Book Reviews

Idea of Hinduism:

An Imperial-Missionary Imagination

The idea of 'Hinduism' the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claims as its own may after all be a creation of Christian priests and travelers from the West in the 16th and 17th century, argues historian Geoffrey A. Oddie in his new book. 

The Australian scholar and theologist quotes Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1962) to reiterate that the idea of religion itself is a European construct and that the concept that "India is essentially a Hindu country" is a missionary-implanted idea. 

Oddie, a visiting professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, has taught history of religion at the University of Sidney since 1964. 

Speaking to IANS here, Oddie said Hindu rightwing parties like the BJP have gone back to "early missionary views of Hinduism".  

Placing his thesis in context, he says the Romans thought of religion as ceremony while early Christians stressed the importance of belief. 

"During the Enlightenment (renaissance), religion came to be thought of even more strongly as an objective reality, rather like natural objects that could be explored through scientific enquiry. 

"The usual assumption of 17th and 18th century commentators was that there was just four religions in the world: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Paganism or Heathenism," says Oddie in his book. 

So, anything beyond the pale of Europe's known world was Paganism, including all far-eastern faiths and the new continent's beliefs, for example, those in countries like China, India, Peru and Mexico. 

"Paganism or heathenism as words used (in writings of the period) are very broad and loosely defined terms meant to include all non-Christian religions apart from Judaism and Islam." 

Oddie here refers to the extensive correspondence of the priest and printer, founder of the Tranquebar Protestant Mission, Ziegenbalg, who studied Tamil practices of the region and William Carey's well-known "Enquiry", published in 1792 from Bengal. 

The protestant missionary societies in Britain had an important role to play in the perception of 'religion' of India, especially after 1793, he says. 

As Europeans travelled to the Americas and Fareast, the question arose whether 'paganism' was the same everywhere. The interpretation was what suited evangelic societies and the empire. 

Oddie here draws from Andrew Porter's monumental study of religion and empire in India to emphasise that people like Bishop Heber and Claudius Buchanan contributed to the portrait of Hinduism as it is perceived today. 

"The Company (East India Company) was the Christian administration," says the book and argues, "The focus was on the company's alliance with the Hindu system". 

Earlier, travellers like the protestant Dutch adventurer John Huyghen van Linschoten and Pietro Della Valle provided their 'genteel' accounts of Indian religious beliefs in the 1580s. 

Writings of travellers like Varthema, who adopted Islam, Della Valle, a Catholic, Francois Bernier (1670s), who was what French intellectual circles called a Skeptic, and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1677-1688) contributed a great deal to British perception of India's religion. 

Varthema, for example, described the religion of the Vijayanagaram kingdom as pagan. 

Geroge Pettitt, a missionary in Tirunelveli, described the worship of "lower classes" and accounts of the times are filled with what was called "gentoo mythology" (from the word gentiles). These writings all showed India had different faiths in different geographical locations even in the early 18th Century. 

"Whatever conviction there was among travellers that India's faith and worship was a unified pan-Indian system was probably reinforced by a feeling that it was Brahmans who were ultimately in control," says Oddie. A long tradition in Europe concerning the wisdom of Brahmans prevailed from the time of the Greek interaction with North India, he adds. 

By the time Edward Sargent and the likes described the worship of Pei (Pay) and used words like "us" and "them", the imperial idea of Hinduism had taken root. 

The first modern Indian to perhaps speak of Hinduism as such was Bengal reformist Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Oddie says. "He spoke in terms of 'real' Hinduism and 'fake' Hinduism in the context of rituals like Sati. 

"The thinker Vivekananda, like all nationalists, was under great pressure to show India was unified and had an unified religion" in the face of adamant British reasoning that India was faction-ridden and needed the 'higher' authority of British rule," Oddie says.   

16-Mar-2007

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