The First Western Hindus

When we think of the beginnings of Hinduism in the West we usually think of Swami Vivakananda teaching Vedanta at the World Parliament of Religions in 1896 or of Swami Yogananda founding the Divine Life Mission in Los Angeles in 1920s. In fact, the Western interest in Indian religions in general and in Hinduism in particular began at least three hundred years earlier than this. The first Europeans to arrive in India since the armies of Alexander the Great were the Portuguese in 1498. After wrestling what was to become Goa from the local maharajas Portuguese merchants, priests and soldiers starting coming to India in large numbers. Within twenty years many of them began adopting Indian customs including specifically Hindu ones. At this early period no one actually became Hindu and indeed this would have been impossible – all religions other than Catholicism were forbidden in Portuguese territory. But many people began to adopt Indian customs and this gradually opened the way to the acceptance of Hindu beliefs. This was particularly true of the soldiers. These men were inevitably from the lower rungs of society, poorly paid, badly treated and usually without female company. Early in the peace one or two of these soldiers deserted and fled to Indian territory where they soon found well paid jobs, mainly as army officers and royal guards. Those who were employed with Muslim courts learned that if they converted to Islam they could have several wives and even rise to quite high positions. When word of this got around soldiers started deserting in large numbers. At one period as many of four thousand Portuguese are known to have deserted and “become idolaters”. There is no explicit mention of any of these runaways having converted to Hinduism but in the light of later developments this almost certainly happened. The Office of the Holy Inquisition arrived in Goa in 1560 determined to stamp out even the slightest vestige of Hinduism or Islam. One Jesuit wrote back to Rome that “the Inquisition is more necessary in these parts than anywhere else, since all the Christians here live together with Muslims, Jews and Hindus and this causes laxness of conscience in persons residing therein”. Just to have adopted a few harmless Indian practices was enough to be dragged before the Inquisition on suspicion of heresy or being an apostate. The Inquisition drew up a list of practices which were forbidden, it included refusing to eat beef, wearing a dhoti and “cooking rice without salt as the Hindus are accustom to do”. Most people had no choice but to buckle under but some quietly crossed over into Indian where they could live and worship as they wanted. Many of them and their offspring were effortlessly absorbed into the great sea of Hinduism.

The English arrived in India in the early 1500s and by the middle of the 18th century they were well established in the subcontinent. They were also well and truly Indianized by that time too. In between doing business and fighting wars they ate Indian food, wore Indian dress and in most ways lived very much as upper class Hindus did. Those commanding Indian soldiers usually joined their men at various religious observances if for nothing else because it helped develop espirit de corps. Thus gradually through acquaintance, habit and them appreciation, Hinduism entered into the consciousness of many of the English. Another thing that hastened the process of “going native” was the need for female company. Most Englishmen either kept a concubine or married a local woman, some even had harems. The famous David Ochterlony had a harem of about fourteen women. A wonderful painting of Ochterlony done in 1820 shows him sitting amongst large pillows on the floor, dressed in Indian attire, smoking a huge hooker and surrounded by his many wives and retainers.

David Ochterlony

With Indian women in their homes Hindu practices and beliefs entered even the private lives of the English. Job Charnock, the legendary founder of Calcutta, married a Hindu women who he rescued from her husband’s funeral pyre and, according to a contemporary observer, “instead of he converting her to Christianity, she made him a Proselyte to Paganism”. The two were happily married for many years and when she finally died “the only Part of Christianity that was remarkable in him, was burying her decently, and he built a Tomb over her, where all his life after her Death, he kept the anniversary Day of her Death by sacrificing a Cock on her Tomb, after the Pagan Manner”. A good number of Englishmen remained Christian, if only nominally, while being intrigued by or appreciative of certain aspects of Hinduism – its tolerance, its all-embracing form and its undemanding spirituality. The great orientalist Sir William Jones always remained a practising member of the Church of England but he considered the doctrine of reincarnation to be more attractive than the Christian concept of eternal hell. He wrote: “I am no Hindoo but I hold the doctrines of the Hindoos concerning a future state to be incomparably more rational, more pious and more likely to deter men from vice than the horrid opinions inculcated by the Christians on punishment without end”. Others went beyond mere intellectual appreciation of Hindu doctrines to participate in its rites and festivals. The missionary literature of the time provides ample evidence that some Englishmen were thoroughly Hinduized. One of the most outspoken of these missionaries was the Reverend Alexander Thompson, author of Government Connection with Idolatry in India, a scathing condemnation of the official British tolerance of and support for Hinduism. Thompson recounted with indignation how “the chief officers of the Government belonged to a particular class, those who between 1790 and 1820 possessed the greatest experience, and held the highest offices in India, were on the whole an irreligious body of men; who approved of Hinduism much more than Christianity… Some hated Missionaries from their dread of sedition and others because their hearts… had fallen to idols foul”. He related how the East India Company employed Brahmins to pray for rain and bountiful harvests, how it made donations to temples and how some of its offices participated in pujas and other ceremonies. Another missionary, James Peggs, related with horror how a certain commanding officer of a regiment near Tanjore gave his men money to buy goats to sacrifice to Kali and that the officer himself prayed before an image of the goddess to eradicate cholera from the ranks. Other records show this same trend. For example, when the Scottish watchmaker David Hare who had founded the Hindu Collage in Calcutta died, the Church refused to grant him a Christian burial on the grounds that “he was more Hindu than Christian”. Undeterred, his English and Indian friends took his body to the nearby river and had it cremated with full Hindu rites.

