Idolatry and the Colonial Idea of India 01
Book Review & Summary: Idolatry and the Colonial Idea of India By Swagato Ganguly- I

In colonial India, idolatry became a totalising figure for Indian society and its perceived strangeness, excesses, and anomalies. Idolatry was the overarching figure for Indian irrationality, aesthetic shortcomings, and moral flaws.

Idolatry and the Colonial Idea of India: Visions of Horror, Allegories of Enlightenment By Swagato Ganguly is available for purchase on Amazon

Swagato Ganguly is a reputed journalist on the editorial board of the Times of India; and a rare one with an engineering degree from IIT Kanpur and a doctorate of literature from the University of Pennsylvania! He is a prolific writer on a wide variety of subjects as noted from his blog articles. He has written this wonderful book- a must read, to understand the colonial discourses on idolatry, which finally justified their despotic rule in India.


Biblical conception of false gods designated idolatry as a flawed cognitive apparatus overdetermined by images. Enlightenment values enhanced the delusional mentality of Indian society and religion based on idolatry. This was a weakness of reason plaguing the subjects of colonial rule, thus justifying their civilizing mission of upholding Enlightenment values. Idolatry was the origin and causal explanation for irrationality in the Indian society.

Idolatry was like fetishism, a product of the cross-cultural interactions on the coast of West Africa, which the European Enlightenment intellectuals took up eagerly. Fetishism was a religious delusion of African religion and society- a strong reason for their perceived anomalies. Fetishism was perverse overvaluation of ‘things’ to which ‘a religious, aesthetic, sexual or social value’ can be attached. Africans’ attachment to false things allowed sensuality and promiscuity in their society. Africans became ‘things’ rather than ‘subjects’, and hence fit for slavery.

Fetishism and idolatry both stress the inappropriateness of material entities as a locus of spiritual and devotional activity; leading to superstitious cult practices; and finally latch to the idea of spiritual fraud by evil priests. This wonderful book studies the colonial mentalities surrounding these ideas.

It started with Plato where ‘idea’ was divorced from its ‘image’. The idea or form is pure; and the image (or the eidolon) is a corrupted, mutable, and a degradable copy, inferior to the world of ideas from which it emanates, says the author. The Judeo-Christian God is the immaterial and immutable Platonic form or truth; and the ‘idol’ comes to designate the false, fabricated, and material entity prone to decay and disintegration.

St Augustine carried this into Christianity as a hierarchical distinction between the ‘intelligible’ faith and the ‘sensible’ idolatry. Ironically, Enlightenment, which stood in opposition to religion, speaks in the same theological but secularised language. ‘Ideology’ of the Enlightenment was opposed to ‘idolatry’ of the superstitious past stressing the superiority of ‘ideas’ over ‘images’ as instruments of thought. In the world of western metaphysics, the split between the idea and the image transformed into the superior ‘signified’ and the inferior ‘signifier’. Western metaphysical reason bypasses the ‘signifier’ transcending all falsifications of image.

All discourses finally converge to the position of idolatry or fetishism as something false existing at a lower level. If idolatry stresses the ‘image/signifier’ without reference to the ultimate transcendental ‘signified’, it promotes a multiplicity of meanings rather than reducing them to the first causes. Thus, idolatry links to polytheism too. Like writing being a Platonian corrupted image of the speech, idolatrous speech and belief has greater affinity to narrative and myth than to metaphysics and philosophy.

An idol resembles a god, without being God, leading to metaphysical disappointment. It is related to artifice and through it, to art and literature. The colonial narrative said that the taste for allegory and penchant for outward appearances leads Indians and specially Hindus, to dwell on the outward forms of nature itself, instead of a radical separation between nature and God. Nature is multiple and corporeal; it is inimical to the notion of God-a unitary and a perfect being. Polytheism, like idolatry, also posits a multi-causal world which is antithetical to a monotheistic absolute God.

One British scholar said: ‘the religion of Kalee is pure, unmixed evil’. In colonial India, idolatry became a totalising figure for Indian society and its perceived strangeness, excesses, and anomalies. Hindu architectural design was idolatrous and the British shunned these completely in their building constructions. Idolatry was the overarching figure for Indian irrationality, aesthetic shortcomings, and moral flaws. The idolater’s deficiency of an autonomous subjectivity made him unable to control and govern himself, as he is liable to be in captivity by his powers of imagination, as the author says. This lack of self-control requires an external ‘civilizing’ power to govern him wisely.

