“You should smash your computer with a hammer.”

That was one early response I received to the project that became Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu. Even before the book was finished, before it was sent off to peer-reviewers, while it was still just 1s and 0s on my hard drive, at least one scholar of religion in America pushed back against its questions. For this early critic, this book, and a number of other books like it, completely miss the point because it focuses analytical attention on “categories” rather than on “real people.”

The call to destroy my hard drive reflects a divide I see among scholars of religion in America. For one side, religion is a thing people do and believe in. To study religion is to study people doing and believing things. The scholar of religion in America goes and finds people doing religion, in the world or in the archive, and interprets what they are doing. This so-called “lived religion” approach has accomplished a lot. It pushed beyond the church history model that narrowly focused on Protestant elites, theological disputes, and denominational histories. It expanded the tent to include Italian Catholic neighborhoods, Voudo priestesses, Puritan families, and many more. The skeptical scholar’s call to destroy my MacBook came as a defense of these gains. Because to turn to categories would be to turn away from people doing “religion.” Yet, such scholars never tell us how they know that what these people are doing is “religion” in the first place.

On the other side of the divide are those of us for whom “religion” is always up for grabs. What catch our attention are the conflicts over the boundaries of “religion” and stakes for social actors and formations in those conflicts. In Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu, rather than looking for people doing religion, I looked for people using religion. The variety of representations Americans constructed about religion in India provided a case study for analyzing how the category “religion” functioned to mark boundaries of self and other, us and them. Religion was one way Americans argued about and marked off what it meant to be American. When Americans talked about Indians “over there” they built and maintained their identities at home. In the book, I describe this attention to categories and their use as “genealogical,” by which I meant that I was interested in the variety of forces that form and give logic to a category. So, in contrast to the scholar of religion who knows what religion is and goes out into the world to find it, I made no assumptions about what religion might be and looked for what the subjects in the archive argued it was.

I also made no assumptions about what Hinduism is or was. There is a reason Hinduism is nowhere in the title. Americans used a number of terms to talk about things people in India did that struck them as religious or close to religious: Brahmanism, heathenism, paganism, idolatry, Hindoo religion, Hindu religion, the religion of the Hindoos, et cetera. There were also a number of terms, variously spelled, that circulated around these categories: Veeshnoo, shastra, brachman, fakir, Juggernaut. Previous accounts of Asian religions or Hinduism in America assumed that all of these terms referred to the world religion that we all know as Hinduism. If the spellings were strange or the representations problematic they just reflected a misunderstanding of Hinduism that has since been cleared up. Just as the scholar of religion knows what it is and goes and finds it in the world, the historian of Hinduism knows what it is and goes and finds it in American sources.

Early on in my research I thought I knew what Hinduism was and went looking for it in the nineteenth-century archive. If I could find Hinduism in places historians had not already found it then that would be an interesting and original contribution. But I eventually realized that “religion of the Hindoos” and “heathenism” were not the same as “Hinduism.” So, I coined my own term and continued the research. I took all the representations of religion in India I found from American sources in the period and put them under my new analytical category: “Hindu religious culture.” But then I asked myself, what was the difference between my category of “Hindu religious culture” and other American’s categories like “Brahmanism”? All I had done at that point was construct yet another representation of religion in India by an American. I was the end point of the very history I was trying to analyze. It was then that I realized the need to abandon any claim that there was any unifying category that held the variety of representations and descriptions of religion in India written by Americans. Trying to find a category to hold them all was the wrong approach.  

Instead I began to pay particular attention to each individual representation. For example, what was at stake when Hannah Adams described the “religion of the Hindoos”? Why was Samuel Johnson interested in Brahmanism? How did representations of “Hindoos” in Harper’s Monthly Magazine educate readers? Certainly there were connections between these categories and representations but to wrap them all into a narrative of “Hinduism in America” would be to beg the question. What I discovered is that Americans deployed categories like heathen, Hindoo, and Hindu in a variety of debates and critiques. For example, Unitarians used accounts of the Indian reformer Rammohun Roy and his debates with English Baptist missionaries as ammunition in their own debates with New England Calvinists. Likewise, the descriptions of “Hindoos” in schoolbooks taught students to distinguish between white/Protestant/democratic America and brown/heathen/despotic India. Across a variety of representations of heathens, Hindoos, and Hindus these Indian Others functioned as stand-ins for Catholics, whose immigration American Protestants feared.

To return to the scholar calling for the destruction of my computer, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu shows how rather than finding people doing religion, we ought to find people using religion. To study categories and what is at stake in their formation and maintenance is not necessarily to turn away from people and return to the intellectualism of church history focused on elite clergy. Rather, all people use categories. Religion, as I see it through my work in Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu, is a way of separating who is “us” and who is “them.” It is not a thing out there in the world for the scholar to go find and interpret. It is a way humans form social groups and maintain identities. So while I hope that scholars of religion in American history can find much to learn from the various examples of how Americans imagined heathens, Hindoos, and Hindus, my greater hope is that scholars of religion no matter what their subfield will see Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu as an example of how religious studies can do work that never even attempts to define religion or assume to know what counts as religion.