America Encounters India A Historical Perspective – N. Gerald Barrier

Norman Gerald (Jerry) Barrier – 1940-2010 

Professor Emeritus Norman Gerald (Jerry) Barrier, an eminent historian of South Asia and Sikh Studies, passed away on Sunday, June 6, 2010, a day when Sikhs around the world were observing the 26th anniversary of the Indian army’s assault on the Golden Temple at Amritsar in 1984.

Jerry Barrier was born on August 22, 1940.

He received his Ph.D. from Duke University and taught for a year at Northern Illinois. Then he taught at the University of Missouri, Columbia, for 37 years. While at Missouri, Jerry headed South Asia Center for several years, chaired the History Department, and held two chairs, the Middlebush Chair in History and the Middlebush Chair in Social Sciences.

America Encounters India
A Historical Perspective

During the last two hundred years, Indian culture and civilization have become an
important part of the American experience. From the earliest shipping ventures to
recent developments in international cooperation and business, American enterprise
has been involved in the socio-economic life of the subcontinent. Similarly, the intellectual exchange between the two cultures has been extensive and broad-based. Beginning with the first discover)’ of India in the late 1700s until the current Festival of India, ideas and institutions have flowed back and forth, a process accelerated and influenced by the growth of the substantial Indian population in America.

Recently, American education and the mass media have played a major role in
shaping our images of India. Indian culture and life have become a regular component
of social studies and humanities curriculum across the United States, either as specialized subjects or within comparative courses.  Besides reflecting the interest of Americans in Gandhi and non-violence in general, the recent popularity of the -Gandhi film by Attenborough also points to the role of modem communications informing and
perpetuating views of India. Over two decades ago, Dorothy Jones made a careful
study of India’s portrayal in Hollywood films and showed how misconceptions and
aspects of Indian culture were disseminated widely. Harold Isaacs has developed a
similar theme in his Scratches on Our Minds. 

That process continues to the present. Gandhi and its companions on British rule, such as Jewel in the Crown, A Passage to India, and The Far Pavilion, have introduced a broadened American audience to Indian politics, religion and recent history. Balancing these have been the visions of Indiana Jones and James Bond racing through India, saving heroines, and perpetuating stereotypes. News media have a mixed record, sometimes presenting sensitive evaluations and patterns in everyday life followed by awkward and even wrong-headed interpretations of major events from religious movements to the treatment of women.

Whether at the news-stand or the box-office, Americans know or think they know more about India than at any time in the past. This introduction to the Indian impact on America pulls together information on individuals, organizations and issues, and places them within historical perspective. Careful study of the titles found in this guide, and the wealth of information and perspectives in the publications themselves, would require a lengthy book, or more accurately, several lengthy books. Hopefully, these will be written someday, but until then, the following brief discussion will serve as a context for understanding Americans’ experience with India and how and why they wrote about that encounter.

Early Experiences with India

America’s earliest experiences with India involved both indirect and direct contacts. In the 19th Century the most pen-asivc source of American intellectual involvement came from Europe. Europeans had discovered India much earlier and in a milieu colored oy intense interest in Indian subjects and the “orient” in general, European scholars and authors produced substantial literature. Orientalism in Europe encompassed the study of classical languages such as Sanskrit, the exposition of Indie texts, and eventually concern with the nature of Indian society and institutions. 

Besides training American specialists, European universities reached generations of American academics with published treatises. The extensive popular writings on India also found their way to America. Often English firms developed co-publishing relations with American counterparts, so that novels, historical works, poetry and travel accounts reached an American audience almost as quickly as the European one. Virtually all the works of important commentators on India such as Flora Annie Steele found an American publisher, for example, as did the writings of Kipling, civil servants, and adventurers. Even before the roar of cannons subsided, tales of the 1857 mutiny reached the American shores. 

Just as India became a part of European experience, so contacts between America and Europe helped spread ideas, accurate or otherwise, about India first along the American east coast and then westward. Explorers had some knowledge of Vishnu and Shiva and named key geographical features after the Indian gods. American novels and poetry of the period reflect similar familiarity with Indian tradition. 5 At the same time, economic, political and intellectual developments in America fostered a more direct and vital link with India. As Americans created new institutions or modified those borrowed from Europe, they worked out their own relationships with and understanding of South Asia. The resulting literary and intellectual mosaic involved at least six strands. The first direct contacts with India came from trade and concomitant consular activities.

American ships reached Calcutta in 1784 followed thereafter by regular sailings from Salem and then Boston. The traders brought coffee and tea to America along with cotton goods, and later in the era of the clipper ships they carried ice to India. Indians sometimes accompanied the vessels back to America, but the most visible signs of cultural influence involve the artifacts and “long tales” distributed widely in New England. India came to be seen as a land of strangeness, of danger and wealth, and those who sailed there, the East India merchantmen, had a particularly high status.

