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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Drawing on a large body of previously untapped literature, including documents from the Church Missionary Society and Bengali newspapers, Brian Pennington offers a fascinating portrait of the process by which "Hinduism" came into being. He argues against the common idea that the modern construction of religion in colonial India was simply a fabrication of Western Orientalists and missionaries. Rather, he says, it involved the active agency and engagement of Indian authors as well, who interacted, argued, and responded to British authors over key religious issues such as image-worship, sati, tolerance, and conversion.

Excerpt

Sometime between 1789 and 1832, the British perception of Hindu religious traditions underwent a seismic shift. Sir William Jones had complained in 1789 that Hindu mythology confronted the historian with a virtually impenetrable “cloud of fables,” but by 1832 utilitarians and missionaries were rejecting not only Jones’s abiding appreciation for the antiquity and beauty of Hindu literature, but also his sense of the ever-proliferating, unbounded, and ungoverned character of Hindu religious forms. Their many differences notwithstanding, Protestant evangelicals and utilitarians a generation after Jones were united against the Orientalists he represented in their insistence that, beneath a veil of confusion and contradiction, Hindu traditions operated with clear, regular, and sinister principles that demanded disclosure. These attacks inspired Hindus to new efforts at self-representation. In precolonial periods there had been an ad hoc character to the manner in which Hindus chose to describe themselves. When the occasion demanded it, Hindus could portray themselves as a homogenous people, especially vis-à-vis their Muslim “other,” or locate alterity in their own midst. With the development of the modern colonial state, however, the representation of Hinduism evolved as an act of political and religious significance previously unprecedented among Indians or those who ruled them. While the British proposed and debated the unity, character, and content of Indian religion, Hindus responded with apologetic, correction, and reconstruction of the coherence and nobility of their traditions. In the shadows and under the auspices of the emerging colonial state, Hindus and non-Hindus alike etched the contours of . . .

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