Research Trip Wrap Up: From “Heathens” to “Hindoos”

Cotton Mather just thought they were heathens.

The first research trip is over and as I look back over my notes I’m realizing that I may have been asking the wrong questions all along. Going into the trip I thought the East India Marine Society would be the perfect case study for how ideas about Hinduism floated into America through trade networks. But after spending four days going through all of the records left by the society I now see it differently. The society and its museum did not present visitors and the folks of Salem with Hinduism or even Hindoos. Instead, they presented the Orient, the Indies, the East. It was undifferentiated. Yes, there was India, China, and other countries, but they were all swallowed up in the East/Orient/Indies. This was why it didn’t seem dissonant for someone in full Mandarin dress to lead a procession that included a Bengali made palanquin carried by African Americans in turbans. It was about the Oriental mood. This is why it made sense to put the Ganesa image from Java right next to the Rama and Sita image from Bengal. It was different but it wasn’t. Yes they were people known as Hindoos, but they were part of the larger group of Orientals.

So, the questions change. The question for chapter one had been: How did the East India Marine Society introduce local New Englanders to representations of Hinduism? The new question: What made it possible for New Englanders to imagine people known as Hindoos? This new questions gets at the limits and production of knowledge about India in America. In India Christiana, Cotton Mather does not distinguish between Indians–be they from the West or East Indies. Rather, they are all heathen and they all need Christianity. In the 1830s Rammohun Roy emerges in Unitarian magazines as a Hindu and when he is labeled a heathen by conservative Protestants he is quickly defended by his liberal Christian allies. Thus, my task in chapter one is to explore where, when, and under what circumstances Americans began to see “Hindoos,” and “Hindoo religion” as something unique. When did “Hindoo religion” or “Hinduism” emerge from heathenism in the minds of Americans. I’m sure this happened in fits and starts and among liberals long before conservatives but that’s still the question.

Now, off to research.

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