Hindoos, Hindus, Spelling, and Theory

What is the relationship between spelling and theory? I often tell people my research is about “Hinduism in nineteenth century America.” But it’s really not. It’s not about Hinduism at all. It can’t be because the idea of “Hinduism,” a world religion comparable to other world religions, isn’t invented until the late nineteenth century. That’s kind of the point of my research. Most other scholars writing about this period will still use the term “Hindu” to describe the people that Americans or Britons were describing during this period. But when an American missionary or Unitarian pastor refered to the people in India doing something that they recognize as religion they most often used the term “Hindoo.” Hindoo-that double O of colonialism.

So, here’s the question: Is the difference between Hindoo and Hindu just a matter of spelling? Or is there more going on here?

On the one hand, you could argue that though the sources read Hindoo, it makes sense for the scholar today to write Hindu, even when talking about the 1820s. There are all sorts of terms that we alter when we bring them into the present from the past. No one puts the long S in their scholarly prose, for example. So, maybe Hindoo to Hindu is just like taking that long s out of Congress in the Bill of Rights?

The long s in "Congress" from the Bill of Rights

The long s in “Congress” from the Bill of Rights

But maybe it’s not. It seems to me a Hindu is actually someone quite different from a Hindoo. That is, a Hindu is someone tied up with this world religion called Hinduism. There is the Hindu American Foundation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (or World Hindu Council), and the Pew Research Center tallies up the number of “Hindus” in America. But in the early nineteenth century, a Hindoo was a product of the American and British imagination. When I discuss what Americans thought about India and the people who lived there and these things they did that Americans thought were religion, I am not talking about people in South Asia. I’m talking about representations of people in South Asia. These Hindoos are imaginary. “Hindoos” and their religion were invented by Europeans and Americans. During this period, people in India did not present themselves to an American audience. Rather, they were represented by American and European authors to an American audience and in that process they were represented as Hindoos.

Perhaps the one exception to this would be the Indian reformer Rammohun Roy who wrote in English to an American and British audience. However, Roy self-identified as a “Hindoo,” as in his work “A Defence of Hindoo Theism.” Swami-Vivekananda-Hindoo-Monk-posterEven as late as the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, Americans represented Swami Vivekananda, the South Asian who garnered an audience throughout America, as a “Hindoo Monk.” Vivekananda and Rammohun Roy served as transitional figures as Hindoos became Hindus. That is, as South Asians went from imagined representations to immigrants representing themselves in American culture. In 1893 Vivekananda was a “Hindoo monk” but by 1930 he is part of a “Hindu Movement” in Wendell Thomas’s book Hinduism Invades America. Vivekananda goes from Hindoo to Hindu, from a South Asian represented by Americans in Chicago to the founder of a movement representing itself in America.

Here’s the shift from Hindoo to Hindu in one handy Ngram. The lines cross in the year 1884:

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.23.53 PM


For most of my brief career I’ve fallen back on the term “Hindu religions” to describe whatever it was that Americans and the British were trying to describe in their writing. But I’ve decided to eject that term from my work going forward because it implies that there is something there that is essentially “Hindu” before someone labels it as such. There is no there there, however. There is only the discourse about whatever people in South Asia seem to be doing to Europeans and Americans. So, I’m going back to Hindoo, colonial Os and all, to emphasize that nothing is “Hindu” or “Hindoo” until someone categorizes it as such. And then, once categorized, my job is to unpack the conflicts, arguments, ideologies, claims, and competitions behind that categorization. But I am curious to hear from others on this question-and similar questions about, say, “evangelical” or other such categories. Is this all simply a word game?


The Metaphysics of the Internet; or Can Lydia Maria Child’s Ghost Read My Comment?

I’m in the midst of the metaphysical chunk of my dissertation. In these two chapters I examine how American writers in the middle of the nineteenth century looked to India for sources to build religious alternatives to orthodox Protestantism. Thoreau, Emerson, Blavatzky, all the usual suspects are there.

