Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction of Religion

By Rocher, Rosane | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January-March 2007 | Go to article overview

Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction of Religion


Rocher, Rosane, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction of Religion. By BRIAN K. PENNINGTON. New York: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2005. Pp. 249, ill. $47.50.

In this polished and aptly illustrated book, Brian K. Pennington rises against recent critics such as Timothy Fitzgerald (2000) and Russell T. McCutcheon (1997, 2001) to defend the study of religion, comparative religion in particular, as a legitimate subject of scholarly inquiry and of discussion with practitioners, and as an important means of intercultural communication. His command of both theoretical debates and factual data about the nineteenth-century British encounter with, or alleged invention of, a cohesive set of beliefs and practices called "Hinduism" evinces a deftness and ease of diction that transcend this study's origin as a doctoral dissertation.

Pennington accepts the view according to which what currently goes by the name of "Hinduism" originated in the colonial encounter, but he challenges a "faddish" notion that it was invented by missionaries and Orientalists, as has been argued by S. N. Balagangadhara (1994) and Richard King (1999). His work inscribes itself in a current trend of post-postcolonial studies that seek to restore agency to Indians. Yet, differently from subaltern studies, Pennington firmly situates the "messy" emergence of modern Hinduism in the elite print culture of colonial Calcutta between 1780 and 1832. In treating Hinduism as a function of modernity, he does not reject, yet leaves aside, Hindu identity before 1800, which David N. Lorenzen explored in his 1999 essay, "Who Invented Hinduism?" Pennington does not reflect on, or even mention, the older moniker "Gentoos," derived from the Portuguese for "gentile," used by Nathaniel Brassey Halhed and other early British Orientalists to refer to Hindus as opposed to Muslims (or "Moors").

However circular may be the process of analyzing "modern" Hinduism as a manifestation of modernity, Pennington's book has much to offer. In between an introductory chapter that features a review of relevant literature, and a last of "concluding thoughts," the study proceeds in four chapters that brim with data. These include newspapers, tracts, and unpublished documents, primarily from missionary collections, which were untapped heretofore.

Chapter two, "The Other Without and the Other Within," throws much useful light on the origin of missionary discourse on the heathen in evangelization efforts aimed at the moral uplift of the British laboring classes, which had long been left at the door of the Established Church.

Chapter three takes its title, "Scarcely Less Bloody than Lascivious," from a description of "Hindoo superstitions" offered by Clapham Saint William Wilberforce in a speech delivered in 1813 to the Commons in support of the missionary clause which, against opposition from old Orientalist hands, was inserted in the renewed charter of the East India Company and opened British India to officially sanctioned evangelization. This chapter focuses on missionaries' fixation on "idolatry," with much appropriate attention to its roots in anti-Catholic rhetoric and state-enforced discrimination in Britain, and to the backgrounds of two of the most dedicated evangelizers and influential denigrators of Indian religious and social practices, the Baptist William Ward and the Anglican Claudius Buchanan.

Chapter four, "Polymorphic Nature, Polytheistic Culture, and the Orientalist Imaginaire," focuses on the descriptions of Indian religions, Hinduism in particular, that appeared in the fifty-year run, from 1789 to 1839, of the Asiatick Researches, the organ of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, particularly at the hands of the Society's three successive Sanskritist mainstays, Sir William Jones, Henry Thomas Colebrooke, and Horace Hayman Wilson. …

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