The Language of Disenchantment: Protestant Literalism and Colonial Discourse in British India

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The Language of Disenchantment explores how Protestant ideas about language influenced British colonial attitudes toward Hinduism and proposals for the reform of that tradition. Protestant literalism, mediated by a new textual economy of the printed book, inspired colonial critiques of Indian mythological, ritual, linguistic, and legal traditions. Central to these developments was the transposition of the Christian opposition between monotheism and polytheism or idolatry into the domain of language. Polemics against verbal idolatry - including the elevation of a scriptural canon over heathenish custom, the attack on the personifications of mythological language, and the critique of vain repetitions in prayers and magic spells - previously applied to Catholic and sectarian practices in Britain were now applied by colonialists to Indian linguistic practices. As a remedy for these diseases of language, the British attempted to standardize and codify Hindu traditions as a step toward both Anglicization and Christianization. The colonial understanding of a perfect language as the fulfillment of the monotheistic ideal echoed earlier Christian myths according to which the Gospel had replaced the obscure discourses of pagan oracles and Jewish ritual. By recovering the historical roots of the British re-ordering of South Asian discourses in Protestantism, Yelle challenges representations of colonialism, and of the modernity that it ushered in, as simply rational or secular.