By the end of the 19th Century the overseas trade from India dwindled, to be followed by commercial contacts between American manufacturers and English trading firms. 6 The commercial experience with India produced intellectual curiosity, accounts of travel and trade, and a gradual circulation of Indian literature and pamphlets along the sea coast. It also helped generate the growth of American political involvement in the form of a very young and slowly developing consular service in India. American diplomatic relationships with India always tended to be three-cornered. English decisions and treaties had a direct effect on American international relations, and particularly with India from the 1700s until 1945.

A steady stream of diplomats came and went — some writing books and diaries, others, producing voluminous reports that have remained in confidential files, while others found wavs to disseminate information through more informal means. 7 The importance of trade and diplomacy for increased American contacts with India cannot be- viewed just in terms of -the handful of Americans who for over a hundred years visited India and had experiences there. Actually, trade and diplomacy had a much broader effect. Sailors brought back stories and information, whetting the appetites of would-be adventurers and potential world travelers. They also spread the word about Indian religious beliefs, and from some perspectives, heathen practices.

The existence of diplomatic networks in India helped facilitate access to that region, both for individuals who wanted adventure or travel or for those who wanted information and services in order to set up missionary activities. Americans traveled to India for a number of reasons. The majority were missionaries who frequently published memoirs or other records of activities. Other Americans visited friends or incorporated a tour through India into an account of a worldwide circuit. Whatever their purpose the books and articles resulting from the encounters provided the American public with a growing corpus of India-related publications. If individuals or groups wanted to know more about India, they could draw upon the descriptions or the numerous guides to Indian subjects that were beginning to appear by the end of the 19th Century. 

Several hundred personal accounts were published between 1801 and 1930. Some, such as the study of India during a famine by J.R. Scott, dealt with particular problems, while others described a visit to Kashmir or a general tour. 9 An artist from Mobile, Alabama. Roderick McKenzie, spent fifteen years in India painting and lecturing, and upon his return to the U.S. in 1913, left a legacy of artistic impressions and articles on his experience. 1 ” Mark Twain was the most famous American visitor. At the age of sixty. Twain went on a world tour to raise money and bolster his image or as he put it, he “lectured and robbed and raided”. 

For three months during 1896, he toured India and lectured extensively, collecting fees and information for a new book. His Following the Equator, A Journey Around the World (published simultaneously in England and America in 1897) contains 200 pages on India — a blend of pithy comments and interesting monologue that characterizes much of Twain’s work. Reviews of the volume were mixed, but several commentators felt that despite a peculiar mix of misinformation, prejudice and insight, the India sections constituted a major strength of the book. Going through several editions and translated into European and Indian languages. Following the Equator remains a remarkable record of Twain’s views Of India and the reactions of a reasonably informed American to another civilization.

America’s most extensive and direct contact grew out of missionary activities. The first American missionary ventures were sponsored by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions — an organization with cooperation from several denomina- tions. Within two years after its founding, the Board made plans and sent missionaries to Calcutta in 1812. From that point onwards, there was a steady growth of American missionary activity so that by the end of the century, approximately forty American societies had missionaries or Christian-related institutions in the subcontinent. Missionaries participated in a spectrum of activities in addition to attempts at conversion. They set out to establish schools and colleges, created hospitals, and participated in social work activities.

Differing theological perspectives and varying senses of what constituted Christian mission in India was reflected in what the missionaries did and what they wrote. Some missionaries felt very strongly that Christianity was in direct competition with Islam and Hindu religion, and therefore devoted much time and their literature to presenting the Christian perspective in an attempt to co avert those not in the Christian faith. That type of literature is reflected, for example, in the work of James Mills Thorburn and John Peter Jones. They talk about the “Christian conquest of India” or as Jones put it, “India’s Problem: Krishna or Christ.” 

Other missionaries tended to be more sympathetic towards Indian culture and civilization. By the beginning oftthe 20th Century, there was a gradual shift in terms of what was being written and how missionaries viewed their role in the Christian church in India. One begins to find in India on the March, India Awakening, and Building with India, a discussion on the implications of nationalism for not only political activity but also how Indians saw their changing role within the missionary and Christian activities in the subcontinent. 

Coinciding with these developments was the missionary discovery of Mahatma Gandhi. Several missionaries wrote about Gandhi in the 1930s and argued that Gandhi’s ideas and emphasis upon non-violence and respect for human life paralleled and even reinforced the Christian message. Background on a few of the organizations and individuals involved in missions illustrate patterns ol the period. The Baptists devoted some of their energy to a mission in the Naga Hills. Edward Clark, a prominent missionary and scholar, helped develop missionary activities in that region and left behind a legacy of articles and books including dictionaries and translations of the scriptures. The Mennonites arrived in India rather late in 1899, but they created a network in the Central Provinces. Their activities grew out of concern over famine and food problems, and after an extensive tour by George Lambert, the decision was made to send out the first missionary. From that point onwards, they became involved in social work and education and tried to reach Indians at every level of society. 

