India in the American Imagination: An Interview with Michael J. Altman

By Eric C. Miller | October 2, 2017


India has long captivated the American imagination. The subcontinent stood for more than two centuries as a screen onto which white Western Protestants projected their fantasies of a mysterious land of spice and contemplation, set within the frame of British colonialism. Since actually journeying to India was not a realistic proposition for many Americans, their early assumptions were based on things they heard or read. Consequently, during those years, much common knowledge about Asia was received from the Protestant Christian missionaries who were funded to travel there with Bibles in hand. Hardly impartial observers, these men and women passed their judgments on to schoolteachers, textbook authors, magazine writers, and journalists, thus creating an entire discourse about the “heathens” and “Hindoos” of the Orient.

In his new book, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893, Michael J. Altman documents this discursive tradition, tracing it from early assessments of religious difference to a more developed perception of India as a racial and cultural entity against which America was defined. Eric C. Miller spoke with Altman about his project in a phone interview. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

R&P: Your book is less about “heathen,” “Hindoo,” and “Hindu” than it is about the American people who used those terms to describe Indian people. Can you give us some of that background?

MA: It’s funny because, when I first started this project, I thought its contribution was going to be finding Hinduism in American history earlier than we thought, based on some of the sources I was digging through. But the more I worked on it the more I realized that the story wasn’t really about Hinduism at all—it was a way of thinking about how Americans thought about religion and religious difference and others, and the way that they used these representations of Hindus to argue about what it meant to be an American in a variety of ways.

So there was a real transition in the project in which the punch line went from something like “Hey, there were Hindus here earlier than you think,” to a broader theoretical argument about American identity and the role of outsiders in the formation of American identity.

R&P: You document these representations across a variety of outlets and venues, but they are almost always used by white, Protestant Americans in ways that advantage white, Protestant Americans. What exactly is the function of this language?

MA: I was just joking the other day that I’ve written a book about Hindus that is actually about Protestants. The language functions in lots of ways. This was the nineteenth century, the period of Protestant ascendency, when a lot of the mainstream Protestant culture arose, before the split that divided Protestants between modernists and fundamentalists in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. And so, for white American Protestants this was a time to solidify their cultural establishment. All of their descriptions of others were connecting American identity to Protestant identity. In the minds of almost all of the individuals I discuss in the book, to be American is to be Protestant. This is at the height, in various ways, of American anti-Catholicism, and there is a firm sense of unity between American identity and Protestantism.

The flipside is the racial side, since it is very much a white Protestant identity. So Hindus, as non-white, as “heathens” or “Hindoos,” are always there on the outside of Protestantism, even in what we think of as the more positive encounters, as in the case of the Transcendentalists.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, read a lot of Sanskrit texts and translations and developed a reputation for appreciating Indian thought and literature, but to his mind India, and Asia more generally, was essentially contemplative and essentially mystical in contrast to the active and industrious West. So even those characterizations that we are tempted to see as positive are based on a vision of India as outside of or other than American identity.

R&P: It seems that, at this time, a lot of what was commonly known about India came from letters written by missionaries who were serving there. How central were these missionary dispatches to this discourse?

MA: Missionaries had an important role early on in communicating what contemporary Indian culture was like through their eyes. For the missionaries, it was always about what they were seeing around them day-to-day and their interpretation and representation of that in letters to their boards back home. There was always a disconnect between the missionaries—whether it was American missionaries beginning in 1812-13, or British missionaries before that—and the folks who were more interested in ancient India or ancient Sanskrit texts. And it carried through all the way through the century. The missionaries constructed images of what on-the-ground “Hindooism” or “heathenism,” or whatever they chose to call it, looked like through their eyes.

There were kind of two rails of thought about India in the period. The missionaries were the ones who brought the popular contemporary image, not just to other Christians and Protestants or even missionary magazines, but to the entire public when that image was reproduced in school books and national periodicals. And that was a big contrast from other Americans who were mostly interested in ancient India, whether it was ancient Indian texts or ancient Indian philosophy.

R&P: The same dynamic is evident in representations of India that appeared in common school textbooks and in periodicals like Harper’s. Were these also concerned with asserting Christian truth, or more with national or racial superiority? Are they all tied together?

MA: What’s especially interesting about those outlets, whether it’s the periodicals or the textbooks, is the way that they take the missionary images and reify the difference and add in race and nationality and these other categories to produce a nationalist discourse that all of these things feed into. So to be American was to be Protestant, to be white, to be democratic—those were the key ingredients. And on the flipside of that, India was represented as brown, heathen, despotic—everything that America was not.

In the missionary image, difference is always there to be overcome. The missionaries suggest that, though Indians are heathens, they don’t necessarily have to be anymore; they can be converted. The missionaries trade in a lot of conversion narratives, because these demonstrate the potential for change. But when the image gets picked up in these larger cultural outlets, there is no sense that the Hindoo—which is both a racial and religious designation, and political in its associations to despotism—can ever be overcome. Though the heathen can become a Christian, the Hindoo can’t become American.

