The man who coined 'Hindooism'

In 1767, a 21 year old Charles Grant, like many other twenty year olds traveled to India to join the East India Company’s military service. Arriving in Bengal, he was offended by the corrupt activities of the company and the officers. Soon a personal incident changed him forever and his life went in a new direction. He became an evangelical and argued vehemently for the introduction of Christianity — which was against company policy — to enhance the morality of Indians. In the process he coined the word “Hinduism” and redefined the way how the world viewed the traditions of India.
When Grant arrived in Calcutta, a decade after the Battle of Plassey,  the company was in charge of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Robert Clive had left and the company officers we indulging as best as they could. Corruption was rampant and the famine had reduced the Bengal population by a third. Though he argued that the company had done quite a lot, he was troubled by the suffering. But interestingly, in his letters written during this period, there is no mention of religion or God.
After the famine he got a severe fever and had to return to England to recover.  He returned in 1773 with his new bride – the 18 year old Jane Fraser. The young Mrs. Grant did not take to Indian climate very well and this worried Charles, but those worries went away with the birth of his daughter Elizabeth. He got promoted as the Secretary of the Board of Trade, but that did not prevent him from criticizing the Warren Hastings’ administration.
By then he had a secure life: good friends, great family, terrific salary. If you have watched any non-Adoor Gopalakrishnan Indian movie, you will know that usually there is a song here and then it all goes downhill. What is true now, was true in the year of American Independence too; Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret died of small pox, just nine days apart.
A devastated Grant took refuge in Christ and became a sincere believer; he became an evangelical and few missionaries in the area helped him overcome his pain. He became a new man, renounced vices like gambling, and letters written during this period contain references to God and salvation.
After taking a position as the Commercial Resident of Malda, Grant took an interest in the moral nature of Indians. He rejected the argument that Hindus were people in whom mild and gentle qualities dominated; he thought that they were morally depraved. He wanted to bring in social and economic reform and the way for that, not surprisingly, was to make people acquainted with the truth of Revelation and free them from the ‘false religion’.
In his words

With the argument for the introduction of Christianity and Western education in India, Grant was years ahead of Thomas Macaulay and Alexander Duff. The charter of the East India Company did not officially permit missionary activity, but Grant was convinced that it had to change. This social revolution, Grant argued, would promote the well being of the population and in turn protect the company’s interests.
In 1787 Grant wrote a letter to one Mr. Wilberforce which contained the following paragraph.

This is important for one reason: it is the first time the word Hindooism is ever used; it replaced descriptions like  “Hindoo religion” and “Hindoo creed”. By coining this new term and advocating it, Grant’s label made it convenient to refer to the various religious traditions of India.
This was a time when there were apparently four religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Paganism. Now the Paganism of India had a name and a comparison to Christianity could be done. For example what was the religious structure and accepted scriptures of Hinduism? How similar or how different was it from the Protestant religion?
He had answers for this: Hinduism was Brahmanism and Brahminism was Hinduism. These crafty priests had enslaved the population — people who did not have a mind of their own — through rituals and the caste system. These slaves, enslaved through fear and ignorance practiced barbaric rituals like sati, hook swinging and the devadasi system. Also unlike in his religion, only those crafty priests could read the sacred texts.
Though he despised the Brahmins, he thought they were the descendants of Noah and  were blessed in the Garden of Eden. These Brahmins who once held belief in a rational Supreme Being, had now fallen from grace into the ignorant ways of polytheism and idolatry.This belief, that Brahmins were descendants of Noah,was nothing new and was prevalent in India at that time. While Grant was in Bengal, the French-Catholic missionary Jean-Antoine Dubois who was working in South India, too connected Brahmins to Noah

After the flood, the whole world was repopulated again. For this, Noah and his  sons dispersed around the world. One group went West, while the others under the guidance of Magog, Noah’s grandson, went to the Caucasian range. From there they came via the North into India and populated it. He even has a date  for this migration – nine centuries before Christian era. Thus the Brahmins, according to Dubois, were descendants of Magog’s father Japheth.[The Biblical Migration Theory]

