Recently read: Altman’s Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu

Michael J. Altman, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893 (Oxford: OUP, 2017).

In Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893, Michael J. Altman attempts to avoid telling an ‘essentialist’ history—a history where we predetermine something called ‘Hinduism’ and then its existence in the United States (a common project in ‘American religious history’). Instead, he offers a ‘genealogical…method’ (p. 140). This method tells the story from a perspective that recognizes ‘religion’ as a ‘classificatory system’ used by people that’s essentially a ‘political act’. In the span of six chapters, Altman paints a picture for us of Americans who are trying to understand their own religious identity—namely, American Protestants (or Protestant Americans) who do so by contrasting their ‘true religion’ with ‘the Other’.

‘The Other’ has sometimes been presented as arriving during the ‘World Parliament of Religions’ in Chicago in 1893 but Altman reframes the subject in order to shed new light on it. The ‘essentialist’ approach begins with the World Parliament of Religions because it’s organized around the belief in a stable ‘Hinduism’ (a ‘world religion’). Altman takes us back to 1721 showing us that a better approach is to recognize that when people like Cotton Mather write about the ‘heathen’ of India, they’re constructing their own view of the same collection of practices organized as ‘Hinduism’ by many today. This is where Altman begins in Chapter 1, ‘Heathens and Hindoos in Early America’, showing how British depictions of India, and those depictions as processed through Enlightenment thinking, resulted in the depiction of ‘the Other’ as exotic and ‘false’.

In Chapter 2, ‘Missionaries, Unitarians, and Raja Rammohun Roy’, we are shown how battles between conservative and liberal Christians resulted in different depictions of Indian religion. Raka Rammohun Roy takes center stage as his monotheistic take on Indian tradition became ‘Christianized’, if you will, with Roy serving as an example of what a purer form of Indian religion could be if it would just look more like Christianity. A similar theme appears in Chapter 4, ‘Transcendentalism, Brahmanism, and Universal Religion’, as those who embraced ‘metaphysical religion’, like early Transcendentalist, sought not to embrace what ‘Hinduism’, per se, but to find in India an underlying spirituality that could be connected to similarities in Christianity resulting in the discovery of a ‘universal religion’ beyond the dogmas, rituals, and magic of most religions. This struggle reappears in Chapter 5, ‘The Theosophical Quest for Occult Power’ and it’s embodied in the Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Helena Blavatsky’s attempt to unite with Swami Dayanand Sarawati and the Arya Samaj being interpreted as nothing but an imperialistic act wherein Olcott ‘attempt[ed] to fold Saraswati and the Arya Samaj’ into their universalizing ‘wisdom religion’ (p. 110).

Chapter 3, ‘Hindoo Religion in American National Culture’, tells the story of how Indians were presented in schoolbooks, books, and magazines, thereby shaping the American imagination of India. Chapter 6, ‘Putting the “Religions” in the World Parliament of Religions’, is a fascinating look at American attempts to create broader unity across various religions but on the terms of Protestantism.

This is a well-written, well-researched book that does what it sets out to do: provides a genealogy and avoids the essentialist narrative. This approach forces us to think deeper about the meaning of ‘religion’ and how this word functions and has functioned, especially in American society.


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