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?



4 thoughts on “Hindoos, Hindus, Spelling, and Theory

  1. I would have thought that “Hindoo” was a heard or phonetic spelling and “Hindu” emerged after more systematic attempts to render Devanāgarī into Roman script. It more or less coincides with the development of comparative linguistics and the first really systematic studies of Indic languages. The popular spelling would have persisted for some time, as your ngram suggests, just as the world is reluctant to adopt diacritics even though Unicode makes them easy.

    I can see an argument for using the spelling Hindoo for discussing European readings of Indian religion in the 19th century. It would certainly make you stand out in the crowd, which I presume is part of the point of picking the argument in the first place.


    1. The point is not to stand out from the crowd but to be self-aware about the systems of representation I use in my work and critical of the systems of representations used in the sources. You’re right that the development of comparative linguistics played a role in the shift from Hindoo to Hindu. But the development in linguistics also worked alongside the invention of Hinduism as a world religion. Comparative linguistics and comparative religion are siblings (e.g. Max Muller) and they both worked to produce the discourses that shifted Hindoo (and the religion of the Hindoos) to Hindu (and Hinduism).


  2. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Michael J. Altman has a fascinating post on the differences between the term “Hindu” and “Hindoo.” Altman points out the term Hindu is typically tied to the religion Hinduism. On the other hand, “a Hindoo was a product of the (19th Century) American and British imagination.” Instead of describing a religion or a specific people, “Hindoos” were imaginary “representations of people South Asia” as described by foreigners. It is an interesting post that is worth checking out.


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