Two weeks ago I successfully defended my dissertation proposal. I thought it might be worthwhile to share an abridged version so anyone interested might get a sense of what this project is shaping up to be. I’d love to hear feedback and suggestions. In this abridged version I’ve cut out the literature review.
“This extensive and populous country…retains its peculiar manners which have stamped the people as a peculiar race from the earliest periods of history.”1 So writes Samuel Goodrich in 1845, using the pseudonym Peter Parley, under the heading “Hindostan” in his schoolbook Manners and Customs of the Principal Nations of The Globe. For, Goodrich, and for the children reading his grade school book, India was quite different from America. As common schools began to grow in the middle third of the nineteenth century, writers like Goodrich believed that children in America needed to have a global view. A view that included Asia and India. In his The Tales of Peter Parley About Asia (1845) Goodrich describes the people of India for his readers: “I shall now tell you of a people, who may be regarded as the most interesting of all the inhabitants of Asia, I mean the Hindoos…the Hindoos, in personal appearance, in disposition, in character, and in religion, are a distinct and peculiar nation.”2 Children would find the Hindus interesting because they were so different from Americans—so “peculiar.” As Goodrich pointed out, they looked different, lived differently, and believed in a different religion.
About a decade later, Henry David Thoreau bathed his mind in “the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy” of the Bhagavad Gita during his mornings at Walden Pond. For Thoreau, the sacred book of India made the modern world “and its literature seem puny and trivial.” Laying the book aside, Thoreau made his way down to his well to draw water. The Gita still in his thoughts, at the well he met “the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahama and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Veda, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug.” Thoreau’s meditation on the Gita brought him to a place where “the pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”3 For Thoreau, the Brahman at the foot of the tree reading the Veda represented everything missing from his industrial American society. Through his romantic vision, Hindu religious culture represented an ancient spiritual wisdom that Thoreau believed American industrial society had lost.
In 1884 the Methodist run Christian Advocate offered a very different image of India’s religions. The magazine published a report from the Rev. Samuel Knowles on “The Devi Patan Mela,” a religious festival in India. Knowles narrates the scene his group of missionaries arrived to find: “Thirsty tired, and full of dust, we entered under the grand grove of tamarind trees that surrounds the gloomy temple of the blood-deluged idol goddess…it was calculated that one animal a minute was sacrificed sunrise to sunset of every day for a week.” Like Thoreau, Knowles also sees Brahmins. “A number of blood-stained priests stand behind a stone in front of the temple,” waiting to help devotees offer sacrifices to “the dishonored shrine.”4
These three examples illustrate the variety of ways Americans imagined and represented Hindu religions in the nineteenth century. For the schoolbook writers, India was a land of barbarous, dark skinned, heathens that stood in contrast to the virtues of white, enlightened, Christian America. For Thoreau and his ilk, Indian religions held a spiritual truth that was missing in American Protestant culture. Americans needed to “bathe their minds” in India’s spiritual waters as an antidote to rising materialism and industrialism. Missionaries, like the Methodists in the Advocate, viewed Hindu religions as dark heathenism in need of the conquering light of the Gospel. As these examples indicate, Americans held a variety of reactions and ideas about India and its religious culture, but all of these reactions shared a common understanding of religious difference. Whether viewed positively or negatively, all Americans believed that Hindu religions were altogether different from America’s.
Furthermore, these visions of Hindu religions preceded the arrival of Hindus themselves. Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the World’s Parliament of religion is often cited as the beginning for Hinduism’s history in America. On the one hand, this is true insofar as Vivekananda’s Vedanta Society became the first Hindu religious institution to attract a following among Americans. But on the other hand, such a history fails to outline the events and ideas that made Vivekananda’s movement possible. The history of Hinduism in America begins a century before Vivekananda when Americans first encountered Hindu religions through missions work, trade, travel narratives, and the popular press. By examining the representations of Hinduism that preceded Vivekananda, this dissertation traces out the ideas and images in American culture that made Vivekananda’s work possible, thinkable even. In short, I point out the ground rules Vivekananda, and Hindus that would follow him, had to play by.
In this dissertation, I situate my investigation on the boundary of American culture. In the nineteenth century, Americans from a variety of backgrounds produced and consumed representations of Hindu religions. I argue that these representations took a myriad of forms and emphasized various themes about India but they were all predicated on a notion of religious difference—whatever Hindu religions were, they were not American. Thus, Hindu religions marked the edge of American culture. They were always already outside America, though they were then represented by Americans for Americans in American cultural forms. By sketching the borders of American culture in the period and by paying particular attention to the role of religion in maintaining this boundary, this dissertation will explore the different ways Americans used religion as a category for defining America. In a sense, this dissertation gets at “American religion” through the back door, by examining examples of what did not count as American religion during the century.