Religion, Science, and Empire: Classifying Hinduism and Islam in British India

Religion, Science, and Empire: Classifying Hinduism and Islam in British India

Religion, Science, and Empire: Classifying Hinduism and Islam in British India

Religion, Science, and Empire: Classifying Hinduism and Islam in British India

Synopsis

Peter Gottschalk offers a compelling study of how, through the British implementation of scientific taxonomy in the subcontinent, Britons and Indians identified an inherent divide between mutually antagonistic religious communities. England's ascent to power coincided with the rise of empirical science as an authoritative way of knowing not only the natural world, but the human one as well. The British scientific passion for classification, combined with the Christian impulse to differentiate people according to religion, ledto a designation of Indians as either Hindu or Muslim according to rigidly defined criteria that paralleled classification in botanical and zoological taxonomies. Through an historical and ethnographic study of the north Indian village of Chainpur, Gottschalk shows that the Britons' presumed categories did not necessarily reflect the Indians' concepts of their own identities, though many Indians came to embrace this scientism and gradually accepted thecategories the British instituted through projects like the Census of India, the Archaeological Survey of India, and the India Museum. Today's propogators of Hindu-Muslim violence often cite scientistic formulations of difference that descend directly from the categories introduced by imperial Britain. Religion, Science, and Empire will be a valuable resource to anyone interested in the colonial and postcolonial history of religion in India.

Excerpt

It is a familiar experience that the ordinary untraveled European on first arriving in India,
finds much difficulty in distinguishing one native of the country from another. To his
untrained eye all Indians are black; all have the same cast of countenance; and all, except the
“decently naked” labouring classes, wear loose garments which revive dim memories of the
attire of the Greeks and Romans. An observant man soon shakes off these illusions, and
realises the extra ordinary diversity of the types which are to be met with everywhere in India.
The first step in his education is to learn to tell a Hindu from a Muhammadan. A further stage
is reached when it dawns upon him that the upper classes of Hindus are much fairer than the
lower and that their features are moulded on finer lines… He learns, in short, to distinguish
what may be called the Provincial types of the people of India, the local, racial or linguistic
aggregates, which at first sight seem to correspond to the nations of Europe. But the general
impression thus formed, though accurate enough so far as they go, are wanting in scientific
precision.

—T. C. HUDSON, India. Census Ethnography, 1901–1931 (1937), 9.

HODS ON’S STATEMENT NEATLY summarizes one common British approach to knowing Indians that this book seeks to investigate. On the one hand, it suggests that for many Britons, their very first impression of Indians was of categorical difference: their black skin, in contrast with his white skin. On the other hand, the experienced, attentive Briton first learns to differentiate not according to race, but according to religion. Although racial categories are expected to be almost intuitively apparent, religious categories are the most important learned difference. Moreover, despite some initial parallels with Europe, deeper differences surface with greater understanding: an understanding facilitated by a precision only attributable to science. Written by an author with both academic and government standing, included in a government report regarding the annual census, and published only a decade before the termination of British rule in South Asia, Hodson’s comment encapsulates conclusions that seemed only commonsense to most Britons, both on and off the subcontinent, throughout most of the period of British Indian rule. Despite the awareness of counterexamples stemming from personal and administrative experience, authors continued throughout the Raj to repeat the assumptions regarding the essentially religious character of Indians and the mutual exclusivity between Hindu and Muslim communities. As not only a former Indian civil servant but also as a member of the Folklore Society and fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Hodson’s perspectives fed into a coalescing . . .

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