I gave the following paper at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion to the Religion and Popular Culture Group in November of 2008. This is the first in a series of old conference papers I’m putting on this blog in order to open the up to a larger audience. The full text of the article I discuss is available through the Making of America Collection by Cornell University here .
As many of you may know, this year’s AAR conference here in Chicago coincides with the 115th anniversary of the World’s Parliament of Religion held in this same city. And while there are probably papers being given this weekend championing the importance of the Parliament and what it meant for American religious history, I take a little different perspective. Contrary to the popular narrative that the Parliament served as America’s great introduction to Asian religions in America, my most current and ongoing research project has been to delve into sources prior to the World’s Parliament of Religion in order to build a history for Hinduism in America that precedes, and in some ways preconditions, the World Parliament of Religion.
Today, I would like to use one example from that research to explore two inter-related points regarding colonial knowledge, popular culture, and American religious history. First, as I have partly revealed, I challenge the “great event” history that locates the beginning of Hinduism in America with the World Parliament of Religion. Second, I explore how colonial knowledge seeps through leaks in the colonial project and finds its way into popular culture. I address these points through the example of an 1878 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine article entitled, “Juggernaut.” So, I will begin with a brief background of Harper’s New Monthly . Next, I will move through a close reading of the article, and finally, I will conclude with some thoughts as to how this article addresses these points.
In the middle of the American nineteenth century the Harper & Brothers publishing house designed a new monthly magazine that would set the standard for periodicals in the second half of the century. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine published its first issue in June 1850 and promised readers to “transfer” to its pages the greatest writers of England and “to place within the reach of the great mass of the American people, the unbounded treasures of the Periodical Literature of the present day.”[i] “Transfer” was a publisher’s euphemism for reprinting material from the English press. The magazine quickly grew from an initial circulation of 7,500 to 50,000 within six months. By the end of its first decade the circulation reached 200,000.[ii] As far as content, historian Frank Luther Mott compares Harpers with its competitor Century: “Harper’s still specialized in distant travel, and in that department and in English fiction it exceeded its rival…Harper’s had somewhat more variety. It published concerning art…and it was strong in history.” [iii] Harper’s sat at the top of the American magazine world with a circulation so wide its competitors claimed “There is not a village, there is scarcely a township in the land into which you work has not penetrated.”[iv] With such a powerful and broad influence, what Harper’s said about India and Hindus created a lasting representation in American popular culture.
Harper’s New Monthly Magazine brought two innovations to the American magazine. First, the magazine published in two large columns instead of the multiple smaller columns. This new page arrangement meant that some stories took up multiple pages and often there were only one or two stories to a page. This gave the magazine a great sense of unity and coherence, rather than the informational chaos of five or six columns of different articles and genres. Secondly, and most important, the New Monthly, invested heavily in its art department which produced large engravings and diagrams for the magazine’s articles. The artwork would be centered on the page or even take up its own page, giving it an emphasis unseen in earlier magazines. Both of these innovations led to the magazine’s quick and continued success.
Harper’s was not a religious magazine, though the Harper brothers were staunch Methodists, so its approach to India and Hinduism was different than the missionary context of previous magazines. Instead, Harper’s tried to help readers know India and Hinduism. Knowledge, not converts, was the goal. Harper’s published articles with different strategies for presenting readers with knowledge of India at different times but for the purpose of this paper I want to focus on one 1878 article that used Harper’s educated writers and growing art department to map out a history for Hinduism through in-depth description, large engravings, and diagrams.
Harper’s content on India emphasized that Indian religion was an ancient religion with a history worth knowing. These articles were written by educated authors, which was a shift from anonymous tales published in the 1850s. This shift in the writers’ approach aligns with the shift by the British to understand and control India scientifically—to know it. The Survey of India was founded in 1878 and the Census of India began in 1871.[v] To know India the British counted its people and mapped its land. Like the British, Harper’s writers tried to know the religion of India through mapping its history and sacred spaces. For these Anglophone writers, to know Hinduism was to be able to point to where it was located geographically and historically. While other magazines had been mapping India through articles and stories for decades, Harper’s took the mapping dynamic to a new level through its use of illustrations and diagrams. By 1878 readers could see a Hindu temple on the pages of Harper’s. Through textual and illustrative images, Harper’s mapped the history, geography, and sacred space of Hinduism.
