To better grasp the interplay between culture and religion,
Professor Brian Hatcher begins by asking some unsettling questions.
Story by Candace Schilling
Brian Hatcher seeks to give his students a sense of the “lived reality” beyond the
religious terms and concepts they study in class. (Photo by Marc Featherly)
To Midwestern eyes, stepping into Brian Hatcher’s office in Illinois Wesleyan’s Center
for Liberal Arts might seem like entering some kind of Eastern shrine. His bookshelves
are lined with Bengali texts, and a strand of wooden beads called a mala circles his
desk lamp. Nearby are a printed Buddhist mantra and a statue of the elephant-headed
Hindu god Ganesh.
While talking to Hatcher, the McFee Professor of Religion at Illinois Wesleyan, it’s
easy to forget that outside these walls is the gray dreariness of an Illinois winter
and not the sights and sounds of India.
Hatcher has made a career out of introducing students to the richness and complexity
of Asian religious life in courses like “Buddhism in India and Tibet” and “Asian Religious
Literature.” But his classes are aimed at neither conversion nor tourism. Instead,
he hopes to fire curiosity about the religions of India, China, Tibet and Japan, while
equipping students with the intellectual tools to wrestle with the interplay between
religion and culture.
“Professor Hatcher is as brilliant at conveying ideas and relating to undergraduate
students as his passion is contagious,” says IWU theatre major Marti Lyons, who took
Hatcher’s classes on Buddhism and Hinduism. “He brought to life a world, a time, and
a place I’d never seen.”
Juniors Kari Irwin and Joe Carani deepen their discussions with Hatcher after class.
Says one of Hatcher’s current students, Marti Lyons ’08, “He brought to life a world,
a time, and a place I’d never seen.” (Photo by Marc Featherly)
Hatcher often thinks of Ganesh — the Lord of Good Fortune and Destroyer of Obstacles
— when embarking on a new endeavor.
“I think of him at the beginning of something new,” he says, adding that he likes
the idea of a deity working to remove obstacles from his path.
As a secularist who carries no religious banner of his own, Hatcher hopes to bring
both objectivity and empathy to his teaching and his scholarship. In particular, he
encourages his students to consider the material he teaches outside of the context
of their own belief systems.
Though he respects each student’s faith, “I teach religion as a cultural product,”
For Hatcher, this is the strength of a liberal arts education: the freedom to raise
questions and look beyond one’s own culture and traditions. Studying the liberal arts
“is meant to be unsettling,” he says. “You’re taking ownership of what you believe
and learning to defend it.”
Hatcher’s students describe him as an energetic, interactive teacher. During class,
he typically covers the white board with terms — drawing lines, boxes, and arrows
between them to illustrate correct associations. As students in his Hinduism class
journey through the terms, he invites them to consider connections between concepts
such as “duty and power” or “purity and pollution” in the Hindu worldview.
The textbook he chose for the class, by British anthropologist Christopher J. Fuller,
is entitled The Camphor Flame. “Many colleagues don’t use this book,” Hatcher tells his students. “They feel it’s
too dense. But it takes you into the ‘lived reality’ of Hinduism in contemporary Indian
That “lived reality” is what makes Hatcher’s
lectures come alive for his students.
“His courses differed from many others that I have taken in their clarity and discussion-based
focus,” Hatcher’s former student Dan Glade ’05 writes via e-mail. “He pushed my academic
development by encouraging critical engagement with texts and ideas, while also critiquing
and improving my writing with great scrutiny.”
Hatcher’s intellectual flexibility makes him an ideal religious historian, according
to IWU Professor of History Michael Young. “There is a group-think, herd-like mentality
among academics,” says Young, “but Brian bucks those trends.”
While many post-colonial studies of India emphasize the violation of native culture
by Europeans, Hatcher is more interested in “the way the cultures converged and the
interaction between those cultures,” Young explains. “Though he wouldn’t deny the
misery and exploitation of colonialism, he sees the relationship between the two cultures
was more nuanced and included mutual exchange.”
A series of puzzles
Hatcher and his son, Gerrit (shown above), visit Raj Ghat, a simple black platform
that marks the site of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation in 1948. (Photo courtesy of Brian
In 2007, Oxford University Press published Hatcher’s newest book, Bourgeois Hinduism, or the Faith of the Modern Vedantists: Rare Discourses from Early
Colonial Bengal. Among its early reviewers was fellow Hinduism scholar Brian K. Pennington, who wrote
that the book should firmly establish Hatcher “as one of the most insightful, resourceful,
and discerning historians of colonial India writing today.”
According to Hatcher, the book originated from a chance discovery he made while still
a graduate student. In 1990, he was conducting research at the London-based British
Library, which holds over 150 million items in all known languages and formats, when
he “stumbled upon” what he believes is the only existing copy of an 1841 Bengali pamphlet.
This unsigned text recorded a series of discourses given in Calcutta (now Kolkata)
in the years 1839-40. While the text was labeled “Part One,” Hatcher has not been
able to locate a second part — if it was ever written. For this and other reasons,
the text provided “a series of puzzles to solve,” he says. However, it would be over
a decade before he decided to try to solve them.
