“They Were Talking about Themselves”

Michael Altman, American Hinduism, and Critique from the Inside of Religious Studies

Authors

  • Andrew Kunze University of Chicago

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.1558/bsor.34692

Keywords:

Michael Altman, Orientalism, Politics of Representation

Abstract

Michael Altman’s Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu offers a major contribution to the history of Hinduism in America, as it revises the standard “Transcendentalist-Theosophist-Vivekananda-1965” trajectory with a critical eye toward the nationalist and orientalist discourses of formative episodes from the Colonial era up to Chicago’s World Parliament (xvii). Altman’s genealogical approach presumes no essence or definition of ‘Hinduism,’ which both suits his source materials and serves his interest in classification quite well. Throughout this history, a rich set of examples shows how ‘hazy notions’ of Indian religion variously served as discursive foils and straw-men against white, Protestant American identity¬–from scathing missionary accounts of barbaric ‘Juggernaut’ worship (30), to the racial hierarchies in American geography schoolbooks (59), Thoreau’s Walden Pond as a River Ganges (86), and the Indian-derived, but not Hindu, ‘wisdom religion’ of the Theosophical Society (109). As Altman convincingly argues, when white, Protestant Americans talked about religion in India, “they were not really talking about religion in India. They were talking about themselves” (xxi), and thereby constituting their own racial, national, and religious identities (140).

Author Biography

Andrew Kunze, University of Chicago

Andrew Kunze, PhD candidate, Anthropology of Religion, University of Chicago Divinity School, Chicago, USA.

References

Altman, Michael. 2017. Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721–1893. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Kurien, Prema. 2007. A Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Lincoln, Bruce. 2012. Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Masuzawa, Tomoko. 2005. Invention of World Religions, Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. https://doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226922621.001.0001

Narayanan, Vasudha. 2012. “Hinduism in America.” In The Cambridge History of Religion in America, edited by Stephen Stein. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521871082.017

Tweed, Thomas. 1992. The American Encounter with Buddhism 1844–1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Tweed, Thomas, and Stephen Prothero, eds. 1999. Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Random House.

Published

2018-09-24

How to Cite

Kunze, A. (2018). “They Were Talking about Themselves”: Michael Altman, American Hinduism, and Critique from the Inside of Religious Studies. Bulletin for the Study of Religion, 47(2), 12–16. https://doi.org/10.1558/bsor.34692

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Section

Articles