Dialogue  July-September, 2006, Volume 8  No. 1

Editorial Perspective

Crisis of Understanding India

It is unfortunate, but true, that the confusion of average Indian about the country and the society is increasing day by day. The percentage of culture and tradition illiterates among our University degree-holders is very high. Cultural uprootedness has become the index of progress and status, especially among the neo-rich, neo-privileged and newly empowered. There is a tendency to proudly exhibit ones ignorance of the culture, tradition and the mother tongue. Highly placed English-educated Indians are promoting delexification and pidginization of Modern Indian languages, and the time is not far off when the Indians, especially of coming generation, shall be cut off from the vast treasure of knowledge and wisdom stored in our modern Indian literature. It needs mention that this has already happened in case of Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit literatures.

Prior to 1857, British colonial emphasis was on (i) expansion and consolidation of the empire and (ii) conversion to Christianity. After 1857, it was agreed as a policy to depict India as a divided and confused entity consisting of diverse castes, tribes, races, languages, dialects, regions, religions, sects, cultures, rituals, food habits, dresses, etc and the British empire as the only uniting factor. Studies were sponsored to highlight the differences. Monographs on castes and tribes, District Gazetteers, Census Studies, Linguistic and Ethnographic Surveys, ‘People of India’ series of publications, all such studies were commissioned to highlight our differences in very big way. India was depicted merely as a ‘geographical entity’, an ‘administrative unit’, an ‘imaginary state’. Alfred C. Lyall, a British colonial functionary, played prominent role in initiating and promoting this policy. The ‘isolationist theory, concept of ‘mainstream/core’ and ‘core-fringe conflict’, all sorts of myths to promote all sorts of ‘divide’ were developed.

Earlier, the terms ‘caste’ and ‘tribe’ were loosely used. There was no rigid distinction between the two. Even the monographs written by colonial scholars used the terms together, as “Castes and Tribes of Punjab”, ‘Castes and Tribes of Bengal’, etc. Various castes and communities were referred as tribes, such as the ‘Brahmin tribes’, ‘Rajput tribes’, ‘Muslim tribes’ etc. The blurring distinction was soon done away with and the terms became rigid. Indian Census took a lead in such an endeavour. Steps were taken towards special dispensation to the distant frontier tracts; segregation became the part of official policy. Inner Line Regulations were enforced in as early as 1874. Certain areas were carved out as ‘Backward Areas’ as per the ‘Government of India Act, 1919, and ‘Excluded and Partially Excluded Areas’ as per Government of India Act, 1935. Professor Coupland and some other British colonial officers planned to carve out a ‘Crown Colony’ comprising of the hills of North-East India and Myanmar. Independence came a bit too early and the ‘Coupland Plan’ could not succeed. Many British administrators thought Christian proselytization to be beneficial for the empire. Johnstone wrote:

“The late General Dalton, C.S.I., when Commissioner of Chota Nagpur did his utmost to aid Christian Mission among the wild Kols; his argument being like mine, that they wanted a religion and that were they Christian, they would be a valuable counterpoise in time of trouble to the vast non-Christian population of Bihar. In the same way, it can not be doubted, that a large population of Christian hillmen between Assam and Burmah would be a valuable prop to the state.”

The British gave us the colonial system of education. The disciplines, like Indology and anthropology, were, and still are, basically colonial disciplines. Colonial history and historiography tenaciously resist any change, thanks to the politicization and vested interest of our academics. The situation is not different in other cases, such as in the case of political science, philosophy and economics. Take the case of economics, where we talk in terms of ‘average’. Average income of a multi-billionaire and a man dying of hunger has no meaning; it leads us to absurdity and points towards utter lack of sensitivity.

A large contingent of our scholars/university teachers were sent to Europe, especially England, and America for research and foreign degrees just after Independence. Their Euro-American training, the western model of research and scholarship, the model of research, which believed in specialisations creating towers of information and knowledge with narrow base, rather than inter-disciplinary approach of research with basic understanding of India, its culture and traditions , history, etc in continuum frame, was not fruitful for the country. Our scholars developed habit of easy borrowing, developed ‘translational scholarship’; they became lazy consumers of ideas, rather than the generators. This led to intellectual/academic incompetence and confusion. Stalinist scholars had double colonial impact, and are, therefore, more confused.. A point, very sad one indeed, is that a large section of our educated people are more confused than the so-called;. uneducated, illiterates of our country. In reality, not only the schools, but also the society educates and it cannot be denied that all our illiterates are not uneducated. At the same time, all English educated degree holders are not educated in real sense.