Also noteworthy are the varied activities associated with the Women’s Missionary Movement in the United States during the 19th Century. Following 1800 women met and formed separate organizations in Boston, South Hampton, North Carolina, and New York. The purpose of these organizations was to insure that missions addressed the problem of women in the Indian and China settings, and that not only would they receive the Christian word but also that social issues would be highlighted. In 1865, for example, the New England Women’s Foreign Missionary Society met in a blizzard and gathered money to send out missionaries either separately or within other more organized missionary networks. Much of the work of these missionaries addressed female education and reached women who were cut off from normal public activities. The societies published at least thirty magazines, generated annual study guides on India and other missionary areas, and disseminated tracts and books on a regular basis. The forty womep missionary societies that were active by 1910 left an important mark not only upon Christianity in India but upon the American public. 

Just as there were many different organizations and approaches to missions in India, so were there different life-styles and ways that missionaries worked out an understanding of religion and mission. Many worked within formal channels either preaching or carrying out educational or medical activities. One of the most important in the early days of Christian missions was Dr. John Scudder. Bom in New Jersey in 1793, he went to South India as a medical doctor under the auspices of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Scudder and his wife served in South India for a long period of time. He translated and printed various tracts in the Telugu language in addition to being a medical doctor. Female medical missionaries joined male doctors by the end of the century. For example, the first medical missionary to India of the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America, Dr. Clara A. Swain, was a noted physician.

Other missionaries were iconoclastic and in fact, because of theological controversy, often such individuals had a difficult time. For example, Sadhu Hagcnstein in the Central Provinces decided that the best way to communicate with Indians was to establish ashrams and to change life-style so as to approximate that of Indians. Hagenstein became a landlord, teacher, worked for the British government at certain times, and conducted himself in the manner of an Indian saint. Similarly, in a neighboring area of Bombay, George Bowen came out as a missionary in 1848 and served approximately forty years. His career was marked with controversy as he tried to apply his own understanding of Christianity to the Indian mission. Often Bowen did not receive a salary from the American Board but rather supported himself by teaching and writing. He edited the Bombay Guardian and wrote newspapers and tracts in Marathi. He published an extensive range of literature, much of which also circulated in the United States or was reprinted by the Presbyterian Publication Committee.* 

Sam Higginbottom, who reached India in 1903, illustrates another kind ot missionary — those trained in economics and agricultural development. Higginbottom single-handedly developed the Allahabad Agricultural Institute, administered leper colonies and worked extensively across North India to help the common man. He and his wife also were involved in Rural Uplift for Women. By the time of his retirement in 1940, Higginbottom had the confidence of both the colonial government and the Indian nationalists. Serving as an informal adviser to Gandhi and Nehru, he helped lay the foundation for the new types of agricultural education and experimentation that were to become widespread in the 1950s and ’60s. 

The literary record of the missionary experience is both voluminous and virtually uncharted. Each society is represented by histories and published memoirs. Each also generated a variety of reports, books and pamphlets on specific issues such as the condition of women. 

In addition to institutional material, missionaries often wrote stories about India which circulated within church circles as well as reaching the general population.* 1

Sometimes books were reviews of a long career in India. At other times missionaries assumed the responsibility for producing a scries of volumes as part of their work. One of the best examples of such an individual was Bretton Thoburn Badlcy who published two major books in the United States, India Beloved of Heaven (1920) and New Etching of Old India (1918). In addition, Badley wrote more volumes in India: Hindustan’s Horizons (1923), Indian Church Problems of Today (1930). The Making of a Christian College in India, Being a History’ of Reed Christian College Lucknow (1906), Visions and Victories in Hindustan (1931), among others. He also wrote a study on Gandhi entitled The Solitary’ Throne, Some Religious Beliefs of Mahatma Gandhi, In the Light of Christ’s Teachings which was published simultaneously in India and the United States (1931— 2). 

Trade, curiosity and Christianity may have brought Americans to India, but at the same time Indian religious ideas and institutions moved westward and influenced Americans at home. During the last Century, Hinduism and Buddhism and variations of those faiths gradually became part of American culture. Influence was incomplete and often limited to specific groups and organizations. But the experience, as in the case of the other kinds of contacts with India, helped lay the groundwork for future communication between the two civilizations and also produced a substantial literature.

Prior to the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, there were at least three connections between American religious societies and Indian culture. The first and probably the most extensive iinked American Unitarians with Hindu reform associations in Bengal. The impetus for these contacts came from a Unitarian missionary, William Adams in Calcutta. William Adams worked with a local Bengali religious leader, ‘ Rammohun Roy, and eventually developed connections within the Bengali intellectual community. Adams visited Boston in 1838 and addressed the Society for the Promotion of Christianity in India, giving a very famous lecture on the life and labors of Rammohun Roy. He also talked about the need for Unitarian missionary activities in the subcontinent. Unitarians remained interested in the Indian scene, but devoted most of their funds in the next two decades to social and religious issues in the New England area.

