Tomorrow marks Swami Vivekananda’s 150th birthday. Vivekananda haunts me. He was a man who meant and continues to mean many things to many people. But for me, Vivekananda will always represent a limit or a boundary. When I started the research project that became my dissertation, I started with Vivekananda and then turned and looked backward. In American religious history, Vivekananda represented the beginning of Hinduism in America. He brought Raja Yoga and the Vedanta Society. His speech at the World’s Parliament of Religion was the dawning of a new pluralism in America. I wanted to know what happened before that. I wanted to turn Vivekananda into the ending. What did Americans think about India and Hindus and yoga and Brahma and Krishna before 1893–before the Swami came to Chicago? That has been the driving question of my research for the past seven years, across my masters and Ph.D. work, and through two universities.
As Hindus around the world remember and celebrate the life of the Swami, I celebrate as well, but for very different reasons. As I said, for me Vivekananda represents the end. He is the last figure in my dissertation. So, as I put the finishing touches on this dissertation, look toward a defense in a couple months, a graduation shortly after that, and eventually a book, I celebrate the life of Vivekananda. Because without him I would never have found this research topic. And without him it would not have an ending.
I decided to play around with Google’s Ngram viewer and see what it might tell me about how Americans wrote about Asian religions. Click here for a bigger version of the graph. Here’s what I noticed:
1. The most popular moment for Asian religions in America was in the 1820s and it most likely revolved around the figure of Rammohun Roy the “Hindoo reformer” highly covered in Unitarian and evangelical missionary journals. His debates with the English Baptist missionaries at Serampore, just outside Calcutta, and his publication of the Precepts of Jesus attracted a lot of attention in America. He wanted to eventually come to the United States but died in Bristol, England while touring Britain before he could make it. There’s a lot more to be said about Rammohun but I’ll let the spike speak to his importance and refer you to my dissertation that should be done early next year for more details.
2. The spike in “Hindoo” before Rammohun matches up with the beginnings of the American missionary movement. The first missionaries were ordained by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1812 and went to India and Ceylon. What I can’t explain is the dip between the missionaries and Rammohun.
3. Looking further down the timeline, it is interesting to note the way “Hinduism” never gets close to the same frequency as “Buddhism” while “Hindu” keeps pace with “Buddhism” and “Buddhist.” This proves an important point made by writers, most notably Tomoko Masuzawa in her book The Invention of World Religions, that Buddhism was accorded more authority as a “world religion” than Hinduism during the nineteenth century. This graph shows that Americans took interest “Hindus” and “Hindoos” but that they didn’t give”Hinduism” the status of full fledged religion. “Hinduism” was not discussed as frequently as “Buddhism” because it was seen as less important and less legitimate religion. “Hinduism” does get a bump after 1893, most likely from the arrival of Vivekananda. Nonetheless, there is a lot of writing about Hindus but not much about Hinduism. It seems Americans wrote more frequently about the figure of the Hindu than the overall religious system. Meanwhile, Buddhists and Buddhism got equal treatment.
There are certainly caveats to the accuracy of this method and the use of Ngrams in general for historical work. That said, I do think that there are places where graphs like this can corroborate other more traditional forms of historical evidence. The “Rammohun spike” seems fairly plausible to me. For those of us interested in the history of religious concepts and categories in American culture, the Ngram can be a great jumping off point for theorizing the relationship between culture and discourse. It’s one more tool for whacking away at the stubborn rock of history in hopes of chiseling out something meaningful.
Also, this is post number 100 for this blog. Hooray! Thanks to everyone who has read and supported my blogging here and elsewhere. It’s been fun for me and I hope you’ve gotten something out of it too.
From the diary of Rev. William Bentley of Salem, Mass. December 29, 1799:
Had the pleasure of seeing for the first time a native of the Indies from Madras. He is of very dark complection, long black hair, soft countenance, tall, & well proportioned. He is said to be darker than Indians in general of his own cast, being much darker than any native Indians of America. I had no opportunity to judge of his abilities, but his countenance was not expressive. He came to Salem with Capt. J. Gibaut, and has been in Europe.
It’s unclear what this man’s religious culture was. Still, that’s almost a century before Vivekananda. Just sayin’.