Theses Doctoral

Ordering Subjects: Merchants, the State, and Krishna Devotion in Eighteenth-Century Marwar

Cherian, Divya

“Ordering Subjects” argues that the merchants of Marwar led efforts to demarcate a new, exclusive community of elites, one that they conceptualized of as self-consciously ‘Hindu’ and forged through the application of state power. This early modern Hindu community defined itself in opposition not to the figure of the Muslim but to that of the ‘Untouchable,’ a category that included but was not limited to the Muslim. The early modern Hindu identity was thus deeply imagined in caste terms. This elite community organized around Krishna devotion, especially the Vallabh Sampraday, and demarcated itself through cultural markers such as the practice of vegetarianism, teetotalism, and austerity. Merchants, often joined by brāhmaṇs, waged their battles for the demarcation of this new community by petitioning the crown and by successfully deploying the control that they had gained in prior centuries over the state apparatus as bureaucrats. State power, consisting of its judicial, fiscal, recordkeeping, and surveillance mechanisms, played a central role in the implementation of laws and regulations, including spatial, economic, social, and ritual segregation, enforced vegetarianism, and the moral policing of elite subjects’ lives. Most of these petitions and state responses were legitimized with reference to ethics, marking a departure from the until-then prevalent emphasis on custom as the basis for legislating society. “Ordering Subjects” suggests that this marked a shift towards a more universal law and that the turn to ethical principles made possible the disregard for the force of custom that these departures marked. Further, the dissertation demonstrates that these processes enabled the ascendance of a mercantile ethos as the preeminent cultural code of the region, displacing that of the warrior and modifying that of the brāhmaṇ. Lastly, it shows the extent to which the state in eighteenth century Marwar had penetrated society and was capable of intervening in it using surveillance and judicial methods.
The dissertation challenges the current scholarly framing of the debate over the existence of religious identities in pre-colonial South Asia, suggesting that it casts modern, binary (‘Hindu-Muslim’) conceptions of religion, as distinct from politics, upon pre-modern history. Instead, “Ordering Subjects” points to the role of caste, as a field of politics, in determining the contours and imagination of early modern Hindu identity. It offers a political and social history of Krishna devotion, extending scholarship on this field beyond the focus on its literary, theological, and cultural aspects that currently dominate the field. In tracing the local effects of the global processes of economic circulation and integration that characterized early modernity upon social and political life of a landlocked kingdom, the dissertation offers a perspective upon the history of early modern South Asia as it unfolded away from, but in connection with, the ports and court cities of the region.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Dirks, Nicholas B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 26, 2015