“We Indians are like coconuts: brown on the outside, but white on the inside.” My mind writhed and my body tensed at these words, spoken by an Indian community member and major financial contributor to the new India studies program at the local public university, whose launch I was attending. This representation of Indians is certainly not how I imagine myself, and I considered whether I should search intently for an escape route or play dead with the hope of remaining unnoticed. I was a graduate student from a nearby university and a small, brown girl hidden beneath a tweed jacket no less. I blended into the large audience. As several esteemed university representatives, community members, and contributors delivered remarks, I squirmed like a worm trapped in the brutal hands of a curious toddler. In many of those remarks, India was imagined as a sort of container, the outer walls of which are bedraggled, but buried within rests a jewel that reflects back on the orientalist gaze a representation of its glorious self. In his important book, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu, Michael Altman historicizes such representations of India in the American imagination.
Altman analyzes the complex theoretical and cultural negotiations involved in the many American representations of India during a period of colonial and imperial expansion, illuminating the ways those representations served political ends. Altman concludes his book with a statement about the classificatory nature of the study of religion more broadly: “Such classification is a political act. To study religion, then, is to investigate the function of classificatory systems, to historicize their constructions, and to analyze their social and political effects.” I deeply appreciate this reminder to reflect, as a field, on the ways all representations of religion, including our scholarly ones, are political. This reminder is deftly couched in Altman’s two main contributions.
His first contribution is an historical one. Altman’s purpose in writing this book was to trace the genealogy of representations of India in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American culture. In short, the book analyzes American constructions of Hinduism leading up to the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893. Although most studies on Asian religions in America begin with the Parliament, Altman ends there. Unveiling the many sources—including missionary reports, dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks, magazines, and newspapers—through which Americans imagined India long before the Parliament, Altman disrupts and challenges entrenched assumptions in the popular and scholarly narratives about the history of Hinduism in the United States. Altman correctly points out that there was no direct, linear progression from heathenism to Hinduism in the American imagination.
In various ways, orientalist representations of India, from heathen to Hindu, worked to define white American Protestant self-understandings. Herein lies Altman’s second contribution. Altman makes the compelling argument that representations of India informed debates within American Protestantism, the formation of American Protestant nationalism, and understandings of religion itself. He demonstrates how the orientalist imagining of the division between the Hindu Other, with its antisocial mysticism, and American identity, with its rational Protestantism, contributed to a sense of white-supremacist Protestant American authority. In other words, he situates representations of India within the coercive and exclusionary context of white Protestant cultural power in the United States, unveiling its racist and imperialist dimensions.
Hinduism is not and was never a static entity transplanted from India to the United States in 1893. Americans constructed representations of India, which serve vast and sometimes conflicting political agendas, long before the Parliament and in several ways since then. In fact, Altman’s study has significant implications for our attempts to understand even our current political moment insofar as we can now place it in a much longer and more complex historical narrative.
Contemporary evangelical leaders in the United States, from Pat Robertson to Albert Mohler, warn Americans against practicing yoga, arguing it will turn good Christians Hindu. Yoga, in their imagination, is a pagan practice invoking many heathen gods and divinizing the body, all at the failure to recognize the biblical God’s sacred sovereignty. Pat Robertson ominously warns Americans that practicing yoga will have them speaking “Hindu”:
Along with yoga, they have a mantra. And the mantra you say is in Hindu. You don’t know what the Hindu says, but actually it’s a prayer to a Hindu deity, and so it sounds like gibberish, and so you’re saying, you know, ‘Kali, Kali, Kali,’ whatever, but you’re praying to a Hindu deity. . . praying to a Hindu deity is not too cool.
In a moment ironically reminiscent of Robertson’s warning, during his campaign for the presidency of the United States Donald Trump told a crowd of Hindu Americans at a “Humanity United Against Terror” event that he is “a big fan of Hindu.” The event was hosted by the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC). Several times, Trump reiterated their shared commitment to defeat “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” while flocked by large posters displaying the candidate in what appears to be a state of samadhi, seated in a meditative posture on a lotus (the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) official symbol), embellished with red, white, and blue, and with the om symbol superimposed onto the US flag. Trump boasted, “I’m involved in two massive developments in India, you probably know.”
In this instance we find carefully orchestrated representations of Hinduism and Islam in service to the mutually beneficial relationship between nationalist politics and multinational corporate interests. Trump’s seal of approval for “Hindu” also applies to the Indian state: “I am a big fan of Hindu, and I am a big fan of India.” His mirroring of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP government earns Trump the support of a niche constituency of American neoliberal Hindus. Carefully constructed representations of Hinduism and Islam at this event served to turn the Hindu nationalist mindset into a full-blown, transnational political and economic project. A widely diverse set of religious movements were represented as a unified religious and political voice—Hinduism—and openly defined vis-à-vis an essentialized Other: Islam.
Continuing to reinforce the centrality of white Protestant capitalist culture to American identity sometimes requires Americans to turn their hostile gaze on the heathen Hindu, sneaking in through that seemingly innocuous—not to mention irresistibly sexy—fitness practice, yoga. Other times, Hindus become allies of the white supremacist American nationalist machine as the gaze turns to the terrorist Muslim.
Large swathes of Americans find themselves united by anxiety about immigration, as well as perceived threats to capitalist and patriarchal forms of domination. Hence, there are many Americans, past and present, who propagate militant forms of nationalism all while selling themselves as the protectors of American social values. Altman’s book significantly adds to our understanding of the long history of this pervasive anxiety and alienation in American culture. This anxiety results in the turn of the gaze onto the demonized Other in place of critical reflection on the structural causes—political, social, and economic—of Americans’ distress. The book not only makes an invaluable historical contribution to the study of religion in American culture, but also serves us in our attempts to understand the politics of representation in our current political moment.