In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Orientalists and Missionaries

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Early Protestant Sources
  • The Nineteenth Century
  • Missionary Scholarship and Hindu Texts
  • Missionaries and “Hinduism”

Hinduism Orientalists and Missionaries
Will Sweetman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0243


The best accounts of Hindu religious beliefs and practices to reach Europe before 1800 came overwhelmingly from the pens of missionaries. There are several reasons why this was so. Their missionary task obviously motivated them to attempt to understand Hindu religion even if they ultimately rejected it as a false religion. Beyond this, missionaries were more likely than other Europeans, such as travelers or colonial officials, to spend the bulk of their lives, often several decades, in India. They were more likely to be well-educated, to learn Indian languages, and, especially, to read Indian literature. Although many remained in European coastal enclaves, in the early period they were also much more likely than other Europeans to spend extended periods beyond the colonial frontier, living and working in the hinterland. They were also usually required to give an account of their activities to their superiors in Europe. Their letters and reports are also more likely than those produced by independent travelers (although not colonial officials) to have survived by being preserved in European archives. Although missionary scholarship has continued into the 20th century and even beyond, it was gradually eclipsed by colonial and later professional scholarship from the end of the 18th century. The emphasis here will be on works emerging from the earlier period. Scholarship on missionaries has, until quite recently, been very largely the domain of historians of mission, many of whom were missionaries themselves. This has begun to change as the value of missionary accounts have been more widely recognized, and there has been a welcome shift from the often frankly hagiographic character of earlier secondary scholarship.

General Overviews

Although it was one of the first in the field, the judgments in Halbfass’s account of the missionary contributions to the much broader cross-cultural engagement between India and Europe remain among the most acute and useful, undoubtedly because they were grounded in an extensive reading of the missionary sources themselves (Halbfass 1988). It is likewise the close attention to the primary sources which marks out Oddie 2006 and Xavier and Županov 2015 as the best surveys of, respectively, Protestant and Catholic accounts of Hinduism. Like Xavier and Županov, App 2010 shows that the earliest missionary sources, particularly those not written in or translated into English, have very often been unduly neglected. This work also shows that the scope of missions—and in many cases the careers of individual missionaries—were transregional, understanding Buddhism, for example, not only in its Indian context but also throughout Asia. Perhaps the foremost contemporary authority on the intellectual significance of the early modern European presence in India is Sanjay Subrahmanyam. He combines immense knowledge of archival sources with command of an array of languages, European and Asian. Subrahmanyam 2017 is a worthy successor to Halbfass’s pioneering work, and takes account of much that has been learned in the intervening decades.

  • App, Urs. The Birth of Orientalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.9783/9780812200058

    App argues that “the role of colonialism . . . in the birth of Orientalism dwindles to insignificance compared to the role of religion.” Although he also discusses the early study of Buddhism at length, App highlights the significant contribution of early missionaries such as Roberto Nobili, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, and Gaston-Laurent Cœurdoux to the emerging European understanding of the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism.

  • Halbfass, Wilhelm. India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.

    Revised and enlarged translation of a work first published in German in 1981. The book offers an overview of India in the history of European self-understanding from Antiquity to the 19th century, and of the Indian response to European presence thereafter. The third chapter (pp. 36–53) offers precise thumbnail sketches of some of the most significant missionary authors on Hinduism.

  • Oddie, Geoffrey A. Imagined Hinduism: British Protestant Missionary Constructions of Hinduism, 1793–1900. New Delhi: SAGE, 2006.

    Oddie traces the emergence among Protestant missionaries in the 19th century of a “dominant paradigm” which regards Hinduism as a system established by and for Brahmins. He argues that even if missionaries were overtaken as scholars by professional Indologists in the course of the 19th century, through their widely circulated works—especially periodicals—missionaries were nevertheless more important in shaping perceptions of Hinduism among the wider European public.

  • Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. Europe’s India: Words, Peoples, Empires, 1500–1800. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674977532

    Offers something of a summary statement of the major themes of Subrahmanyam’s work on the European understanding of India and the impact of India on European thought. Missionary sources are cited throughout, but most often in the chapter “The Question of ‘Indian Religion’” (pp. 103–143).

  • Xavier, Ângela Barreto, and Iñes G. Županov. Catholic Orientalism: Portuguese Empire, Indian Knowledge (16th-18th Centuries). New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    Delineates a Catholic “information order”—nourished to a large extent by missionaries, but also others—which flourished in the first centuries of Portuguese presence in South Asia and was later both appropriated and disparaged by later, particularly British, Orientalists. Two chapters (“Religion and Civility in ‘Brahmanism’: Jesuit Experiments” pp. 115–157 and “Franciscan Orientalism” pp. 158–201) deal at length with missionary writing on Hinduism.

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