Dr. Deepra Dandekar
Researcher, Center for the History of Emotions
Max Planck Institute for Human Development
Baba Padmanji’s conversion from Hinduism (from the Tvashta Kasar caste) to Christianity in 1854 was tumultuous. Not only was he considered the most prolific among writers of vernacular Christian texts in mid-nineteenth century Maharashtra, but his writings became emblematic for scripting a positive and phantom image of Hindu Brahminical reformist engagement with religious conversion.
I say phantom, because Hindu Brahmins in Maharashtra during the mid-nineteenth century did not engage with Christian conversion in any positive manner, but instead subjected converts to crushing humiliation by deeming them impure, immoral, and divided against family, society and tradition. Padmanji’s performance of positive Brahminical engagement, by projecting Christianity in his vernacular writings and by undertaking favourite Brahminical, reformist tasks like critically translating, editing and interpreting Sanskrit texts, dictionaries and lexicons, demonstrated his desire to be included as Christian within the Marathi, Brahminical reformist public sphere.
He wrote of conversion in his heavily detailed autobiographical narratives Arundodaya (1908, 2nd edition) and Anubhavasangraha (1904) as a reformist, feminist, moral, and a rationalist choice that was steeped in modernity, detailing his journey of seeking one absolute truth through an experimental method that eliminated falsehood. Christian truth for Padmanji, articulated as satya, assumed an all-encompassing status as he denounced licentiousness in the Hindu-Muslim and ‘heathen’ world. His rationalist conversion to Christianity, and his vernacular pejorative scripting of Brahminical reform pertinent to spiritual life adopted the masculinity of colonial modernity, as he expressed a burning desire to save Indian women from heathen violence by converting them. He condemned the abysmal condition of women’s education, and the nature of social corruptions operating against them. Padmanji was himself deeply embroiled in personal anxieties about sin. Unlike Indic Christian piety (Krista Bhakti) and its beautiful emotions expressed by converts such as Narayan Vaman Tilak (early twentieth-century), Padmanji remained immersed in evaluating morality against Christian notions of sin.