Hinduism in Occidental Literature

The subject of representations of Hinduism within Occidental literature is both vast in scope and transient in nature. Older texts such as those composed by British Imperial agents and Catholic missionaries are marred by Darwinian notions of their own more “highly evolved” society, but contemporary texts too, find themselves obscured by a mix of cultural appropriation and postcolonial discourse. Despite the wide breadth of such a topic, even when only considering “contemporary” works, patterns of representation do emerge. As one might expect, representations of Hinduism at the popular level tend to tread a narrow path. Generally, India is valued for just a few articles: its mysticism, its (imagined or real) religious fervour, ascetic men, and the trope of Hinduism’s caste system (Narayan 477). In fact, the figure of the sadhu adequately stands in for the way that India has been characterized as a whole for much of its history (Narayan 480-81). The figure is defined by his gender and religion, and the philosophical trappings that accompany it; however, besides his religion, the sadhu also represents the “dirtiness” and spiritual and moral backwardness of India and Hinduism (Narayan 480-81). Consider that all these negative connotations are contained within the ascetic practice of smearing one’s skin with ash: the Occidental epistemology perceives the ash as both dirty, and representative of the inflated images of sensationalist, over-zealous asceticism circulating in popular representation (Narayan 480). Such tropes are more overt in colonial discourse, but inform modern imaginations, and have come to largely dominate the spectrum of representation given to Hinduism in popular culture. Despite the bleakness of such prospects, deeper examination reveals a vastly more attractive vein of literature that struggles to meaningfully engage with Hinduism’s long history of religious and ontological philosophy. These texts are part of a continued literary tradition in the West that scorns reason and Western materialism in favour of ubiquitous spirituality, connectedness, and semi-ascetic tendencies. It is for this reason that the following authors and excerpts are chosen.

As previously suggested, modern representations of Hinduism hinge on their genesis in colonial England. Beginning around 1612, when the East Indian Company gained a foothold in India, British travelers to the region began to compose literature about it (“colonialism, Western”). Among the most influential of the early works is John Campbell Oman’s wildly popular 1905 book, Mystics, Ascetics and Saints of India (Narayan 482-83). Like the other foundational texts mentioned above, Oman’s novel was read by many of the authors discussed below, and had a tangible effect on their own works. Oman was notable for his portrayal of India as defined by the renouncer, and for the commentaries his successor William M. Zumbro would make upon his text (Narayan 482-83). Zumbro valued India for its intense spiritualism, which for Zumbro, commendably preempts the material (Narayan 482-83). Other writers such as Sir William Jones, Sidney Owenson, and Georg W.F. Hegel hold equally lofty positions of influence. Jones is noted for his work with Sanskritic translations and philosophical works that paved the way for many other Indologists, like Owenson’s The Missionary: An Indian Tale (Uddin 35). Hegel is responsible for the spread of India as defined by its “Imagination,” which is picked up by the Romantics in a big way, even though Hegel meant this to be pejorative [Here, Imagination is meaningfully capitalized to follow both Hegel’s theory of the Imagination and the Romantic sense of the word.] (Soherwordi 211). All of the above works and authors deserve more attention in relation to Hinduism; however, their place within this article is in relation to later works, discussed below.

The first modern movement to engage with Hinduism is German Romanticism, which was at its height from the beginning to the middle of the 19th century (Narayan 489). Leaders of the movement like Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Creuzer employed scholarship on India for, what they perceived to be, its emphasis on symbolic, mythical, and non-rational themes (Inden 413). To the Romantics, Hinduism expressed and supported their anti-Enlightenment discourse by reversing the hierarchy of reason implicit within their own societies that placed reason above all else. India came to be a place idealized by the Romantics for its oversaturation of Imagination, but also because the Romantics adored the concept of Brahman: put simply, divinity permeating all things (Soherwordi 211). The Romantics challenged traditional conceptions of religiosity within the Christian systems of their own countries, stressing especially that divinity is both within and is the self, but also the natural world. As Romanticism spread to England, the same ideas came along with it, spurring the creation of works such as Percy Shelley’s drama, Prometheus Unbound. Shelley is among many Romantics in England known to have read and written about Hindu texts, a fact that reveals itself through his work. Prometheus Unbound is set figuratively in India, and although the actual setting and frame is Europe, this is a conscious attempt by Shelley to confuse Hindu and Greek mythology (Uddin 47 & 44). Tied in to Shelley’s mixing of these cultures is the conflation of mythological figures associated with them. Critics observe that the passive Prometheus is akin to the god-concept Iswara in both his speech and action, while his lover Asia, (the name itself meaningful,) is like the active Shakti (Uddin 40). Prometheus is also equated with Rama in the play, drawing on both as embodiments of divine principles their authors wished to forward (Uddin 48). Another Hindu concept that comes forth in the text is an understanding of the Yogic tradition, especially raja-yoga in its historical sense of an ultimate stage, leading to “the full expression of the Will and the complete regeneration of the individual in the realm of the spirit of wisdom” (Uddin 39). Yet others have noticed elements of the sage Vasishta’s thought in Prometheus’s selfless suffering, and in the way he represents a principle of perfection that is barred from ultimate achievement (Uddin 40). Lastly, Shelley’s use of veil imagery mirrors Hindu notions of the contrast between inner reality and outer illusion (Uddin 39). Shelley’s approach to Hinduism is revealed in its ontology, but not all authors from the period are so sympathetic. For example, Robert Southey “displayed his fierce animus against Hinduism by opening his poem with the widow-burning ritual of sati, providing powerful propaganda for the Evangelicals who were lobbying Parliament to secure missionary activity in British India” (Murray 833). While this article has focused on Shelley as emblematic of the entire English branch of Romanticism, many other writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord George Byron, and William Blake are noteworthy for their use of Hinduism as well.

