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A Prisoner of Presuppositions


Amiya P. Sen

IMAGINED HINDUISM: BRITISH PROTESTANT MISSIONARY CONSTRUCTIONS OF HINDUISM, 1793-1900
By Geoffrey A. Oddie
Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 349, Rs. 450.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 9 September 2006

Allowing for a few exceptions, the dominant thesis now evident in works on Hinduism is that the term itself as well its ideological and material content were determined only under British colonial rule. Some eminent scholars, and I can immediately think of Nicholas Dirks, have even gone to the extent of arguing that caste and ‘culture’ were also, in good measure, products of this colonial encounter (Dirks, The Invention of Caste, Social Analysis, 1989; Colonialism and Culture,1992). The problem here is that the notion of ‘postcoloniality’ that is particularly keen to establish such claims tends to examine Indian time and social experiences only with reference to the colonial era. It comes as no surprise that ‘Hinduism’, as the present work asserts, existed only in the imagination of some colonialist Europeans, in this case, British Protestant missionaries. However, the reader will notice as I certainly did, that our author also chooses to employ the term ‘construction’, the semantic and social possibilities of which, in my opinion, are not quite the same as that of ‘imagination’.   Now short of sounding trite or rhetorical, I would want to state here that all social sciences rest on the premise that everything is humanly constructed in space and time. This may be distinguished from the postulates in theology that may well be premised on the ‘divinely bequeathed’ or ‘revealed’. The problem with ‘imagined’-‘imagination’ is that in a deeper sense, it remains quite equivocal and ambiguous. Imagination, at one level, may be pure fantasy, signifying what matters ‘could be’ without necessarily working towards an active transformation of the status quo. At another level, it may be seen as a deviant category in relation to something that is ‘real’ or socially exists. If I have understood our author at all, neither of these meanings can be attributed to missionary perceptions of Hindu religion or culture.   The equally important question to ask here is whether the missionaries themselves could not draw the distinction between what belonged to the realm of imagination and that of understanding. If what they wrote or spoke with regard to Hinduism, was also based on enquiry and observation, this is a distinction that must be presumed to have been made. If this was not the case, we would be led to believe, perhaps against our better judgment, that there could never be any honest or impartial reporting of one culture by another and ...


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