Posts Tagged ‘Indian Superstition’

Review of Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830. By Jonathan Eacott. (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, 2016. xiii, 455 pp. Cloth, ISBN 978-1-4696-2230-9.)

Most narratives of the place of India in the making of America have revolved around a few well-worn themes, commencing with Columbus’ landing in America and his egregious error in supposing that he had arrived in India.  The first truly great milestone in the received narrative touches upon the deep-seated interest in Indian philosophy shared by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson:  there is now a substantial interest in how India seeped into the thought and writings of the American Transcendentalists, and I myself wrote a Master’s thesis, which remains unpublished, on Emerson and Indian philosophy (Johns Hopkins University, 1982).  Those who are familiar with Thoreau, for instance, may recall the famous indeed inimitable lines in Walden about how the waters of Walden Pond seemed to merge with the waters of the Ganga:

In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. 


Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts, 1 January 1908; photographer:  unknown.  Source:  Wikipedia, in the public domain.

Thoreau would also dedicate the Tuesday chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers largely to a discussion of a few Indian texts from he quoted copiously.  But in all this, he had been, in some respects, anticipated by his mentor (of sorts), Ralph Waldo Emerson—whose first engagement with the ‘idea of India’ may be seen in a long poem called Indian Superstition (1821), which the young student wrote when he was but seventeen years old, and who in his poem Brahma (1856, published in 1857) showed just how far Emerson had traveled in his understanding of Indian philosophy in the intervening 35 years.  But, to return to the main subject, after some tidbits here and there, whereby Hindu mysticism, yoga, and the interest in Sanskrit among some scholars are brought into the picture, and the origins of Indian immigration into the US around 1890 are identified, the narrative of India’s place in the making of the United States generally moves to the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Gandhi nearly became a household word in the United States after the embrace of his ideas of nonviolent resistance by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other stalwarts of the Civil Rights Movement.

The terrain covered by Jonathan Eacott in his meticulously detailed study, Selling Empire, enhances enormously our understanding of how India was configured in the American imagination and economy alike, though his ambition is yet greater as he seeks to place Indian within the global British imperial system.  The backdrop to his book is furnished by a more enhanced conception of the Atlantic world and a newfound interest in Indian Ocean studies; but there is also the stimulus of what these days are called “interconnected histories”.  Scholars of Britain’s possessions in America have seldom been concerned with the second British empire of which India, in the clichéd phrase, was the crown jewel; and, likewise, studies of British India have generally been written with indifference to what was transpiring in Britain’s empire in North America.  Curiously, the two figures who have on occasion surfaced in attempts to write an integrated narrative are altogether missing from Eacott’s study:  Elihu Yale, who amassed a fortune as the Governor of Madras (1684-92) before he was dismissed on charges of venality and went on to become the benefactor of a college that would eventually take his name, and Lord Cornwallis, who, if one had to put it cynically, seems to have been rewarded for his surrender to George Washington at Yorktown (1781) with the Governor-Generalship of India (1786-93).


Painted and dyed cotton from India, 1625-1685, not for the European market.  Collection:  Victoria & Albert Museum, London.  Source:  http://demodecouture.com/cotton/

Eacott shifts the focus to the 17th and 18th centuries and his history might be described as revolving around two axes.  The question at the outset for traders, mercantilists, and financiers in Britain was:  Could America be a new India?  In what manner could one conceive of a triangular trade between India, Britain, and the American colonies in North America?  Eacott lavishes much attention on the trade in calicoes, and not only because of their immense popularity.  1750-75 banyan, painted & dyed, India (fabric). Designed for European market.


