The New American Ganges: Hinduism and Health in American Religious History

Today's post comes from our newest contributor to the blog, Michael J. Altman! Michael is a Ph.D. student in American Religious Culture at Emory University, where he researches the American encounter with Hinduism, and more broadly constructions of the category of the sacred in American religious history. Michael's first post, below, concerns the connections made in the 19th century between Asian religions and the spread of disease, versus more contemporary conceptions of the connections of Asian religions and health. Welcome to Michael! You can also follow Michael on Twitter: @MichaelJAltman.

Cholera, India, and Religious Epidemiology in America

Michael J. Altman

Today is the end of the Kumbh Mela—a Hindu festival held every three years—which means millions of Hindus are bathing in the Ganges river at the City of Haridwar to cleanse themselves of their wrong doing in order to achieve moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth). What does this have to do with religion in America? Or American history, even?

Glad you asked.

I recently came across a handful of articles in the Chicago Medical Examiner, and a few other medical journals from the late nineteenth century which argued that this same ritual bathing at Haridwar would lead to a cholera outbreak in the United States.

As one 1868 article from John C. Peters, M.D. of New York puts it:

“There is a great nursery of cholera in the northern part of Hindostan, at the foot of the Himalaya Mountains, viz., at HURDWAR, where the thrice sacred Ganges emerges from the mountains…The largest of all the Hindoo festivals and fairs is held at Hurdwar every year…but every twelfth year, which is particularly holy, as man as 1,500,000 to 3,000,000 of devotees and traders are often crowded together…As a matter of course, cholera is often brought to Hurdwar; often originates there; and is frequently carried away from it.”

The article then goes on to explore how various 19th century epidemics of cholera began at Haridwar and then spread to Europe. While many of the explanations focus on trade routes, a lot of them also focus on religious practices as the spreading disease. Hindu pilgrims spread the disease throughout the subcontinent and then Muslim pilgrims spread it across Russia and the Near East. As the story goes, it then spreads to southern Europe, then to Western Europe and then possibly to the United States.

The relationship between Hinduism, Islam, and southern (Catholic) Europe to the spread of cholera brings three points to mind regarding American religious history.

First, the connection between “superstitious” or “heathen” religious practice and disease highlights the relationship on the other hand between Christianity and rational Western medicine. All of the writers in these journals doctors and Protestants and the two are intimately connected.

Second, the spread of disease tracks along a religious/cultural/ethnic hierarchy from the lowest, “heathen India,” through the Muslim Middle East and Catholic Italy to Christian Europe to the highest, democratic and Protestant America, that reflects the ethnological theory of the period. At this point in American history, non-Christian religions were not only encountered through a missionary lens but also through this pseudo-scientific, ethnic, and racial lens as well. Furthermore, this religiously flavored epidemiology is another way of thinking through the connection Thomas Nast makes in his cartoon “The New American Ganges” between Catholic ritual and Indian religion.


Finally, these articles provide the background against which later nineteenth century encounters with Asian religions in America would occur. Vivekananda and members of the Brahmo Samaj could have moderate success at the World’s Parliament of Religions because their Hinduism looked nothing like this ritualized, disease spreading, “superstition.”

A century later, Asian religions would provide resources for new forms of spiritual and religious healing. That move from disease to health reveals a lot about the success of the turn of the twentieth century Indian gurus like Vivekananda and his 1960s progeny. Now, ideas about health and Hinduism in America tend more toward ideas about Transcendental Meditation than communicable diseases like cholera.


1. Vivekananda himself suffered from superstitions.
2. Vivekananda himself suffered from numerous diseases.

Vivekananda had nothing to do with the good health or ill health of Hindus or Indians of other religions.

Our problems mainly stem from an exploding population.
Anonymous said…
great to have you on board - and your dissertation research looks terrific!!!
Once the modern education spreads, the problem of mass bathing will subside and the scope for spread of water-born epidemics contracts.

The real problem is not that of pilgrims bathing in rivers. The problem relates to release of urban wastes and industrial effluents throughout the 2500 km. course of the Ganges River and its tributaries. The Kumbh Mela is a 12 year affair and should not worry more than the urbanisation and municipal drainage release into rivers polution problems. These two problems, even the American rivers like the Hudson, Colarado, Mississipi may be facing as I read from the American books. Scientific Research + awareness of people + Government action will probably by the next decade reduce the risks.

The multinational industrial Corporates and the Private Sector Corporates hoodwink the pollution laws throughout the world. They add more dangerous chemical and hazardous metallic wastes when compared to human organic wastes added by the pilgrims.

Feeding cows and swine with garbage of meat and chicken in the American and European farms -- is going to create more diseases and export them to the world. London had this experience of the Mad Cow disease. There are Swine Flu and Bird Flu.

Cholera, Small Pox, and Polio are rare in India now. That is: the traditional diseases are giving way to the modern diseases. Today Indians are not suffering from much from epidemics. They are suffering from diseases like diabetes, osteoporosis, high BP, cardiological problems which are the result of eating high calorie stuff like Coke, McDowell, Beer-wine-whisky-brandy-rum-gin affairs.

A few days, I saw on a Telugu language T.V. channel, the story of a 75 years old woman who is surviving on one plate of Red Gram lentil splits and 2 bottles of local palm-toddy-liquor juice. On the TV she looked healthy with black hair and a face with less wrinkles. A health solution, therefore, seems to be to go for organic, non-industrial foods and goods. I myself do not have a refrigerator in my home and during summer I cool my drinking water in earthenware pots. Simplifying our lives seems to be one health solution. No need to worry about pilgrim-generated epidemics. Spread of scientific health hygiene will automatically take place with English education and Technical education. Superstitions will go. Pub Culture and reckless premarital sex and prostitution for money without condoms will be the new scourges.

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