It’s beyond the scope of the book, but in the 1920s, there was a famous Supreme Court case involving a Sikh man named Bhagat Sing Thind in which the court ruled that “Hindoos”—and he was Sikh, but he was Indian so they called him a “Hindoo”—can’t become American citizens. The court ruled that “Hindoos” do not count as white and could not assimilate into American culture. So you’re seeing the beginnings of another sort of story that begins with religion in the missionary accounts and later expands to include other categories like citizenship, nationality, and race.

R&P: India is represented very differently by Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, but you note that they “did not discover India, they constructed it.” Can you explain what you mean?

MA: The Transcendentalists are the most famous of the figures discussed in the book, and most scholars of literature or religious history know that Emerson and Thoreau were interested in Asia, but the way the story is always told is that Asia and India existed out there, and Emerson and Thoreau went and found them, as if there was a stable Asia or a stable India or Indian philosophy that they could just bump into. And I think that begs the question a bit. Because what happened was that these writers encountered a number of fragments of texts, and from these they envisioned what they thought India was, or Asia, or the Orient. It’s not so much that they “encountered the East,” or “went East,” or “turned East”—you know, these expressions that are so commonly used. It’s more that they encountered each fragment and then put together what they thought India meant.

One of my favorite examples is Emerson’s essay on Plato in Representative Men, in which he says Plato is the representative philosopher in that he can balance East and West—in terms of Western industriousness and activity and diversity versus Eastern community and contemplativeness and docility. But anyone who knows anything about India can cite countless examples of its diversity. India has always been incredibly diverse. But Emerson, in order to make his point about philosophy, renders it in this other-ized way.

 R&P: What about the Theosophical Society? They also seem pretty amenable to Indian thought and belief, but only on very particular terms.

 MA: Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott, the founders of the Theosophical Society, were committed to developing a metaphysical universal religion that could unite mankind, and they saw India as important to reaching that goal. At some point they learned about a Hindu reform group called Arya Samaj, and they were so interested in all-things-India that they were immediately enthusiastic about joining forces. But when they went to India and met the leaders of the group, they realized that it was basically just another form of Hinduism. Olcott said, basically, “Well, we thought they were into our whole universal theosophical religion that’s bigger than any individual tradition, but it turns out they’re just Orthodox Hindus.” It’s a fascinating moment when the India that they had imagined and constructed runs into the actual politics and activity occurring in India, and there’s this sort of dissonance. And it leads to confusion and miscommunication and finally they end up in this pamphlet war back and forth, in which the leader of the Arya Samaj is denouncing them as charlatans. It’s another example of how the Americans’ imagined India runs into the actually existing India.

 R&P: With a couple of exceptions, Indians do not really speak for themselves throughout most of the book, until we get this very articulate rejoinder from Swami Vivekananda at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions. Was this your way of allowing him to respond to everything that came before?

 MA: Vivekananda went to the Parliament as a representative of Hinduism, but also gave a speech critical of Christian missions and Western colonials. I put that long quote in the book because it was reported in the major Chicago newspaper, but it was not included in either of the collections of Parliament papers that were published afterward. They left out this anti-colonial speech in which he argued that Britain and America were profiting from the suffering of a million Hindus. I put it in because I don’t think it’s been featured anywhere else before, and I think it’s really important. It serves as a reminder that all of this was made possible by the British Empire and all of these images of India throughout the book emerged through a network that included American and British missionaries, British colonial officials, and in the background of all this stood the basic fact of colonialism.

It’s also a moment in which Vivekananda calls the missionaries’ bluff. For all their talk of saving India, these Protestants didn’t even know what was happening on the ground in India. He came to the Parliament, not as some high-minded missionary spreading the universal truth of Hinduism, but to try to raise money to fund the social work—the schools and hospitals and things he was doing back home in India. He said at a couple points, “Don’t send us more preachers, send us more bread. What good is a sermon to a starving man?” In his speech, he called American missionaries to task, and I wanted to include it because I think it’s really important.

So, you’re right, it’s a whole book in which there are very few Indians or Hindus speaking. There is some discussion of Raja Rammohun Roy early on, but he was mostly writing to a British audience and he never came to America. I thought it was really important to include as much of that pushback as possible at the end.

 R&P: What was the most illuminating thing that you learned while writing this book? Or the most important thing you want readers to take from it?

 MA: I think the answer to both of those questions is that I reached a moment when I realized that the book was not just a case study of India in the American imagination, but that it made a larger argument about how the category of religion was constructed in American history and the way that religion is always involved in categories of inclusion and exclusion. I think we usually try to define religion in terms of beliefs or practices or content, but one of the things I realized while writing this book is that maybe we should be thinking about religion as a strategy of including and excluding.

Hinduism became a world religion through a process of including and excluding that defined who counted as American—an argument over who was in or out. It was the same process that applied to Catholics. Its function was to include Protestants and exclude others. People have theorized religion as boundary maintenance, but they have tended to think of it as a this-world, other-world boundary. At bottom, I think religion mostly marks the boundaries between us and them.

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