The clearest example of this textual and illustrative mapping is the 1878 article, “Juggernaut,” by former editor of the magazine, A. H. Guernsey. Guernsey was a Hebrew scholar who had worked his way up to the editor’s chair by 1856 but stepped down as editor-in-chief in 1869.[vi] His article offers thick description and vivid illustration of the Jagannath temple in Orissa. It opens with a textual mapping of the scene:
In times so old as to antedate all human records, yet so new as to be only yesterday in the history of the globe, the waves of the Bay of Bengal dashed against the foot of a range of hills which extended, fold upon fold far inland. From these uplands issued two great rivers, bringing down every hour burdens of earth and sand washed away from a thousand mountain-peaks and hill-sides. This earth and sand, deposited upon the shore, slowly formed itself into dry land encroaching more and more upon the waters of the bay, until a strip of alluvial land has been formed, 150 miles long, with an average width of 50 miles, sometimes greater, and sometimes diminishing to a narrow beach. This strip of alluvial territory is the province of Orissa.[vii]
The reader is given a geologic and topographic map of Orissa wherein they see the creation of the province’s land before their very eyes. They also get the basic boundaries and dimensions of the space. Such an introduction works to locate the reader by giving a history and a geography. We now know where we are and how it got here. Next, the article offers a series of figures to help the reader know how this land is populated: “Having an area of 7723 square miles, a little less than that state of New Jersey, with a population in 1870 of 2,119,192, being 274 to the square mile. the density of the population is about half-way between that of England (437 to the square mile) and France (177 to the square mile)…So that in the widest sense Orissa is about half as large as the state of Pennsylvania, and has nearly as many inhabitants.”[viii] By using places the reader would be familiar with—New Jersey, Philadelphia, England and France—the writer helps the reader construct a mental population density map in their mind, further locating exactly what this land Orissa is that he is talking about.
Once the setting, Orissa, has been mapped out Guernsey can move on to the subject at hand, the temple of Jagannath. Guernsey offers readers two chronologies—a mapping of time—for the creation of the temple. The first tells a story of King Indradyumna discovering the blue stoned image in the jungle and building a temple for it in Orissa consecrated by the god Brahma. But the second chronology tells a different story. Guernsey offers, “an outline of the steps by which the worship of Vishnu, the Preserver, has in Orissa, and so to a great extent throughout India, superseded the worship of Siva, the Destroyer.”[ix] Guernsey’s chronology of Jagannath maps more than a history of the temple. It also maps out a theological shift between Vaishnavism and Shaivism. Through a chronology of rulers and “great preachers” Guernsey tracks this shift he sees in Hindu religion from Shiva to Vishnu.
Guernsey’s article also offers readers a map of the famous pilgrimage to the temple of Jagannath.
Orissa is divided into four great regions of pilgrimage. From the moment the pilgrim passes the Baitarani River, a hundred miles from Puri, he treads on holy ground. Behind him lies the world with all its cares; before him spreads the promised land, the place of preparation for heaven. On crossing the stream he enters Jajpur, the City of Sacrifice, sacred to Parvate, the wife of the all-destroying Siva. To the southeast is the region of pilgrimage sacred to the sun, now scarcely visited. To the southwest is the region sacred to Siva, with its city of temples, which once numbered seven thousand, grouped around the holy lake. Beyond this, nearly due south, is the region of pilgrimage beloved of Vishnu, known to every hamlets throughout India, and to every civilized people upon the earth, as the abode of Jagannath, the Lord of the World.[x]
Regardless of its accuracy at the time, Guernsey sketches out a map of the sacred geography of Orissa. The reader is able to stand on one side of the river and see all of the gods’ territories spread before them. Surprisingly, Guernsey’s understanding of what Hinduism was rather sophisticated. To know Hinduism was to know the local. To know Jagganath was to know the path of the pilgrim and the sacred map underlying the land of Orissa.[xi] Guernsey wanted his audience to know the temple of Jagannath and so in his article he mapped out the topography, geography, and population of Orissa. Then he mapped the chronology of the temples creation, before finally mapping the sacred space underlying the entire region.
Along with the maps drawn by the text of Guernsey’s article, the accompanying diagram and engravings offer a more literal map of the Jagganath temple. The engraving labeled “Plan of Temple of Juggernaut” (Figure 3) offers a layout of the temple. Part of Guernsey’s article gives the details necessary to decipher the blueprint. The four chambers in the center are identified moving from right to left as “the Hall of Offering…the pillared hall for the musicians and dancing-girls…the Hall of Audience…and the Sanctuary”[xii] Combining the textual and illustrative elements the reader has a clear map of a temple thousands of miles away. The reader can get a sense of knowledge about the temple of Jagannath and could even find their way around if they visited.
