The phrase “Yankee Hindutva” owes its origins to a chapter title of the same name in Vijay Prashad’s book, The Karma of Brown Folk.1 Since Prashad’s coinage, the phrase has been in constant use to describe ongoing developments in Hindu nationalism in America including recent debates on how Hinduism should be portrayed in high school textbooks2; public opinion survey measures of Hindu nationalism3; U.S.-India relations4; transnationalism5; and race relations.6
While The Karma of Brown Folk focuses on the South Asian American experience, the chapter titled “Yankee Hindutva” examines the history of Hindu organizations in the United States; the conflation of religion and culture for immigrants; transnationalism; and the rise of American affiliates of Indian organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA).
In his most recent book, Uncle Swami7, Prashad says he originally used the phrase “Yankee Hindutva” to “describe the way Hindu chauvinism came into the United States.”8 This lends some support for the argument that the phrase, in Prashad’s eyes, was a pejorative one, but why did he choose the expression “Yankee” and not simply “American”? He may have opted for it simply as a stand in for the latter, but his choice may also be linked to a belief that “Yankee” is perceived now to belie a sense of patriotism.
While his motivations have not been expressed publicly, our discussion can shift to the fascinating tale of the contradictory etymologies of both “Yankee” and “Hindutva.” There are many theories, and apocryphal tales about the origin of “Yankee.” The Oxford English Dictionary lists a usage as early as 1765 in “Oppression, a Poem by an American,”9 and it was a phrase of ridicule for inhabits of New England10. An alternate theory was that it was originally applied to residents of New England by Virginians and was derived from the Cherokee word “eankke” or “slave”; Harold Davis references a 1790 text that makes this claim. Constance Rourke11 suggests that word may have either been coined by, or used to describe, Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut, a friend of George Washington. Davis also believes it could be derived from the Dutch “Janke” (John), also an insulting term for New Englanders. For Rourke, the etymology of Yankee is tied to the personification of who he represents: a wanderer with no home or origin.
“Hindutva,” on the other hand, is a Hindi word that literally means “Hinduness.”12 However, there is substantial disagreement over the origin of the phrase. While many believe that it was coined by Vinayak Damodar “Veer” Savarkar in 1923 in his pamphlet, Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?13, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites an even earlier date — 1913, a full decade before Savarkar is thought to have coined it. According to the OED, their earliest recorded usage of the phrase is from a 1913 edition of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (“As Frenchmen are justly proud of their Latinity, so are Bengalis justly proud of their Hindutva, of the fact that almost every Bengali word can be traced to a Sanskrit origin.”).14
This essay began as an attempt to cobble together an encyclopedia entry on “Yankee Hindutva” for a graduate seminar, but it has evolved into something with more potential. Even after a discussion of what the individual parts of the phrase mean, we are still left with many unanswered questions. Do we, as South Asian Americans, support usage of the phrase “Hindutva” to describe not just Hindu consciousness or Hindu-ness, but also an extreme and right-wing Hindu ideology? Is “Yankee Hindutva” the best way to describe Hindu nationalism in America? Is “Yankee” Hindutva unique as a regional or type of Hindu nationalism, i.e. is it different from Australian Hindutva, British Hindutva, or Canadian Hindutva? And lastly, is there a better expression to describe one who believes in Hinduism as a political ideology and not just as a vehicle for faith?
1 Prashad, Vijay (2000). The Karma of Brown Folk. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
2 Johnson, Joy E. (2013). “Brokering Nationalism and Multiculturalism through History Textbooks: The Hindu Textbook Campaign of 2005.” M.A. Thesis, the University of Wisconsin, Madison; Visweswaran, Kamala, Michael Witzel, Nandini Manjrekar, Dipta Bhog, and Uma Chakravati. (2009). “The Hindutva View of History: Rewriting Textbooks in India and the United States.” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 10 (1): 101-112; Bose, Purnima. (2008). “Hindutva Abroad: The California Textbook Controversy.” The Global South, 2 (1): 11-34; and Gera, Shalini and Girish Agrawal. (2006). “Hindutva Goes to School.” Tehelka, 4 February. Retrieved November 26, 2014.
3 Sriram, Shyam and Satish Joshi. (2005). “Yankee Hindutva: Religiosity Measures and Hindu Nationalism.” Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, D.C.
4 Ramaswamy, Gita. (2011). “Yankee Hindutva Strikes.” Outlook India, 23 May. Retrieved November 26, 2014:
5 Rajagopal, Arvind. (2001). Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India. Cambridge, UK: The University Press, and Rajagopal, Arvind. (2000). “Hindu Nationalism in the U.S.: Changing Configurations of Political Practice.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 23 (3): 467-496.
6 Swamy, Raja. (2006). “Yankee Hindutva: Indian Jim Crow in Victim Garb.” Dissident Voices, 19 January. Retrieved November 26, 2014.
7 Prashad, Vijay. (2012). Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today. New York: The New Press.
8 Ibid, p. 172.
10 Davis, Harold. (1938). “On the Origin of Yankee Doodle.” American Speech, 13 (2): 93 – 96.
11 Rourke, Constance. (2004) (1931). American Humor: A Study of the National Character. New York: NYBR Classics.
12 Gittinger, Juli L. 2008. “Hindutva from Savarkar to Ayodhya.” M.A. Thesis. University of Colorado Boulder; Kurien (2004); and Rajagopal (2000).
13 Gittinger (2008); Joglekar, Jaywant. (2006). Veer Savarkar: Father of Hindu Nationalism. Lulu.com; and Sharma, Arvind. (2002). “On Hindu, Hindustan, Hinduism, and Hindutva.” Numen, 49 (1): 1 – 36.
Shyam Sriram is a Ph.D. student in the department of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he originally wrote this essay for a graduate seminar. His primary area of focus is Asian Pacific American politics, but he also works on the political attitudes of refugees. Although born in Chicago, he lived in India from age nine to 17.