What is #HindooHistory?

A belated introduction

Welcome, readers! Alas, despite my best efforts I could no longer resist joining the newsletter bandwagon. In the course of my day-to-day research for Hindoo History, I often come across characters and stories that warrant more than an instagram caption or a tweet thread. I'll be using this newsletter to explore those topics in greater detail. To start, however I wanted to elucidate the idea behind Hindoo History. After all, to this day the most frequent question I get is some variation of "Why 'Hindoo' and not 'Hindu'"? There is a superficial answer— simply that this is how “Hindu” was rendered by colonial-era missionaries and journalists, but there is also a deeper response that goes to the root of the project.

When I started collecting newspaper clips, I didn't really have an overarching intellectual framework in mind— I would just collect and sort clips that I found interesting. I did however have a general sense that newspapers (as opposed to, say, works of scholarship) offer a more robust sense of what the "average American" thought at the time. Enter Professor Michael Altman. Dr. Altman is a professor of religion at the University of Alabama, and his book "Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893" was and is instrumental in providing the scaffolding for the collected data.

Dr. Altman's key insight is that the American conversation about Hinduism long pre-dated the arrival of Hindus and Hinduism to American shores. So, rather than asking how Hinduism arrived in America, Dr. Altman asks how "Hinduism became conceivable in America." This idea of "conceivability" is a key methodological pivot because it shifts the focus away from Hinduism per se, and towards the "genealogy" of a particular set of ideas, themes, and attitudes that shaped the American conception of Hinduism. Dr. Altman defines “genealogy” as follows:

“For my purposes, genealogy means an attention to the powers, identities, forces, constraints, agents, and discourses that form a particular category. It means paying attention to the connection between categories, the ways they overlap, include, and exclude one another. It traces how the formation of one category draws on others and produces yet more”

Whereas the traditional narrative marks Swami Vivekananda's speech at the World Parliament as the beginning of the story of Hinduism in America, Dr. Altman notes that when Vivekananda entered the stage, "Hinduism as a world religion emerged in the midst of various representations of religion" and although these representations made Hinduism "conceivable" to the average American, "they were not its direct antecedents." So what's the take-away here? Many of the newspaper clips I post involve descriptions of Hindoos engaging in widow burning, infant sacrifice, and all sorts of other pagan bloodletting. It is not my intent to analyze the "accuracy" of these claims vis-a-vis the historical practice of Hindus in India, because that's not what "Hindoo History" is concerned with. Whether these claims were true or not, they were for the most part the only data regarding the “Hindoo” the average American had access to.

This leads us to another key methodological contribution of Dr. Altman’s book, that I rely on in my own posts: The resulting conception was formed against the backdrop of an on-going debate in America regarding what "religion" was, and as a result the debates around Hinduism in America are drawn into broader sociological and theological disputes raging in America contemporaneously. Dr. Altman eloquently observes that "when Americans talked about religion in India, they were not really talking about religion in India. They were talking about themselves." Focusing on newspaper clips and tracing themes chronologically helps illuminate not just how the American conception of the “Hindoo” changed over time, but also the shifting socio-cultural fabric of the country as a whole.

Thanks for reading! I look forward to publishing longer pieces here. I don't want to promise too much in terms of frequency, but hopefully I'll be able to post at least twice a month. If you don't already, please follow @HindooHistory on Twitter and Instagram.