In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section British Colonialism and Imperialism

  • Introduction
  • The Development of Modern Hinduism
  • Modern Hindu Identity
  • Caste
  • Nationalism
  • The Legal Domain

Hinduism British Colonialism and Imperialism
Sandeep Banerjee, Atreyee Majumder
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0269


The advent of British colonialism in Bengal in 1757 and its spread to other parts of South Asia during the latter half of the eighteenth century structured indigenous society in significant ways. The institution of individual property rights since the 1790s reshaped the class structure of Indian society in decisive ways leading to the rise of propertied classes in Bengal and beyond. At this time the British also began codifying indigenous religious practices to develop a legal framework to rule over their Indian subjects. This inaugurated a process that drew in a wide cast of actors and groups ranging from colonial administrators to orientalist scholars and Hindu (and Muslim) reformers and revivalists as well as Christian missionaries. The collaboration and contestation between these groups gave shape to the modern identity of Hinduism. This process saw the emergence of new Hindu religious groups and sects such as the Brahmo Samaj and the Ramakrishna Mission while also seeing the recoding of earlier religious traditions such as Gaudiya Vaishnavism and Tantra. It also led to the reconfiguration of the identities and status of older Hindu divinities and festivals while engendering a new deity of the nation: Bharat Mata or Mother India. These reconfigurations went hand in hand with the recasting, at times violently, of the earlier fuzzy religious identities into more identifiable Hindu (and Muslim) subjects that came to define—and continues to define—South Asian polity and society. The nexus of colonialism and Hinduism also shaped gender and caste identities in British India in decisive ways. Indian women were projected as victims of their own societies who required protection. Literary productions emerging from colonial South Asia bear witness to this complex and contested process of the Indo-British colonial encounter and provided a locus for the imagination and contestation of Hindu tradition and its social ramifications. Hinduism also became a key conceptual resource for anticolonial politics and the articulation of a putative nationalism whose conception ranged from the inclusive to the parochially sectarian.

The Development of Modern Hinduism

The question of the modernity of Hinduism and its colonial provenance is a key area of scholarly investigation. While scholars largely agree that colonialism was a key factor in the development of modern Hinduism, scholarly opinion differs on the extent to which it was responsible in shaping the identity of the religion. Hatcher 2022 provides an excellent overview that examines the emergence of Hinduism in colonial South Asia. Frykenberg 2005 suggests the modern Hindu identity develops from the eighteenth century. Lorenzen 1999, by contrast, locates the emergence of Hinduism to Hindu-Muslim rivalry between 1200 and 1500. Pennington 2005 and Patterson 2021 study British representation of Hinduism. Oddie 2006 examines the construction of Hinduism by British Protestant missionaries, while van Bijlert 2020 shows the emergence of Hindu identity and modernity as imitative of Western Protestantism and rooted in the reinterpretation of specific sacred texts. The essays of the edited volumes focus on the fashioning of Hinduism as a unified category (in Bloch, et al. 2009) and the way colonialism shaped Hinduism and Hindu tradition (the relevant essays in Dalmia and Stietencron 1995). Weiss 2017 focuses on a 19th-century Tamil religious figure to locate the religion’s modern transformation within Hinduism.

  • Bloch, Esther, Marianne Keppens, and Rajaram Hegde, eds. Rethinking Religion in India: The Colonial Construction of Hinduism. London: Routledge, 2009.

    Anthology provides a range of views on the question of whether Hinduism as a unified category resulted from the encounter with Western, Christian notions of religion.

  • Dalmia, Vasudha, and Heinrich von Stietencron, eds. Representing Hinduism: The Construction of Religious Traditions and National Identity. New Delhi: SAGE, 1995.

    Wide-ranging collection that includes some essays that focus on the colonial era. These take up issues such as the legal repercussions, the recasting of Hinduism and the constitution of Hindu tradition in the colonial era.

  • Frykenberg, Robert Eric. “Constructions of Hinduism at the Nexus of History and Religion.” In Defining Hinduism: A Reader. Edited by J. E. Llewyn, 125–146. New York: Routledge, 2005.

    Provides a holistic view on how Hinduism as a category and religion is defined and mobilized from the eighteenth century onward.

  • Hatcher, Brian A. “Re-ordering Religion in Colonial South Asia.” In Routledge Handbook of the History of Colonialism in South Asia. Edited by Harald Fischer-Tiné and Maria Framke, 62–76. London: Routledge, 2022.

    Delineates the emergence of religion in colonial South Asia as a fundamental influence on social and political movements. It also suggests that the category of “religion” is produced in the colony and the metropole at this time.

  • Lorenzen, David N. “Who Invented Hinduism?” Comparative Studies in Society and History 41.4 (October 1999): 630–659.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0010417599003084

    Insisting that the claim of Hinduism being invented or constructed by European (or British) colonizers, sometime after 1800 is false. The author argues that a Hindu religion theologically and devotionally grounded in texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Puranas, and commentaries on the six darshanas gradually acquired an identity through the rivalry between Muslims and Hindus in the period between 1200 and 1500.

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

    Explores how British Protestant missionaries imagined and constructed the idea of Hinduism in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Shows the missionaries’ conceptions of Hinduism were shaped by their own location in post-Enlightenment Europe and the Christian conception of religion as well as their desire to understand Hinduism better to spread Christianity more effectively.

  • Patterson, Jessica. Religion, Enlightenment and Empire: British Interpretations of Hinduism in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021.

    Examines British colonial representation of Hinduism in the eighteenth century to delineate the ways it was presented, the intellectual frameworks that shaped it, and some of the ramifications this had for Enlightenment thought, East India Company policy, and contemporary ideas of empire.

  • Pennington, Brian. Was Hinduism Invented?: Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/0195166558.001.0001

    Argues that Hinduism emerged through a dialogic process during the Indo-British colonial encounter between 1789 and 1835. The British colonial state and Christian missionaries posited Hinduism as a unitary “world religion” that displayed coherence and unity despite sectarian and regional variations. Indians interacted, argued, and responded to British authors over key religious issues such as image-worship, sati, tolerance, and conversion.

  • van Bijlert, Victor A. Vedantic Hinduism in Colonial Bengal: Reformed Hinduism and Western Protestantism. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2020.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781003053606

    Shows the production of Hindu identity and modernity by imitating Western Protestantism and locating it in, for the first time, the reinterpretation of the Vedanta texts: the Upanishads and the Gita.

  • Weiss, Richard S. The Emergence of Modern Hinduism: Religion on the Margins of Colonialism. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017.

    Focusing on the Tamil Shaivite religious leader Ramalinga Swami (b. 1823–d. 1874), who was marginal to colonial and Hindu institutional authority, the study emphasizes the capacity of Hindu traditions to inspire new forms of Hinduism.

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