Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu

American Representations of India, 1721-1893

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Michael J. Altman
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As anyone in the field of South Asian religions can attest, the world religion category of “Hinduism” is frequently problematized through a number of arguments which include the role of colonialism, Orientalism, and ethocentrism. Michael J. Altman’s book contributes to this conversation in a much needed and unique way, by examining the representations of Hindu religion in the US against the backdrop of an American Protestant Christian identity that was newly forming and struggling with its own definitions in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the early points Altman argues is not only about how we construct an idea of Hinduism, but how Hinduism was used to construct an idea of American Christianity: that is, how the term “Hindu/Hindoo” was constituted against or within discussions of religion in America.

To provide this overview of how Hinduism was contested, Altman looks at the “genealogy” of how Hindu/Hindoo culture and traditions were explored through what may be considered early religious studies literature. The starting place (European, and later, American Orientalism) and the conclusion (Vivekananda) of Altman’s genealogy make expected appearances in the volume, but between those two points Altman focuses on some less-frequently discussed—although crucial—figures in the conceiving of an Indian spirituality. The work of Hannah Adams, the first female scholar to publish in the field of comparative religion, is marked as an important moment in the Orientalist project, replicating many of the themes already in play throughout popular discourse on the subject of “heathen” Indian practices. Altman’s careful mapping of these discourses and how they intricately connect with one another reveal systems of understanding—how they inform each other and how a repertory of images is replicated. Through this interaction, however, Adams cultivates her own understanding of the Hindus/Hindoos and develops a more cohesive presentation of religious tradition that “quilted various British sources together to construct a representation of a Hindoo system with sacred texts, doctrines, and sects analogous to Christianity” (21). Adams’s work is located in a post-enlightenment scholarship, along with the work of 18th century theologian and philosopher Joseph Priestly, which drew upon a large body of European Orientalist writings to formulate these early presentations of Hindu/Hindoo religion as a stable and identifiable religious tradition.

The most fascinating part of this book is the discussion of American Protestantism and the use of Hindu/Hindoo tradition as a requisite foil against which the idealizations of Unitarianism could be posed. As Altman explains, “These representations of Hindoos reinforced notions of America as white, Protestant, civilized, and democratic by imagining India as dark, heathen, uncivilized, and hierarchical” (49). Hindu/Hindoo religion was seen as barbaric, bloody, and idolatrous, exemplified by the Jagannath ritual which was misrepresented (and mispronounced) so widely that the word “juggernaut” became part of the lexicon meaning “an unstoppable, violent force.” Such images, along with other reported traditions such as temple prostitutes, animal sacrifice, and widow burning, only reinforced the paradigm of civilized vs. uncivilized. As reformers like Ram Mohan Roy came forward to redefine Hinduism within frameworks of monotheism and spiritual pursuits, more acceptable to the West, Christians in America scrambled to situate or align Roy with their own movements. Altman argues that in attempting to reconcile Roy as some form of Christian, Protestant sects in New England were forced to provide a definitive answer as to what counted as true Christianity and true religion. Protestantism was thus juxtaposed and defined itself against both Catholic and Hindu/Hindoo traditions.

A unique demonstration of how these paradigms were reinforced is presented through Altman’s discussion of early education as a nationalist project in the United States, one that surprisingly features geography as a crucial school subject for racist and colonial discourse. He also discusses the rise of popular periodicals like Harper’s, and the presentation of immigrants and non-Christians as threats to the nation. The role of “othering” in the nationalist project has been discussed by scholars such as Benedict Anderson and Arjun Appadurai, but this critical exploration into school texts and early periodicals provides a rare glimpse into the intricacies of identity-forging in the early days of nationhood. It also serves as a timely reminder of how white supremacy was established as part of the American nationalist project—and for this reason alone the research in this volume is invaluable.

The role of Transcendentalism and its contributions to cultivating the more mystical idea of “Hindu spirituality” is also broached, with a focus on Emerson, Thoreau, Olcott, and Blavatsky. With these thinkers, Hindu/Hindoo traditions were shaped into more universalist ideas of religion, blurring the distinctive in favor of what they saw as essential truths central to all religions. Of course the question is, how were these thinkers defining religion? It is here that Altman loops back by analyzing the World Parliament of Religions 1893, during which Swami Vivekananda presented his famous speech—a moment which many scholars point to as the moment the US was widely introduced to Hinduism. Altman sharply criticizes the more romantic recollections of the conference, reiterating the pervasive Christian framing which privileged American Protestantism and presumed a universal definition of “religion.” He highlights the fact that while the mission statement of the conference was “to unite all Religion against all irreligion,” the event only revealed numerous contradictory definitions of religion. Vivekananda was seen as a balance of classic traditions and rational universalism, a balance of East and West, and thus conformed—much in the way Roy did—to a presentation of Hinduism that was consonant with Protestant ideals.

This book is a valuable contribution to the larger “What is ‘Hinduism’?” question that persists in religious studies. But rather than focusing on the role of European colonialism in the formation of a stable “–ism,” Altman focuses on the US: the literature, and the propagation/replication of particular Orientalist tropes that in turn reified American Protestantism and nationalist identities. The genealogy is thorough and detailed. While such discussions typically focus on the European Orientalists such as Mill, Mueller, or Macauley, tracing the discourse through American writers is both refreshing and insightful. Writers such as Adams, Priestly, and Johnson can be argued to be early vanguards of comparative religion, and detailing their contributions provides valuable insight into how Hindu/Hindoo traditions have been and are widely understood in the US.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Juli L. Gittinger is lecturer of South Asian religions at Georgia College.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael J. Altman is assistant professor in the department of religious studies at the University of Alabama.


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