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Book review – Imagining Hinduism: A Postcolonial Perspective

One of the problems of engaging with tantra is that so many of the tropes used to construct contemporary popular representations of “tantra” – indeed, the very notion of “tantra” itself; that it is a singular, monolithic category which can be easily seperated from its South Asian roots and contexts – arise from colonial-era discourses. Postcolonialism has, since the 1970s been gaining increasing prominence as a broad-based approach to studying the interactions between (mostly) European nations and the societies they colonised. For a useful introduction to the range of issues which postcolonialism encompasses, see this Interview with Achille Mbembe.

Imagining HinduismSharada Sugirtharajah’s Imagining Hinduism: A Postcolonial Perspective (Routledge, 2003 – also available for Adobe Digital Editions and Kindle) examines how “Hinduism” has been defined and interpreted via Western categorisations from the eighteenth century to the present day. Sugirtharajah examines how western fascination with India has ranged from romantic admiration to outright ridicule, and how at the same time, Indian reformers drew upon orientalist representations in order to formulate a unified Hindu identity. Focusing on the work of two scholars – William Jones and Max Muller; two missionaries – William Ward and Nichol Farquhar and a western reading of the 1987 Sati case, Sugirtharajah ably demonstrates how Western constructions of Hinduism by orientalists and missionaries produced a Hinduism which, to a large extent, confirmed their own “theological and ideological suppositions”. Of the value of the postcolonial approach, she says: Postcolonial theory is useful in that it reveals the link between knowledge and power and between representation and mediation, and highlights homogenizing, essentializing and universalizing tendencies in varied discourses, reading and interpretative strategies.

Following a brief discussion of the historical usage of the term “Hinduism” particularly by orientalists to create the notion of a homogenised (and thereby managable) religion, the first chapter examines the work of William Jones and his attempts to reconcile Indian ancient texts with a biblical chronology; his poetic romanticisation of Indian deities (which nonetheless locks Hinduism into a primitive “pagan” past) and his desire to reshape and discipline Hindu laws along Justinian lines. Sugirtharajah then turns her attention to Max Muller, famous for his translation of the Vedas and pioneer of comparative religion and mythology.Sugirtharajah argues that Muller was instrumental in creating a “textual” Hinduism which was informed by nineteenth century ideas of evolution and comparative philology. Muller, like Jones and other orientalists, believed that contemporary Hindus had become detached from the original meanings of their religion, and that he could provide a “corrective” reading which would benefit both colonised and colonisers alike. Muller, locates India’s “greatness” in its remote past, and romanticises India’s static, timeless nature in the quest for European orgins and the rural idyll.

The third chapter focuses on the nineteenth century missionary William Ward and his relentless denunciation of Hindu religion and morals. Ward is of course, well-known also for his description of “tuntra” in his 1817 work (title) as “things too abominable to be revealed to a Christian public”. Unsurprisingly, Ward sees finds no coherence in Indian beliefs and practices, religious or otherwise, and he sees Indians as “effeminate” worshipping deities – “monsters of vice” – which “encourage immoral behaviour.” Sugirtharajah then turns to another missionary, the Scottish Nichol Farquhar, whose 1913 book The Crown of Hinduism argued for an “inclusivist” approach to Hinduism. So, rather than Ward’s blanket rejection of anything Hindu, Farquhar instead views Hinduism as “imperfect” – requiring its fulfilment in Christianity. Thus his inclusivism can only grant a secondary or lower status to Hinduism, and Hinduism only becomes meaningful when interpreted through the lens of Protestant Christianity.

The fifth chapter, Courtly text and Courting Sati examines the topic of Sati (“widow immolation”) by critiquing the work of a contemporary scholar, Julia Leslie – specifically, her essay “Suttee or sati: victim or victor” in Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women and prompted by the highly publicised death of an eighteen-year old woman, Roop Kanwar, in Rajasthan in 1987. The crux of Sugirtharajah’s argument here is that Leslie interprets this event using an eighteenth-century sanskrit text whose author, needless to say, sets a high value on sati. What is problematic here, according to Sugirtharajah is that by privileging such a brahminical text in creating an account of ideal Indian womanhood, Leslie ignores other accounts of womanhood (which don’t view women as subservient and passive) and unwittingly reinforces the notion that Hindu religion and culture is static and unchanging. This is a difficult, yet thought-provoking chapter.

