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.”

Hindoo History: An Introduction


Greetings, Brown Pundits readers! For those of you have been following @HindooHistory on Twitter and Instagram, you may have seen that I now have a Substack where I’ll be posting longer pieces from time to time. I wanted to go ahead and post the introductory piece here for the benefit of the BP audience. Enjoy! 

Welcome, readers! Alas, despite my best efforts I could no longer resist joining the newsletter bandwagon. In the course of my day-to-day research for Hindoo History, I often come across characters and stories that warrant more than an instagram caption or a tweet thread. I’ll be using this newsletter to explore those topics in greater detail. To start, however I wanted to elucidate the idea behind Hindoo History. After all, to this day the most frequent question I get is some variation of “Why ‘Hindoo’ and not ‘Hindu'”? There is a superficial answer— simply that this is how “Hindu” was rendered by colonial-era missionaries and journalists, but there is also a deeper response that goes to the root of the project.

When I started collecting newspaper clips, I didn’t really have an overarching intellectual framework in mind— I would just collect and sort clips that I found interesting. I did however have a general sense that newspapers (as opposed to, say, works of scholarship) offer a more robust sense of what the “average American” thought at the time. Enter Professor Michael Altman. Dr. Altman is a professor of religion at the University of Alabama, and his book “Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893” was and is instrumental in providing the scaffolding for the collected data.

Dr. Altman’s key insight is that the American conversation about Hinduism long pre-dated the arrival of Hindus and Hinduism to American shores. So, rather than asking how Hinduism arrived in America, Dr. Altman asks how “Hinduism became conceivable in America.” This idea of “conceivability” is a key methodological pivot because it shifts the focus away from Hinduism per se, and towards the “genealogy” of a particular set of ideas, themes, and attitudes that shaped the American conception of Hinduism. Dr. Altman defines “genealogy” as follows:

“For my purposes, genealogy means an attention to the powers, identities, forces, constraints, agents, and discourses that form a particular category. It means paying attention to the connection between categories, the ways they overlap, include, and exclude one another. It traces how the formation of one category draws on others and produces yet more”

Whereas the traditional narrative marks Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the World Parliament as the beginning of the story of Hinduism in America, Dr. Altman notes that when Vivekananda entered the stage, “Hinduism as a world religion emerged in the midst of various representations of religion” and although these representations made Hinduism “conceivable” to the average American, “they were not its direct antecedents.” So what’s the take-away here? Many of the newspaper clips I post involve descriptions of Hindoos engaging in widow burning, infant sacrifice, and all sorts of other pagan bloodletting. It is not my intent to analyze the “accuracy” of these claims vis-a-vis the historical practice of Hindus in India, because that’s not what “Hindoo History” is concerned with. Whether these claims were true or not, they were for the most part the only data regarding the “Hindoo” the average American had access to.

This leads us to another key methodological contribution of Dr. Altman’s book, that I rely on in my own posts: The resulting conception was formed against the backdrop of an on-going debate in America regarding what “religion” was, and as a result the debates around Hinduism in America are drawn into broader sociological and theological disputes raging in America contemporaneously. Dr. Altman eloquently observes that “when Americans talked about religion in India, they were not really talking about religion in India. They were talking about themselves.” Focusing on newspaper clips and tracing themes chronologically helps illuminate not just how the American conception of the “Hindoo” changed over time, but also the shifting socio-cultural fabric of the country as a whole.

Repost: Sikhi In The Age Of Western Domination: Gurmat Or Abrahamic Belief?

Reposting this piece by @JuggadiJatt, originally published on his blog, The Sikh Mindset:


It is a wonderful (if not sad) coincidence that on the day before I finished writing this post, Nikki Hailey came out with her statement about Sikhi “acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God”. If that doesn’t justify an article of this nature being written, I don’t know what does. Unfortunately, Hailey’s blunder is but the latest in a long line of misconceptions held about the Sikh faith, many of which belong to Sikhs themselves. The community’s meteoric transformation from a rural South Asian demographic into a global entity has brought with it a whole host of novel challenges, the root of all stemming from the difficulty in navigating a Western conceptual framework of ‘religion’ with the realization that Sikhi is wholly unsuited for that category.

I felt writing this that each paragraph topic could have an essay dedicated entirely to itself. I don’t think this is an exhaustive look at how Sikhi differs from Abrahamic theology in any way, but hopefully it can be a start. Unlike most content of this variety this is not an academic journal entry written for scholars so should hopefully be able to resonate with and speak to normal people. If it becomes a reference point for future discussion on the matter, helps just one person see things differently or even just acts as a link-able piece when misinformation about our faith sprouts up in the future, this write-up will have fulfilled its purpose.


The Western World has been the dominant civilizational force on the globe for much of the past 500 years, and its hegemonic power is demonstrated in full force through the Sikhs it has been responsible for producing. The erosion of traditional Sikh theological context is evident when speaking with young Sikhs born and brought up in nations from the Americas to Europe and Australia. The internet is awash with questions about why bad things happen if God is good, comments indicating disbelief in God and concerns that “religion,” including Sikhi, “is hopelessly outdated in modern times”. Though perhaps all fair game, the lack of any semblance of historical Gurmat framework in which these queries are rooted is strikingly noticeable.

When we think of globalisation our brains tend to focus on intercontinental communication at the click of a button, migration patterns giving rise to diverse nation-states and visits to exotic lands nothing but a day’s air travel away. What we often overlook is the impact of the cultural, social and ideological shifts taking place as a result of our planet being connected like never before. In the space of 50 years, our very understanding of our faith has transformed to such an extent that it may be almost completely unrecognizable to previous generations.

In this post I want to devote a bit of effort aimed at addressing the problem. And while I am aware this is too complex an issue to resolve completely here, I hope I can at least offer a starting point towards doing so. It is my belief that Sikhi is too important a way of thought with far too much spiritual value to offer to allow the tides of time to dilute it beyond recognition.

Continue reading Repost: Sikhi In The Age Of Western Domination: Gurmat Or Abrahamic Belief?

Brown Pundits on Instagram!

Contributors, commenters, lurkers:

Happy to announce that Brown Pundits is officially on Instagram! You can find the profile here: https://www.instagram.com/brown_pundits. Please do give the account a follow.

I’ve noticed in my social media travels that the desi presence on Instagram these days is quite strong. There’s been a proliferation of profiles dedicated to desi history and culture that have seen some pretty expansive growth (e.g. Brown History, southasia.art). And as the sole and best source of heterodox views on all things South Asia, it’s only fair that BP gets it on the fun.

The primary purpose of the page will be boost the signal of the Brown Pundits Podcast, which is off to a great start and has already recorded a number of fantastic episodes. But of course, the page will be a work in progress.

Please do leave any comments or suggestions you have in the comments. Also open to any suggested “tag lines” we can include in the bio: as a starter, I went with “Punditry by Browns, for Browns.”

Brown Pundits