Augustus Comte told about the three theological progressive states -fetishism, polytheism, and then finally monotheism. This further progresses into metaphysics and then finally science. Neat! Similarly, a prominent philosopher Hegel thought that the lack of reason to successfully mediate between an abstract ‘universal’ and a concrete ‘particular’ inhibited the growth of a free, autonomous subject in India. Not only that, Hegel placed the Indian society in a graded hierarchy of civilizations with obviously the Christian, European civilization at its apex.

Idolatry not only justified their colonising mission, but also was dangerous to the colonial rulers. It was contagious and communicable with the capacity to corrupt the colonial rulers, according to some. Idolatry could hence breach European rationalities through the deployment of image, spectacle, and sensuality. This could lead to a sense of exaltation despite the danger of decay and death. Hence, if the European coloniser is behaving irrationally, blame it on his contact with idolatry in the Indian society.


William Jones (1746–1794) was the first Orientalist popularising the study of India and its languages. A philologist and a judge in Bengal, he noted connections between the European languages and Sanskrit and proposed the Indo-European family of languages. In 1784, he founded the Asiatic Society in Calcutta and started a journal called Asiatick Researches. Of course, the membership was to only Britishers; and there is tremendous evidence today that his researches on Indian culture were coloured with Christian theological considerations.

The author says that his ‘A Hymn to Lacshmi’ clearly shows that the average Hindu is patient but slow on the uptake, held in thrall by the wily priests. The priests are rational manipulators because they are aware of the falsehoods they are perpetrating and hence are guilty of imposing a false consciousness on the society. The same hymn clarifies the meaning of idolatry as bowing down to ‘senseless nature’ instead of ‘God.’ And finally, the short hymn declares that the empire will liberate the Hindus from their priests using the ‘magic wand’ rather than a ‘rod.’ So much so for altruistic respect of other cultures and traditions. The persistence of idolatry, rather than a desire for profits, provides a rationale to the British in their colonial enterprise. Strangely, this short hymn is an invocation to Goddess Lakshmi to deliver the Hindus from the priests to the British empire.

The poem in short, inscribes the Orientalist view of the imperial civilising mission. Jones becomes a deliverer of the primitive populace held in the thrall of an originally pure scripture corrupted by later Hindus into an inferior brand. Indigenous laws would govern India, but the Englishmen would be the most effective arbiters and interpreters of these laws cleaning them of misuse by priests and idolaters.

The Christian doctrine of the 18th century talked of one people receiving a primeval revelation. These people dispersed to different parts of the world following the Tower of Babel. The Pagans lost the revelation, and idolatry originated among them. However, there were traces of monotheism in all cultures, including the Hindu traditions, and these were the recollections of a remote past. Jones immersed himself in searching for such a primeval text in Hindu scriptures which could link to the original Christian revelation. Unlike most of the Indologists, old and new, Jones learnt Sanskrit but the reasons were not very kind. He said, ‘the villainy of the Brahmen lawyers makes it necessary for me to learn Sanscrit, which is as difficult as Greek.’

The British scholars following him, confused with the heterogeneity of texts in the Indic traditions, conveniently connected the multiplicity to one of the root senses of idolatry- an endless proliferation of images and meanings, without reference to an ultimate ‘signified’. For Jones, idolatry implied fracture of subjectivity and truth. Textual corruption of the original pure scriptures also implied a moral corruption of the peoples.

Idolatry and its identification with textual and moral corruption also leads to forgery, and later, lying under oath in the courts. Jones was very harsh with his punishments for forgery and perjury, because to him that was the lowest a society can slide into. Thus, the author says, the meme of forgery, linked to the concept of idolatry as a spiritual fraud, emerges as a crucial site for the exercise of colonial power.

Jones managed to translate and interpret the gayatri mantra too as a nonidolatrous monotheistic form which he believed Hinduism originally was in act of epistemic violence, says the author. The sun is the sun itself and not as an idol or a symbol representing the divine. Adoration of the sun was a sign of pagan idolatry. One scholar Jenny Sharpe sharply describes Jones as finding a ‘secondary origin’ for Hinduism.