Following the Romantics, the American Transcendentalists of the mid-19th century picked up on many of the same components of Hinduism that their predecessors had, including individualism, nature, and intuition. The former concepts fit the ideology of the Transcendentalists perfectly, encouraging a great deal of involvement with Hinduism. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an iconic and preeminently influential scholar of the movement was no exception, writing in his “Indian Superstition” that, “Young muses caroled in thy sunny clime…. / Fair science pondered on thy mountain brow, / And sages mused-where Havoc welters now” (cited in Goodman 627). This statement reveals Emerson’s perception of India as both a place of philosophical and religious knowledge, and decline (Goodman 627). This follows the scholarship of those aforementioned writers such as Jones who characterized India in terms of the sadhu. Emerson was so involved with Hinduism that his most extensive essay on the subject, entitled “The Over-Soul,” is a direct translation of the Hindu term paramatman, meaning supreme soul/spirit and synonymous with Brahman (Goodman 631). This work informs his overtly Hindu poem, “Brahma.” The poem begins with mention of the “red slayer,” an obvious allusion to Siva, and a direct derivation of Rudra, a name considered synonymous with Siva (Chandrasekharan 507). This reference to Siva is important for his association to the creator god Brahma because the next section concerns itself with the endlessness of Brahman, reincarnation, and the cyclical nature of time. The principle is clear in the lines: “. . . if the slain think he is slain, / They know not well the subtle ways / I keep, and pass, and turn again” (Emerson 3-5). Here, Emerson’s treatment of Hindu thinking is imperfect. First, considering the subject of his poem, the title should read “Brahman,” (Chandrasekharan 506-07). Also, it is strange that Siva should be associated with the regeneration and continuation of the universe when that role is much more aptly filled by Visnu. This is explained either by Emerson’s own ignorance of his mistake due to the sources he would have had access to, imperfect and scarce as they were, or his assuming the unity of Visnu, Siva, and Brahma. The second and third stanzas discuss the illusions that distort the truth of Brahman in all things, termed maya by Hinduism (Chandrasekharan 507-08). Emerson expresses this in the lines: “Shadow and sunlight are the same; / . . . And one to me are shame and fame” (Emerson 6,8). Finally, the poem’s concluding line, “Find me, and turn thy back on heaven,” refers to the ultimate goal of being one with Brahman, not going to heaven (Emerson 16). In the Hindu conception of cosmology, heaven is not the end goal of religion, which is why Emerson slyly spells heaven with a lower-case “h.” As with the Romantics, many important Transcendentalist figures such as Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman have been neglected in favour of close readings.

