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Title page for ETD etd-03232011-101111

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Newell, Zo Margaret
Author's Email Address zo.newell@gmail.com
URN etd-03232011-101111
Title Picturing the Goddess: Bazaar Images and the Imagination of Modern Hindu Religious Identity
Degree PhD
Department Religion
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Richard J. McGregor Committee Chair
Ellen T. Armour Committee Member
Jinah Kim Committee Member
John J. Thatamanil Committee Member
  • imagined community
  • Hindu goddess
  • Indian nationalism
  • Hinduism
  • Indian colonialism
  • Bharat Mata
Date of Defense 2011-03-14
Availability unrestricted


Zo Newell

Thesis under the direction of Prof. Richard J. McGregor

This project inquires into the role of visual print technology in the construction of a pan-Indian sense of religious identity at the end of the colonial era. I take as my starting point the statement by Sri Ramakrishna of Calcutta that "a real Hindu" is someone who has, and worships, pictures of deities --specifically, pictures of the mother goddess-- and proceed to the phenomenological and historical consideration of a selected set of images. I argue that these images represent deep-rooted cultural symbols of a narrative through which a loosely-related "family" of indigenous practices came to be imagined by its practitioners as a cohesive and inclusive religion, in contradistinction to European narratives which reduced Hinduism to a form of paganism or a "colonial construction". This idea of Hinduism embraced members of all communities as "children" of Mother India. Moreover, the ubiquitous availability of inexpensive, mechanically reproduced deity made it possible for devotees of all castes and genders to worship independently of formal religious settings and specialists. I develop my arguments in conversation with Benedict Anderson's concept of nation as "imagined community", Walter Benjamin's theories on art as mechanical reproduction, and Arvind Sharma's insights on dharma as a crucial category for thinking about Indian religion . Drawing on the work of Mircea Eliade and Bruce Lincoln, I argue for myth as represented visually in these images - as a form of sacred narrative which gives meaning to historical catastrophe by homologizing the individual's particular situation with cosmic reality. I apply this theory to the religious anxieties aroused, for late-nineteenth century Hindus, by the historical catastrophe of colonization. I undertake a genealogy of selected images in terms of their religious symbolism, their narratives of power and versatility as exemplified through the goddess, and their ability to inspire what Anderson calls a "broad, horizontal" sense of religious community and of communal agency in India on the cusp of independence.

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