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

The colonials looked at idolatry by an Indian belief in ‘things’ and ‘images’, sometimes extended to a material ‘rituals, ceremonies, and practices’ done in a repetitive manner. This was exactly how early Christianity looked at the Roman pagan rituals in its attempts to subsume or destroy.

The first part saw the wonderful book dealing with how Christian and Enlightenment values at the roots of the missionary and Orientalist/Indologist efforts in India converged to a similar theme. Idolatry was the first cause of the moral and intellectual degeneration of the Indian society. It represented everything wrong with the Indian society; and not only that, made the natives incapable of self-rule. They needed the rule of outsiders, preferably monotheistic in belief, to hold the polymorphous, heterogenous and ignorant masses together; and help them on their onward march to an enlightened reason.

Here we will see how colonial writers and art critics strengthened the narrative on idolatry with their influential writings, sinking it further into public conscience. There was also an effort by Indian reformers to answer western criticisms of Hindu religion and idolatry by people like Raja Rammohan Roy and Bankimchandra Chatterjee, but they were ambivalent to some extent. Rammohan Roy put western European lenses in his efforts to reform; and Bankim’s Indian lenses were a bit tinted with European colours.


A few words on the writers themselves as sourced from the mother called ‘Wikipedia.’ John Ruskin (1819 –1900) was a leading English art critic of the Victorian era, amongst other things. He wrote on a wide variety of subjects like architecture, myth, literature, education, botany, and political economy. He emphasised the connections between nature, art, and society. He was hugely influential in the latter half of the 19th century and up to the First World War. His ideas and concerns were roots of environmentalism and sustainability.

Perrin (1867-1934) was born in Mussoorie. Her father was a senior officer in the Bengal Cavalry and her great grandfather had been a director of the East India Company. She married an engineer named Charles Perrin in 1886 in Dehradun. She took to writing to relieve herself of the boredom of an Englishwoman in India. She went on to publish seventeen novels. ‘Idolatry’ was one important novel which the author examines. She finally moved to Europe in 1925.

Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970) was an English novelist. Many of his novels examined class differences and hypocrisy, including his most famous novel, ‘A Passage to India’ in 1924. This was set against the backdrop of the British Raj and the Indian independence movement in the 1920s. The Modern Library called it as one of the hundred great works of twentieth century English literature. The novel is based on Forster’s experiences in India; and highlights the common racial tensions and prejudices between Indians and the British.

Ganguly writes that for Ruskin, idols are phantoms of imagination, conjured up in dream states and subsequently carved out of rock by the sculptor, bringing in a reign of image and appearance. Dawning of the knowledge of the true God exorcises these reigns. In his poem ‘Salsette and Elephanta’, Ruskin makes his contempt for idolatry quite clear. Without setting his foot on Indian soil, believing the travel reports of missionaries and soldiers, he describes the architecture of the cave temples of Salsette and Elephanta associated with idolatry, evil, and oppression! The diabolical and the grotesque of Indian architecture gets its stereotyping in Ruskin.

Of course, there is the ‘noble grotesque’ required for a truly art form; in contrast, an ‘ignoble or barbarous grotesque’ is the work of the ‘Hindoo and other Indian nations.’ Gothic art and architecture are a ‘noble grotesque’ for Ruskin, even though many have noted similarities between Gothic and Indian arts, says Ganguly. The arguments to differentiate between the two forms of grotesque are circular, but Ruskin in the end falls back on ‘instinct’. Similarly, in criticism of colour in art, Indian art was ‘colour without form.’ At a higher level was Greek school of art which was ‘light without colour.’ At the highest end of the spectrum was undoubtedly European art which brought the best of all-colour with light/form.

For Ruskin, idolatry is ‘not the mere bowing down before sculptures, but the serving or becoming the slave of images or imaginations which stand between us and God.’ Ironically, his own acts while studying the stones, buildings, and architecture of Venice was equally idolatrous as these animated with real presence for Ruskin, invoking love and faith.

Alice Perrin looked at idolatry as a contagion deeply affecting the rational to slide into the irrational. It contaminates English characters who encounter India. James Mill’s fears about India as an immoral corrupting force find truth in her novel. Idolatry seems to reassert more forcefully, more the attempt to exorcise. These popular fictional narratives of a communicable and contagious aspect of idolatry affecting the cool rational sensibilities of the Englishman became hugely influential in moulding public opinion.

