Mathas, gurus and citizenship in colonial India

Strong religious, communal and kinship ties in non-European societies were treated as evidence of their inability to produce modern citizenship. How then, did religious institutions called mathas in South India in the early twentieth century successfully express their political will through acts of devotion to their gurus?

Aya Ikegame
8 November 2012

Religion has emerged in recent years as an important categorical framework in thinking about the limits of western democracy. How the state in Europe and North America can manage such diverse religious practices and maintain public peace has become a heated topic of discussion amongst policy-makers and media alike. Faced with these social issues, scholars have been re-examining the scope and impact of secularism. Some have traced the historical roots of secularism in Europe, pointing out their limitations and the parochialism of the concept. Others, like Rajeev Bhargava, have suggested different forms and ideas of secularism in order to question its assumed universality and applicability to other parts of the world.

What is lacking from this discussion on the relationship between religion and the western model of liberal democracy is a perspective derived from what religious organisations actually do in the everyday life of ordinary people in non-western societies. The ways in which religious organisations mobilise people in order to make political claims against other rival groups or against central authority have been noticeably absent from this discussion.

Arguably, the tendency to ignore the political roles of religious organisations is itself a legacy of the manner in which European social and political theorists have treated religious groupings as primarily cultural rather than political entities. In the historical evolution of the citizen and civil society in Europe, the withdrawal of the religious into the private sphere was considered to be necessary. In Max Weber’s view, the orient (from Egypt to Japan) failed to develop the associational character of the city and the concept of a burgher (urban bourgeoisie), therefore ‘the special status of the town dweller as a “citizen” did not exist’. Hegel also remarks that the local and familial solidarities of older forms of ‘civil society’ have to be sublated to expressions of patriotism in order to establish the absolute sovereignty of the modern nation state. 

The complex history of the formation of the sovereignty of the state and citizenship in colonial and postcolonial societies appears quite different and unsettling when viewed from Europe. Colonialist and orientalist thinking has treated this colonial deviation of civil society based on local and familial ties simply as a sign of backwardness and an indicator of racial and civilisational inferiority. Such ‘political orientalism’ (see Zaki Nahaboo) has insisted that the cause of oriental failure lies in the peculiar ties of oriental communities.

European powers deployed colonial policies that reinforced this idea about ‘oriental communities’. They did so by ‘discovering’ and (if necessary) inventing indigenous communities and community leaders, and by enforcing and fixing the boundaries between communities. They then built a system of indirect rule relying upon such communities. This colonial version of ‘communities’ did not provide for any public political subjectivity through which each community could claim their rights and negotiate their entitlements with colonial authority. Instead, these communities were encouraged to develop and maintain their cultural localism within separate private spheres (an example of this would be the religious community-based personal laws in India). As many scholars have argued, the tendency was for colonial authorities to ascribe fixed cultural characteristics to each of them as ‘local’. This enumeration and characterisation of supposed ‘communities’, served for the better management of colonial subjects (the policy of ‘divide and rule’). 

It could be argued that the British colonial version of community was invented precisely because colonial authorities believed that they could pacify subject populations by maintaining the superficial form of ‘traditional’ political structures whilst eliminating from them all forms of political subjectivity. Colonial ‘communities’ were thus differentiated not by being political but only by being governed. To think about political subjectivity operating in non-European societies, therefore, we have to dig into the layers of interventions, inventions, resistances and suppressions. This does not mean that we will find at the bottom of these layers ‘real’ oriental communities unaffected by the exercises of colonial power. Rather, it allows us to see the web of interactions and dialogues. Thus the image of ‘citizenship after orientalism’, this paper provides, is not citizenship sans colonialism nor citizenship sans orientalism, but a possible form of citizenship which emerged out of dialogues with colonial modernity yet still remains outside of what has hitherto been our theoretical understanding of the term.

