The Journal of Asian Studies

Research Article

Translating Dharma: Scottish Missionary-Orientalists and the Politics of Religious Understanding in Nineteenth-Century Bombay

Mitch Numark


A consideration of colonial Bombay enriches the understanding of the activities and ideas of Christian missionaries and Orientalists in India and elucidates British conceptions of “the religions of India” and the production of colonialist knowledge. This article focuses on nineteenth-century Scottish missionary-Orientalists and examines how they and other Bombay-based Protestant missionaries understood the concept of religion, Christianity, and the structure, similitude and distinctiveness of “the religions” at the crucial moment when newly “discovered” religions were gaining recognition and a new vision of “world religions” was coming into being. It considers the writings on the religions and ethnographic scholarship of the Bombay Scottish missionaries, as well as their extensive and multifaceted interactions with Bombay's Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Parsi, Jewish, Roman Catholic and Andivasi communities. More specifically, it details the ways in which Bombay missionaries applied and related the concept of religion to diverse configurations of language, text, and practice that they understood as isomorphic species of the religion genus. By examining how Christian missionaries who were also Orientalists conceptualized a number of “religions” and interacted with numerous communities this article seeks to elucidate the presuppositions that shaped the ways in which Hinduism and the other “religions” of nineteenth-century Bombay were imagined.

(Online publication June 24 2011)

Mitch Numark ( is Assistant Professor of History at California State University Sacramento