In 1854, however, the Rev. Charles Timothy Brooks, a Unitarian pastor, went to Calcutta to represent the American Unitarian Association. There, he redeveloped connections with Rammohun Roy’s Brahmo Samaj and with a number of Indian intellectuals. This opened up fresh paths of interaction between American Unitarians and Indians receptive to different approaches to religious truth. As a result, the Unitarian sent a new missionary, Charles Dali. Dali spent considerable time in the Calcutta area and did much to strengthen relations between Americans and Indians.

Philip Ganguli, a convert, visited Boston in 1860, the first of a series of visits by Indians to America. In 1883, for example, a leading Bengali, Protap Mazumdar. toured the United States. Mazumdar was particularly respected by American Unitarians because ‘ of his book, The Oriental Christ. He tried to show that the Christian message could have meaning within a Hindu context and traced a common evolutionary pattern between Hinduism and Christianity.

For Mazumdar, Christ was presented as an excellent proponent of the Brotherhood of Man, a message that was very central to Unitarian thinking of the period. The possibility for a more extended dialogue and possible conversion led a Unitarian minister, Jabez Sunderland, to visit India in 1895.

That was the beginning of a forty-year interest on the part of Sunderland with things Indian, and reinforced the ties between Unitarians and organizations in Bengal. Although the net result of the Unitarian experience was a few scattered converts, the sustained flow . of ideas broadened the American worldview and widened the number of intellectuals familiar with current events in India. Moreover, it created a positive image of Indian religious movements and helped lay the groundwork for future intellectual and political cooperation between like-minded groups in the two civilizations. 

Hinduism also had an intense but short-lived influence on the American transcendentalist movement. The American intellectuals caught up with the burst of idealism, romanticism and mysticism that was represented in the writings of Emerson and later Thoreau found common ground with Indian metaphysics and its emphasis upon putting moral philosophy into action. As Dale Riepe has noted in an important study of the period, Ralph Waldo Emerson was influenced by a variety of ideas from Hinduism. He wrote a poem on Maya , was intrigued with the notion of Karma, and knew quite a bit about the Bhagavad Gita in translation. Emphasizing that Americans could and should learn from other civilizations, in his writings and speeches, Emerson stressed the importance of Indian wisdom and the sophistication of the Hindu world.

Henry David Thoreau was even more enthusiastic about the Hindu faith after discovering the oriental material in Emerson’s library. Reading widely in Indian literature, religion and philosophy, he tried to integrate new ideas into his worldview. Thoreau did not like the Hindu notion of caste or some of the social practices that he felt were associated with Hinduism. But on the other hand, he selected from Hindu scriptures those concepts that seemed sensible to him. Thoreau particularly emphasized the universal value of the Gita’s message.- His essays later were to support some of Gandhi’s notions about non-violence and the relationship between action and public affairs.

So at a critical time in the 1840s in America, the Bhagavad Gitn and other Hindu writings reinforced certain intellectual predilections of American thinkers. As Christy, another informed observer on the period, notes: “The Bhagavad Gita even approved of the hobbies of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott from trances to vegetarianism. No book could have done more.”

Concern with Indian ideas were later continued by those connected with the Concord School of Philosophy. There was also a transfer of interest in transcendentalism and India to the Midwest. In St. Louis, W.T. Harris established The Journal of Speculative Philosophy in 1867, with the result that “along the American Indus” a group of American idealists “sent out further waves and eddies to quicken Midwestern interest in India. This culminated in the 1893 World Parliament of Religions held at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893.

Before turning to the Exposition and the rise of the Vedanta-Ramakrishna centers, mention should be made of another contemporary movement that reflected Indian influence. In 1873, Madame H.P. Blavatsky arrived in New York from Tibet. There, she promulgated a mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism including reincarnation, Karma and Nirvana. She was joined in the venture by Colonel Henry Steele Alcott. Together the two of them established a theosophical club with the announced goals of publicizing one brotherhood of humanity, promoting study of comparative religion, and exploring the occult. Included in the activities was William Judge, a lawyer, who after Blavatskv and Alcott went to India in 1879, provided leadership for the American Theosophical movement.

The organization split and resplit into various factions and groups, producing a string of personal networks and magazines and generating a considerable amount of literature atong with heat and smoke. One interesting outgrowth of the movement was the creation in Point Loma, California, of a Utopian community. The founder of the community. Catherine Tinglcy, earlier had met William Judge and decided to set up a city in the west.

California was a logical location, already the home of numerous Utopian experiments. Following a visit to India in 1897, Tingley created the experimental community and gave both leadership and finances until her death in 1929. At Point Loma, innovations in education and religious teaching became part of daily routine, and the society published and circulated numerous treatises and textbooks ranging from religion to educational theory. With the death of Tingley and the stock market crash, the Point Loma community eventually disintegrated until its beautiful buildings and other facilities became a campus for a California University after the Second World War. 

Growing interest in non-western religious traditions such as evidenced in transcenden- talism. theosophy and Unitarianism led to the World Parliament of Religion held in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1983. The Exposition highlighted a new era of technology.