Fuzzy state and fuzzy communities

On the 19 May 1919, the Murugha matha, one of the most influential mathas of Lingayats (Hindu sectarian-caste group), organised a large procession celebrating the arrival of their guru at the administrative capital of the princely state of Mysore, the southern half of the present day state of Karnataka, in southern India. More than 60,000 devotees came out of their villages and occupied the major streets of Bangalore (or Bengaluru). Calling this seemingly tame devotional procession political might sound nonsensical, if not absurd, but tracing a history of this particular devotional act and treating it as a political act helps us to understand a complex history of sovereignty and civil society in colonial India. 

The religious institution called matha (maṭha, or maṭh, sometime spelled ‘mutt’) in south India has tremendous influence in everyday life in local society. Although it has conventionally been translated as ‘monastery’, the matha institution is not the secluded retreat of monks that such a word might evoke. Instead, mathas have acted as centres of society by providing a variety of welfare for the rural population. In recent years, many mathas in the state of Karnataka have become large welfare enterprises; running free schools, orphanages, profitable engineering and medical colleges; providing free medical care for the poor and free midday meals to government schools; and running informal courts. Since the 1990s, many lower castes including Dalits and Adivasis who did not have particular adherence to mathas have begun establishing their own. Here, many caste leaders see a new opportunity to consolidate their caste members and to mobilise them more effectively, but it would be mistaken to understand their use of religious organisations simply as another political power game for gaining more votes. The truth is that mathas in contemporary Karnataka have gained a certain quality of ‘stateness’ as a provider of welfare services for their group members and beyond.


Rather than treating this phenomenon as a sign of the decline of state socialism and the rise of neoliberalism in India, it is possible to read it as an indication of our theoretical limitation in understanding the significance of community and state in non-European society. The state in western political thinking is often imagined as a unified single entity with coherent territorial borders that upholds the rule of law and has exclusive monopoly over the means of violence. However, local institutions, such as mathas, are multiple, overlapping, and inter-related to each other. Yet, they still display state-like qualities in providing welfare and exercising authority over certain issues. They might have a centre of power but often lack clear ends, as power diffuses towards peripheries. 

In nineteenth- and twentieth-century Mysore under British indirect rule, the mathas existed in the domain where kin, caste, religious denomination and occupation loosely overlap. These neighbourhood networks provided their devotees with much support in terms of education, healthcare, and the resolution of disputes; all of which we could safely call the social welfare that the state had failed to give. The mathas have their own ways of maintaining themselves through incomes from land, donations and other more modern forms of financial investments. The mathas could regulate themselves by selecting appropriate gurus, by rejecting certain gurus, or by forming a new alliance with other mathas. At the same time, in the use of royal insignias, the pyramid-like structure of mathas is also a part of the larger pyramid-like structure which has the Maharaja at its apex.


Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, the adolescent Maharaja of Mysore, in 1895.
Wikimedia Commons/Elgin Collection at the British Library. Public domain

The politics of honour and the devotional system

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the language of honour seemed to dominate local politics. Many caste and religious groups fought fiercely over the use of certain symbols of honour (such as palanquins, ornaments, musical instruments, etc). It was not that these conflicts were actuated by those symbols per se, but that they emerged by taking the form of honour disputes. Indeed from the 1900s until the 1930s, there were many incidents of caste conflict in south India concerning the use of royal insignia or symbols of honour by the heads (gurus) of mathas or the idols of gods. Our Murugha guru also constantly faced accusations from other caste groups over his ‘unauthorised’ use of symbols, while his matha tried very hard to prevent other supposed ‘subordinate’ gurus from using such symbols.

The authorities, both the state government and the Maharaja, believed that they could control these quarrelsome gurus by establishing a standardised hierarchy of honour and imposing it upon them. The guru of a matha was not only a spiritual leader for a group of believers. More importantly he was the centre of a community tied through kinship, caste and occupational affiliations as well as devotion. The Murugha guru was, for example, a leader who had a clear vision for the future of the Banajiga Lingayat community (merchant class of Lingayats), who were becoming economically and politically powerful in the state at that time.

