Pahari women more than a "curiosity." English women's representations of Pahari women made the strongest long-term impressions.


In the introduction to her collection of Shimla village tales, Alice Elizabeth Dracott states that she edited out a number of local women's stories because they "were grotesquely unfit for publication." However, Dracott did not believe that this meant that Pahao women were debased and depraved. Rather, she continued to subscribe to the myth that Pahari women, though pretty and sexualized, were not tainted: "The typical Paharee woman is, as a rule, extremely good looking and a born flirt; she has a pleasant, gay manner, and can always see a joke."

This was also an opinion held by more than a few men. Yet, again, it is not simply that the people of the hills understood themselves in these terms — as simple and openly embracing sensuality with a libertine quality. William Howard Russell, a correspondent for the Times in the late 1800s, described an amusing incident, the humor of which appears to have been somewhat lost on him. He travels to a fair, where he is met by the raja of Bushahar. After verbally abusing the "horror" that is the seven-faced rath (chariot) of the deity being celebrated, Russell proceeds to tell us the real reason why he and his friends traveled to the fair and why they would go home disappointed: "We were most anxious to see the ladies, of whose beauty we had heard so much. The Rajah said he would get them to dance for us. He sent out his orders; but we saw that wherever his messengers went there was an immediate dispersal of the women, who began to file off in charming groups through the woods, and to mount the hills, or descend the valleys to their homes. It was evident that we were unpopular."

The sexual and moral purity of the people of the hills was employed most powerfully by the British as an index of difference against which to measure the hill people against the people of the plains. That is to say, from the time Pahari people were defined as a group, they were defined in contrast to the Indians of the plains. In general, Pahari communities were understood as being communal and free of the artificial distinctions of caste and class. The British often took undue advantage of this collective harmony. For instance, one of the rationales the British used to support the extension of the system of begar (forced labor) was the claim that this labor was part of Pahari culture, the evidence being that, whenever anything needed to be built, the community would do the work together for the welfare of all. It was this myth of communal simplicity and equality that, ironically, allowed the British to exploit the Pahari population. Begar was, according to this understanding, a system of equality in which villagers worked together to foster community growth.

These attitudes toward the inhabitants of the hills helped forge a communal identity among those individuals who were carrying British luggage, pulling rickshaws, typing records, and even just tilling their fields in the villages. It is in the minds of the British and in their speech, in their need to address a "man of the hills," that the notion of a Pahari people has its origins.

As we trace the manner in which the basic characteristic of the Pahari were articulated, we will become attuned to how the encounters between Shimla and the various hill states created the need for and, in turn, the particular character of Pahari religion and culture. Much of what will emerge is implicit in the words of Emily Eden, the sister of Governor-General George Eden, who lived in Shimla in the 1830s and shaped how the city would emerge in the British public imagination. She stated: "I always wonder how ignorant of the ways of the world the inhabitants of these solitary valleys can be and how such ignorance feels. No 'craft boys,' no fashions, no politics, and, I suppose, a primitive religion that satisfies them. There are temples of great age in all these places, I imagine half of these people must be a sort of vulgar Adams and Eves — not so refined, but nearly as innocent." In this example, as in others above, we see the emergence of some of the primary elements of what I call the metanarrative of Himachali culture: the belief that the inhabitants of Himachal are "pure," that they are in touch with the natural religions of the hills, and that they are honest and very different from both the Hindus of the plains and the corrupted, yet civilized, British.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Introduction: What Is This Thing Called Religion? 1

Part 1 Power: How Himachal Discovered Itself and its Religion

1 Becoming Sufficiently Developed in Himachal Pradesh, or How Religion Became a Problem 35

2 God Is a Beggar: Land Reforms Create Religion as a Separate Sphere 58

Part 2 Knowledge: Making and Managing Theological Culture

3 Ordinary Miraculousness: Farmers and Pharmacists Practice the Science of Religion 93

4 Managing Religion: Government, Gurs, and Gods 133

Part 3 Ethics: Becoming Religious and the Mysteries of Being

5 Negotiating Religion: Normalization, Abjection, and Enrichment 173

6 Cultivating Religion amid the Conflicting Desires of Goats, Gods, and Government 212

Afterword: Religion is a Verb 235

Notes 243

Bibliography 273

Index 287

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