The World Parliament was seen by religious thinkers as an effort to relate technology and humanism, so that religious understanding and a fresh approach to the spirit would balance concern with technological change. The Parliament ran trom September 11th to the 28th, and included 172 major addresses by representatives of different religious groups. Several Indian intellectuals attended, including Protap Mazumdar.

But by far the most important and influential in the long run was Vivekananda, Swarm of the Ramakrishna order. Swami Vivekananda heard about the Parliament while touring in Madras and decided to make a trip to America, remarking that “the time has come for the Hinduism of the Rishis to become dynamic.”

After a rousing speech that outlined the relationship between Hinduism and universal world faith, the Swami toured the United States and established a religious center, the New York Vedanta Society. He also set in motion a process that created centers in many major cities. Upon his return to India, he was succeeded by a series of Swamis who met with Americans and firmly entrenched the Ramakrishna mission in America.

The new Vedanta Societies in San Francisco, Boston, Providence, Chicago, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Hollywood, Portland, Oregon, and other cities each had its own separate identity, and a particular religious leader sent to minister to the spiritual and educational needs of the new flock. The centers influenced American society through literature and extensive personal contacts with American intellectuals. They remained a nexus of informed interest in India and a permanent link with a vital Hindu religious order. 

Touring swamis were part of a fifth major development that exposed America to India, the evolution of an Indian community in the United States. Between 1907 and 1920 approximately 6,000 Indians, predominantly agricultural laborers, reached America and settled in the California area. Others came for education and either stayed to teach or returned to India. Americans were very concerned with what they saw to be the “tide of turbans” or the “Hindu invasion” and after 1910 began to limit immigration.

In 1917, for example, new legislation established a barred zone from which immigrants could not come, and India was included in that area. In the 1920s efforts were made to strip Indians who had already become American citizens of that right, along with other serious harassment of the community. This was only reversed many years later.

The number of Indians in the United States, therefore, was small but their influence far exceeded the size of population. Active in the economic and public life of their new country, and excellent publicists, they set up organizations which not only attempted to defend personal interests but explained India to their fellow Americans.

The self awareness and identity of Indians living in the western United States incorporated at least two important elements. First, Indians saw themselves in terms of their cultural background and racial identity. Articles and organizational material from the period suggest that they viewed the Indian homeland as a source of pride and at the same time an embarrassment. The civilization had gone awry and become downtrodden.

On the one hand, therefore, articles played up the great Vedic and imperial periods, times of cultural achievement and the role of great leaders who ranked high in the assessment of world historians. They then proceeded to talk about contemporary lethargy, squalor, and both material and spiritual decay.

The reasons for India’s downfall? The twofold answer was British rule and religious sectarianism. If India was to survive and prosper, the British had to leave the subcontinent and Indians had to somehow deal with the religious differences that seemed to be spreading not only in India, but also among Indians living on the West Coast. Detailed information on cultural life of Indians in North America is scattered, but clearly the variety of religious revitalization and mobilization along sectarian lines found in 19th Century India had accompanied the immigrants.

Sikhs illustrate this process. At least four separate Sikh organizations were involved in strengthening the community through a program of regular communication, meetings and social functions. Other communities were smaller in number, but also had similar organizations or occasionally joined Sikhs in pan-religious functions. 3 ‘ In addition to cultural differences and concern with the fate of their country, Indians banded together as necessary to deal with the problems they faced in America. They particularly were concerned with neutralizing racial arrogance and cultural insensitivity, and issued a series of articles and small pamphlets attempting to interpret their tradition. They also attempted to confront, wherever possible, legal issues facing the community.

Leadership on the west coast came from a short-lived organization, the Hindustan Ghadar party. Organized in 1913, the party produced propaganda in Indian languages that was akned at arousing revolution back home. They also issued appeals to- Americans to join Indians in freeing India from British rule.

During the First World War Ghadar members also cooperated with German intelligence and used German funds to send back arms and more propaganda to India. This met with failure, and in 1917 many of the Ghadar leaders were indicted in the so-called “Hindu-German conspiracy case” and imprisoned for the rest of the war. A small group of Indians in the New York area proved more successful in developing support among American intellectuals and arguing India’s case. A prominent Indian nationalist, Lala Lajpat Rai, worked in New York and toured between 1914 and 1919. He established the Indian Home Rule League of America, with various branches, published a newspaper called Young India and generally contributed to a mobilization not only of Indians but also of American associates.”

Indians found allies in many quarters. Ben Huebsch, a prominent New York publisher, already had printed a very controversial book on India. Keir Hardie’s study on the Punjab and British rule, Impressions and Suggestions (1909).

This was followed by the publication of several of Lajpat Rai’s books, promptly banned in India. Other American intellectuals joined in organizations such as the Friends of Freedom for India, for example, Roger Baldwin, Professor Robert Lovett, one of the editors of The New Republic , Norman Thomas, Agnes Smcdley and Jabez Sunderland. William Lloyd Garrison, who had cooperated earlier, helped give political clout as did support from Robert LaFollette, senator from Wisconsin.