The tour of Murugha guru in Bangalore in May 1919 was a symbolic culmination of the rapidly changing political environment in Mysore. The state administration throughout the nineteenth century was totally dominated by high caste Brahmins who were trained in British presidencies of Madras or Bombay. By the mid-1910s, due to political pressures from non-Brahmin caste leaders, the Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV began to recruit, if not yet in a systematic way, more state administrators from these communities. Indeed in the very same year when the Murugha guru visited the capital, a committee appointed by the Maharaja submitted a report recommending the government to increase the representation of non-Brahmin communities in public service by relaxing the qualifications for certain jobs as well as by giving grants-in-aid to private hostels run by private parties (such as mathas) for students from the backward classes (at that time, Lingayats were considered to be a backward caste). This recommendation subsequently led to a more systematic official, so called, ‘reservation system’ which gave a certain proportion of government jobs to caste communities categorised as ‘backward’. The Maharaja at the same time had to replace the great visionary prime minister Vishveswarayya, who was against the community-based reservation system. The fact that he himself was Brahmin did not help either. Many Brahmin residents must have seen the Murugha guru and his tens of thousands of devotees marching through the city as unquestionable evidence of the rise of non-Brahmin castes and the decline of Brahmin dominance.


Portrait of Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV with his brothers and sisters, 1895. Wikimedia Commons/Elgin Collection at the British Library. Public domain

In the early twentieth century, the tour was beginning to become a regular task amongst the many religious and administrative duties that the guru performed. The purposes of the tour were manifold. Devotees living in a village or town often requested him to visit and give his blessing to their place. He camped in a local matha or temple or choultry. In the evening, he would give a religious or moral discourse to the gathered audience. During his visit, local leaders and wealthy families would conduct a ritual called ‘pāda pūja’ (the worship of the guru’s feet), for which they would donate a large sum of money to the Murugha matha. 

The tour of the guru was partly a way to raise funds for the matha. For the devotees, inviting their guru not only served religious purposes but also very worldly demands. For instance, when Murugha guru visited a village called Ramagiri in 1959 on the request of the villagers to give them his blessings. They organised a grand procession and reception to which thousands of villagers from nearby villages came. They then requested the guru to grant them two favours: first to appoint a suitable guru to their local matha, and second to start a new hostel in the village for the middle school students coming from neighbouring villages. The Murugha guru stated that he would send a guru to the local matha as early as possible, and for the hostel he would consider the request only when some money had been collected by the villagers themselves. The guru was prepared to offer a building and also a few acres of land for the benefit of the student hostel. The villagers then formed a hostel committee and planned to collect five thousand rupees by the time of the harvest.

Like other Lingayat gurus in the early twentieth century, the Murugha Rajendra guru actively spread Veerashaiva philosophy, especially one of the most important modern Lingayat mottos of ‘work is worship (kāyakavē kailāsa)’ and the significance of education for both boys and girls. While he visited small towns and villages, he could deliver such work ethics and at the same time he encouraged villagers to send their children to schools. The Murugha guru helped villagers to build schools and hostels in rural areas, and raised funds to build free hostels in urban areas so that bright students from the Lingayat community could continue their higher education without financial burden. Murugha guru was not alone in this endeavour. Many prominent Lingayat figures indeed benefited from the help provided by innovative Lingayat gurus. For example, B.D. Jatti, who became acting President of India in 1977, managed to pursue a law degree by staying at one of the hostels run by the Murugha matha in Kolhapur. While he was a student, Jatti also organised a sangha (association) of Lingayat students in Bombay Presidency and conducted weekly meetings in a branch matha of the Murugha matha. For many devotees, the mathas offered substantial support in their otherwise difficult lives. This very material dimension of the activities of mathas should not be forgotten when we try to understand their seemingly meaningless obsession with symbols of honour. Honours were still a very real means through which people could express their political claims, challenge authority, and compete against rival groups. 