Jones identified poetry, fable, metaphors as an important source for idolatry. They represent a corrupted version of original metaphysics and deep study could uncover these underlying truths. Specifically, Hindu fables, if studied carefully, could confirm Mosaic accounts of Biblical history. Satyavrata’s story in Bhagvat-Purana seemed to be that of Noah disguised by Asiatick fiction according to him.

Jones was clear where Europe stood in comparison to India when he proclaimed: ‘reason and taste are the grand prerogatives of European minds, while the Asiaticks have soared to loftier heights in the sphere of imagination.’ Another place he says: ‘…. yet the Athenian poet seems perfectly in the right, when he represents Europe as a sovereign Princess and Asia as her Handmaid.’

The hyperactive Asian imagination can be a source of idolatry according to Jones. But when confronted with criticism of Christianity showing tendencies of polytheism or idolatry within Christianity itself, or Gospels returning as a corrupted form of Islam, he too showed an amazing hyperactive imagination in rhetoric and circular arguments.


Ezourvedam was a fake work of French Jesuit missionaries who wanted to convert people using this as a tool. This work was ‘the lost Veda’ and made strong arguments against idolatry obscuring an originally pure monotheism derived from Christianity, of course. However, another important interpretation was Hinduism being chronologically more ancient than Christianity and this was precisely the reading of Voltaire of this text! Voltaire used it as evidence that Christian concepts pre-existed the birth of Christ writing, ‘our holy Christian religion is solely based on the holy religion of Brahma.’ However, he too believed that the golden age of Hindu fell to the present where idolatry is dominant.

There are significant crossovers and overlaps between the Asiatic project founded by Jones and Ezourvedam. Jones truly believed in the myth of a past golden age ‘splendid in arts and arms, happy in government, wise in legislation, and eminent in various knowledge.’ Idolatry was the source of a degenerate present. Jones’ conceit considers the decline from a Satya-Yuga to a Kali-Yuga of Indian traditions to the idolatry represented by Kali, the ferocious. Of course, colonial ideas of Indian decay fitted well into the context of European progress. This provides a rationale for colonial rule as a degenerated and decayed civilization is incapable of self-rule.


Mill wrote ‘The History of British India’, which was a necessary manual for British officers coming to India. It was more of a polemic against India and surprisingly, James Mill thought it unnecessary to set foot on Indian soil before writing its history! He wrote: ‘Whatever is worth seeing or hearing in India, can be expressed in writing. As soon as everything of importance is expressed in writing, a man who is duly qualified may obtain more knowledge of India in one year, in his closet in England, then he could obtain during the course of the longest life, by the use of his eyes and ears in India.’

‘Western metaphysics’ ran through his history giving more privilege to philosophizing than observing; to ideas more than images; to the intelligible over the sensible. The difference between myth and philosophy is the difference between India and Europe finally. Mill claimed his ‘History’ offering a ‘knowledge of India, approaching to completeness.’ He wrote a ‘judging history’ because he thought his absence from the scene of action qualified him better to speak his history from the position of a philosopher/judge. But what was he judging?

It was India on an evolutionary scale of civilizations based on ‘utilitarian’ normative standards. A nation is civilised in proportion to its pursuit of Utility; and a nation wasting on ‘contemptible or mischievous’ objects is barbaric. Hence, India, no wonder, ranked low among civilisations. Not only that, in India, liberty would be incompatible with the maximisation of utility, hence foreign rule gets its justification.

For Mill, the preponderance of idolatry and the imaginative Hindu faculty explained their inability to form a nation-state. The subjectivities that harbour polymorphous myths and legends fall outside both monotheism and philosophy. Mill goes on to say: ‘It is the want of this power of combination (of different states into a nation) which has rendered India so easy a conquest to all invaders; and enables us to retain, so easily, that dominion over it which we have acquired.’