The author sees Forster’s ‘Passage to India’ as a classic text containing tropes and generalisations familiarised and deployed by Orientalism. Indians are emotional and impulsive; Englishmen show controlled, phlegmatic, rational, and calculating behaviours, in conformity with the stereotypes. The lapses in rationality of the Indian mind could be due to the climate too, as one character in the book would claim. Forster’s notion of idolatry mediates the association between caves and evil. As opposed to the ‘high’ ideals of light and spirit, very little light penetrates down the entrance tunnel into the caves. The caves are also associated with carnality.

In another short story, ‘The Life to Come’, Forster describes idolatry as a sign of the perverse and essentially evil, contaminating and corrupting its opponents even in defeat. This story, dealing with erotic subtexts underlying the Christian-pagan encounter in a colonial situation, is a dark and mordant allegory of colonialism as the story, says the author. The idol has a sexual dimension and is related particularly to forms of sexual perversion like homosexuality. Forster himself struggled with his personal homosexual encounters in the court of the Maharaja of Dewas, under whose employment he was.

An art critic who never came to India; a lady intimately associated with India; and an author personally experiencing India; but for all of them, idolatry in India is an important conception to enable the rhetoric of colonial order and look at the ‘low other’ with a combination of disgust and desire. The author brilliantly illuminates the ambivalences in their works. They all start with the assumption that idolatry is an alternative cognitive mode unique to India or the East. Attempts to further define its character gradually leads to generalised questions of imaginative vision and artistic practice. And finally, idolatry becomes an elaboration of the grotesque in the works of all the three.

In the works of these English writers of the colonial period, the ideas of Christian Universalism and colonial contempt for the ruled becomes evident, says Ganguly. Missionaries had a problem with idolatry and called them false gods in their proselytising efforts. Enlightenment values posed a secular garb and called idolatry posited against ‘reason, sense, and logic.’ The arguments against idolatry remained the same but ‘Reason’ took the place of ‘God’. Colonial writers and critics, influential in their own way like the scholars, thus created powerful narratives popularising the conception against idolatry.


In the colonial reading of Indian society, its social evils were a consequence of idolatrous practices rather than the asymmetries of power. The social remedying would be purging the religious practice of idolatry. Both Müller and Jones agreed to a golden age of pure Hinduism degenerating into the present abominable because of idolatrous practices. Their anxiety was in getting rid of the impure practices to bring it back to the shining past and elevating it to the monotheism of Christianity.

Raja Rammohan Roy and Bankimchandra Chatterjee were two Indian reformers who played an important part in these efforts to cleanse Hinduism and reinforce new ideals of nationalism.

Rammohan Roy (1772-1833) has the status of ‘father of modern India’ for fighting the social evils of that time and against idolatry. Rammohan Roy was a prosperous man with close contacts to the British officials. The utilitarian theories of the west deeply influenced his thinking. Rammohan continued the theme of Jones that the pure Vedic religion with an Upanishidic peak degenerated in present times. The purpose of all reforms would be to clean the religion off all the superstitious elements, so that the ‘pure spirit of it dictates.

Unfortunately, there were severe problems with his understanding of Hinduism and Advaita in complete discordance with the traditional interpretations of Indian philosophy. He put on western European lenses and pulled down the absolute monism of Advaita to the monotheism of Christianity to confirm to utilitarian principles. He eliminated idolatry in this effort. He believed that this effort elevated Advaita to the Christian philosophy, but the fact was he degenerated Advaita to a different sphere altogether.

Advaita in its basic form accepts everything along the way in terms of space, time, cause, effect, matter, and energy; even idolatry; but they are a superimposition lying at a lower plane of knowledge. Nothing is true; yet everything exists. The higher knowledge is only ‘one Self’, and nothing else. This reading of Advaita is nothing new or contemporary: the traditional commentators, seers, and realized saints for centuries before Rammohan Roy stressed upon this. The need to confirm to western values made Rammohan Roy take a rather ambiguous project to purify Hinduism. However, the immense traditionally steeped land of India generally rejected the Brahmo Samaj; and this was hardly surprising.

He quoted the scriptures in support of his arguments on the one hand; but on the other, Roy rejected the claim of Brahmins that ’the quoting ancestors are positive authorities.’ He linked caprice to Indian idolatry sanctioned by custom and saw in idolatry a principle of social order. He linked debauchery, sensuality, falsehood, ingratitude, breach of trust, and treachery in the Indian society as an outcome of idolatry. This highly confirmed with the prevailing western view. No wonder the British loved and nurtured him. He perhaps had a very deep and genuine love for his nation; but the need to confirm to the ruler’s philosophy and his educational background made him take a stance which exposed his poor understanding of Indian traditions. He opposed the Chaitanya Bhakti movements based on the commentaries of Shankara, ignoring Shankara’s own compositions steeped in great Bhakti.

