- The Language of Disenchantment: Protestant Literalism and Colonial Discourse in British India by Robert E. Yelle
This volume contends that British rule in India was profoundly shaped by a Protestant framework, aimed at ridding India of its magic, mantras, and abundance of rituals and vernacular traditions. This commitment to disenchanting India expressed itself in critiques of Indian “idolatry,” linguistic reform, and the codification of laws. The case for a singular Protestant episteme that pervades these sites of colonial and missionary engagement is ambitious in its scope and crosses the disciplines of linguistics, theology, and history. [End Page 293]
Although it makes a unique contribution to the intellectual history of colonialism, the book is more effective at tracing the lineage of particular threads of European discourse than it is in explaining Indian institutions or Indian responses to Europeans. In spite of embracing Chakrabarty’s project of “provincializing Europe,” this book is essentially about Europeans and their critiques of Indian society.1 Though joining the ranks of those who, following Edward Said, have made European universalism more contingent and contextually motivated, the book strains to demonstrate a common soteriology that links, for instance, Alexander Duff’s promotion of English medium education and the secularization of Hindu law.
At the heart of Yelle’s argument is the claim that the British did to India what ancient Christianity did to Judaism and Protestantism did to Catholicism. Christianity made the observance of the Jewish law (along with the magic, superstitions, and oracles of the pagan world) ineffective for salvation. By sidelining the role of the Torah, especially its ritual component, early Christianity made the first historical push toward the disenchantment of the world (17–22). The next important moment was the Protestant Reformation, which critiqued the ritualism of Catholicism. “Protestant literalism” stressed the primacy of the sacred text over ritual and tradition. Moreover, literalism introduced a new theory of language, which assigned to words a representational purpose, as distinct from their earlier possession of “powers in their own right” (27). The British imported this conceptual heritage into their critiques of India’s linguistic and religious traditions.
Yelle reads Weber’s notion of disenchantment into various theories of secularism (that of Asad, Anidjar, Balagangadhara, et al.) before applying the lens to reformist activity in colonial India.2 Whereas Indians emphasized the performative or pragmatic role of language (especially in Vedic or tantric practices, 37), Protestant literalism decried the conflation of “words for things” and so “redrew the boundaries of and relations of language, thought and reality” (87, 41). The same sanitizing literalism underlay the promotion of English medium education, linguistic reform, and the critique of repetitious prayers in Catholicism and Hinduism.
The book’s theoretical apparatus and lucid prose are commendable, as is the author’s command of wide ranging sources. The book’s primordialist argument, however, ultimately portrays British rule in India as being guided by a single agency and ideology, when in fact it had many. Yelle renders the shared Protestant heritage of codification, the critique [End Page 294] of “verbal idolatry,” English medium education, and legal reform in words and phrases that suggest more tenuous connections—for instance, “seem to have originated” (50), “striking resemblance” (140), “metaphor” (87), “appears to coincide” (40), “may have affected” (129) and, most often, “echoes” (17, 70, 119, 134, 138, 140). Leaving aside this presumption of coherence, readers will find in this study an intriguing sounding out of Weberian ideas within a particular colonial context.
1. See Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, 2000).
2. See, for example, Max Weber (trans. Ephraim Fischoff), The Sociology of Religion (Boston, 1993; orig. pub., in German, 1922); Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, 2003); Gil Anidjar, Semites: Race, Religion, Literature (Stanford, 2007); S. N. Balagangadhara, The “Heathen in His Blindness …”: Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion (Boston, 1994).