Michael J. Altman is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His book, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893, was published in August by Oxford University Press. In it, Altman documents almost two centuries of speech and writing about the subcontinent, noting the various ways that American Christians fashioned their own self-concept against that of an imagined India.
ECM: Your book is less about “heathen,” “Hindoo,” and “Hindu” than it is about the American people who used those terms to describe Indian people. Can you give us some of that background?
MA: It’s funny because, when I first started this project, I thought its contribution was going to be finding Hinduism in American history earlier than we thought, based on some of the sources I was digging through. But the more I worked on it the more I realized that the story wasn’t really about Hinduism at all—it was a way of thinking about how Americans thought about religion and religious difference and others, and the way that they used these representations of Hindus to argue about what it meant to be an American in a variety of ways.
So there was a real transition in the project in which the punch line went from something like “Hey, there were Hindus here earlier than you think,” to a broader theoretical argument about American identity and the role of outsiders in the formation of American identity.
ECM: You document these representations across a variety of outlets and venues, but they are almost always used by white, Protestant Americans in ways that advantage white, Protestant Americans. What exactly is the function of this language?
MA: I was just joking the other day that I’ve written a book about Hindus that is actually about Protestants. The language functions in lots of ways. This was the nineteenth century, the period of Protestant ascendency, when a lot of the mainstream Protestant culture arose, before the split that divided Protestants between modernists and fundamentalists in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. And so, for white American Protestants this was a time to solidify their cultural establishment. All of their descriptions of others were connecting American identity to Protestant identity. In the minds of almost all of the individuals I discuss in the book, to be American is to be Protestant. This is at the height, in various ways, of American anti-Catholicism, and there is a firm sense of unity between American identity and Protestantism.
The flipside is the racial side, since it is very much a white Protestant identity. So Hindus, as non-white, as “heathens” or “Hindoos,” are always there on the outside of Protestantism, even in what we think of as the more positive encounters, as in the case of the Transcendentalists.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, read a lot of Sanskrit texts and translations and developed a reputation for appreciating Indian thought and literature, but to his mind India, and Asia more generally, was essentially contemplative and essentially mystical in contrast to the active and industrious West. So even those characterizations that we are tempted to see as positive are based on a vision of India as outside of or other than American identity.
ECM: It seems that, at this time, a lot of what was commonly known about India came from letters written by missionaries who were serving there. How central were these missionary dispatches to this discourse?
MA: Missionaries had an important role early on in communicating what contemporary Indian culture was like through their eyes. For the missionaries, it was always about what they were seeing around them day-to-day and their interpretation and representation of that in letters to their boards back home. There was always a disconnect between the missionaries—whether it was American missionaries beginning in 1812-13, or British missionaries before that—and the folks who were more interested in ancient India or ancient Sanskrit texts. And it carried through all the way through the century. The missionaries constructed images of what on-the-ground “Hindooism” or “heathenism,” or whatever they chose to call it, looked like through their eyes.
There were kind of two rails of thought about India in the period. The missionaries were the ones who brought the popular contemporary image, not just to other Christians and Protestants or even missionary magazines, but to the entire public when that image was reproduced in school books and national periodicals. And that was a big contrast from other Americans who were mostly interested in ancient India, whether it was ancient Indian texts or ancient Indian philosophy.
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