Ancient Indian literature in Sanskrit and related languages has the vast treasure of knowledge stored in them. Unfortunately, most of our scholars have no access to the same except through the English translation of the original works. The fact is often ignored that most of the studies made by Western Sanskrit scholars were sponsored ones and are full of distortions and bias. They gave wrong meaning to the terms, such as, Arya, Asura, Dasyu, Dasa, Mlechchha, etc., initiated ‘racial interpretation’ of Indian society, and Aryan aggression theory. These terms with mischievously loaded meanings were used to distort our history and culture.

The Western scholars, such as Willium Jones, Charles Wilkins, Thomas Colebrooke, Friedrick Schelegal, August Wilhelm Von Schlegel, James Princep, Franz Bopp, Franz Keilhorn, Wilhelm Rumbolt, Eugene Burnouf, Alexander Cunningham, Major Seymour Sewell made valuable contributions in Indic studies. There were unavoidable mistakes in their studies, but their studies lacked subjectivity and were, more or less free from bias. The same is not true in the case of F. Max Muller, Monier Williums, Rudolf Roth, Otto Bothlingk, A. Weber, Horace Hayman Wilson, Winternitz, Kuhn, J. Muir, W.D. Whitney, Pargiter, etc. Guided by wrong motives and the bias of the colonizers for the colonized, they misinterpreted Indian literary traditions. Abbe J.A.Dubois, James Mill, Lyall. E.T. Dalton, Hutton, H.H. Risley, R.V. Russel, R.E. Ethnoven, Gustav Oppert, Vincent A. Smith, Mortimer Wheeler, Stuart Piggot, Leonard Woolley, G.R.Kaye, David Diringer, Buhler, etc misinterpreted Indian tradition, history and culture for colonial/theological reasons.

It may not be out of place to provide some expert opinions about some of the works which mis-shaped Indian understanding of their society and culture. Mill’s History of British India was recommended for the study to the candidates for the Indian Civil Service. Max Muller remarks about that book thus::

“This book which I consider most mischievous, nay, which I hold most responsible for some of the greatest misfortunes that have happened in India, is Mill’s ‘History of British India’, even with the antidote against its poison, which is supplied by Professor Wilson’s notes”

“Mill’s History, no doubt, you all know, particularly the candidates of Indian Civil Service, who, I am sorry to say, are recommended to read it and are examined in it. Still in order to substantiate my condemnation of the book, I shall have to give a few proofs:

“Mill in his estimate of the Hindu character is chiefly guided by Dubois, a French Missionary, and by Orme and Buchanan, Tennant and Ward, all of them neither very competent nor very unprejudiced judges. Mill, however, picks out all that is most unfavourable from their works, and omits the qualifications which even these writers felt bound to give to their wholesale condemnation of the Hindus. He quotes as serious, for instance, what was said in joke, namely, that ‘a Brahman is an ant’s nest of lies and impostures.’ Next to the charge of untruthfulness, Mill upbraids the Hindus for what he calls their litigiousness.”

One way to mis-interpret Vedic/Sanskrit was to give wrong meaning to the key terms. The Western scholars who wrote Sanskrit Dictionary and Grammar performed this task successfully. Of course, there were scholars in the West who did not hesitate to express their honest views about India. Professor Goldstucker’s opinion about the author of Sanskrit German Dictionary is revealing:

It will of course be my duty to show, at the earliest opportunity, that Dr. Bothlingk is incapable of understanding even easy rules of Panini, much less those of Katyayana and still less capable of making use of them in the understanding of classical texts. The errors in his department of the dictionary are so numerous … that it will fill every serious Sanskritist with dismay, when he calculates the mischievous influence which they must exercise on the study of Sanskrit philology.”