A much smaller but not insignificant number of Englishmen consciously renounced Christianity and converted to Hinduism. The most eminent of these and the one we have most information about was Major General Charles Stuart. Born in Ireland, Stuart came out to India in the 1780s when he was still a teenager. Almost immediately he took to Hinduism and faithfully practised it for the rest of his life. Every morning he would go and bathe in the Ganges, he would greet all the Indians he met with the traditional “Sitarama” and on one occasion even attended the Kumba Mela, not as a sightseer but as a devotee. He also learned Hindi and Sanskrit and became very familiar with the shastras, so much so that the Indians called him “General Pandit” and amongst the English he was known affectionately as “Hindoo Stuart”. That he did not do all this just to gain the acceptance of the locals is clear from the fact that on his trip back to England he took all his household gods with then so the could worship them while there. But Stuart was not content with just being a Hindu, he was also anxious to defend the religion that had given him so much satisfaction from the attacks of Christian missionaries. In 1808 he wrote a books called A Vindication of the Hindoos from the Aspersions of the Revd Claudius Buchanam with a refutation of the arguments exhibited in his Memoir…By a Bengal Officer. It is a remarkable work and shows that Stuart was at least two hundred years ahead of his time. Stuart saw no reason for Christian missionaries being in India because “on the enlarged principles of moral reasoning, Hindooism little needs the meliorating hand of Christianity to render its votaries a sufficiently correct and moral people of all the useful purposes of a civilised society”. Missionaries never missed the opportunity to ridicule the complex, and to those who had never taken the trouble to examine it sympathetically, confusing theology of Hinduism. To such criticism and ridicule Stuart had an interesting comment. “Whenever I look around me, in the vast regions of Hindoo Mythology, I discover piety in the garb of allegory, and I see Morality, at every turn, blended with every tale, and, as far as I can rely on my own judgement, it appears the most complete and ample system of Moral Allegory that the world has ever produced.”

At least one Englishman, or more correctly, an Irishman, actually become a Hindu swami. Thomas Legge was born in Donaghadee in Ulster and started life as a seaman. He jumped ship in India and spent several decades wandering the country working for various maharajas as a cavalryman and a cannon maker. He became deeply interested in Hinduism and especially with alchemy and astrology. Eventually he became a swami and dressed in a yellow robe, settled down in an old tomb near Jaipur in Rajastan. He practiced yoga and was apparently looked upon with deep respect by local people. At the very beginning to the 19th century James Todd, himself an almost completely Hinduized Englishmen, happened to meet Swami Legge and recorded his conversations with him. Legge told Todd that during his wanderings through the Himalayas he had discovered what he thought was the Garden of Eden. “Deep down in the heart of the mountains was situated a beautiful garden , filled with delicious fruit, with piles of gold bricks at one end and of silver at the other.” Swami Legge died in 1808 and was buried in the ruined tomb where he had long lived. In the 1850s his grave was still pointed out to visitors.

Charles de Russette

Frenchman Charles de Russette was born in India, became a Hindu swami when still a boy in the 1880s and died in 1931

If this harmonious blending of Eastern and Western cultures and beliefs had been allow to continue who knows what interesting fruits it might have produced. Perhaps the first Vedantic or yoga teachers to come to the West might have been pale skinned English-speaking swamis rather than Indians. But it was not to be. There were two main reasons for this. When the first Englishmen came to India in the early 16th century the standard of life of the average person in both countries was not that much different. Two hundred years later they were miles apart. English society had been dramatically transformed and improved by the industrial revolution and discoveries in science, technology and medicine, while India had hardly changed at all. Young Englishman coming out to India could hardly fail to notice the differences between the two countries and they started to develop superiority complexes towards Indians and things Indian. In time, this soured into an ugly racism and created an almost insurmountable barrier between the two peoples so that they related to each other only as rulers and ruled. Another thing that brought the process of cultural fusion to a halt was the evangelical revival in England. A harsh judgmental Christianity was becoming the vogue and it demanded strict moral behaviour and contempt for everything un-Christian. These unfortunate trend intensified when Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1836 and hardened as the 19th century progresses. For the English in India it gradually became unacceptable to take an Indian concubine or wife or even to wear Indian clothes. This is how pyjamas, a common form of Indian day dress, came to be worn by the English only in bed. As Indian clothes went out of fashion one could only wear them in the privacy of one’s home and at night. Of course, away from the Anglicized cities like Bombay, Madras and Calcutta and in districts where there were no memsahibs or missionaries, some continued to live an Indian lifestyle but where this had once passed without comment it was now seen as eccentric, as “letting the team down”, or as “going Tropo”. By the time poor old ‘Hindoo Stuart’ died in 1826 he was one of the last representatives of an earlier more tolerant age. It was not until nearly a hundred years later that Western respect for Hinduism began to blossom once more.