India and Religion in 19th-c. America


A review of Imagining Hindus: India and Religion in Nineteenth Century America, by Michael J. Altman.

Historians usually begin the story of Hindu religion in the United States with Swami Vivekananda’s influential speech at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. But Michael Altman’s dissertation argues that Vivekananda’s famous speech at the Parliament marks not a “dawning” of religious pluralism, but instead a transition from a shadowed imaginary of white Americans representing Hinduism to a new form of global Hinduism in which Hindus began to represent themselves. Although the dissertation concludes its primary inquiry with Vivekananda in 1893, Altman adds a poignant coda that recounts Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) taking office with her hand on her own copy of the Bhagavad Gita in 2013. This act, he suggests, “marks a shift from Hindus merely representing themselves to Americans and the beginning of a Hindu representing Americans” (p. 267). Despite the fact that the dissertation demonstrates Americans’ racist, colonialist, and romantic orientalist attitudes prevalent throughout the nineteenth century, this final note resounds with optimism for the future.

However, Altman’s optimism remains slightly tempered in that he sees America as a nation that continues to be embroiled within the struggle between Protestantism and religious diversity. The juncture between these two factions “is a place where the oneness of American religion imagined the Hindu as the foil against which white Protestant American identity was reinforced. It is also a place where the manyness of American religion gave rise to systems of comparative religion that accounted for Hindu religious cultures” (p. 266). Altman problematizes the negotiations of the one and the many, and using Hindu religion as a case study his dissertation “tracks the construction of comparative systems that allowed Protestants and other Americans to make sense of religious difference” (p. 14). In an effort to demonstrate the vacillations of power between these two polarized ideals, the dissertation analyzes American representations of Hindu religions by dividing them into two historical periods, in three parts. Part I covers 1790 to 1830, while Parts II and III each engage 1830 to the Parliament in 1893. Part II focuses on the ways Americans involved in liberal and metaphysical religions imagined Hindu religions, while Part III focuses on the ways in which the Protestant establishment imagined Hindu religions.

Part I largely supplies readers with an intellectual history of American conceptions of Hindu religion. Altman shows how American authors wrote accounts of “the religion of the Hindoos” for American audiences by relying on data provided by British Orientalists, East India Company officials, and missionaries. The most fascinating aspect of this period emerges from the tenuous relationship between newly independent America and the British Empire. Leading American voices presented a complicated amalgam of aspiration to and critique of Britain’s global colonial conquests. While Americans had balked en masse against the colonial regime at home, most still sympathized with its civilizing and Christianizing project in the far reaches of the globe among more ‘exotic’ and ‘backwards’ (non-white) peoples. Instead of focusing on Americans’ relationship to the colonial endeavors of the British Empire, Altman keeps his focus set squarely on the new republic. He shows how “British imperial knowledge became American theological evidence” that was deployed in Protestant theological controversies at home (p. 19).

Chapter 1 analyzes the writings of liberal Protestants such as Hannah Adams, Joseph Priestly, and John Adams in their early ventures in comparative religion, showing how each used British (and European) imperial knowledge about the Hindus to fulfill their own Protestant aims (mostly attempts to prove the superiority of Christian, biblical, or Protestant truth). Chapter 2 turns to Unitarian and Trinitarian debates that ensued after the East India Company legalized missionaries on Indian soil in 1813. Focusing primarily on evidence drawn from American missionary journals, Altman analyzes the American depiction of colonial representations of Hindu religion and highlights the commonplace missionary condemnations of those Hindu practices that they found to be particularly debauched, such as the Juggernaut, hook-swinging, widow burning (satī), blood sacrifice, and a presumed emphasis on violence, sexuality, and obscenity. Continuing to analyze American missionary publications, Chapter 2 provides a thorough account of Rammohan Roy’s role in the Unitarian and Trinitarian debates.  It then turns to the fascinating and little accounted for role of the collection of foreign cultural objects and natural specimens that became curio cabinet oddities, and then later museum artifacts that constructed the Orient through material objects.

Part II chronicles a more commonly recounted history, delving into the turn toward Hindu religion among the Transcendentalists and the Theosophists. Here, Altman rightly asserts that, “representations of Hindu religions from metaphysical writers offers a view of how Hindu religions became a source for critics of Protestant religion” (p. 102). He reveals how both American movements sought what they believed to be an “essentially spiritual and mystical India” that would counter the materialism and Protestantism of the United States. Altman’s work is most interesting when he moves beyond the interests of Emerson and Thoreau and into lesser-known figures, such as Lydia Maria Child, James Freeman Clarke, and Samuel Johnson. In his investigation of the Theosophists, he reads Helena Blavatsky’s writings carefully and offers her a rare credibility that it ultimately fruitful to understanding the Theosophical Society’s eventual altercation with the Arya Samaj.

Part III turns away from those who romanticized Hindu religion and back toward the Protestant majority for whom Hindu religion exhibited a dangerous similitude to what they believed to be the superstition and despotism of Roman Catholicism. Altman analyses the various ways in which the Protestant moral establishment worked to institutionalize Protestant culture in the very fabric of the nation. His historical sources range from Harper’s Weekly to school textbook representations of Hindu religion, an arena that continues to be a source of heated cultural contest in the current political moment. Again, Altman stays focused on the American context, suggesting that the project of representing others was primarily a nation-building effort wherein “American national culture reinforced the superiority of white, democratic, Protestant America” (p. 226). In his final chapter, a discussion of the World’s Parliament of Religions, Altman demonstrates how liberal Protestantism informed the Parliament and its discussions of that which constituted “religion” in 1893. He shows in vivid detail how Vivekananda’s Hinduism presented at the Parliament was imbued with a Protestant ethos, a transformation that continues to impact American Hinduism. He also returns to the American confrontation between exclusivism and pluralism highlighting the differing responses of evangelical and liberal Protestants to the forms of Hindu religion presented at the Parliament.

There are few Americanist historians of religion who are well versed in the information presented in Altman’s dissertation. Similarly, few South Asianist historians of religion investigate the historical trajectory of Hindu religion in the United States. Altman strikes at the center of this Venn diagram, successfully investigating a poignant cultural and religious intersection with careful historicism. This dissertation not only covers important territories that are underexplored, but it also develops the potential for further research into the many intriguing topics that it raises in the juncture of British colonialism, Hindu religion, and the American project of nation building in the nineteenth century.

Amanda Lucia
Religious Studies
University of California, Riverside

Primary Sources
Adams, Hannah. A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations: Jewish, Heathen, Mahometan, Christian, Ancient and Modern. Edited by Thomas A. Tweed. 4th ed. Atlanta, GA.: Scholars Press, 1992.
Blavatsky, Helen P. Isis Unveiled. 2 vols. Wheaton, Ill.: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1972.
Buchanan, Claudius. The Works of the Reverend Claudius Buchanan, LL.D. Comprising His Eras of Light, Light of the World, and Star in the East; to Which Is Added Christian Researches in Asia. With Notices of the Translation of the Scriptures into the Oriental Languages. 6th American edition. Boston: Samuel T. Armstrong, 1812.
Child, Lydia Maria. The Progress of Religious Ideas, Through Successive Ages. 3 vols. New York: C. S. Francis & Co., 1855.
Mitchell, Samuel. A System of Modern Geography, Comprising a Description of the Present State of the World and Its Five Great Divisions: America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Oceanica: With Their Several Empires,. Philadelphia: Thomas Cowperthwait & Co., 1840.

Dissertation Information
Emory University. 2014. 285pp. Primary Adviser: Gary Laderman.

Image: East India Marine Hall, Salem, MA. Photo by Michael J. Altman.

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