The language of disenchantment. Protestant literalism and colonial discourse in British India.

Christopher Harding*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalBook/Film/Article reviewpeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

India’s early twentieth-century nationalists were all too aware that the mere
removal of British army boots from the subcontinent’s soil would be but a meagre sort of ‘independence’, such was the profound impact of colonialism upon patterns of thinking and doing in India. Even the quintessential anti-colonial project of creating and promoting a national story was frustrated by the fact that ‘history’ in its modern form is an undertaking deeply bound up with European values and assumptions. The project of unpicking – or, in the words of Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘provincialising’ – Europe’s hermeneutical presence in India is ongoing, not least in religious and postcolonial studies, and in modern intellectual history. With The language of disenchantment, Robert Yelle brings these three areas of scholarship together in tracing some of the ways in which colonial-era scholarship and rule effectively transferred from Europe to India a hermeneutic that proclaimed itself secular and rational yet whose roots lay in key themes from Europe’s Judaeo-Christian heritage, from the writings of St Paul through to the Reformation. Prime amongst these were a powerful disdain for idolatry (broadly, even aggressively defined), and the notion of a salvific rupture with the attitudes and understandings of the past. What Yelle terms ‘Protestant literalism’ included both of these themes. This was a critical colonial approach to language in India that sought to contain ritual and excessively poetic or metaphorical elements, to reify instead direct reference and predication, and generally to forge a clarified homogeneity out of confusing and misleading diversity. Yelle’s scholarship stretches across colonial encounters with Hindu myth, Indian languages and the practice of using mantras – objectionable for the implication that words in themselves carry the power to change physical reality – and is intended to take forward arguments made by Max Weber and developed by the likes of Talal Asad about the Protestant Christian roots of ‘disenchantment’, modernity and the religious-secular dichotomy. Yelle also seeks to draw attention to colonial India as a
highly revealing context in which to study these sorts of ideological processes,
persuading sociologists of religion and intellectual historians to take more of an
interest in it, and postcolonial scholars to pay more attention to religion. The result is a highly readable account of a set of issues generally familiar to historians of modern India and of Christian missionary activity on the subcontinent. It will be of greatest interest to scholars and students relatively new to this area, and may act as a much-needed bridge between postcolonial writing and mission history – too often disdainful of one another, with few scholars aside from Gauri Viswanathan and Peter van der Veer able to operate successfully as intermediaries. Yelle offers the sort of balance and clarity with which postcolonial writing has not always been synonymous, while thinking through (with much useful referencing) abstract philosophical and linguistic problems in a way that historians of Christian mission and of Britain’s broader colonial encounter with India have not always regarded as their task.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)940-941
Number of pages4
JournalThe Journal of Ecclesiastical History
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2014


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