In short, the New York contingent of the Indian immigrant community built a base of propaganda and information. Their campaign to present India in a positive light received a boost in 1913 when Rabindranath Tagore received the Nobel Prize for literature. Tagore toured the United States, and Macmillan made arrangements to publish most of his stories and books which continued to circulate widely in this country.

Through Tagore’s work Indian literature and civilization tended to be taken more seriously. As the New York Times noted in an editorial on the subject, with a racist comment that was quickly withdrawn, “this- is the first time that this prize has been given to anybody but a white person. In the early decades of this Century, at least three Indians living in the United States made significant contributions to U.S. -Indian understanding. Sudhindra Nath Bose received a Ph.D. in political science at the State University of Iowa and later became a lecturer at that University until his death in 1949.

Bose first received prominence when he was selected by the Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society and the Hindustan Association of America to represent Indians at a congressional hearing on limitation of Indian immigrants to the United States. Bose surprised the committee with his command of statistics and arguments. Using official documents he showed that literacy among Indian immigrants was higher than those from many European countries and that they contributed positively to American society and culture. Facing down the committee chairman, John Burnett, on the issue of cleanliness, he demonstrated that Hindus bathed regularly and had clean habits. He also used Western scholarship to prove that Indians were of Aryan stock.

In addition to lecturing to innumerable students in Iowa, Bose travelled across the United States and helped coordinate the visit of Rabindranath Tagore. He also was a regular correspondent to the Modern Review in Calcutta, wrote frequently for American newspapers, published two books and always stood ready as an interpreter of the American culture to Indians, and Indian civilization to Americans.

A second Indian author, Dhan Gopal Mukerji, wrote novels, children storie’s and
accounts of experiences both in India and the United States. After attending the
University of Calcutta and a year at Tokyo University, Mukerji came to California
armed, as he put it, with “miltonic” English, and spent his last dollar for an entrance
fee at the University of California. He’ eventually graduated from Stanford University
in 1914 with a degree in metaphysics. Mukerji was a sought-after lecturer on comparative literature and gave talks throughout the country. One of his children’s stories won a Newberry’ medal, and he also received attention for a very sensitive study of life in his homeland and in America. Although not involved in politics, Mukerji was widely recognized as a professional writer and speaker.

The third Indian, Dr. Haridas T. Muzumdar, made publicizing India and issues about
his civilization a central part of his life’s mission. In third grade, Muzumdar read a
lesson on George Washington and was so impressed that he continued to read about
America and eventually travelled to the United States with three hundred dollars in
his pocket. While studying at Columbia University, he spent much time in the New
York Public Library and enjoyed its rich facilities, far better than those to which he
had been exposed in Bombay University. Hearing about the Amritsar Massacre in
1919, he was so stirred that he wrote and published at his own expense an open letter
to Lloyd George, a pamphlet sent to several newspapers. He also learned a lesson in
the experience because of the many left over copies. It was not enough to write about
India, one had to develop a distribution system. Muzumdar then moved to Chicago
in 1922, established the Universal Publishing Company and published his first book,
Gandhi, the Apostle and eventually, an edition of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj with editorial
comments. He also printed several books by young pacificists. In 1925 he graduated
from Northwestern University with a Master’s Degree in Sociology and then went on
to the University of Wisconsin in Madison and acquired a Ph.D. During the Christmas
week of 1929, Muzumdar accepted Gandhi’s invitation to visit India and spent time
with Gandhi at his ashram. He subsequently returned to the United States for the
next fifty years. He has been a major author, and publisher on Indian affairs and issues
facing his country. 

Indians and Americans needed an the accumulated goodwill and support they could
find because in 1927, Katherine Mayo issued her famous book Mother India. Labeled
a “drain inspector’s report” by Gandhi, Mother India contained a stinging indictment
of Indian social, economic and religions practices. The book was particularly anti-Hindu
and stirred a tremendous reaction both in India and in the United States. The British
government in India which had given Mayo limited assistance in her brief tour in
preparation of the manuscript, felt the book worthwhile although upset a bit at some
of the emphasis and controversy arising from Mayo’s claims. Subsequent books, however, went too far and eventually another one of her books on India, The Face of Mother India , was banned by the Government of India in 1934 because of its treatment of Hindu-Muslim relations.’ 

American press response was mixed. Some newspapers supported Mayo’s claims with
headlines such as “India — Her Own Worst Enemy” while others raised questions about
the validity of the data and the general approach of Mayo. Articles in The New
Republic and Nation attacked the book as did many American intellectuals who wrote
letters to papers and participated in public rallies against the volume. Indians counter-
attacked with books on India and on Mayo’s work as well as commenting sharply on
American social practices. Many of these circulated in the United States. 

