In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section European Constructions

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works on the Postcolonial Study of India
  • Historical Surveys of the European Encounter with Hinduism
  • Critical Studies of European Constructions of Hinduism
  • Debates over the Definition or Invention of Hinduism
  • Indigenous Responses to European Constructions
  • Early Works to 1756
  • Later British Colonial Period, 1857–c. 1900
  • Friedrich Max Müller
  • Catholic Missionaries
  • German Protestant Missionaries
  • British Protestant Missionaries
  • Works about Missionary Constructions
  • French Works

Hinduism European Constructions
Robert A. Yelle, Joydeep Bagchee, Lorenz Trein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0174


The phrase “European constructions of Hinduism” is one that has acquired meaning only since the late 20th century, in the wake of Edward Said’s groundbreaking work Orientalism (Said 1978, cited under Foundational Works on the Postcolonial Study of India), the subaltern-studies movement in India, and the consequent wave of postcolonial studies. Such movements have raised the question of whether it is possible to have an undistorted, scientific knowledge of something called Hinduism; indeed, of whether such an entity exists. This article, without assuming to resolve such debates, traces some of the concrete historical stages in the representation of Hinduism by Europeans. It is neither a survey of Hinduism nor a survey of the European encounter with India per se. We begin with key theoretical works of postcolonial studies and historical surveys; continue with an extended, chronologically—and topically—organized overview of significant primary sources; and add sections on various, special themes in the European construction of Hinduism (such as sati and caste). An effort is made to include key agents, including early explorers and travel writers, colonial officials, missionaries, and scholars. The initial period is marked by a confusion of terms used to describe Hindus (“Banians,” “Gentoos”); by a certain sensationalism and diversity of description, which it is sometimes difficult to reconcile with the Hinduism revealed by later accounts; and by an imposition of Christian categories in which Indian religions are classified as “idolatry” or “paganism” and are ordered according to biblical chronology and sacred history. With the beginning of more systematic study of India by European scholars following the consolidation of British colonial rule, a more stable image of Hinduism developed gradually. This article covers the historical period until 1900. After this point in time, literature proliferates but adds little to the general picture. This is also the period addressed by most of the secondary works, especially those produced in postcolonial studies. In addition to key secondary works, many primary sources from the period in question have been included, for several reasons: (1) secondary accounts of colonial constructions overlap extensively, (2) inclusion of the primary works better illustrates the stages of development and variations in the European understanding of Hinduism, and (3) primary works are becoming increasingly accessible to a prospective reader online, rendering reference to such works more useful. Although, from the mid-18th century onward, English primary sources are the most numerous and important, due to the dominance of Britain as the main colonial power on the subcontinent, an effort has been made to include representative sources from a few other western European traditions. A small number of American primary sources are included also.

Foundational Works on the Postcolonial Study of India

The following works are basic to the postcolonial study of India. While Said 1978 deals with European constructions of Islamic and Arabic cultures, rather than of Hinduism, it is necessary background reading. Inden 1990 deals in large measure with central aspects of European constructions of Hinduism. Cohn 1996 and van der Veer and Breckenridge 1993, while focused more broadly on colonialism in South Asia, also contain much material of value for the understanding of how that movement affected European attitudes toward Hinduism.

  • Cohn, Bernard. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

    Although less focused on the religious dimensions of the colonial encounter, this work, written by an anthropologist and historian, contains groundbreaking essays on the entanglements of colonial power with British representations of South Asian languages and laws and touches on the codification of Hinduism as well as on differences in colonial and indigenous mentalities.

  • Inden, Ronald. Imagining India. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990.

    Spanning European constructions of Indian institutions from the colonial era to late-20th-century scholarship, contains a chapter on the characterization of Hinduism in terms of such metaphors as “jungle” as well as chapters on such important topics as caste and “Oriental despotism” or Hindu government.

  • Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1978.

    The seminal work that arguably began the postcolonial approach, focused on the European construction of Muslims and Arabs as the “Other” of the West, an essential prerequisite for the study of the collusion of power and knowledge in other colonial contexts such as India.

  • van der Veer, Peter, and Carol A. Breckenridge, eds. Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

    An important, relatively early application of the critique of orientalism to British India; although the volume is not focused on religion, several essays are relevant for our theme: for example, Sheldon Pollock’s chapter on German Indology and Rosane Rocher’s on colonial codification and translation of such texts as Nathanael Halhed’s Code of Gentoo Laws and the Bhagavad Gita.

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