The colonial representation of the Hindu traditions has attracted considerable scholarly attention in recent years. Many have forcefully argued that the colonial state employed Orientalist scholars and native informants to find predictable, pan- India categories, for census enumerations and revenue collection. A single category of analysis, that is ‘Hinduism,’ was used to classify a copious and heterogeneous collection of traditions. This codification of traditions and identities lies at the heart of our present understanding of the Hindu traditions and is generally explained in terms of the administrative needs of the colonial state.
This project developed an alternative hypothesis, namely, that the structure of colonial representation took shape at the libraries and universities of Europe, in the 1500s, and not so much in colonial sources as is generally understood. A coherent and strikingly stable representation of Indian community life was created in the historiographies and cosmographies of the early-modern period. This body of scholarship succeeded in disseminating this imagery in the European imagination. Our understanding of the Hindu traditions today has less to do with the imbrications of power and knowledge—as manifested under colonialism—but more with the limitations of thought of a culture shaped by Christian theologies, long before the conditions of colonialism were established. The goal of this essay is thus to illustrate a new critical approach to colonial forms of knowledge production, in the sense of cultural legacies.
The colonial representation of the Hindu traditions tells us that Hinduism is the province of the Brahmans. Their scriptures harbour a monotheistic religion. The priesthood masterminded new religious laws, customs, and ceremonies. These new modes of worship are their source of revenue. Already in the second half of the eighteenth century, these are the elements that structured Holwell’s account of ‘the Gentoo religion.’3 The notion of corruption also ran as a thread through Abbé Dubois’ influential essay on Hindu manners and customs. The same ideas enticed the great Orientalists like Sir William Jones to delve into India’s past and uncover its unadulterated religion. As Henry Colebrooke explained it, the Hindus misunderstood the doctrines of their scriptures.The local practices were corrupted manifestations of these scriptures, “a curious instance of priestcraft and credulity.” This outline additionally structured the works of the later Orientalists, and the representation of religion in colonial historiography. At the end of the nineteenth century, Max Müller explained the things India could teach Europe, and invited his readers to look at its religion if “purified from the dust of nineteen centuries.”What we could learn was the manner in which “the human mind arrives by a perfectly rational process at all its later irrationalities.” Müller’s preface to the famous Sacred Books of the East (1879) explains this process as priestly corruption.
In short, the colonial representation of Hinduism consists of two distinct branches. One branch identifies an ancient and monotheistic religion in scriptures, referred to as ‘philosophical Hinduism.’ The second branch points to its corrupted manifestation in idolatry and ritual, referred to as ‘popular Hinduism.’ Central in this synthesis of manifold, crosscutting traditions stands the Brahman: the agent of religious change is the priesthood, the nodal point in this colonial composition.
Once it had been established that Hinduism is a colonial construct, crafted with the aid of Brahman informants, it seemed unnecessary for most to study the greatest part of the archive of European images of India, which is neither British, nor colonial in nature. Therefore, this project intended to show that the juxtaposition of ‘philosophical’ against ‘popular Hinduism,’ and the emphasis on a priesthood as the axis around which both revolve, can be traced back to two distinct modes of representation, both of which were developed in the libraries of Europe, before the middle of the sixteenth century. The project referred to pre-colonial sources in Latin, but the majority of the works it studied are early modern Dutch, English, French, and German sources on India.