1. The most popular moment for Asian religions in America was in the 1820s and it most likely revolved around the figure of Rammohun Roy the “Hindoo reformer” highly covered in Unitarian and evangelical missionary journals. His debates with the English Baptist missionaries at Serampore, just outside Calcutta, and his publication of the Precepts of Jesus attracted a lot of attention in America. He wanted to eventually come to the United States but died in Bristol, England while touring Britain before he could make it. There’s a lot more to be said about Rammohun but I’ll let the spike speak to his importance and refer you to my dissertation that should be done early next year for more details.
2. The spike in “Hindoo” before Rammohun matches up with the beginnings of the American missionary movement. The first missionaries were ordained by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1812 and went to India and Ceylon. What I can’t explain is the dip between the missionaries and Rammohun.
3. Looking further down the timeline, it is interesting to note the way “Hinduism” never gets close to the same frequency as “Buddhism” while “Hindu” keeps pace with “Buddhism” and “Buddhist.” This proves an important point made by writers, most notably Tomoko Masuzawa in her book The Invention of World Religions, that Buddhism was accorded more authority as a “world religion” than Hinduism during the nineteenth century. This graph shows that Americans took interest “Hindus” and “Hindoos” but that they didn’t give”Hinduism” the status of full fledged religion. “Hinduism” was not discussed as frequently as “Buddhism” because it was seen as less important and less legitimate religion. “Hinduism” does get a bump after 1893, most likely from the arrival of Vivekananda. Nonetheless, there is a lot of writing about Hindus but not much about Hinduism. It seems Americans wrote more frequently about the figure of the Hindu than the overall religious system. Meanwhile, Buddhists and Buddhism got equal treatment.
There are certainly caveats to the accuracy of this method and the use of Ngrams in general for historical work. That said, I do think that there are places where graphs like this can corroborate other more traditional forms of historical evidence. The “Rammohun spike” seems fairly plausible to me. For those of us interested in the history of religious concepts and categories in American culture, the Ngram can be a great jumping off point for theorizing the relationship between culture and discourse. It’s one more tool for whacking away at the stubborn rock of history in hopes of chiseling out something meaningful.
Also, this is post number 100 for this blog. Hooray! Thanks to everyone who has read and supported my blogging here and elsewhere. It’s been fun for me and I hope you’ve gotten something out of it too.
It’s 1857 all over again folks!
Via Amy Levin at the Revealer:
Is this real? Or just some spoof from the West Wing or Law & Order? Could the US military really be using bullets covered with oil containing 13% pig fat to evoke fear in Islamic terrorists and allegedly send them into eternal damnation? For the moment, the answer seems like a skeptical maybe, but the supplier of Silver Bullet Gun Oil, pseudonymed “Midnite Rider,” or “Warrior of YAHWEH,” claims not only that his oil has been distributed to “members of all US military branches,” but that the oil was used on the bullet which killed none other than Osama bin Laden.
According to the mysterious purveyor’s logic, Silver Bullet Gun Oil (SGBO), when applied to the inside of a firearm, coats the bullet with pig fat as it is fired and transfers the sin-bearing solvent into the body of an “Islamo-Fascist Terrorist,” keeping the terrorist from paradise. Charging underneath his banner, “One Shot, One Soul,” Midnite Rider claims on his website.
As Levin rightly points out later in the post, the Quran does not punish a Muslim for forced consumption of un-halal meat. So Silver Bullet Gun Oil is another example of that cooky mixture of ignorance and hatred of Islam at the same time. Furthermore, aren’t silver bullets for killing werewolves? Or is it Vampires?
This story reminded me of a more famous incident involving bullets and pig fat: the 1857 Indian Rebellion (or First War of Indian Independence or Sepoy Mutiny, depending on your historical-political leanings). As Indians began to bristle under the control of the British East India Company the rumor began to circulate that the bullets being used in the Sepoy army were greased with tallow. The bullets needed to be bit on before they were loaded and so consumption of the tallow was a real possibility. Some claimed it was pig fat-which angered Muslims. Others claimed it was cow fat-which angered Hindus. In the end, rumors, unrest, and Company mismanagement were enough to prompt the Sepoys to strike back at the Company. The rebellion was controlled by the Company (through terrible violence) but it was enough to prompt the Crown to take control of the colony and began the direct imperial control of the British Raj in South Asia.
A hundred fifty years ago rumors of offensive gun grease helped foment an anti-colonial rebellion. Now, real offensive gun grease is part of anti-Muslim war hawking. But in both cases exhibit strong ties between the sacred and the violent. The profanation of the sacred in 1857 led to a rebel violence in the face of existing colonial violence. In the twenty first century, violence itself has a sacred quality and profanation is a tactic. It’s one thing to kill the enemy but if you can somehow damn them in the process then you’ve achieved a sort of cosmic violence. The illogic of using the profane of a “false religion” as a weapon only makes sense in a rationality of violence. It’s an upside down proposition: “Islam is evil and false. But we’ll be sure they are evil on their own false terms too.”
As the United States’ relationship with Pakistan continues to fall apart and as we continue three (or is it four?) wars in Muslim majority countries, it might be best to leave the fat greased bullets alone.
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.