There have been extensive debates amongst scholars as to whether the religion known as "Hinduism" exists in continuity with precolonial Indian religion or whether it is an ahistorical construct built by imperialist action and colonial reaction. According to the latter account, British governors, ethnographers, and missionaries opposed an ideal philosophical, spiritual, "pure" Hinduism to an existent superstitious, worldly, "corrupt" complex of indigenous sects and beliefs. This concept was seized upon and internalized by Indian modernizers and nationalists. Pennington rejects this narrative out of hand, noting that it does not do justice to the sincere beliefs of Hindus past and present who maintain that their beliefs and practices are continuous with the precolonial era, and fails to appreciate the extent of discontinuity and development present in every religious tradition.
The bulk of the book is taken up by a discussion of three journalistic sources. The first is a British missionary publication and the second a British scientific journal, both concentrating on the subcontinent. Pennington attempts to use these to show how British perceptions of Hinduism were shaped by domestic attitudes, particularly concerning class and Catholicism, and how the encounter with Hinduism affected those attitudes in turn. The third source is a traditionalist Hindu newspaper from 19th century Calcutta, which he uses to demonstrate how Indians reacted to British criticism of their religion, particularly in the strong assertion of Hindu identity. He also attempts to use these discussions to contribute to the ongoing debate concerning the nature of the relationship between scholarship, the religions it studies, and the practitioners of those faiths.
Pennington's own preconceptions sometimes creep in at the sides, as when he declares that Willliam Wilberforce could not have genuinely cared about the British lower classes because his politics were insufficiently progressive. At times it appears that traditionalist and modernist might be better descriptors than the progressive and conservative labels he uses, which have political meanings that do not necessarily overlap with their theological meanings, creating confusion he is obviously aware of but seems unable to escape. Then there is the epilogue, when in a desperate bid for moral equivalency he conjoins the murder of a missionary by Hindu nationalists to the publication of an insensitive anti-Hindu tract by the Southern Baptists, an offense compounded rather than excused by his immediate denial of any such equivalence. Still, all in all, the worst thing about the book is its length, far too short for an adequate treatment of such a fascinating subject.