Enlightenment, Empire and Deism: interpretations of the 'Hindoo religion' in the work of East India 'Company Men', 1760-1790.

  • Jessica Patterson

Student thesis: Phd


In the latter half of the eighteenth century the British presence in India meant that East India Company servants were at the forefront of European researches into the region's history, culture and religion. This thesis offers an analysis of the work of four such Company writers, all of whom produced accounts of what they perceived to be India's native and original religion: J.Z. Holwell (1711-1798), Alexander Dow, (1735-1779), N.B. Halhed (1751-1830), and Charles Wilkins (1749-1836). It argues that their particular interpretation of what they termed the 'Hindoo' or 'Gentoo' religion was based on their own preoccupations with European religious debates, from a perspective that can loosely be described as deist. At the centre of this thesis is the claim that these British interpretations of Hinduism instigated an important shift in the way that Indian theology and philosophy was understood in eighteenth-century Europe. This new paradigm moved away from characterisations of the religion according to eye-witness accounts, towards a construction of Indian religion based on the claim of British researchers that they were penetrating the original philosophical origins of a much maligned and ancient system of thought. This new interpretation of a philosophic Hinduism was both based in and shaped Enlightenment intellectual culture, to the extent that by the turn of the century it had firmly cemented its place in not only the thought of prominent figures such as Voltaire and Raynal, but also constituted a significant topic in the emergent discourses of German idealism. The notion of a British interpretation of Hinduism has previously been discussed as both a marker in what some have termed the invention of Hinduism, and by those researching the history of Orientalism as an academic discipline. In the first instance, these authors are characterised as moments in a process, with some suggesting that the real invention occurred as part of the nineteenth-century imperialist project. In the second place, these authors are most often seen as unscholarly precursors to the work of the first true British Indologist, Sir William Orientalist Jones (1746-1794). This thesis will challenge these positions by positing these four authors as the architects of the shift towards a European conception of Hinduism as a rational and philosophical religion.
Date of Award1 Aug 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorStuart Jones (Supervisor) & Jackie Hirst (Supervisor)


  • Hinduism
  • Religion
  • Empire
  • Enlightenment
  • India
  • Eighteenth Century
  • Deism
  • East India Company

Cite this