Fashioning the pious self: Middle class religiosity in colonial India

Darakhshan H Khan, University of Pennsylvania


Drawing on archival and ethnographic fieldwork, this dissertation examines the public construction of personal piety in nineteenth- and twentieth-century north India (1857-1930). The emergence of reformist piety, with its emphasis on individual responsibility and a focus on the self, is supposed to mark the privatization of religion, such that the public sphere becomes the site of politics and economy, and the household displaces the community as the locus of religiosity. This dissertation critiques the thesis of separate spheres to argue that the cultivation of middle class religiosity was an extremely public act that unfolded in the myriad spaces that opened up in the late nineteenth century. The middle class household, with the conjugal couple at its center, was inextricably linked to these spaces, whether it was a university campus, a newspaper office, a political rally, a fundraiser, or an arboretum in a hill station. Central to this thesis is the use of Michael Warner’s idea of discourse publics as an alternative framework to the Habermasian conception of the bourgeois public sphere. The emphasis on physical space makes room for understanding the household as a living social site of tellings and retellings that coexists with other overlapping publics and counterpublics. The reformist piety which became the hallmark of the middle class was fashioned under the watchful eyes of peers, superiors, and spouses in these spaces. It was appraised, acknowledged, emulated, and perfected through networks that belied the public-private divide. This dissertation focuses on the institution of the household as one such site in the network to suggest that the radical reordering of the household in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries enabled the emergence of personal piety. The history of reformist piety can be retold as the history of the reconfigured household. Furthermore, the re-imagination of the woman as a chaste and loyal spouse was fundamental to her elevation as an independent spiritual actor of the household. The spiritual independence of the wife, however, was predicated on her social, economic, and legal subordination to the husband.

Subject Area

Religious history|History|South Asian Studies

Recommended Citation

Khan, Darakhshan H, "Fashioning the pious self: Middle class religiosity in colonial India" (2016). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI10247572.