Indian cotton fabric (banyan), painted & dyed, designed for European market, 1750-1775.  Collection:  Victoria & Albert Museum, London.  Source:  http://demodecouture.com/cotton/

There was much expectation in Britain that eventually consumers in the Americas would support the East India Company and thus support the British empire and the metropole (London) through which everything was funneled.  However, Eacott by no means confines himself to this terrain of cotton, chintzes, calicoes, silk, and woolens:  tea and spices were much in demand both in Britain and North America, but, quite unexpectedly, so were umbrellas and the Indian hookah.  Perhaps a scholar with a greater sense of play, and not so rigidly bound to the idea of what constitutes scholarly work, a scholarly ‘monograph’, and the notion of ‘historical rigor’, may have done wonders with tea and the hookah.  There are precedents, if I may put it this way, both to Starbuck’s marketing of “chai” and the proliferation of hookah bars and restaurants in recent years in American cities.


The English writer, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), at tea:  a print by by R. Redgrave and H. L. Shenton. Source:  http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/14/398833059/tea-tuesdays-the-evolution-of-tea-sets-from-ancient-legend-to-modern-biometrics

It is, however, Eacott’s discussion of the anxieties generated by ideas of the despotic and effeminate Orient that forms the most arresting part of his book.  Montesquieu is commonly seen as the originary point of European notions of ‘Oriental Despotism’, but the satirical play, Eastward Ho (1605), gave considerable expression to the idea of Asia, “with its great wealth,” as a “place of emasculating luxury” (p. 23).  India’s manufactures, an essay in the American Magazine and Historical Chronicle in 1744 proclaimed, displayed a “gaudy pride” and needed the sobering restraint of Protestant Britain (p. 165). The sensuous, profligate, and colorful Orient is never too far away from the idea of excess.  On both sides of the Atlantic, Eacott notes, reports of Company servants strutting around on horseback and accumulating fortunes “by every method of rapacity” circulated widely (p. 305).

In his unusual attentiveness, thus, to questions both of political economy and of the politics of representation, Eacott opens for historians new possibilities of linking Britain’s first empire to the British Raj.


[A shorter version of this review was first published in the Journal of American History (June 2017), 173-74; doi: 10.1093/jahist/jax024]




Read Full Post »

Part I of Vivekananda and Uncle Sam:  Histories, Stories, Politics


Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) in  Jaipur, 1891.

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) in Jaipur, 1891.

As India celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, the paramount place of his sojourns in the United States in giving shape to the most widely accepted views of this ‘son of India’ becomes all too apparent.  Much of what has been said and written about him is nearly akin to the puranic lore that is so deeply encrusted into the fabric of everyday life in India.  What might Vivekananda have been, one wonders, had he not commenced the first of his three speeches at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 with those five words, ‘Brothers and Sisters of America’, which are said to have won him a standing ovation at that unusual gathering and, one hundred twenty years later, still win him the approbation of those who view him as the greatest emissary of Hinduism to the West?  Just what aspects of Vivekananda’s legacy have endured in the United States, and to what effect?

The history of Hinduism’s reception in the West has often been written with the assurance that the beginning is clearly marked by the convocation that is known as the World Parliament of Religions, certainly the first gathering of its kind when representatives of what were deemed, at least by the Parliament’s organizers, as the ten great world religions met to reflect both on the diversity and unity encompassed by ‘religion’.  In India the Parliament is chiefly remembered for the speech that launched Vivekananda on to the world stage, but in the United States it occupies a yet more significant place, though seldom recognized, in the intellectual history of the country.  The notion of ‘religious pluralism’, which in principle serves as the bedrock of American civil culture, was given its first substantive hearing at the World Parliament in 1893; similarly, the academic (and, to some extent, popular) study of comparative religion may, in some respects, be viewed as having originated in the immediate aftermath of the World Parliament.

What is indubitably certain is that when Vivekananda first arrived in the United States, almost nothing was known of Vedanta, Hinduism, or, more broadly conceived, Indian religions.  Perhaps it is apposite that he had to be ‘lost’ before he could be ‘found’–and this itself can be read in several registers–and Hinduism could be received in a country that is generally believed to hold its doors wide open for people of different faiths and beliefs:  arriving in Chicago a couple of days before the Parliament was to open, Vivekananda discovered that he had misplaced the address where he was to report.  It is said that he wandered about and finally fell asleep, hungry and tired, in an empty railway wagon.  On waking up the following morning, Vivekananda, in the manner of a Hindu fakir, started going from door to door in the hope of getting some nourishment for his empty stomach. But the sight of this swarthy and turbaned young man in orange robes alarmed the housewives of the neighborhoods through which he walked; however, a certain Mrs. Ellen Hale, who had read reports on the impending Parliament of Religions, surmised that Vivekananda was one of its delegates and welcomed him to her home.  In time, as many Indians have fondly believed, Vivekananda would repay the debt by furnishing spiritual nourishment to empty souls.

