Early America, American Theosophy, Modernity—and India

Mark L. Kamrath, University of Central Florida, USA


The history of East-west relations in general and between America and India in particular is one of cultural, literary, and philosophical encounter. Using a post-colonial and postmodern theoretical lens, this essay charts American intellectual constructions of India from the colonial period to the present, with an eye on how American transcendentalists, theosophists, and Hindu spiritual leaders negotiated Hindu and Christian belief systems. It argues that over time, as individuals and cultures came into contact with one another, the historical assimilation of their religions testifies to the dialectical, syncretic nature of modern belief.

[Key words: Philosophy, religion, East-West, theology, modernity, transcendentalism, post-colonial approach, postmodernism]

“For we have seen his Star in the East, and are come to worship him”

–Matthew II. 2, Bible

Early American contact with India

India has long been a source of fascination to the West, dating back to 1492 and Christopher Columbus’s plan to reach the East Indies and its riches by sailing westward over the Atlantic Ocean and establishing trade. Similar to how the “New World” was imagined by Europeans, over the centuries American travelers, missionaries, and writers have each looked to India with different motives and represented its history, people, and culture in a variety of ways.

During the colonial era, observes Susan S. Bean, “American merchants and their customers were familiar with Indian products,” including various spices, teas, and cotton and silk goods (Bean 31). As early as 1711, for instance, newspapers such as the Boston News-Letter regularly advertised “Hollands for Shirtings and Sheetings, fine Cambricks, Musings, India Chints” (1711: [2]) and “Garlix, Sugar, Cotton, India Counterpanes, & c” (1716: [2]).Booksabout India were published in Londonand also part of the commercial exchange.

In terms of non-commercial interest in India though, Cotton Mather’s pamphlet India Christiana. A Discourse Delivered unto the Commissioners for the Propagation of the Gospel among the American Indians which is accompanied with Several Instruments relating to the Glorious Design of Propagating our Holy Religion in the Easter as well as the Western Indies. An Entertainment which they that are Waiting for the Kingdom of God will receive as Good News from a far country(1721) was among the first to represent India or the East, like the wilds of America, as a territory needing the word of God and spiritual salvation.

Several decades later, after the American Revolution, India was largely viewed through the eyes of missionaries, British travelers or military personnel, and other figures and depicted as an object of cultural marvel, appropriation, or conquest. To be sure, newspapers provided accounts of the East India Company, and oriental tales increasingly appeared in periodicals in the 1780s and 1790s. Publications such as Donald Campbell’s A Journey Overland to India, partly by a Route never gone before by any European (1797) intrigued American readers with accounts of shipwreck and imprisonment with Hyder Alli, along with other adventures.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, India became a major focus of missionaries. A sermon on February 26, 1809, by the Reverend Claudius Buchanan (1766-1815) of India at the Parish Church of St. James in Bristol,England, for the benefit of the “Society for Missions to Africa and the East” ran into no less than twelveAmerican editions. Entitled “The Star in the East,” it explained how the “ministry of Nature” led three eastern wise men to Jerusalem to honor Christ’s birth and how such prophecy was foretold in the “ancient writings of India” (Buchanan 4-5).In addition, some American editions added an appendix entitled “The Interesting Report of the Rev. Dr. Kerr, to the Governor of Madras, on the State of the Ancient Christians in Cochin and Travancore, and an account of the Discoveries, made by the Rev. Dr. Buchanan of 200,000 Christians in the Sequestered Region of Hindostan.” By 1812, the publication was expanded and retitled as The Works of the Rev. Claudius Buchanan, LL.D. Comprising his Christian Researches in Asia, His Memoir of the Expediency of an Ecclesiastical Establishment for British India, and his Star in the East, with Three New Sermons. To Which is Added, Dr.Kerr’s Curious and Interesting Report, Concerning the State of Christians in Cochin and Travancor, Made at the Request of the Governor of Madras.

In India around this time, Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833), a Brahmin who alienated himself from his family because of his willingness to forgo traditional beliefs and who pushed for social and religious change, published A Defence of Hindoo Theism in reply to the attack of an advocate for idolatry at Madras, along with A Second Defence of the monotheistical system of the Vedas. In reply to an apology for the present state of Hindoo worship (Calcutta 1817). According to Joscelyn Godwin, Roy was “the first Brahmin to fall under the spell of Enlightenment ideas, and the first emissary from India to the West” (Godwin 312). He upset Christian missionaries because while he admired the teachings of Jesus and the gospels, he also embraced Islam and Hinduism. His actions, however, might also be understood in light of what Homi Bhaba calls a strategy of “hybridity,” a position in which the colonized subject takes on the values and language of the colonized in order to subvert them (Bhabha 112). In that sense, Roy was accommodating Christian colonizers by sanitizing Hinduism through the lens of Western monotheism…Access Full Text of the Article

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