The final chapter deals with how some features of orientalist representations of Hinduism continue to be replicated in postcolonial contexts: Ironically, Hindus are using more or less the very same tools used by Western scholars of Hinduism in order to clear up misconceptions and present a homogenized view of Hinduism. What is conspicuous is that Hindus living outside India are now drawing on the Western orientalist conception of religion as a unified category in order to make Hinduism intelligible to both insiders and outsiders. (p134). Sugirtharajah examines some features of movements such as ISKON and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in forging a universalised Hinduism. Sugirtharajah also points to some of the ideas which arise through the course of her book – for example, that the concept and theorisation of religion is itself problematic due to its Western Christian theological presuppositions – and in particular its bias towards textual sources:

Religion, to the ordinary Hindu, is not simply confined to texts or to a prescribed set of beliefs. It includes these aspects yet it encompasses a wide variety of other areas such as art, dance, music and folklore; post-Enlightenment scholars of religion, however, take little note of these non-textual domains. There is a marked reluctance to shift the focus from texts. Even a cursory glance at some of the current introductory material on Hinduism reflects a predominantly text-oriented approach. It is largely through the lens of brahminical textual and ritual traditions that Hinduism is perceived. In other words, textual Hinduism is given primary consideration. (p140)

What I found particularly useful was Sugirtharajah’s focus on the orientalist pursuit and production of knowledge (pace Said and Foucault) and how this is inextricably linked with colonial expansion and conquest – so that the translation of texts such as The Laws of Manu and Muller’s Sacred Books of the East were both supported by the East India Company in order to exercise more effective control over the Indian population, and that “intellectual conquest” (to use Muller’s phrasing) was as much a concern of Empire as economic and military power. Sugirtharajah’s discussion of the binary dichotomies deployed by the missionaries Ward and Farquhar in order to both categorise and establish a hierarchical difference between Christianity and Hinduism is also useful. Imagining Hinduism highlights important issues such as the difficulty that western-based scholarship has had with dealing with a highly pluralistic culture; the problems of ethnocentric bias; and the problems of unreflexively applying western categorisations in interpreting a different culture.

All in all, this is an excellent, thought-provoking book that I find myself continually returning to.


  1. Jyo
    Posted October 20th 2011 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    A very interesting book review. Seems like a must read.

    I agree here: ”Religion, to the ordinary Hindu, is not simply confined to texts or to a prescribed set of beliefs.”

    Although I think, apart from counter-cultural movements, much of Hindu traditions do have some kind of textual context which gives some kind of ongoing narrative. We might need to see it as a variety of thoughts expressed in language, written for dissemination, across space and time. Different from academic kind of writing in their motives, texts are either guides on life, or a help in fully engaging with the sacred.

    Thus I would differ with a generalization like this, “Ironically, Hindus are using more or less the very same tools used by Western scholars of Hinduism in order to clear up misconceptions and present a homogenized view of Hinduism”.
    There is simply an underlying connection between different schools of thoughts and ways of living, which developed around it. May be that is why as a practicing Indian Hindu I have never had a difficulty understanding or connecting with the ideas of any specific sects of Hinduism, but some of the academic texts seem too far-fetched.

    (Btw, enjoyed your article on Kali, but found it amusing that someone interpreted Sati taking permission from Shiva to go to Daksha’s yagna, as a subservient attitude. Instead I think many Indian women would interpret it as honoring the ‘other’).

  2. J D
    Posted October 25th 2011 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    Jyo. You say:
    “…but found it amusing that someone interpreted Sati taking permission from Shiva to go to Daksha’s yagna, as a subservient attitude. Instead I think many Indian women would interpret it as honoring the ‘other’).”
    That would likely be my post that you refer to. So I thought I would reply to you here:

    From a social perspective I suppose you are speaking. So then, why do you think it is honoring the “other”, as you put it?

    Does Shiva have to ask permission to go to Yagnas also, or is this only something a woman such as sati needs to do?

    If both needed to seek permission from each other for the same kinds of things, at least that would be logically consistent.
    In this class of writings, I would be interested to see if the “honoring” was reciprocal, and if not, why not? If you have some article on the reasons for this I would be interested. Since to be blunt it all seems a bit of a one sided social control game.

    Keep in mind that Shiva is spoken of, in Phil’s article, as insulting his wife. So it appear maybe that equal honoring is not such a concern maybe or has some ecceptions… (Especially if your wife is not recognized as a goddess that can fight back).