A Dialogue with Dr. Michael Altman, author of “Hinduism in America: An Introduction”

I just published an interview with Dr. Altman over on the Hindoo History substack. Posting an excerpt here but would encourage BP readers to read the whole thing. He’s also the author of “Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893”, a key contribution to the study of how the “Hindoo” has been represented in American history:

HH: Dr. Altman, first of all, thank you so much for doing this. As readers of #HindooHistory know, your work has been instrumental to this project. I really didn’t know what to do with all of these random newspaper clips that I was collecting until I fortuitously came across your first book, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893. Your book gave me the intellectual scaffolding for the primary source material, so thank you for that! You can imagine how excited I was when I saw that you had written another book, Hinduism in America: An Introduction, which is the subject of our dialogue today.

To kick it off, in your introduction you note that you were hesitant to title the book Hinduism in America: An Introduction and would’ve preferred to call it Some Things Someone Somewhere Called ‘Hinduism’ in a Place Someone Somewhere Called America: An Introduction. I loved this, and I was reminded of your introduction to Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu, where you make a critical distinction: This is not about how “Hinduism” arrived in America, but rather about how it became conceivable in America. Can you elaborate on this methodological approach and explain how it informs your argument in Hinduism in America?

MA: Thanks so much, Vishal. I’m really glad you found my first book so helpful. You write these things and you never know who is going to read them or what they will do with it once they read it. Your work sharing the newspaper clippings you find is really important, and I really appreciate it. I’ve actually heard from other religious studies professors that they use your Instagram and my book together in their classes! So, thanks for the work you’ve done to bring public attention to this really interesting history.

The second book, Hinduism in America: An Introduction, was a really interesting opportunity to write a different kind of religious history. The book is part of a larger series of “ in America” introductions and I wanted to write a book that could fit in that model but also raise some questions about the very idea of discrete unified traditions or religions (Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, etc. ) in America (or anywhere else for that matter). For me, the job of the religious studies scholar is not primarily to identify, describe, or define these traditions. Instead, our job is to pay attention to how individuals, communities, groups, institutions, nations, and other social formations define and identify these traditions. Put another way, many people who all call themselves “Hindu” or “Christian” or “Muslim” don’t all agree on exactly what it means to be “Hindu” or “Christian” or “Muslim,” and it’s not my job to solve that. It’s my job to pay attention to how and why people use those terms to describe themselves or others and what is at stake in those processes of labeling people and groups. As I tell my students, we are not umpires and we don’t call balls and strikes. We are play-by-play analysts who describe how the game is being played and analyze why it’s being played the way it is. My approach to the study of religion is that religion is one way people create “us and them” and my job is to figure out how and why that happens.

So for this book, rather than telling readers “this is what Hinduism is” and then “here’s where you can find it in America,” I wanted to walk through the ways the categories “Hindu” and “Hinduism” have been used by a variety of people, groups, communities, and institutions in America. I also wanted to introduce readers to some basic analytical terms in religious studies (difference, Orientalism, diaspora, etc.). So, each chapter looks at a set of examples of how and why people in America described or defined or identified “Hindus” or “Hinduism” and then uses those examples to illustrate one of these analytical terms. The chapters are loosely in chronological order but it’s not a single historical narrative. Rather, it’s a variety of examples of how somebody somewhere called something “Hindu.”

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