Hindoo Tyranny and Its Liberty

From the earliest contact, Europeans created an image of Hindu tradition as a religious tyranny. Yet, in its early phase, the British Raj declared that one of its fundamental principles was to allow the most complete toleration in matters of religion to all classes of its native subjects. Historical explanations claim that this has to do with the economic and political expediency of colonial rule. This ignores a crucial puzzle. The British indeed argued that toleration was expedient, but also insisted it was a moral obligation of the state. Like other Protestants, they conceived of Hinduism as an instance of false religion. It was the equivalent of popish idolatry: it could not but be a tyranny of priests and prelates, which arrogated from the believers God’s gift of spiritual liberty. How could colonials insist that it was a moral duty to tolerate the religious practices of this ‘Hindoo tyranny’, which—they believed—constituted clear desecrations of God’s Law? One explanation is to turn them into pragmatic hypocrites. I take another route: to make sense of the peculiar combination of the conception of Hinduism as a tyranny and the obligation to grant it liberty, one has to turn to the developments in Europe after the Reformation. Early modern Europeans could at once condemn certain practices as violations of the divine Law and argue that these practices ought always to be tolerated, because the Reformation had identified Christian liberty as God’s gift to humanity. This gave rise to a movement throughout Protestant Europe, which denounced all forms of clerical authority as denials of true spiritual liberty. Accordingly as the dynamic grew stronger, liberal toleration gained in support and scope. This dynamic accounts both for the deep conviction that religious tyranny would prevail in India and that it ought to be accommodated by colonial rule.


Jakob De Roover


London, UK




Birkbeck College

organized by

Conference Paper

meeting name

BASAS Annual Conference (British Association of South Asian Studies)

back to search result