Imagined Hindusim: British Protestant Missionary Constructions of Hinduism, 1793-1900

by Geoffrey A. Oddie

Many today may be startled to learn that “Hinduism” is a relatively recent term that did not come into vogue until the late eighteenth century.

Sage Publications, 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, CA 91320 (and New Delhi and London), 2006, 378 pages, $38.95.

Reviewed by Robert Eric Frykenberg, professor emeritus of history and South Asian studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Many today may be startled to learn that “Hinduism” is a relatively recent term that did not come into vogue until the late eighteenth century. Previously, “Hindu” was more of a geographic concept describing anything native to Hindustan and all things native to India. Thus, all forms of religious life native to India were seen as “Hindu.” Where there were “Hindu Christians” and “Hindu Muslims,” no sense of a single, dominant religion or religious system yet existed. In short, “Hinduism,” as a term, is a modern invention.

“Hinduism” emerged out of integrative processes of the Raj. A systematic attempt initiated by Warren Hastings, India’s first Governor-General, to discover, explore, collect, preserve, and rescue anything and everything valuable from legacies of India’s past cultures and civilizations, became known as “Orientalism” or “Indology.” Hundreds of local scholars were employed in collecting cultural materials that eventually filled five huge ships. The romantic view of India’s glorious past that evolved out of the study of this vast collection, in which both Indians and Europeans became (and still remain) heavily invested, can be seen as contributing to the “imagined Hinduism” of our day. Integration of a vast system of state-supported religious institutions—temples, ceremonials, rituals, and great festivals—also contributed to the emergence of modern Hinduism.

Focusing on British Protestant missionaries, Geoffrey Oddie has made an important contribution to our understanding of how “Hinduism” emerged as a single system—as the dominant religion of India. In a June 1800 entry of his journal, William Ward may have been the very first person to use the word “Hindooism.” If William Carey’s insatiable curiosity inspired careful and detailed empirical observations, it was this second member of the “Serampore Trio,” whose Account of the Writings, Religion, and Manners of the Hindoos (first published in 1811) first visualized, or “imagined,” the existence of a single, overarching system of Hindu institutions. Later editions, appearing after renewal of the East India Company’s Charter of 1813 permitted the admission of Christian missionaries into India, became more polemical and strident in tone. In three volumes, he attempted to counter romantic notions of Orientalists. With such Hindu reformers as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, he called for government intervention and reform so as to prohibit “inhuman practices” such as sati (widow-burning). His success provoked furious reactions from Brahmans whose “Sacred Petition” Parliament complained against infringements of “religious freedoms.”

The nature and multiple meanings of “Hinduism” have been contested ever since. Since there was (and is) no word for “religion” (or “religious”), the Sanskritc terms “dharma” and “karma” (roughly: “right duty,” “law” or “order;” and “causation” or “inevitable consequences”) were used.

“Hinduism,” when appropriated in India, was roughly equated with “Sanathana Dharma” or “Eternal [Cosmic/Original/Sacred] Religion” by Brahman thinkers. “Hindutva” or “Hinduness” was adopted by Savarkar as the slogan of militant Hindu nationalists a century ago. In Hinduism Reconsidered (1989, 1997: edited by G-D. Sontheimer and H. Kulke), Romila Thapar defined modern Hinduism as “Syndicated Hinduism.” Questions about the essence of what Oddie calls the “dominant paradigm” persist to this day. He shows how British Protestant missionaries initiated such controversies.


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