“They Were Talking about Themselves”
Michael Altman, American Hinduism, and Critique from the Inside of Religious Studies
Keywords:Michael Altman, Orientalism, Politics of Representation
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).
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