Hindoos, Hindus, Spelling, and Theory

What is the relationship between spelling and theory? I often tell people my research is about “Hinduism in nineteenth century America.” But it’s really not. It’s not about Hinduism at all. It can’t be because the idea of “Hinduism,” a world religion comparable to other world religions, isn’t invented until the late nineteenth century. That’s kind of the point of my research. Most other scholars writing about this period will still use the term “Hindu” to describe the people that Americans or Britons were describing during this period. But when an American missionary or Unitarian pastor refered to the people in India doing something that they recognize as religion they most often used the term “Hindoo.” Hindoo–that double O of colonialism.

So, here’s the question: Is the difference between Hindoo and Hindu just a matter of spelling? Or is there more going on here?

On the one hand, you could argue that though the sources read Hindoo, it makes sense for the scholar today to write Hindu, even when talking about the 1820s. There are all sorts of terms that we alter when we bring them into the present from the past. No one puts the long S in their scholarly prose, for example. So, maybe Hindoo to Hindu is just like taking that long s out of Congress in the Bill of Rights?

The long s in "Congress" from the Bill of Rights

The long s in “Congress” from the Bill of Rights

But maybe it’s not. It seems to me a Hindu is actually someone quite different from a Hindoo. That is, a Hindu is someone tied up with this world religion called Hinduism. There is the Hindu American Foundation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (or World Hindu Council), and the Pew Research Center tallies up the number of “Hindus” in America. But in the early nineteenth century, a Hindoo was a product of the American and British imagination. When I discuss what Americans thought about India and the people who lived there and these things they did that Americans thought were religion, I am not talking about people in South Asia. I’m talking about representations of people in South Asia. These Hindoos are imaginary. “Hindoos” and their religion were invented by Europeans and Americans. During this period, people in India did not present themselves to an American audience. Rather, they were represented by American and European authors to an American audience and in that process they were represented as Hindoos.

Perhaps the one exception to this would be the Indian reformer Rammohun Roy who wrote in English to an American and British audience. However, Roy self-identified as a “Hindoo,” as in his work “A Defence of Hindoo Theism.” Swami-Vivekananda-Hindoo-Monk-posterEven as late as the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, Americans represented Swami Vivekananda, the South Asian who garnered an audience throughout America, as a “Hindoo Monk.” Vivekananda and Rammohun Roy served as transitional figures as Hindoos became Hindus. That is, as South Asians went from imagined representations to immigrants representing themselves in American culture. In 1893 Vivekananda was a “Hindoo monk” but by 1930 he is part of a “Hindu Movement” in Wendell Thomas’s book Hinduism Invades America. Vivekananda goes from Hindoo to Hindu, from a South Asian represented by Americans in Chicago to the founder of a movement representing itself in America.

Here’s the shift from Hindoo to Hindu in one handy Ngram. The lines cross in the year 1884:

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.23.53 PM


For most of my brief career I’ve fallen back on the term “Hindu religions” to describe whatever it was that Americans and the British were trying to describe in their writing. But I’ve decided to eject that term from my work going forward because it implies that there is something there that is essentially “Hindu” before someone labels it as such. There is no there there, however. There is only the discourse about whatever people in South Asia seem to be doing to Europeans and Americans. So, I’m going back to Hindoo, colonial Os and all, to emphasize that nothing is “Hindu” or “Hindoo” until someone categorizes it as such. And then, once categorized, my job is to unpack the conflicts, arguments, ideologies, claims, and competitions behind that categorization. But I am curious to hear from others on this question–and similar questions about, say, “evangelical” or other such categories. Is this all simply a word game?


On Swami Vivekananda’s 150th Birthday: Beginnings and Endings

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.

Asian Religions in America as an Ngram: Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Rammohun Spike

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.

The First Hindu in America? Maybe…

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’.