Returning, however, to the question of what was known about Hinduism in the US before the arrival of Swami Vivekananda, a few considerations come to mind.  American periodicals, such as the Christian Disciple and the Theological Review (1813-1823) and the North American Review, which commenced publication in 1815, had begun to carry occasional articles on Hindu customs and mores, and especially ‘Hindu idolatry’, but such pieces were invariably informed by an Orientalist outlook.  The understanding of Hinduism, if one can even call it that, was mediated, on the one hand, by Charles Grant’s highly influential A Poem on the Restoration of Learning in the East (1805) and, on the other hand, by the interest shown in the life and work of Rammohun Roy, the founder of the reformist and theistic movement known as the Brahmo Samaj.  The American Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in particular, had more than dabbled in some of the sacred books of the Hindus.  The young Emerson, not yet out of his teens, had made bold to interpret ‘Hindu theology’ in a lengthy poem, now known only to scholars, called Indian Superstition (1821).  Emerson’s then paltry knowledge of Hinduism may be surmised from his invocation of ‘the stern Bramin armed with plagues divine’ (l. 71), or of devotees engaged ‘in wild worship to mysterious powers’ (l. 47).  In time, Emerson would gravitate towards a considerably more complex, indeed sympathetic, view of Hinduism—as is suggested, for instance, by his poem ‘Brahma’, where the impress of the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita is clearly suggested.  His younger contemporary, Thoreau, entered into a wider engagement with Indian texts, and took copious notes from the Gita, the Upanishads, the Vishnu Purana, and the Manusmriti.  ‘In the morning’, Thoreau wrote of his experiences at Walden Pond, ‘I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions.’  The Tuesday chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is given over to dense quotations from Thoreau’s favorite Hindu writings.

Thoreau was also doubtless the first person in the United States to describe himself as a yogi.  Yet, for all his mental peregrinations, he never travelled outside the United States; indeed, he confined himself to New England.  Thoreau was far from having ever seen an Indian, let alone a Hindu yogi; and many Indians have all but overlooked his remark that ‘no Hindoo tyranny prevailed at the framing of the world, but we are freemen of the universe, and not sentenced to any caste.’  There is nothing to suggest that, in the aftermath of Emerson and Thoreau’s reasonably sustained engagement with Indian philosophy, interest in the Vedas, Upanishads, the Gita, or Hindu myths was kindled among Americans.  To be sure, Sanskrit had made some inroads, howsoever slight, into the curriculum at a few of the principal American institutions of higher education.  Edward Elbridge Salisbury was installed as Professor of Sanskrit and Arabic at Yale University in 1841, and Salisbury would also go on to play a pivotal role in giving shape to the American Oriental Society, founded in 1842 as the first learned organization of its kind in the United States.  Yale would subsequently become home to William Dwight Whitney (1827-94), author of a widely used Sanskrit grammar (1879) and translator of the Atharva Veda.  By the late 1880s, Sanskrit was being taught at more than half a dozen American universities, among them Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Columbia, and Yale.  One might, with due diligence, summon a few other similar nuggets of American interest in India, and especially in Hinduism; but, viewed in totality, one is inescapably drawn to the conclusion that when Vivekananda arrived in Chicago as one of a handful of people charged with representing Hinduism to the American public and the wider world, Hinduism remained an utter novelty to Americans.  Certainly there would have been no one, whether among the public or even in the academy, to contest his readings of Hinduism or of Indian society more generally.

(to be continued)

Read Full Post »