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Thursday, January 14, 1999

Unitarianism and early American interest in Hinduism

The early history of American interest in Hinduism is closely tied, surprisingly, to the early intellectual history of a small, liberal sect of American Christians known as Unitarians. In the fifty- to sixty-year period following American independence, almost the only American writers to show serious, sustained interest in the religious ideas and texts of India belonged to the social and religious world of New England Unitarianism, which itself coalesced as a uniquely American religious movement during that period.1 When I first began examining the early history of American reception of Hindu texts, I knew only that some of the Transcendentalist writers of the 1840s and 1850s had commented on Hindu texts. I had no idea that the Transcendentalists — who were considered radical by the larger Unitarian community from which they emerged — were not alone in their interest in Hinduism. They shared an interest in Hinduism with a modest tradition of earlier Unitarian writers who had been studying the latest books of European scholarship on India as early as the 1790s. According to Carl Jackson, Unitarians made the most important of the decisive American transactions with Oriental thought in the early 19th century (The Oriental Religions and American Thought, 25).

What can this mean for Unitarian historians as well as for students of Hinduism in America? Distinctive features of early Unitarianism made certain aspects of Hinduism especially appealing to Unitarian readers. Consequently some of the early American studies of Hinduism written by Unitarians have introduced or amplified certain biases in the general American perception of Indian religiosity. Furthermore, early students of Hinduism entirely overlooked or radically missed certain aspects of Hinduism, perpetuating a range of misperceptions within the American Unitarian tradition as well as in the larger society. In this paper, I will highlight features of the early Unitarian responses to Hinduism as found in the writings of Joseph Priestley, John Adams, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, showing how their responses to Indian texts set the stage for some contemporary Unitarian Universalist responses to Hinduism, and posing questions about the adequacy of traditional Unitarian modes of response to religious diversity. I argue throughout this paper that the Unitarians showed an unusually intense interest in Hinduism, highlighting ethical, philosophical, and literary aspects in the Hindu traditions while generally minimizing the significance of ritual practice and cultural context. While Priestley and Adams may be thought of as forerunners of the study of comparative religion in America, Emerson inaugurated another strain of American religious thought: the universalist impulse to disregard cultural dimensions of religion in a quest for the Infinite. The early Unitarians, in other words, helped initiate two ongoing American traditions of response to religious pluralism.

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Posted by Philocrites, January 14, 1999, at 10:18 PM

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