A potential clue to resolving these puzzles took the form of seemingly random Bengali
characters printed in between some of the discourses recorded in “Part One.” Were
these characters the writers’ initials, he wondered? If so, to whom did they belong?
“It took a lot of sleuthing to find out who these people were,” says Hatcher, who
set out to “do a translation [of the discourses], identify these authors, and place
the whole thing in its historical context.”
Hatcher’s newest book, published by Oxford University Press, is Bourgeois Hinduism, or the Faith of the Modern Vedantists: Rare Discourses from Early Colonial Bengal.
Hatcher’s sleuthing led to a remarkable conclusion, revealed in his new book, in which
he argues that the authors of these discourses were boldly attempting to establish
a new interpretation of Hinduism. He concluded that the discourses were the work of
a group of middle-class Bengali scholars, poets, and businessmen. During the 1830s,
this class of Hindus had come to enjoy increased prosperity and social engagement.
“These were upwardly mobile men who were looking for a way to be Hindu and enjoy some
worldly prosperity” at the same time, Hatcher says. As a result, “they began to articulate
a code of religion congruent with their bourgeois aspirations.” This code was unprecedented
in many respects. Yet the proponents of this newfound religious identity also called
upon ancient sources of Hindu spirituality as a guide for developing a modern form
of theism they referred to as “Vedanta.”
During his latest trip to India in the spring of 2007 — while conducting a research
project funded by a Fulbright–Hays Senior Research Fellowship — Hatcher journeyed
back to several towns near Kolkata that he had first visited as a graduate student.
Here he witnessed concrete evidence of changes to the Indian economy since moves toward
liberalization during the 1990s. This trip helped confirm a core thesis of his new
book. Hatcher argues that many of the aspirations and tensions embodied within today’s
Indian middle class “can, in fact, be thought of as standing in some kind of continuity”
with the “bourgeois Hinduism” articulated in those 19th-century discourses he discovered
in the British Library.
In this respect, Hatcher hopes the book will not only help revise our understanding
of religious change in early colonial Calcutta but will also promote further reflection
on the ways contemporary middle-class Hindus seek “meaningful linkages between spiritual
concerns and material aspirations.”
Among the stunning sights Hatcher took in on his most recent trip of India was this
vista at twilight at Sunderbans Tiger Sanctuary, West Bengal. (Photo by Brian Hatcher)
At first glance, Hatcher might seem an unlikely guide to the culture and customs of
Asia. Raised in a fairly typical suburban family in Minnesota, Hatcher says, “it may
have been Asia as a ‘fascinating other’ that grabbed me.”
He majored in chemistry as an undergraduate at Carleton College, but his life changed
when he took an elective in Chinese philosophy and another in Indian history.
“I started reading about religion on my own and by the end of my junior year, I was
studying the religions of Asia and India,” he says. “I graduated knowing I didn’t
want to work in chemistry.”
While working on his Master’s of Divinity at Yale, Hatcher began the study of Sanskrit.
He went on to earn his doctorate in the comparative study of religion from Harvard
University. During his graduate studies at Harvard he made his first two extended
trips to India for language study and research.
Hatcher joined Illinois Wesleyan’s faculty in 1992 immediately after completing his
graduate work at Harvard. He says that since that time IWU students have helped him
evolve and refine his teaching style.
“My students have made me more aware of myself as a teacher and, early on, they helped
me balance lecture and active learning,” he says.
He has returned to Asia many times, sometimes with his wife, Alison, and their 16-year-old
son, Gerrit. In 1998, Hatcher and IWU history major Andrew Busch ’98 were awarded
a Freeman Foundation Student–Faculty Fellowship to conduct summer research in the
Hatcher “was a great guide, but he also understood that many things are best learned
alone,” says Busch, who is now pursuing a doctorate in American studies at the University
of Texas in Austin. “He gave me the freedom to experience India for myself.”
During their six-week stay in the country, the pair examined the significance of the
late 19th-century Bengali mystic Sri Ramakrishna. Busch had become interested in the
topic after taking Hatcher’s “Hindu Religious Tradition” course and wanted to consider
how later generations go about preserving, or perhaps altering, the message of a religious
leader. In India Busch was able to visit sites associated with Ramakrishna’s life
and to discuss his legacy with devotees and scholars, primarily in Kolkata.
The experience “opened my eyes to the poverty and other infrastructural problems in
the world, but I also got to witness the astounding acts of kindness that conditions
like that can bring forth,” Busch says.
Hatcher brings the vibrancy of Asia even to those students who haven’t traveled to
the subcontinent. Brian Egdorf ’08 is a double major in French and Francophone studies
and English literature. He took Hatcher’s first-year Gateway course, “Orientalism/
Occidentalism,” an experience that “pretty much set the rhythm for my entire undergraduate
career,” Egdorf says.
“It wasn’t necessarily the material we covered in class, it was how it was covered,”
Egdorf recalls. “He took academics off its pedestal and made it more approachable
for a freshman undergraduate.” Despite Hatcher’s “blue-jeans approach,” Egdorf says,
he was “never lacking brilliance.”
Hatcher hopes that his work will inspire students and researchers to venture even
further into worlds he has allowed them to glimpse. In this respect, his teaching
mirrors his scholarship.
“I intend a lot of my work to be background for the questions other people may ask,”
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