Mill was clear that Hindu polytheism makes Hindus responsible for their own subjugation and clears the way for a colonial state. Mill transformed the earlier theological view of Hindu gods as demons into figures of frightful irrationality and social pathology, which guaranteed a misguided and miscreating society unless reformed through external invasion and conquest. James Mill three volumes on Indian History played a huge role in the imperial British rule and in moulding their officers to get a very degraded view of the ruled subjects. His polemical attack on the history, character, religion, literature, arts, laws of India, and Indian climate certainly helped in deconstructing India.

‘Of the Hindus’, comprising ten chapters – is the single most important source of British Indophobia and hostility to Orientalism, according to scholars. Mill’s description of Hindus was with generous nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives like: ‘deceit, perfidy, insincerity, mendacity, perfidy, indifference, prostitution, venality, penurious, eunuch like, slave like, dissembling, treacherous, uncultivated, prone to excessive exaggeration, cowardly, unfeeling, conceited, contemptuous, and disgustingly physically unclean.’ Wow! No wonder the colonials thought poorly of Indians and Hindus.


Max Müller was a German-born philologist and an Orientalist, who lived and studied in Britain for most of his life. He was one of the founders of the western academic field of Indian studies and the discipline of Study of religions. The ‘Sacred Books of the East’, a 50-volume set of English translations, was his major output. He is largely responsible for popularisation of the Aryan theory. Certainly controversial, but his ideas carry a lot of weight even today.

Scholars have argued for the surrogate role of English literature in the creation of colonial subjects given the failure of proselytization efforts to convert. Muller’s scholarly output does that surrogate function for issuing ‘authentic’ versions of Hindu scriptures stripped of their idolatry. His study and translation of Hindu texts and Vedas did this colonial work, but the author shows how fractured, inconsistent, and contradictory these efforts were.

Müller is difficult to understand. Sometimes he could be effusive in the praise of India; but was clearly disapproving of Home rule in India. There are still people swearing by him (Swami Vivekananda spoke in glowing terms about his encounter with him) even as Prodosh Aich calls him a total fraud. What is evident is his theological bias in translating the Vedas and Indian scriptures. His work had a definite agenda of showing the supremacy of Christianity; and he was on the payrolls of the East India Company.

He believed in an original pure and sensible Hinduism peaking at the time of Upanishads. But after that, the people were living in a time of a ‘dying or a dead’ religion. Müllers Veda is one which is devoid of the idolatry and fetishism, like the version of Hinduism in Ezourvedam. His gift to India was a rediscovered Veda! Hence, he was attempting a reform of the religion. He was enthusiastic in his support of Brahmo Samaj to clean Hinduism out of its idolatrous elements and elevate it to a pristine and monotheistic Hinduism. Muller’s biographer, Nirad C. Chaudhary, says that towards the end of his life he tried to persuade the adherents of the Brahmo Samaj to declare themselves Christian.

Müller finds the Vedas to be ‘full of childish, silly, and monstrous conceptions’, but he could also discover in the Vedic period ‘the original, simple, and intelligible religion of India.’ His Orientalism separated the ‘metaphysical’ India from the ‘physical’ one- the superior past from the degraded present. So much so that Müller thought fit to censor sexual material from Eastern religious texts because he found them to signify the animalistic character of the ancient peoples. Previously Saint Augustine and Mill spoke of the sexual as a sign of gross and animalistic character of religions, and Müller only continued this theological line of reasoning in his work.

Hegel thought China and India exhibit ‘a dull, half conscious brooding of the Spirit, immobile and unhistorical. If China is nothing else but a state, Hindu political existence presents us with a people, but no state.’ Müller accepts this but revalorizes it, says the author Ganguly, to make India the home of a transcendental spirituality outside of its history and empirical experience. This has paradoxical effects of on the one hand implying that political rule is best left to the British; but on the other, it enabled a nationalism, premised on the fulfilment of a transcendental spirituality as India’s unique world-historical destiny. Müller concludes about contemporary Hinduism: ‘The religion is still professed by at least 110,000,000 of human souls… and yet I do not shrink from saying that their religion is dying or dead.’ A remarkable statement from a man who never set his foot on the Indian soil! Unfortunately, his influence still has a great presence in the great Indian debates on the Aryan-Dravidian issue. Müller’s soul would be enjoying the great divisions in our country based on his noxious theories of religion, caste, race, and idolatry.

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