American cooperation in Indian cultural associations and a tendency for American
academics to rally to the Indian cause either in the case of immigration or Mother
India points to the importance of a final development, the evolution of American
academic interest in Indian civilization, contemporary politics and society. Some early
research and writing on Indian literature and language came from isolated scholars
such as Albert Pike of Little Rock, Arkansas. Pike had been teacher of Greek in
New England and after serving as a Confederate General in the Civil War, he studied
Sanskrit and made a translation of the Rig Veda, A second student of Sanskrit was
Isaac Nordhcimcr, Professor of Arabic and other non-western languages in the University
of the City of New York. In 1836, he taught Sanskrit on Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Others grouped together in organizations that were dedicated to scholarly interchange.
The most important was the American Oriental Society, organized in Boston (1842).
The two men behind the Society were not professional orientalists but rather individuals
involved in the law and clergy. John Pickering was a lawyer and devoted his leisure
hours to the study of different languages both western and oriental. He particularly
admired Sir William Jones who had been instrumental in the work of the Asiatic
Society of Calcutta. William Jenks, who became vice-president of the new Society,
was a clergyman with extensive knowledge of biblical and oriental scholarship. The
two were joined by other classical scholars and theologians in the Boston area, including
one of the secretaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.
The Society had three goals: cultivation of learning in the Asiatic, African and Polynesian
languages, the publication of works relating to the languages, and the collection of a
research library. From the outset, the organization has a broad definition of “oriental”
and while India was one of its concerns, the Society also examined information, debated
papers and published in areas other than India. Almost immediately, the AOS began
a journal that has continued until the present time. Membership of the Society was
divided into three categories — corporate members who were residents of the U.S.,
corresponding members from foreign countries, and honorary members with whom the
Society wished to maintain relations. The number of corporate members in 1850 had
been seventy-six, and this rose gradually until around 1890 when membership topped
two hundred. Much of the work of the corporate members involved regular meetings,
collection of information and attention to developing a core library that would be
available to all members. Corresponding members, at least initially, tended to be
German because of the nature of German scholarship, and because of the links with
Americans who had gone abroad to study Oriental languages and ended up in German

Professor E.E. Salisbury who taught Sanskrit and Arabic at Yale University was a
leading member of the Society, and he was followed in the role of corresponding
secretary by another Sanskritist who became one of the leading orientalists in America
during the 19th Century, W.D. Whitten. First serving as librarian in the AOS, he
succeeded Salisbury as corresponding secretary in 1857 and held that post for 27 years.
It was under his leadership that the Society became more influential and began to
affect academic developments along the East Coast. One of Whitten’s early students,
Charles Rockwell Lanman, went to Germany to study, and then returned and taught
Sanskrit at Johns Hopkins University and later at Harvard until his retirement. In
addition to teaching and founding the Harvard Oriental Series which published primarily
books on Indian philosophy and literature, he published a Sanskrit grammar and reader
in 1884, and also brought back ‘from India five hundred manuscripts in Sanskrit and
Prakrit. The gradual spread of the study of Sanskrit and Indian languages among Ivy
League schools eventually led to a broadening of the American Oriental Society which
until approximately 1890 had been led primarily by Yale University scholars.

In 1890 the AOS stood at a crossroads. Membership was increasingly nationalTbut
all annual meetings were held in Boston, and the administrative structure rested in
New Haven. Due to pressure from orientalists in Baltimore and Philadelphia, the
Society underwent a transition, changed its constitution, and broadened its program.
After 1891, annual meetings would be held in other places than Boston, and the
national character of the movement was recognized. Members of the Society also
helped establish other professional organizations such as the American Philological
Association in 1869. The growing importance of orientalism in the midwest led to the
creation in 1916 of a Midwest branch of the Society. In 1925, the Society sponsored
an American Oriental Series which complemented the journal, already almost a hundred
years in existence.

In addition to the work of the AOS, Harvard University played a particularly central
role in the academic study of India. As Dale Riepe has shown, from 1885 to 1915,
“no American institution of higher learning showed anything like the interest in Indian
thought evinced by Harvard University.”® Josiah Royce, a philosopher at Harvard,
became interested in Japanese thought and Indian ideas. His writings pay attention to
Hindu philosophical arguments, and references to the various Upanishads and other
sacred works dot his texts. Also at Harvard was Henry Clark Warren, who taught
religion and philosophy. Another colleague was James Haughton Woods, a specialist
in Buddhism and Sanskrit literature. In 1914 he wrote The Yoga System of Patanjali
that was one of the first systematic American studies on Indian philosophy. He also
influenced a spectrum of colleagues and students through his instruction at Harvard
and through his numerous publications. The list could go on to include professors such
as Irving Babbitt who wrote on Buddhism, and William Sturgis Bigelow, also a Buddhist
scholar. George Santayana made Hindu philosophical tenets a centerpiece of his numerous scholarly publications. 

