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  • Religion, Science, and Empire: Classifying Hinduism and Islam in British India by Peter Gottschalk
  • Thomas R. Metcalf
Religion, Science, and Empire: Classifying Hinduism and Islam in British India. By Peter Gottschalk (New York, Oxford University Press, 2013) 421 pp. $65.00

In this volume, Gottschalk sets out to assess the development of the varied categories by which the British came to know and understand India, and Indians, during the colonial era. Interdisciplinary by its very nature, the book addresses, in turn, the different “ways of knowing” that became the disciplines of cartography, statistics, ethnology, and archeology, among others. Gottschalk claims that these disciplines grew up within the empire, and that, although purporting to be impartial and all-encompassing, they were in fact products of a discourse in which the modern West used “the cultural authority of science” to buttress its assertions of superiority (35). Gottschalk calls the making of such claims “scientism” to differentiate this style of analysis from an accepted empirical truth (33, 35).

Gottschalk insists that religion is the single organizing category underlying all of the varied disciplines devised to comprehend Indian society. For the British, religion “represented the fundamental quality of every Indian”; as a result, it featured centrally as “the primary category of interpretation” for all “knowledge projects” (18, 183, 185, 191). According to Gottschalk, even in such apparently disparate activities as revenue surveys, census enumerations, folklore collections, and the like, nothing mattered more to the British than an Indian’s religious affiliation, above all as Hindu or as Muslim.

Overlapping practices and local variants had to be rigorously discounted even when their existence was acknowledged by district officials. Gottschalk demonstrates his larger argument from a close scrutiny of Indian archival records, but in each chapter, he also attempts to show how these various “scientistic” discourses informed British understandings of a single village, Chainpur in Bihar. To accomplish this objective was no easy task, given the paucity of village records, but the endeavor gives the book a refreshingly original focus. Gottschalk concludes with a chapter about “Chainpur Today” in which, by observation and conversation [End Page 295] with villagers, he attempts to assess the extent to which British social categories have been adopted by Indians, even to the present day.

Much in this work is exciting; it will force readers to reconsider the relationship between science and empire. Much in it is also familiar to scholars of colonial India. Ever since Cohn’s pioneering work in the 1980s, the way in which the British constructed their knowledge of India has become a staple of historical scholarship about the region.1 No one can dispute the importance of religious identity as an explanatory category for the British of the Raj. Gottschalk tends, however, to push its importance to the very edge of credibility, thereby displacing other modes of colonial knowledge. He dismisses caste, for instance, the subject of several major recent studies, as simply a “metonym for ‘Hindu’” (201). He even cites the appearance of signs that designate temples and mosques on a 1845 map of Chainpur, though not of those that designate such other sites as sufi tombs, as evidence of the enduring British insistence upon fixed “religious categories” (76–77). In the end, Gottschalk acknowledges that “scientistic hegemony,” now pervasive and persuasive, “is secure in Chainpur, and in India” (335). One wonders how it could ever have been otherwise. In the secular modern world, “seeing like a state,” with its claims to authoritative knowledge, is surely to be found everywhere. [End Page 296]

Thomas R. Metcalf
University of California, Berkeley


1. Bernard Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge (Princeton, 1996).



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pp. 295-296
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