Grant wrote all these ex cathedra pronouncements in Observations on the State of Society among Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain, but initially showed it only to a few evangelical friends. Grant later became a member of the Board of Directors of the EIC, but still then the pamphlet was not released publicly. Even other missionaries had not seen it. So why should these comments by a delusional missionary matter?
His work, along with the work of others, influenced the British perception of India. This was the beginning of the establishment of a dominant paradigm — defining Hinduism for Indians and rest of the world. Since the colonial power was in the control, their representation of the traditions became the accepted norm, which we continue to use even today.
Also in 1813,the Charter of the company came up for renewal and by then the Evangelicals had gained strength. People like Zachary Macaulay, father of Thomas Macaulay, had become influential and wanted the ban on missionaries to be removed.  On the eve of that debate, Grant’s work was printed as a parliamentary paper.
The evangelicals won in 1813.

  1. Dr G A Oddie, Imagined Hinduism: British Protestant Missionary Constructions of Hinduism, 1793-1900 (Sage Publications, 2006). 
  2. Henry Morris, The life of Charles Grant (J. Murray, 1904).
  3. Image from Wikipedia

22 thoughts on “The man who coined 'Hindooism'

    1. Dilip,
      One of the references for this post, Imagined Hinduism, has some mention of Brahmins. But then it all comes from missionary writing. I have a a couple of recent PhD theses on my desk regarding this period which I have not gone through. One of the posts I want to do is compare what the missionaries wrote with what was on the ground.
      Will let you know as I read more.

  1. Just a slightly off topic comment:
    I really admire your to-the-point, factual and not opinionated blog posts. For a sane and a sensible person (one who is not a loony liberal), it gives a historical perspective to the origin of problems in India.
    Great writing. Very informative stuff.

    1. Jatkesha,
      These posts are intentionally written that way as I am still learning about this period. I will write opinionated posts, but want to back it up with references.

  2. JK,
    Interesting! You are probably aware of the work of SN Balagangadhara founder of the Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap (center for the Comparative Science of Cultures) Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium, and his magisterial “The Heathen in his Blindness” which is the definitive body of scholarship on the imagined history of that peculiar unicorn called “Indian Religion”. Raf Gelders, one of Baalu’s collaborators has just published his dissertation, titled “From ascetics to crafty priests: The genealogy of colonial discourse”

    1. kaangeya,
      Yes, I do. I have a copy of his thesis and am familiar with his argument that definining of Hinduism started much earlier in the libraries of Europe. After finishing it, I plan to make a post.

  3. Hi JK,
    Sorry for offtopic comment, but I was wondering about the reason why sea voyages were prohibited in India. In wealth of nation Adam Smith writes that prohibition was a result of a different prohibition on lighting fire over black water.

    1. Gaurav,
      Kedar is on the right track. When you hear statements like sea voyage was prohibited in “India”, you should take it with a pinch of salt. This assumes a constant pan-Indian behavior while that is never true regarding anything in India.
      The Indus Valley folks were seafarers; there was a Meluhhan colony in Mesopotamia in 2000 B.C.E. The guy who helped Vasco da Gama reach Calicut from Malindi was an Indian. Ibn Battuta mentions seeing Indian ships in Aden. Gujarati vaniyas, Tamil and Telugu Chettis, Mappilas and Syrian Christians were all traders. The Sultans of Gujarat had close contact with Mamluk Egypt. Similarly there was extensive trade between Bhatkal and Hormuz. And this is just around the 15th and 16th centuries.
      It has been extensively covered in these posts