Possibly the most important interpreter of Indian tradition in the first decades of
this century was not an American scholar in a university setting but rather the keeper
of Indian Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, 42 The
son of a Sinhalese barrister. Sir Mutu Coomaraswamy, and raised by his mother,
Elizabeth Clay Beeby, in England, Coomaraswamy studied botany and geology at the
University of London, and after completing his doctorate, became director of the
Mincralogical Survey of Ceylon. He then developed an interest in Indian art and
philosophy, and after 1911 made that the center of his professional life. Within a few
years, Coomaraswamy had published many articles and three major books: The Arts
and Crafts of India and Ceylon (1912), Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism (1916),
and Rajput Painting (1916), a two-volume classic in Indian art history. At the same
time. Coomaraswamy collected a rare set of paintings and artifacts and attempted to
give those to India on the condition that a museum be created. When this failed, Dr.
Denman W. Ross, the patron of the Boston Museum, agreed to purchase the collection
and helped make arrangements for Coomaraswamy to head a new Indian section, the
first in America. From 1917 until his death in 1948, Coomaraswamy built up the
Boston collection, publishing a major catalogue (1923-7), and sustained a stream of
lectures, tours, and publications. Combining passion and scholarly detail, he produced
over five hundred scholarly and artistic contributions in a fifty-year period.

An assortment of scholars in universities joined specialists such as Coomaraswamy
to broaden and enrich understanding between America and India. One measure of
their success was the evolution of Sanskrit departments and the study of Indie literature
and philosophy at a dozen universities in the East, Midwest, and California. Also
important was growing availability of manuscripts and documents. Two ACLS-sponsored
surveys of printed Indie texts, translations, and manuscripts (1933. 1938) demonstrated
the richness of American holdings, complemented by the art and archaeological
collections of several public and university museums. Yet professional involvement with
India tended to be limited. Except for sporadic work such as McCully’s published
dissertation on the Congress (1940), Smith’s Nationalism and Reform in India (1938),
and a study on caste by a visiting Indian scholar, Shridhar V. Ketkar, many dimensions
of Indian life, society, and history received no academic attention. 

By 1930 Americans therefore had been exposed to a variety of perspectives on India,
ranging from popular accounts and missionary reports to publications and lectures by
those interested in religion, philosophy and academic matters. The strands intertwined,
with touring swamis lecturing to philosophy departments, and learned Sanskritists talking to missionary societies or at civic luncheons. Specialists in comparative religion trained missionaries while at the same time developing a scholarly tradition in the study of Indian religious thought. 

During the next two decades, the same patterns persisted with a gradual expansion
of contacts between the public and India. Americans on tour wrote about their
adventures in India, illustrated by Seeing India with Lowell Thomas (1936). Others
visited India and were changed, such as Howard Thurman, a black American theologian
and professor at Howard University who headed a Student Christian Movement
delegation to India in 1935. Thurman had discussions with Tagore and Gandhi, and
those combined with events on tour led him to re-examine his perspectives on relicion and life. The Indian experiences were then incorporated into Thurman’s teaching,
preaching and writing.’ 

Although Theosophy declined in importance, other religious movements such as Vedanta societies remained interpreters of Indian tradition. New organizations appeared, as in 1938 when Swami Satprakashananda revitalized the St. Louis Vedanta Society and made an impact on local opinion. Besides lecturing, the swami wrote books, some of which were published by the Society, and supervised the establishment of a research library* At the same time, Indian authors continued to be heard. Dhan Gopal Mukerji died tragically in 1936, but Sudhindra Nath Bose and Haridas Muzumdar were joined by new voices in the person of Dr. Krishnalal Shridharani, J.J. Singh, and others. Indian novels by westerners also circulated more widely, as for example, the books by Edison Marshall and Louis Bromfield’s Night in Bombay (1940) and The Rains Came (1937). In the academic setting, another generation of Indian specialists taught Indie subjects and Sanskrit. Franklin Edgerton became central to the field, joined shortly by W. Norman Brown who built the University of Pennsylvania into a major center of Indian Studies. Comparative philosophy also developed. William Savery (University of Washington) and Charles Moore (University of Hawaii) helped organize a series of East-West Philosophers’ Conferences, beginning in 1939, which brought Indian and American philosophers into direct dialogue.

The gradual evolution of American involvement with India nevertheless took a new
turn after the 1920s. The first sign of the shift began with the rise of Gandhi in Indian
politics and the spectacle of a non-violent war against imperialism, a dramatic struggle
that captured the attention of America and set the stage for a crescendo of interest
in Indian politics and society. This soon was followed by the collapse of American
apathy toward Asia and the world in general occasioned by Pearl Harbor and the
Nazi threat in Europe. Americans became active players in the game of British imperial
politics as the Government of India desperately tried to shore up India as a central
base for the Allied war effort. A combination of Gandhi and the violence of war
jolted America and exposed it to a civilization and a region increasingly vital to U.S.
interests That experience in turn produced the challenges, the institutions and the
new opportunities for understanding and scholarship that continue to shape contemporary American encounters with India.


For more:

America Encounters India A Historical Perspective – N. Gerald Barrier