Rammohan’s enterprise thus has a remarkable resemblance to the Ezourvedam project, says the author. Both projects invent original texts for Hinduism, which propagate an enlightened philosophical monotheism supposedly obscured by later idolatry. He appeared to align with an evangelical Christian perspective, favouring the type of moral subject fostered by Christianity.

But the ambivalences come across when he turned back on a Christian apologist questioning him about idolatry in Hinduism. Rammohan replied, ‘… if he (the Christian) dwell on the corrupt notions introduced into Hindooism in modern times, I shall also remind him of the corruptions introduced by various sects into Christianity… I appeal to History, and call upon the Christian to mention any religion on the face of the earth that has been the cause of so much war and bloodshed, cruelty, and oppression, for so many hundred years as this whose ‘sweet influence’ he celebrates.’ Rammohan’s heart was certainly in the right place, only the lenses were wrong. His rationalist, utilitarian position had fractures and was contradictory- a testimony to the difficulties of the formation of a native colonial subject, the author says.

Bankimchandra Chatterjee (1838-1894) was one of the first graduates of the English education system which wanted to dismantle Indian idolatry in 30 years. He was also the pioneers of the modern Bengali prose, and wrote on a wide variety of topics concerning the society. The author examines deeply his two important works Anandamath and Debi Chaudurani. He championed writing in vernacular Bengali to deanglicise the masses, but could write very well in English when the occasion demanded.

One such occasion was a reply to William Hastie, a missionary and the principal of General Assembly’s institution, who wrote a series of polemical articles for The Statesman attacking ‘Hindu idolatry.’ Hastie wrote that idolatry was the commission of intellectual and moral error; the Hindu variant infinitely worse than the West’s ‘pagan’ traditions. The Hindu thought and idolatry relied on a complete dissociation between reason and the senses, and went on to say that the ‘whole of Brahminic theology never really solved a single problem of human life and thought.’

Bankim gives him a strong reply asserting first the superiority of insider knowledge in understanding the Hindu scriptures and philosophy. He questions Orientalism’s intellectual prerogatives and places an outsider’s view in a less privileged position. He counsels Hastie to approach the Sanskrit scriptures in the original with the help of a Hindu and not rely on translations and commentaries of European scholars. Bankim completely denied the validity of existing European knowledges of India.

 Disagreeing with Hastie’s arguments of ‘Krishna stories being the apotheosis of sensual desire and the idolatry of a mere finite life (thus becoming a benchmark of idolatry)’, Bankimchandra posits Hindu ideal as one of art rather than philosophy, where the ideal mediates through a material image. ‘The religious worship of idols is as justifiable as the intellectual worship of Hamlet or Prometheus,’ said Bankim. He relates idolatry to art; the ideal acquires a material embodiment through both art and idolatry, and to deny the legitimacy of idolatry is to deny the legitimacy of representation and projection of artistic images.

 Bankim also severely criticised Müller for introducing a lot of ‘isms’ into Hindu religion like ‘Henotheism or Kakenotheism’ when none of them fit at all. He mocked at Müller for not able to comprehend the Hindu principle of immanence of divinity in the material world; and rued, ‘such knowledge is perused, studied, esteemed, and translated in this country is a matter of no small regret.’

It is also interesting to note that Bankimchandra did not believe in the primacy of the Vedas and believed that the whole of Hindu religious philosophy was probably post-Vedic. The Puranas, replete with idolatrous legends, in fact, are a realisation of the Hindu religion with its roots firmly in the Vedas. The Vedas and the Puranas represent the ancient and the modern religions of India respectively.

Interestingly Bankim also claimed that Hindu religion does not exist as such, and it exists only as an Orientalist construction, a position which many contemporary scholars also take up now. Hinduism arose because the foreigners could not different traditions existing in Indian society. Bankim also demonstrated that from a point of view of a Hindu observer in a European country, Christianity would seem idolatrous, polytheistic, and fetishistic too. Similarly, Bankim thought that the association of Hinduism with moral corruption and cruelty was reversible too when he gave examples of the Inquisition and the civil disabilities of Roman Catholics and Jews. They were no different of civil disabilities of the sudras under a Brahmanic regime.