A few months prior to the mega procession of the Murugha guru in 1919, a message from M.K. Gandhi calling for a nation-wide satyagraha (truth-forth), non-co-operation movement, appeared in major Indian newspapers. This message was titled as ‘A Day of Humiliation’ and began as following:

SATYAGRAHA, as I have endeavoured to explain at several meetings, is essentially a religious movement. It is a process of purification and penance. It seeks to secure reforms or redress of grievances by self-suffering. I therefore venture to suggest that the second Sunday after the publication of the Viceregal assent to Bill No 2 of 1919 (i.e. 6th April may be observed as a day of humiliation and prayer.


M.K Ghandi in 1918.
Wikimedia Commons/Public domain.

Religion and politics were clearly overlapping here. The politics of Gandhi were to be enacted precisely in this overlapping domain. Reforms were not to come from outside but from within. The regime change (in this instance, the end of colonial rule) has to be realised foremost as a process of purification through self-suffering and penance. His ability to translate the purpose and methods of primarily modern political struggle into a localised and especially religious language is fascinating. But the type of religious language Gandhi chose to use is strikingly different from the motivation and excitement of commemoration and celebration of the religious leaders/gurus we have been discussing. Did devotees of the Murugha matha consider their participation in a colourful procession as penance or self-suffering? It is highly doubtful. 

The difference between Gandhi’s language in the message of ‘Day of humiliation’ and the celebratory nature of devotional gatherings is significant. Gandhi’s religiosity comes from individualised and self-regulatory reflections which we could call self-disciplinary power. The religiosity shared by devotees of the Murugha matha was filled with self-absorbing bhakti (devotion) by which one would willingly surrender one’s free will to one’s gurus. This selfless communal form of religion, as we have seen, acts both as a substantial political subjectivity and in the state-like role of provider of welfare. The institution of matha is based on such a fuzzy community and acts as a fuzzy state at the same time. 

The social and political roles of the matha and guru force us to think about the political space between the individual and the state. This space has been theorised as civil society or the public sphere in which the individual, or member of the urban bourgeoisie, takes part of her/his free will. Communities loosely united by magic ties of kin, caste and religious devotion were not given any political role in this space since one can only be a part of this fuzzy community by partially or totally renouncing autonomy. The social and political role of the matha and guru is something we cannot grasp theoretically if we continue to rely on the binary of an opposed state-civil society relationship.

Evidence from the activities of south Indian mathas in the early twentieth century suggest that the fuzzy community was capable of developing state-like functions in its own terms and was able to negotiate with the modern state. The devotees of the Murugha matha perhaps did not know how many of them would be there when they left their villages to participate in their grand procession in Bangalore. They perhaps did not have a clear united will to make certain claims against the state (for example the recruitment of more non-Brahmin ministers in the state government). However, their action in participating in devotional processions certainly became a part of the historical changes under way in south India; the power shift from the elite high castes to landed dominant castes. 

Recognition of the stateness or state-like character of mathas leads us towards the idea of citizenship after orientalism. We cannot assume certain forms of citizenship emerging in non-European societies without acknowledging the fact that different polities have been operating for centuries. Colonial policies and orientalist understandings of Indian society did modify, but not destroy, the manners in which Indian society organised itself. The increased political and social significance of mathas was no doubt a result of colonial intervention in controlling communities. But fuzzy communities with fuzzy stateness reacted to this colonial form of govermentality and managed to transform its nature by manipulating the political culture of the region. The polity of the matha is neither an old surviving tradition or colonial invention, but possibly a space where citizenship after orientalism may emerge.


This article is an edited extract of ‘Mathas, gurus and citizenship: the state and communities in colonial India’ which appeared in the Citizenship Studies 2012 special issue ‘Citizenship after orientalism: an unfinished project’. The referenced and complete essay can be found here. The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement n° 249379. 


This article forms part of an editorial partnership, funded by the Oecumene Project and the Open University, launched in November 2012.

An editorial partnership with Open University

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