Academic Books

Religion and the Specter of the West by Arvind Mandair

How the Western concept of religion infiltrated colonial India to ensure the domination, power and superiority of the colonisers

During colonial India, translation played a key role in changing the practices of Indians, their society and languages. Colonisers assumed that meanings are comparable and that identities are fixed, not fluid. Their goal was to standardise India’s languages, laws, and customs with all their hybridity and complexity in the image of the colonised themselves—the spectre of the West. Fear of heterogeneity, along with a desire for mastery, drove this reductionist behaviour, which was carried out through “an imagined common platform or grid” and “a particular mode of social relation” to impose and sustain hierarchies between colonisers and colonised (Mandair 2009, 91). This mindset, according to Mandair, still exists today, making recognition of difference impossible and confining theoretical knowledge to a replication of itself as well as of its Western origins.

This book is about religion, with a special emphasis on Sikhism and its establishment as a “religion”. The aim is twofold. (1) To show how globalisation simply replicates the hierarchies and exclusions that characterise the colonial period. (2) To demonstrate how components of the Shikh tradition during the colonial era were recast in view of the category of religion—envisaged as universal—and the nascent discourse of religion generated by the young History of Religion discipline.

This particular focus on the deconstruction of religion as universal in the context of colonial India requires an analysis of translation, not as a linguistic category, but as a conceptual framework through which identities are created. Thus, the concept of “translation” is fundamental to Religion and the Spectre of the West, operating as a metaphor for the loss of polyvalence and subjection to faulty lexicon that ensued the forced conformity of subjectivities to European idioms and concepts. By focusing on translation as such, Mandair sets forth a particularly intriguing thesis: the West’s self-reference and the hierarchy it creates persists well after the end of the colonial rule and is embedded in the globalisation process, with translation as its key feature.

Mandair contends that both the category of religion (in general) and Sikhism (in particular) mirror and perpetuate colonial conceptual categories, with European paradigms (the “West”) serving as the master template. He asserts that translation comes at the expense of the original and Sikhism itself, both of which change under the false impression that translation is a sort of interchange or ordinary communication, implying at least a degree of impartiality. The idea is to domesticate the text for an audience of European orientalists and policymakers. “The key point…is that the final authority in determining the transference and relocation of the native meaning not only happens in English, but rests with whatever conforms most closely to the English self” (Mandair 2009, 201). 

The book consists of three parts, with a lengthy preface, introduction, and a short epilogue. Part I provides a detailed and comprehensive theoretical framework. Part II examines Sikh sources from the 19th and early 20th centuries to test the idea about the formation of the concept of religion and its absence in South Asia. Mandair shows how orientalists like Max Macauliffe and Ernest Trumpp, as well as important reformers like Teja Singh, Bhai Vir Singh, Kahan Singh Nabha, and Jodh Singh, incorporated Sikhism into the list of the world religions. This operation of modern “religion-making” resulted from a “complex circuit made up of theology, exegesis, scriptural translations, Anglovernacular schools, hermeneutic framing, recasting symbolic orders, and metropolitan scholarship” (Oberoi 2011, 281).

Part III aspires to resuscitate and reimagine an imagined Sikh tradition, or what the tradition would be like if the West had not intervened. To rescue Sikhs from the horrors of colonial domination, Mandair proposes a new reworking of Sikh theology and its vocabulary. He outlines the complex patterns of “religionmaking” in modern South Asia and gives an imagined past for the Sikh community, as well as a sketch of post-secular theory aiming at decolonising the mind and denying identity politics, which is a replay and retrieval of the colonial past.

Mandair’s focus on how specific components of Hindu and Sikh traditions were recast in terms of the concept of “religion” provides insights into the workings of the concepts of the secular and religion as universals. His thesis is significant for comprehending the driving and limiting forces behind the subsequent Sikh ethnonationalist movement and for recognising its impact on modern and postmodern studies. Thus, his study extends and enriches the work of Harjot Oberoi, Peter van der Veer, Vasudha Dalmia, and Richard King.


Mandair’s work is indeed a philosophical exploration of how Hegel’s conceptual categories have affected succeeding thinkers and infiltrated the language of Indians. But as new realities emerge through language, in Mandair’s work, theoretical discussions and academic jargon get in the way of recognising language’s sensuousness.

Moreover, ideological workings in colonial translations aren’t particularly new but have been hotly debated in Translation Studies (TS). Thus, Mandair’s work would have benefited from TS scholars like Lawrence Venuti, Susan Bassnett, Rita Kothari, Harish Trivedi, Michael Cronin, and others. These scholars extensively discussed appropriation and modes of resistance, which run through most of Mandair’s work. For example, Michael S. Dodson (2007) investigated these concerns in the context of India, addressing similar issues, with a much thorough discussion of language and translation in colonial India. However, though it loses its attention for being so broad, Religion and the Spectre of the West adds new insights about translation, viz. Sikhism and how globalisation sustains power structures key to the workings of colonialism.

With its broad temporal, spatial, and intellectual perspectives, Religion and the Specter of the West contributes to various disciplines, including but not limited to translation, postcolonial, religious, Sikh and South Asian studies. Mandair’s cries for justice are what give the book its breadth, authenticity, credibility, and ethical heft. His grasp of a broad body of materials and scholarly traditions is so vast that it’s clear that the colonial mission significantly affected the religious landscape in South Asia, notably in terms of its influence on the Sikh tradition. Thus, Mandair’s multidisciplinary method fills a gap in Sikh philosophy and maps new lines of investigation in the process, addressing basic questions about religion, translation, subjectivity, and the politics of knowledge. The book is more relevant today than ever because it raises awareness of the ominous spectre that haunts religious identities worldwide, particularly in areas where it is less obvious, such as multiculturalism, anti-imperialist critique, and global capitalism.  


Dodson, Michael S. 2007. Orientalism, Empire, and National Culture: India, 1770-1880. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mandair, Arvind-Pal Singh. 2009. Religion and the Specter of the West Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality, and the Politics of Translation. New York: Columbia University Press.

Oberoi, Harjot. 2011. Review of Review of Religion and the Specter of the West: Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality, and the Politics of Translation, by Arvind-Pal S. Mandair. The Journal of Asian Studies 70 (1): 280–82.

[Sunday the 15th August 2021, Durham]

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