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The above is a description of the fictional character Captain Percy, given from the perspective of the eponymous ‘Hindoo Rajah’ in Elizabeth Hamilton’s 1796 epistolary novel, Translations of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah. This ‘English officer’ was modelled on Hamilton’s deceased brother Charles (1753–92), who had authored several Persian manuscript translations. As Captain Percy, he thus represented what was by then the familiar archetype of the East India Company orientalist. The account of India laid out in Hamilton’s novel offers a literary reflection of British constructions of Hindoo religion and history, and their relationship to the politics of empire in India, as they stood towards the end of the eighteenth century.
Chapter 1 does two things: it charts the history of European interpretations of Hinduism from early modern travel accounts to the emergence of comparative approaches to the study of world religions in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Following this it offers an overview of the long history of the Company’s policies on religion
as well as some of the significant turning points in the Company’s political status and in its institutional approach to research on Indian languages history and religion.
In the middle of the eighteenth century, finding themselves with privileged access to Indian languages and advisors, servants of the East India Company became instrumental in delivering ideas about Indian religion to European audiences. This book is about the religion they decided to present, the intellectual frameworks that shaped their presentation of it, and some of the ramifications it had for Enlightenment thought, Company policy and contemporary ideas of empire.
Chapter 4 ends Part I of the book with an account of the reaction to Holwell’s and Dow’s ideas throughout Europe, pointing to how, despite their differences, the common ‘philosophical’ quality of their enquiries had a significant impact on numerous intellectual elements of the late Enlightenment period. This includes a discussion of debates on the legitimacy of Company governance and the significance for their work in debates on empire.
Chapter 6 situates Charles Wilkins’ approach to his translation of the Bhagavad-Gītā in the long history of British interpretations of Hinduism charted throughout this book. It argues that his ‘philosophical’ interpretation of the Hindoo religion was orientated to the same Enlightenment culture of religious debate that shaped the earlier work of Holwell and Dow, while at the same time contributing to the politics of his patron, Governor General Warren Hastings.
Chapter 2 concerns Holwell’s religiously heterodox interpretation of Hinduism, which is at the core of the book’s thesis, since his account would establish the ideas that would also run thematically throughout the works of Dow, Halhed and Wilkins. It outlines how Holwell’s interpretation of ‘the religion of the Gentoos’ was shaped by his preoccupation with heterodox religious arguments, as well as some genuine insight into Indian philosophical concepts. Despite its idiosyncratic origins, Holwell’s work captured some important tropes in deistic approaches to comparative religion, such as a narrative of original religion corrupted by priestcraft, which would come to dominate British constructions of India’s original ancient religion throughout the century.
Chapter 7 looks at the place of the recognised orientalist William Jones in the longer history of British interpretations of Hinduism sketched out in this book. It argues that his work represents a significant turning point in the formulation and reception of British accounts of Indian philosophical religion. In the first instance his religious outlook, which it identifies as closest to the Rational Dissent of late eighteenth-century Unitarianism, preferred an account of Indian religion that posited it as mystical and sublime, and therefore more malleable to Biblical scripture. This, in turn, made it particularly attractive to those seeking to redefine Britain’s relationship with India in the wake of war with Revolutionary France as one paternalist guardianship of ancient customs and traditions. At the turn of the century, British interpretations of Indian religion were thus to be stripped of any heterodox implications, and aligned with the institutionalisation of orientalist knowledge, as a branch of imperial governance.
Chapter 3 offers the first sustained and systematic approach to understanding the ideas of Company servant Alexander Dow. It outlines how Dow’s assessment of the origins of the Hindoo religion was grounded in the language and concepts of eighteenth-century rational religion according to an account of Dow’s treatment of the two primary schools of thought that he argued make up the Hindoo religion: the Bedang (Vedānta) and the Neadrisen (Nyāya).
Chapter 5 situates the work of Halhed in relation to the practical uses of orientalist knowledge when it comes to establishing the legitimacy of a British presence in India, while also tracing elements of both the religious heterodoxy and scepticism in his presentation of the Code of Gentoo Laws. It then turns to an account of his involvement in Company politics, and more particularly his support for Warren Hastings throughout the impeachment trial.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, several British East India Company servants published accounts of what they deemed to be the original and ancient religion of India. Drawing on what are recognised today as the texts and traditions of Hinduism, these works fed into a booming enlightenment interest in Eastern philosophy. At the same time, the Company's aggressive conquest of Bengal was facing a crisis of legitimacy and many of the prominent political minds of the day were turning their attention to the question of empire. In this original study, Jessica Patterson situates these Company works on the 'Hindu religion' in the twin contexts of enlightenment and empire. In doing so, she uncovers the central role of heterodox religious approaches to Indian religions for enlightenment thought, East India Company policy, and contemporary ideas of empire.