His biggest contribution in the promotion of his arguments is undoubtedly the characterisation of India as a mother Goddess in his novel Anandamath. Bande Mataram, became a clarion call for nationalism and this evoked strongly the image of the country in the form of a mother, fit for worship.

Bankimchandra however had his own contradictions. He did not sustain the position of debunking European intellectual superiority consistently in his writings. Swagato Ganguly shows how Bankimchandra was ambivalent with his ideas of a teleological version of history, involving the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they arise. Hence, for Bankim, the colonial government is a necessary outcome of the march of Reason itself. His novels indicated Bankim’s deep ambivalence towards the British and their supposed historical mission in India, and are testimony to radical self-divisions in the constitution of the colonial subject, says the author.


The colonials looked at idolatry by an Indian belief in ‘things’ and ‘images’, sometimes extended to a material ‘rituals, ceremonies, and practices’ done in a repetitive manner. This was exactly how early Christianity looked at the Roman pagan rituals in its attempts to subsume or destroy. A hierarchy between ‘idea’ and ‘image’, ‘belief’ and ‘practice’, ‘signified’ and ‘signifier’, ‘ideology’ and ‘idolatry’ could administer a despotic state in India in the name of ‘reason’.

Idolatry was of course a fabrication of the wily Brahmins trying to hold the illiterate masses. This was like the fetishism of Africa. These represent the false objective values of a culture; and thus, naming someone as an idolater is to name an ‘Other’, a worshipper of false gods. Finally, colonial constructions of the fetishism and idolatry were justifications of their slave trades and brutal rules respectively. European accounts of idolatry attempted to set up the Indian society as a scene of the ‘Otherness’ and difference. Bankim shared this sense of difference in the argument that concept of religion was not applicable to Indian society, because paradoxically it was pervading all the society.

From a post-Reformation point of view, idolatrous societies did not confirm to the standards of a proper historical progress towards reason and purity. They were instead subject to the decay and destruction like the lot of the material idol itself. Rammohan Roy fought with European lenses; Bankimchandra with Indian lenses though tinted with European colours. Bankim set up the nation-state as an idol, but in an affirmative manner; but contradictorily, believed in the notion of a European historical progress towards ‘Reason’ for any civilization. The colonials have left, but the author rues that intellectuals with a heavy colonial hangover of ‘reason’ are still legion in independent India.


This is a highly recommended book; one of the most wonderful in recent times. The book is of immense interest to all students of history as well as to the laypeople. It certainly helps to understand the distortive colonial discourses in negating and rejecting us intellectually and morally, hitting at the very roots of our civilizational existence, even as the economic plunder went full steam.

The efforts of the colonial writers were ambiguous and discursive. It was a case of selective argumentation based on prejudices and cherry-picking of facts to show everything bad about idolatry and India. The missionaries used ‘faith, belief in a true God, and ideas of the false’ in condemning idolatry. The later Orientalists and Indologists used ‘reason’ to posit against idolatry, but the language and vocabulary remained clearly theological. Enlightenment, with clear theological vocabulary, used the same kind of arguments to create religions and the ‘caste system’ in India. This has been shown elegantly by Dr SN Balagangadhara and others in the two books, ‘The Heathen in His Blindness’ and ‘Western Foundations of the Caste System.’

In a lighter vein, I am always wary of card-holding liberals as the author claims himself to be. He is in the editorial staff of Times of India, a paper I agreed with in the past, and only because of RK Laxman’s cartoons. Liberals are lovely guys, but very slippery; and so long as they are using post-colonialism to bash up the English, we can hug them dearly. But one should know when to leave the hug because suddenly they may turn around and use ‘post-modernism’, ‘critical theory’, or some such thing to hit hard and say, ‘Hinduism is good, Hindutva is bad.’ My life’s experience has been to be careful with them and not to hold their hands too long. I do not know Mr Swagato Ganguly personally, but I am sure he is as brilliant a man as the book he has written, a thorough must for all Indians. The book could have carried some of the traditional arguments against the colonial discourses on idolatry. Maybe, the thoughts of Swami Vivekananda or Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa may not have been too off in this book as they lived in those times. The traditional experts and scholars rarely spoke in the language of the colonials and hence could never mount a response to their deadly distortions. Perhaps, most remained unbothered, but the effects of the English language are such that modern India takes up only the colonial discourses attacking our scriptures and our customs. This, when we should be talking in the language of the traditional commentators and be outright rejecting the noxious discourses. Sigh! A dream for now.

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