But there is one problem with the engravings in the article. Like many maps this one has errors. One tool shared by cartography and magazine publishing is the caption. Captions help the reader of a map or image understand what they are reading. In a sense, they map meaning onto an image and without them maps would be meaningless and images would be unclear. Two of the three engravings in “Juggernaut” map the wrong meaning onto an image. First, the image captioned “Temple of Juggernaut” (Figure 4) actually depicts the chariots of Jagannath and one of his siblings. Second, and more egregious, the image captioned “Temple to Siva” (Figure 5) seems to depict Jagganath, his brother, Balabhadra, and his sister, Subhadra. It is unclear what relationship Guernsey had to the illustrators who drew the engravings or the editors who captioned them but the mistakes undercut Guernsey’s painstaking effort to tell the real story of the temple as best he could. Guernsey’s text was surprisingly precise in its history and map of Orissa and the temple. But the engravings present a sloppy attempt to make sense of the images. Some maps are better than others.
So let me now return to the two points I began with. First, this article challenges us to dig deeper for American sources on Hinduism prior to the World’s Parliament of Religion in 1893. Vivekananda’s speech at the Parliament has stood as a foundational moment for Hinduism in America , and while it was an important step, I have shown one example of why further research needs to push back the “early” period of Hinduism in America at least a few decades. The Parliament authorized a certain kind of Vedanta as the “Hinduism” that Americans would recognize for the next decades. But in Harper’s we find a Hinduism focused on temple life, local sacred geography, and pilgrimage. Furthermore, Harper’s and the “Juggernaut” piece challenge us to relocate the early history of Hinduism in America outside the elite culture of the Transcendentalists and other intellectuals and find an early popular history of Hinduism in America. While this is only one example, we need to dig into more magazines like Harper’s to find more places where Asian religions were part of America’s popular culture far earlier than we might now think. The World’s Parliament of Religion brought Hinduism and other Asian traditions into conversation with the liberal Protestant elite in America. But this article, published during the height of Harper’s influence brought the Jagannath temple into every township and village Harper’s penetrated.
Secondly, this article is an example of how colonial knowledge cannot be controlled by the empire. To use an aquatic analogy, it seeps out of the edges and finds streams that meander into places the empire expects. Guernsey’s “Juggernaut,” is one tributary of colonial knowledge leaking from the imperial project and into the townships and villages penetrated by Harper’s. As Bernard S. Cohen argues, the British “took control by defining and classifying space [and]…by counting and classifying their populations.”[xiii] This control was built upon the knowledge generated by the British surveys. The footnote to “Juggernaut” cites a multivolume work by colonial officer Sir William Wilson Hunter, who wrote histories of India and some of the Imperial Gazetteers. So, Hunter’s imperial knowledge, meant for state power, made its way to Guernsey who turned it into to knowledge for entertainment’s sake. Furthermore, in the case of the “Juggernaut” article, the knowledge for entertainment’s sake does not necessarily have to be correct. The mis-labelings in the captions change the content of what the reader can know about Jagannath but it does not change the reader’s ability to know something about the temple. Thus, colonial knowledge is disseminated outside the realm of imperial state building and reaches popular culture, and in this case, another nation’s popular culture, transforming this knowledge from a source of colonial power over the colonized into entertainment for a popular audience.
In this view, popular culture becomes a new locus for historical inquiry. It is where various forms of knowledge are put to new use and to a new audience and it is the source that can generate new narratives of American history, religious or otherwise.
[i] “A Word at the Start,” Harper’s New Monthly, 1, 1 (June 1850) quoted in Mott, A History of American Magazines, 384.
[ii] Mott, A History of American Magazines, 391.
[iii] Ibid, 398.
[iv] “An American Writer,” The Whig Review, 43, 12, July 1852 quoted in Mott, A History of American Magazines, 391.
[v] Barbara D. Metcalf and Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of India, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 111.
[vi] Mott, History of American Magazines, 392-396.
[vii] A. H. Guernsey “Juggernaut,” Harper’s New Monthly, 57, (1878), 222,
[xi] Vasudha Narayanan, “Alaya,” The Hindu World, Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby eds., (New York: Routledge, 2004), 446-447.
[xiii] Cohen, 3.