There is a strange, dishonest, Hinduphobic claim made by South Asian scholars and activists that Hinduphobia is a recent concept invented by “Hindu nationalists” who are co-opting the term Islamophobia to camouflage Islamophobia. In fact, there is a documented history of the pejorative, biased ways that Hinduism and Hindus have been narrated in the United States, dating back to the early 19th century, prior to the arrival of Hindus. (Remember, this is after the First Amendment was passed.)
Below is a curation of archival media clippings shared by Hindoo History that illustrate this historical narrative.
The title page of Mabel Potter Daggett’s 1911 essay,
“The Heathen Invasion of America”
“Eve is eating the apple again. It is offered as a knowledge of the occult that shall solve the riddles of existence. Yoga, that eastern philosophy the emblem of which is the coiled serpent, is being widely disseminated here. And before a charm that seemingly they cannot resist, thousands of converts are yielding to the temptation to embrace its teaching of strange mysteries. Literally yoga means the ‘path’ that leads to wisdom. Actually it is proving the way that leads to domestic infelicity and insanity and death. They are priests from ‘East of Suez’ who with soft spoken proselytizing have whispered this mysticism into the ears of the American woman. While the churches of America are spending twenty million dollars annually in the cause of foreign missions the pagans have executed an amazing flank movement; they have sent their emissaries to us. Today the tinkling of temple bells ring out with a derisive, jarring note in a Christian land.”
“The image was published as a comic in Harper’s Weekly in 1871. Although this is a bit of a jump in our timeline, I wanted to share the comic because it is a useful distillation of the clips we’ve shared thus far. Pictured is a lone Protestant pastor protecting a group of school children. In the background we see the Vatican. And at first glance the creatures crawling out of the River Ganges appear to be crocodiles, but look closer and you’ll see that they are actually Catholic Bishops, marked by their distinctive headwear. The picture was no doubt meant to evoke in its audience the accounts of “Hindoos” sacrificing children in their rivers. A strange juxtaposition for sure, but one that Illustrates just how deeply early American attitudes towards Hindus were shaped by preexisting religious prejudices, specifically against Catholics. Although the “Hindoo” was the quintessential “Other” in early missionary correspondence, the emphasis on heathen idolatry, immoral priests, and superstition was intended to create a parallel in the average American’s mind with Catholicism, which in the mainstream American protestant imagination posed a far more real threat to the national culture. As such, the blending of images here gives us an especially clear insight into what the “Hindoo” represented in the public imagination.”
Some clips from Mitchell’s geography textbook, A System of Modern Geography, which Michael Altman notes had the widest circulation of any textbook before 1900. The first page of the textbook, a colorized depiction of different cultures indicating which “stage of civilization” each inhabits. The Hindoos were considered “half-civilized.”
Q: Who are the pagans or heathens?
A: Those who believe in false Gods, and worship idols, beasts, birds, serpents, etc.
“They [the Hindoos] are an indolent and spiritless race, excessively superstitious; and are described as being nearly destitute of moral honesty.
They are divided into four castes, or classes… these castes are forbidden to intermarry, or even eat or drink together
The religion of the Hindoos is a degrading system of paganism.”
“Though nearly the whole of this vast multitude is involved in heathen darkness, yet the exertions of Christian missionaries… will no doubt in time enlighten the nations, and lead to the spiritual redemption of this great continent.”
“The European or Caucasian is the most noble of the five races of men. It excels all others in learning and arts, and includes the most powerful nations of ancient and modern times.”