Today I’m working on the writings of Lydia Maria Child. I was trying to track down a copy of her essay from The Atlantic “Resemblances Between the Buddhist and Roman Catholic Religions” and I found it here. It was odd to read an article from 1870 as a 21st century webpage complete with sidebar ads. Scrolling down the page, I was surprised to find a comment on the article from 8 months ago. User hans_hassler decided he must correct Child’s argument that there is a resemblance between Buddhism and Catholicism. It is the only comment hans_hassler has made on The Atlantic website.

This is a fascinating situation. I’m not sure what to make of it.

I like what Per D. Smith tweeted about it:


Maybe we all need mediums on retainer. There is an odd spiritualist feel to all of this. When 19th century spiritualists channeled the dead there was a moment of chronological discord. The past and present overlapped at the table. As I sit at my desk and stare at hans_hassler reprimanding Lydia Maria Child I get a small inkling of that desire for spirits, for knowledge, and for the bridge between past and present.

And I can’t help but wonder if she can read it.

UPDATE- Yoni Appelbaum makes a great point:

Methodists and India: Mapping, Contact, and Travel in the Christian Advocate, 1860-1890

As I posted last week, this weekend I presented a paper on the topic of Methodist Media to the American Society of Church History at this year’s American Historical Association meeting. Below is my paper from the panel.

Methodists and India: Mapping, Contact and Travel in the Christian Advocate, 1860-1890

Michael J. Altman, Emory University

What could bourgeois Methodist readers have known about India and how could missionary work abroad have brought them this knowledge?  Today, I will begin to answer these two questions through an analysis of The Christian Advocate in the late nineteenth century. The Christian Advocate, published in New York and the official weekly publication of the Methodist Episcopal Church, rose to a circulation of 63 to 70 thousand by 1879 and as one historian claims, “the paper became an icon of bourgeois America.”[i] The Advocate circulated among a growing middle class during the rise of the popular press in America and, therefore, the representations of India and Hinduism contained in its pages sparked the minds of a broad Evangelical readership.

I focus on three themes in the pages of the Advocate regarding India and Hinduism: mapping, contact, and travel.  First, missionary reports mapped out India as a geographic and spiritual field for missions work.  Second, women in America were especially recruited to join in the missionary effort and make spiritual and imaginary contact with Hindu women in India. Finally, in order to see the fruits of the Methodist mission work in India, writers sent letters and stories of conversions, conferences, and revivals that allowed American Methodists to travel to India and see the Holy Spirit at work.  In all three cases, imagination brought India into American homes through the pages of the Advocate.

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Peter Berger, “Easternizing Spirituality,” and the Colonial Difference

In case you haven’t stumbled upon it yet, sociologist Peter Berger has a new blog, Religion Other Curiosities, at the American Interest Online. It’s a great blog and worth checking out on a regular basis. Berger has keen insights into Religion and culture and it’s great that he’s decided to jump into the blogosphere. (EDIT- See Stephen Prothero’s brief review of Berger’s blog here)

What caught my eye today was his post on Sai Baba and the spread of Eastern religions to the West. Berger rightly notes that Asian religions have tended not to missionize in the West, a few Buddhist groups and Swami Vivekananda aside, but rather that Asian religions have floated into Western culture through various means:

But the much more significant impact of Asian religiosity on the West has not come by way of missionary organizations. It has been much more diffuse, seeping into the culture through miscellaneous informal channels—books, periodicals, electronic media, small groups of friends and acquaintances, and last but not least through the influence of celebrities (“Hollywood Buddhism” and the like). The diffusion probably dates from the late 19th century, when the alleged wisdom from the East attracted wide interest in Europe and America. Later this trend grew into the so-called New Age movement, then burst into prominence with the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and today can be found in the many cases when people say that they are “not religious, but spiritual”.

The diffusion dates earlier than Berger notes-I would trace it to the turn of the 19th century-but his brief history sums things up nicely. It also points out the difficulties of trying to write a history of Asian religious influences in America. Catholics and Jews came to America in rather set patterns of immigration and brought institutions and communities with them. Asian religions, and specifically for me Hinduism, traveled through diffuse networks, across a myriad of media, and was represented and imagined in all sorts of ways starting in the late eighteenth century.

Berger then takes his post in a different direction than I had hoped, following Colin Campbell in his book The Easternization of the West, Berger sees the “Easternizing spirituality” as a challenge to the core beliefs of “the West.”

