Chapter

The Underworld of the Imperial City

Hugh B. Urban

in The Economics of Ecstasy

Published in print December 2001 | ISBN: 9780195139020
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780199834778 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/019513902X.003.0002
 The Underworld of the Imperial City

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This is the first of two chapters looking at the broader social and historical background of late‐eighteenth‐century Bengal and the basic religious and social ideals of the early Kartābhajā tradition. It examines the role of secrecy as a hermeneutic strategy, or as a means of appropriating the legitimating authority of traditional scriptures and sacred metanarratives while submitting them to a deeper, esoteric interpretation that undercuts or subverts them. The chapter argues that the rise of the Kartābhajā occurred at a pivotal historical moment and at a key geographic locus in early colonial Bengal, on the critical margins between the urban streets of Calcutta and the rural hinterland, amidst the economic transition from precapitalist to colonial capitalist forms, as power changed hands from indigenous Hindu and Muslim elites to the East India Company. After briefly describing the religious background and the social and economic context of early colonial Bengal, an account is given of the early history of the Kartābhajā sect (which appears to have been drawn particularly from men and women involved in the marketplace – traders), as it emerged within this critical period, hailing itself as a new “company” – a “Company of the Poor.”

Keywords: Bengal; capitalism; colonialism; cults; East India Company; emergence; Hindus; history; India; Kartābhajās; Muslims; religion; scriptures; secrecy; sects; traders

Chapter.  14659 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies

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