The final movement in this sequence is the Beat Movement, or Beat Generation, which arose in the 1950s. The connection between this movement and others, as well as its devotee’s engagement with Hinduism, is demonstrated in a peculiar incident that happened to the poster-child of the Beat Generation: Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg describes in great detail a “hallucination” he had one afternoon while reading William Blake’s poetry. In the vision, Ginsberg heard and saw Blake appear to him as if he were divine (Pevateaux 40-42). Blake revealed to him the interconnectedness of all things, and Ginsberg reported feeling a sensation of awakening to the illusory cloak of reality he had been living under (Pevateaux 40-42). The things he experienced that afternoon would change his life and inform his poetry for the rest of his career. Ginsberg attributed to Blake the status of rsi, or divine seer, claiming that the knowledge Blake possessed and then transmitted to him can be traced “back to the same roots, same cities, same geography, same mushrooms, that give rise to the Aryan, Zoroastrian, Manichaen pre-Hindu yogas” (Pevateaux 38). Although Ginsberg was not taking mushrooms that day, he would go on to mimic various Hindu practitioners in experimenting with hallucinogenic entheogens in pursuit of experiences just like this one. Ginsberg traveled extensively through India, and upon return, the influence on his poetry was noticeable. In his collection Planet News: 1961-1967, Ginsberg reduces the words “whom bomb? We bomb you,” to “Hu ̄m Bom” (Hungerford 278-79). By altering the phrase, Ginsberg consciously places the importance of sound above meaning, thus employing Hindu ideas of mantra (Hungerford 278-79). Disciples of certain schools of mantra, which Ginsberg learned from, believe vibrations can change the consciousness and by-pass the mind (Hungerford 278-79). Ginsberg’s goal in this is to transform the overtly aggressive words into sounds of peace, while also drawing on the idea that to bomb anyone is to bomb the self by alternating into: “whom bomb? You bomb you” (Hungerford 278-79). Ginsberg’s most famous poem, Howl, also contains many traces of Hindu thought, despite having been written before his pilgrimage to India. For example, one line states that the people of his generation are “burning for the ancient heavenly connection” (Ginsberg 182). The parallels to Hinduism lie in “heavenly connection,” suggesting theories of Brahman, but also in “burning,” which imagistically invokes the sacrificial fires so important to Hindu rituals (Ginsberg 182). He also speaks of “Absolute Reality,” reflecting his awakening experience, which is quite similar to what one might term moksa (Ginsberg 186). Another example is the puzzling line: “joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness together” (Ginsberg 188). The phrase hints at Ginsberg’s knowledge of the Hindu conception of language, perhaps blending the Nyaya and Vaishesika schools and scholarship in line with the writings of Panini and Bhartrhari. These are just a few of the many references to Hinduism that occur in Ginsberg’s poetry.

Modern representations of Hinduism is a subject that finds refuge in emerging and avant-garde movements such as those above. Despite the reputation of such movements as progressive, Hinduism continues to be valued overwhelmingly in terms of its philosophical contributions, especially the concept of Brahman and moksa. At the more popular level, the range of representations is perhaps worse yet. Many depictions maintain the narrow definition of Hinduism through the figure of the sadhu or caste system, condemning Hinduism to an unceasing history of duality: spiritual enlightenment on one side, and moral/cultural degeneration on the other.


Chandrasekharan, K. R. (1960) “Emerson’s Brahma: An Indian Interpretation.” The New England Quarterly Vol. 33, No. 4: 506-512.

“colonialism, Western.” (2015) In Encyclopædia Britannica.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1856) “Brahma.” Poetry Foundation N.A.

Ginsberg, Allen (1956) “Howl.” In The New American Poetry: 1945-1960. Ed. Donald M. Allen.  New York: Grove Press.

Goodman, Russell B. (1990) “East-West Philosophy in Nineteenth-Century America: Emerson and Hinduism.” Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 51 No. 4: 625-645.

Hungerford, Amy (2005) “Postmodern Supernaturalism: Ginsberg and the Search for a Supernatural Language.” The Yale Journal of Criticism Vol. 18 No. 2: 269-298.

Inden, Ronald (1986) “Orientalist Constructions of India.” Modern Asian Studies Vol. 20, No. 3: 401-446.

Murray, C. (2004) Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn.

Narayan, Kirin (1993) “Refractions of the Field at Home: American Representations of Hindu  Holy Men in the 19th and 20th Centuries.” Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 8, No. 4: 476-   509.

Pevateaux, C. J. (2008) “Widened Awareness: Allen Ginsberg’s Poetic Transmission of a Blakean Inflected Esoteric Dream-Insight.” Aries Vol. 8, No. 1: 37-61.

Soherwordi, S. S. (2011) “’Hindusim’ – A Western Construction or an Influence?.” South Asian        Studies Vol. 26 No.1: 203-214.

Uddin Khan, Jalal (2008) “Shelley’s Orientalia: Indian Elements in his Poetry.” Atlantis Vol. 30,       No. 1: 35-51.

Further Reading

Barlow, Paul (2011). “The Aryan Blake: Hinduism, Art and Revelation in William Blake’s Pitt  and Nelson Paintings.” Visual Culture in Britain Vol. 12 No. 3: 277.

Dharwadker, Aparna Bhargava (1972) “Modernism, ‘Tradition,’ and History in the Postcolony:  Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghashiram kotwal.” Theatre Journal Vol. 65, No. 4: 466-487.

Guha, Naresh (1968) W.B. Yeats: An Indian Approach. Calcutta: Jadavpur University.

King, Bruce Alvin (1987) Modern Indian Poetry in English: Revised Edition. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Singh, Charu Sheel (1981) The Chariot of Fire: A Study of William Blake in the Light of Hindu  Thought. Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg.

Weir, David (2003) Brahma in the West: William Blake and the Oriental Renaissance. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Winternitz, M., Vuppala Srinivasa Sarma, Subhadra Jha, and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2008) History of Indian Literature. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

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Hindu Authors: Sake Dean Mahomet, Dhan Gopal Mukerji, Salman Rushdie, Nayantara Sehgal, Rohinton Mistry, Raja Rao, R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, and many, many more.

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Article written by: Donny Kimber (April 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.