The Language of Disenchantment: Protestant Literalism and Colonial Discourse in British India

ISBN : 9780199925018

Robert A. Yelle
320 Pages
157 x 234 mm
Pub date
Nov 2012
AAR Reflection and Theory in the Study of Religion
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The Language of Disenchantment explores how Protestant ideas about language influenced British colonial attitudes toward Hinduism and proposals for the reform of that tradition. Protestant literalism, mediated by a new textual economy of the printed book, inspired colonial critiques of Indian mythological, ritual, linguistic, and legal traditions. Central to these developments was the transposition of the Christian opposition between monotheism and polytheism or idolatry into the domain of language. Polemics against verbal idolatry - including the elevation of a scriptural canon over heathenish custom, the attack on the personifications of mythological language, and the critique of "vain repetitions" in prayers and magic spells - previously applied to Catholic and sectarian practices in Britain were now applied by colonialists to Indian linguistic practices. As a remedy for these diseases of language, the British attempted to standardize and codify Hindu traditions as a step toward both Anglicization and Christianization. The colonial understanding of a perfect language as the fulfillment of the monotheistic ideal echoed earlier Christian myths according to which the Gospel had replaced the obscure discourses of pagan oracles and Jewish ritual. By recovering the historical roots of the British re-ordering of South Asian discourses in Protestantism, Yelle challenges representations of colonialism, and of the modernity that it ushered in, as simply rational or secular.


Chapter One: Orientalism and the Language of Disenchantment
Chapter Two: "A Disease of Language": The Attack on Hindu Myth as Verbal Idolatry
Chapter Three: "One Step from Babel to Pentecost": Colonial Codification, Universal Languages, and the Debate over Roman Transliteration
Chapter Four: "Vain Repetitions": The Attack on Hindu Mantras
Chapter Five: The Hindu Moses: Christian Polemics against Jewish Ritual and the Secularization of Hindu Law

About the author: 

Robert A. Yelle is Assistant Professor in the Department of History and the Helen Hardin Honors Program at the University of Memphis. He received a Ph.D. in the History of Religions from the University of Chicago. A former Guggenheim Fellow, he is the author of Explaining the Mantras and The Semiotics of Religion, and co-author of After Secular Law.

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