  4. As far as I know, sea voyages were prohibited only for brahmanas, and that only because it would be next to impossible for them to follow their nitya-karmas like trikaala sandhya vandana (hmm.. may be somehow possible), aupasana homas performed by married men (fire on board!) or agnikaryas performed by brahmacharis (fire on board again!). And then, there were problems like what to eat, who cooks it, how is it cooked, where to eat, etc.
    On top of that, nityaagnihotris (there were a lot of them once!) had a mandate to keep the agni alive all the time. Even while travelling in bullock-carts, they used to “store” the fire in balls made of cow-dung which were buried in a small bucket of sand so that it burns slowly. Every 12 hours or so, the ball used to get exhausted, before which the sand was dug up(a lot of smoke was an indicator that this ball is almost exhausted) and the “alive” agni was fed to another dried cow-dung ball, and covered by sand again.
    As one can see, there are multiple problems with such an agnihotri undertaking a sea voyage!
    Months of sea voyage would make all of this cumbersome.

  5. wonder to what extent the missionary dislike of brahmins was driven by the fact that they were the chief impediment to the evangelical project?
    “Others may oppose political Considerations, the danger of disturbing the present Order of things, and of introducing a Spirit destructive of that subjection and Subordination, which have made the Natives of Bengal so easy to govern.” – hmm… fascinating.

    1. gbz,
      The Missionaries working in Bengal, like Duff and Grant came with the idea that Hinduism is Brahminism. They thought that Brahmins were a united pan-Indian entity and hence if Brahmins could be destroyed, Hinduism could be destroyed as well.

  6. gbz,
    The missionaries (we are talking mainly of the English Protestants) may have developed a dislike for the “cunning brahmin” for some of the following reasons. By the time the English missionaries landed in India, the cunning priests had already seen off two waves of Continental missionaries – all Catholic, pre and post Reformation. They were far better read than the typical missionary and possessed absolutely razor sharp intellect. The best of them (say a Namboothiri or a Maithili Jha) were steeped respectively in topics such as mathematical analysis or the forerunners of today’s analytic philosophy. The pathetic circular proofs of “God’s existence” or the fairy tales would have evoked titters and guffaws of laughter. While this may be a hypothesis about India, in Sri Lanka for much of the 19th century Buddhist bikkhus successfully matched wits with missionaries and routed them in debate.

  7. To add more to seafaring in India, one of the five stories told during “satyanarayana puja” involves a seafaring merchant-duo. This is a very common puja and I think we have an acceptance to vartakas (merchants) taking up sea-voyages.

  8. JK:
    You write, “After taking a position as the Commercial Resident of Malda, Grant took an interest in the moral nature of Indians. He rejected the argument that Hindus were people in whom mild and gentle qualities dominated; he thought that they were morally depraved. He wanted to bring in social and economic reform and the way for that, not surprisingly, was to make people acquainted with the truth of Revelation and free them from the ‘false religion’.”
    There are Grants in India today arguing pretty much like the original Grant. Their agenda is also to free Indians from the ‘false religion’ Hinduism. Large portions of the change has been done already but the majority of the job remains. The first job is to persuade the population that the Hindu religions are evil. Hindus can do nothing right and non-Hindus can do nothing wrong. That idea has taken a pretty strong hold on a certain segment of Hindus. The evangelicals are winning. What surprises me — perhaps it should not — is that Hindus actually vote these into power.
    Civilizations, as has been noted, are not murdered but rather commit suicide.

    1. Atanu,
      Definitely. What is surprising (or not surprising) is that techniques which were used two centuries back and terminlogy used two centuries back are still being used successfully today – evil Brahmins, false religion, idolatry etc.

  9. @ JK & kaangeya — thanks for the responses.
    But the most interesting aspect of the annotations in the post is the british fear that christianity would make indians rise in rebellion against the empire. Its better to keep them hindu because that will keep them subjugated. Leaving aside the question of how well-founded such an attitude was (is?), assuming it was/is well founded, where does it come from? What makes hindus so ‘subjugable’, then and now? not really looking for an answer, just wondering..

  10. I am doing a study on Hinduism. I am trying to locate the first usage the the term ‘Hindooism’. You mentioned that Charles Grant had used the term, however I couldn’t find the reference. Would you kindly point me to the reference?

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