He further writes about that dictionary (Worterbuch):

“Questions, which, in my mind, ought to be decided with very utmost circumspection, and which could not be decided without any labourious research have been trifled with in his Worterbuch in the most unwarranted manner.”

Goldstucker further writes against the mischievous act of mutilation of sacred texts in print, the propagandist scholarship of western Sanskrit scholars and the unjustified attack on Vedic tradition:

“When I see that the most-distinguished and the most learned Hindu scholars and divines – the most valuable and some times the only source of all our knowledge of ancient India are scorned in theory, mutilated in print, and as a consequence, set aside in the interpretation of the Vedic texts; … When a clique of Sanskritists of this description vapours about giving us the sense of the Veda as it existed at the commencement of Hindu antiquity; … when I consider that this method of studying Sanskrit philology is pursued by those whose words apparently derive weight and influence from the professional positions they hold … then I hold that it would be want of courage and a dereliction of duty, if I did not make a stand against these Saturnalia of Sanskrit philology.”

As stated earlier, the prominent studies on Vedic/Sanskrit texts by Sanskrit scholars of the West were sponsored ones. The Boden Professorship of Sanskrit in the University of Oxford was established by a foundation created as per the Will of Colonel Boden, in which he stated that the special object of the same was to promote the translation of Scriptures into Sanskrit; so as to enable his countrymen to proceed in the conversion of the natives of India to the Christian religion. W.W Wilson was the first occupant of the Boden chair. He wrote the book, The Religious and Philosophical System of the Hindus, to facilitate the candidates for the prize instituted from the fund donated by John Muir, a Sanskrit scholar, for the best refutation of the Hindu religious system. Sir Willium Monier, who wrote Vedic Grammar and Sanskrit Grammar, was the second to occupy the chair.

Macaulay, who had a grand design of “proselytization through education”, proposed to pay ten thousand pounds (equivalent to Rupees one lakh; a substantial sum in 1854) to 32 year old German scholar, Max Muller for translating Rig Veda in such a manner that it would destroy the belief of the Hindus in the Vedic religion. Max Muller, who never came to India, accepted the task, which was declined by Wilson for money and for the sake of his religion and prepared a distorted version of the Rig Veda. He was so confidant about the effectiveness of his work that he wrote to the Duke of Argyl, the Under Secretary for India in 1868: “The ancient religion of India is doomed and if Christianity does not step in, whose fault will it be?” While he was a ruthless critic of the scriptures of other religions, which he did in the 50 volumes of the Sacred Books of the East, he found it difficult to tolerate any adverse comment about Bible. .Dr. Spiegal once expressed the view that, perhaps, The Biblical account of the creation of the universe had been borrowed from the Iranian sources. Poor Spiegal had to bear the virulent attack of Max Muller, who wrote: “A writer like Dr. Spiegal should know that he can expect no mercy, nay, he should himself wish for no mercy, but invite the heaviest artillery against the floating battery which he has launched in the troubled waters of Biblical criticism.”

Monier Williams, another Sanskrit scholar, remarks: “Brahmanism, therefore, must die out. … Christianity must inevitably in the end sap its foundations.” He further writes: “When the walls of the mighty fortress of Brahmanism are encircled, undermined, and finally stormed by the soldiers of the Cross, the victory of Christianity must be signal and complete.”

Dharmpal, a member of fast dwindling race of thinking Indians, has written some insightful valuable books, including The Beautiful Tree, Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century, Angrejon se pahale ka Bharat (Hindi). The books were the fruits of his laborious research based on the data collected from the archives and the documents prepared by persons like William Adam and Thomas Munro. His writings bring to focus the facts that there was more education in the Madras and Bengal Presidencies in early 19th century than during the rest of the British period; and that there was practically little difference in the life-style of different sections of the society. Illiteracy, poverty, hunger, forced labour, exploitative luxurious life style of the ruling classes were the results of the wrong policy followed by the Britishers. The books expose the baseless myths of ‘Brahmin monopoly of education” and “oppressive caste exploitation”.

Efforts should be made to get-our social sciences, and our education, rid of all-pervasive colonial hang-over without any delay.


                                                                                                                                                     —B.B. Kumar


 Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati