Book Review

Review of *Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu*

The Book

Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

The Author(s)

Michael Altman

When Swami Vivekananda took the stage at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, he inaugurated the history of Hinduism in America.  Or so scholarship on American religion would tell us.  But in his important book, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu, Michael Altman contests this received narrative on both historical and theoretical grounds.  In so doing, he offers a compelling example of how critical scholarship in religious studies can be applied in studies of American cultural and religious history.  Historically, Altman shows, interest in Indian religion was a feature of American discourse from the late 17th-century onwards.  Beginning with Cotton Mather’s 1721 India Christiana and ending with Vivekananda’s speech, Altman traces the discursive history that made “Hinduism” conceivable in the first place as a unified “religion.”  Theoretically, Altman argues that there is no essential “Hinduism,” which the scholar might track through time and space.  Rather, “Hinduism,” like the somewhat more archaic-sounding terms in Altman’s title, is a contingent category whose construction reflects and promotes ideological aims.  Situating his book in a long line of genealogical criticism in Religious Studies (McCutcheon, Masuzawa, Smith),[1] as well as a subset of that scholarship focusing specifically on “Hinduism” (King, Pennington),[2] Altman argues that the vocation of the scholar of religion is “to investigate the function of classificatory systems, to historicize their construction, and to analyze their social and political effects” (143).

Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu also contributes to a growing body of literature in American religion that has criticized the narrative of American religious history as one of ever-increasing pluralism, with particular attention to how the category of religion functions to manage difference.[3]  Altman shows how by representing Indian religion as improperly religious, Protestants stabilized the category of “religion” itself.  This is especially evident in the first three chapters, which take up representations of Indian religion from Mather’s 1721 tract to geography textbooks of the mid-19th century.  Through readings of Hannah Adams, Raja Rommohun Roy, and Harper’s Magazine, among many others, Altman traces a shift from categorizing Indian religion with the generic term “heathenism” towards recognizing a specific “Hindoo system” (as Adams put it).  “By the 1830s,” writes Altman, “Hindoo religion had become a relatively stable category in American culture” (46), and so also a useful discursive product for Americans to define themselves against.  Casting Indian religion as “bloody, obscene, and idolatrous” (30) allowed figures ranging from evangelical missionaries to textbook writers to construct their preferred mode of Protestantism as rational and modern.

But these debates were never merely theological: by representing India as “a land of half-civilized pagans” (57), writers could define Protestant monotheism as a uniquely conducive to democratic civilization.  In the pages of Harper’s, an emergent bourgeois reading public could learn about the “grand temples, enchanted villages, and filthy superstitions” (72) that defined Hindoo religion in opposition to “white, democratic, Protestant America” (74).  Thus, Altman shows that distinguishing between religion and “irreligion” (as the Parliament would put it) was always also a way of distinguishing between civilized and primitive peoples.

As this typology of religion and superstition (or magic or heathanism or a variety of other signifiers for the improperly, savagely religious; 127) began to stabilize, it could also be reversed, in an example of what Masuzawa calls “colonial self-articulations” (Invention of World Religions, 282).  When Roy, an Indian writer educated in Western languages and thought, contested Anglo-American representations of India, he did so by insisting that Protestants were the truly superstitious group, not deconstructing the Protestant discourse on “religion” so much as turning it around (41-42).  Unitarians, therefore, found Roy an ally in their polemic against the doctrine of the Trinity, providing Altman with a tidy illustration of how Indian religion appeared in intra-Protestant debates in America.  Similarly, the metaphysical religion of the Transcendentalists and the Theosophical Society, which Altman addresses in chapters four and five respectively, valorized Indian religion as a “recognition of unity and pure being” (94) that would redeem an America made superstitious by Protestantism (84).  This construction of what Richard King calls “the mystic East” was every bit as indebted to an Orientalist notion of India as its more overtly Protestant counterpart; it simply turned Indian religion into a pristine prophylactic rather than a civilizational threat.

At the Parliament, Vivekananda took a similar approach, criticizing Protestants for failing to recognize that “Hinduism was monotheistic, scientific, and socially progressive” (134), while subscribing to their own superstitious beliefs (135).  Altman ends his book in 1893, where conventional histories begin, and shows that the Parliament’s gesture of unity was conditional. Rather than a moment of interreligious tolerance where “Hinduism” is accepted as an American religion, the Parliament is a reiteration of the Orientalist discourse Altman has tracked throughout the book.  At the Parliament, only Protestantized rational monotheism is included as “religion,” to the exclusion and demonization of whatever does not fit the definition.

As I read him, Altman has two broad contentions: first, “Hinduism” exists only as a discursive construction invented and deployed for ideological purposes.  Second, in American history, discourse about heathens, Hindoos, and Hindus has primarily functioned as an Oriental other in relation to which white Protestant America could be defined.  Both of these contentions are well-argued and persuasive.  Beyond its contributions to the fields of American religion and Religious Studies, I can imagine this book, or any of its individual chapters, working well in undergraduate and graduate courses on American religion, religion and Orientalism, or critical approaches to religious studies, to name only a few.

Still, something about this argument leaves me cold. It is almost a methodological truism that all identity is constructed by excluding some imagined difference.  Altman is adamant on this point, repeatedly underscoring that “when Americans talked about religion in India, they were not really talking about religion in India.  They were talking about themselves” (xxi) and “writers worked to inculcate Protestant morals and American nationalism in readers by representing the Hindoo Other” (49) and “the Transcendentalists did not discover India, they constructed it” (76) and “Theosophical writers imagined the religion of India in different ways throughout the late nineteenth century” (99) and, finally, “Heathens, Hindoos, and Hindus provided the representations of difference that many Americans needed to represent themselves” (136).

But once we have been persuaded, as we should be, that representations of India in America are about American identity, there is little else we can learn from Altman about that identity itself. What, is it, in other words, in “the Christian imagination”[4] that makes “priests, temples, idols, festivals, rituals” (46) fit together as signs of the primitive? Why is a “spiritual, rational, ordered, abstract, and systematized” (38) religion necessarily a civilized religion?  Why, in short, did Christians see polytheism as not simply a theological error, but necessarily more violent, more bloody, more bodily, more imagistic, more savage than monotheism?

I am not sure Altman’s Foucauldian genealogy (xx) is well-equipped to answer these questions: knowledge may well be for cutting, but once we have “introduce[d] discontinuity into our very being,” the violent coherence of what Tisa Wenger calls “civilizational assemblages of race and empire” remains to be accounted for.[5]  The anti-essentialist move of reading “Hindu” (and “religion”) as an “empty term” (xii) is a necessary but not sufficient feature of a critical theory that would tell us more about (American) Christianity than that it understood itself as not-Indian.  Generative interlocutors might include Robert Yelle, Jeffrey Librett, and J. Kameron Carter on the entanglement of Christian supersessionism and Orientalism, as well as Jay Geller on colonial fetishisms, and Gil Anidjar on secularism and “the Christian Question.”[6]

These perspectives would help push beyond the fact that Protestant discourses constructed India as an other to engage theoretically the question of why Protestant discourses constructed India (and other Others) the way they did.  The role of bodies, images, rituals, and how gods ought to relate to them seem especially important theoretical sites for considering how theological polemics became (secular) Orientalist hierarchies.  In the absence of such engagement, Altman’s book resembles the “cabinet of curiosities” that the East India Marine Society of Salem “filled with items brought back from Asia and the Pacific” (4).  Now, however, the curiosities are relics of white Protestant culture, whose essentializing view of India is the “other” against which Altman can define himself as a critical genealogist.  To be sure, these curiosities are pleasurable to gaze upon, and there is much we can learn from them.  Ultimately, however, we need more to mount a robust critique of what Tomoku Masuzawa calls “an enormous apparition: the essential identity of the West” (20), which haunted the worlds of Altman’s characters and continues to haunt our own.

[1] E.g., Russell McCutcheon, Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Tomoku Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); and Jonathan Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious,” in Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 179-196.

[2] Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Post-Colonial Theory, India, and the “Mystic East” (New York: Routledge, 1999); Brian Penington, Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[3] E.g., Tracy Fessenden, Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); and Tisa Wenger, We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

[4] Willie Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

[5] Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 88; Tisa Wenger, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (Durham: UNC Press, 2017), 3.

[6] Robert Yelle, The Language of Disenchantment: Protestant Literalism and Colonial Discourse in British India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Jeffrey Librett, Orientalism and the Figure of the Jew (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014); J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Jay Geller, The Other Jewish Question: Identifying the Jew and Making Sense of Modernity (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011); Gil Anidjar, “Secularism,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 33, no. 1 (August 2006), 52-77; and Anidjar, Blood: A Critique of Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

About the Reviewer

Evan Goldstein is a Ph.D. student in Religious Studies at Yale University.

One Thought on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. I’m a little surprised that the review only uses the term “Anglo-American” once: So much of the American Protestant process described here is clearly responding directly to British discourses, and only indirectly to South Asian ones. From the sound of it, this is a function of Altman’s focus.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.