In think that Campbell is correct in seeing this last complex of ideas as offering the sharpest challenge to core Western values. If one goes back in history, everywhere, one comes on what may be called the mythic matrix of all human cultures—a worldview in which the individual is embedded in a community that includes humans, animals, nature and the gods. I think that Eric Voegelin’s philosophy of history has given the best descriptions of what he called “leaps in being”—ruptures in this fabric of cosmic unity. Two ruptures have been seminal for Western civilization—those of ancient Israel and ancient Greece—the exodus of the people of Israel from the mythic world of the surrounding cultures of the Near East—and the different but equally powerful force of Greek reason in challenging the compact universe of myth. Of course these two ruptures did not immediately bring about what we now call Western individualism. It took centuries for this to happen. Perhaps the best metaphor of the original rupture is that moment in Greek sculpture when individual human figures stepped out of the archaic friezes and stood free, by themselves. “Easternization” in all its forms implies the suggestion that we should step back into the frieze. This would be a far-reaching reversal of the entire course of our civilization. We should think very carefully before we recommend such a step.

A “far-reaching reversal?” Berger invokes a standard piece of colonial discourse. There is the rational Hebraic-Greek West which has stepped out of the mythical world and then there is the mythic East that is still locked in the imaginative and dreamy land of myth where the individual is “embedded in a community that includes humans, animals, nature and the gods.” The Easternization of spirituality then becomes a backsliding by rational Westerners into the “frieze,” a euphemism for mythic life. Berger’s image of the mythic and spiritual East versus a demytholigized and individualized West draws on a series of Western contrasts built before and during colonialism to help the West make sense of itself and of its Others. Richard King outlines the properties of the West and East nicely in his Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India, and the Mystic East. The West: Public / Society / Science / Institutional Religion / Secular / Rational / Male and the East: Private / Individual / Religion / Personal Religion (Mysticism?) / Sacred / Irrational or Non-rational / Female. These essentialist distinctions were born in the Enlightenment and worked out in the colonies, especially in India. The “Easternization” of the West, or America, is a problem only insofar as the West imagines itself in these terms and in contrast to the East. The need for an Other against which America or the West could construct and imagine itself requires the East to remain mystical and irrational. To step out of the frieze we must keep the frieze in a museum somewhere.

William James and the Divorce Between Science and Religion

Cross Posted at Religion in American History

William James has always interested me because I’ve often wondered why his brand of knowledge production never took off.

Jonathan Rée has a great piece on William James that I found thanks to Ralph E. Luker.  As a whole, the article is a thoughtful review of James’ life and work, including his interest in religion and science.  Below is my favorite paragraph of the article but I suggest you read it in full.

James was not unsympathetic to religion, and on occasion he was prepared to call himself a Christian, though in a thoroughly secular and untheological sense. His abiding intellectual passion was a love of open-mindedness and a corresponding distrust of dogmatism and metaphysics. We should never forget, he said, that all our opinions – even our “most assured conclusions” – are “liable to modification in the course of future experience”. But he warned against allowing a distrust of dogmatic metaphysics to harden into a metaphysical dogma of its own, as seemed to be happening with some of the evangelising atheists of his day. He admired the evolutionary biologist T H Huxley and the mathematician C K Clifford, for example, but when they used the idea of “science” as a stick to beat religion with they were in danger of behaving like high priests of a new religion – “the religion of scientificism” – and defending it with the same intolerant zealotry as any old-style religious fanatic. Knowledge, for James, was not so much the pre-existing premise of human inquiry as a hoped-for future product, and science was more like a tissue of fortuitous insights than a monolith of solid fact. We would not have much chance of stumbling into truth if we let ourselves get too anxious about falling into error, and the first rule of an unillusioned epistemology should simply be: Relax! “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things,” James wrote: “in a world where we are certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness.”

I’ve always found James compelling as a figure in American history because he lived and worked at the edge of an era where science and religion still saw each other as friends and companions in knowledge.  James died in 1910, and by the 1920s and 30s “truth” would be split between “empirical science” and “religion.”  James is a figure that is worth revisiting and rethinking in the midst of many current cultural debates.  It’s worth at least considering his “pragmatic, pluralist, empiricist approach to truth – what some would call his humanism.”