The story of Hinduism in America typically begins with the cultural impact of Transcendentalism and Theosophy, the arrival of Swami Vivekananda at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions followed by other gurus such as Paramahamsa Yogananda, and finally the influx of South Asian immigrants after 1965. Michael J. Altman challenges this narrative and interrogates the assumptions of Hinduism as a unified and unchanging religious tradition transmitted from India into the United States. He offers an alternate genealogy of Hinduism in America by examining how India was imagined by white people who lived in the northeastern United States. He begins with Massachusetts Bay Colony minister Cotton Mather’s prejudice toward “heathens,” then surveys the controversy between Calvinists and Unitarians who claimed Brahmo monotheism as a long-lost cousin of Christianity. He critiques the racist representations of “Hindoos” in schoolbooks intended for a national citizenry and presents the emergence of metaphysical religion as a countercultural movement. He concludes with the Parliament of Religions as an attempt at pluralism and universal religion by a Protestant establishment. He writes, “When Americans talked about religion in India, they were not really talking about religion in India. They were talking about themselves” (xxi). Altman’s book is intended for an academic audience but his clear and lively prose will appeal to all readers.
Altman acknowledges that “Hinduism” is a problematic term in religious studies. Some scholars argue it did not exist prior to British colonization while others argue that it describes a civilization containing multiple religious traditions. The constructivist school of thought regards “Hinduism” as a Western-inspired abstraction based in part on interpreting Sanskrit texts according to Judeo-Christian assumptions; the correspondence school suggests Hindu theology and devotionalism emerged during rivalry with Muslim invaders. While in disagreement about how and when “Hinduism” originated, both schools agree that there is a “Hinduism” with essential traits that define it.
The first chapter examines the attitudes of merchants and Orientalists in early America. Altman notes that the economy of the republic depended on maritime trade with India, especially cotton and rice in exchange for alcohol and metals. Sailors brought artifacts from Asia for a museum known as the “cabinet of curiosities,” a hodgepodge of items and display of luxury goods and oddities from an exotic land of enchantment. Altman writes, “The museum represented an Orient which held the secrets of human history and that was open for scientific investigation” (8). This is an apt metaphor for the progressive American concept of India and its religious heritage.
The widespread circulation of Sanskrit texts in translation after 1776 led to the first comparative studies of religions. Reflecting Enlightenment-era Deist privileging of reason, Hannah Adams published an account in 1784 of “Gentoo” beliefs and a history of theological disputes arguing that the original “Vidam” doctrine of monotheism declined into priestcraft and idolatry. In later editions, she claimed religious diversity would end in a global moment of Christian unity. This idea was amplified by Thomas Maurice who proposed in 1800 that similarities between the Bible and the Vedas was due to the shared origin of humanity described in Genesis. This thesis was popular among Protestants like Joseph Priestley, who located the beginning of “Hindoo” culture at the Biblical flood but emphasized licentious superstition and violence to inspire missionary zeal.
New England evangelicals regarded Hindoo religion as obscene and depraved. Liberal Christians rejected Trinitarian prejudice and promoted the writing of Indian reformist Rammohun Roy, whose refutation of Calvinist conversion aims in Asia pulled him into a debate about Christian theology and identity in America. He spurned Hindu idolatry in favor of a monotheistic rationalism, stressed the ethical teachings of Jesus over his death on the cross, and supported women’s rights. Unitarians accepted Roy as one of their own and funded a project in India that became the Brahmo Samaj. Early Transcendentalists respected Hindoo religion as a metaphysical philosophy and contemplative mysticism that satisfied a need for sacred experience lacking in Protestantism. Henry David Thoreau read and quoted from Roy’s translation of Vedic texts and exposition of Vedanta. “Brahmanism” as conceived by the Transcendentalists was the prehistoric spiritual ancestor of Euro-America.
Madame Helena P. Blavatsky also criticized America’s anemic religious culture, repressed by Christianity and disenchanted by myopic materialist science. She presented her Theosophical Society as the custodians of ageless wisdom from India and champions of a universal religion and perennial philosophy not exclusive to Hindus. Her comparative survey, which she called the Secret Doctrine, focused on the esoteric similarities between Babylon, Egypt, and elsewhere (including Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry). She claimed to receive orders from Mahatmas (“great souls”) who communicated through telepathy from a remote location in the Himalayas. According to Altman, “The Mahatmas paved the way for later images of Hindu holy men in American culture and for gurus who would come to the United States in the flesh at the end of the century” (114). The “Oriental Monk” represented the future salvation of the West from capitalist greed, brute totalitarianism, and technological idolatry.
The Theosophical Society and the Brahmo Samaj sent delegates to the World’s Parliament of Religions, though Altman fails to note that Protap Chunder Mozoomdar, author of The Oriental Christ, previously toured the United States in 1874. He writes, “Historians have invested the World’s Parliament of Religions with a variety of meanings and interpretations because it was an event that despite its rhetoric of unity, exhibited a variety of conflicting understandings of what ‘religion’ was and what it was supposed to do… It was a cacophony of voices attempting to articulate the definitions, categories, and boundaries of what counted as religion in the United States and the world” (121). The organizing committee imagined religion as belief in a monotheistic god that inspires a social order of good works. Some voices, like Mormons and Native Americans, were excluded from the earliest planning stages and main event. Charles Carroll Bonney, a member of the Swedenborgian church, represented the liberal wing that saw truth in all religions, and the Presbyterian minister Rev. John Henry Barrows represented the conservative wing that envisioned the triumph of Christianity over all religions. Swami Vivekananda emerged as a star speaker and received a wildly enthusiastic standing ovation when he called for an end to sectarian bigotry, irreligious prejudice, and violent fanaticism. Altman writes, “Vivekananda not only defended Hinduism against Protestant attacks, but also represented a Hinduism that fit the Protestant model of religion” (133). Vivekananda offered a monotheistic, scientific, and socially progressive Hinduism and argued that the United States had a special task in bringing forth the highest spiritual truth for the world, a millennialist expectation of Universal Religion.
Altman successfully disrupts and expands the typical narrative about Hinduism in America by carefully documenting encounters with South Asian religious practices, objects, and texts. He also precisely details how notions of America as a white Protestant democracy and chosen nation were formed against representations of India as dark, uncivilized, and despotic. Altman’s book is well-researched, well-organized, and well-written. His argument showing how Americans constructed their identity and religion through differences and similarities with an imagined Other is compelling and insightful. He makes a valuable contribution to academic discourse and public conversation about Hinduism in the American religious landscape.
Patrick Horn (firstname.lastname@example.org) was initiated by Swami Swahananda and lived with monastics in Hollywood, Orange County, and San Francisco. He is a Parliament of World’s Religions – Emerging Leader and member of the United Religions Initiative, Religion Communicators Council, and Religion News Association. He contributes to Reading Religion, published by the American Academy of Religion. Patrick studied Liberal Arts and Science at L.A. Valley College, Literary Theory and Criticism at California State University Northridge, Mythology at Pacifica Graduate Institute, and launched a Capstone Project in Interfaith Action at Claremont Lincoln University.