“Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth”[1]

It would be meaningless to attempt to trace the idea of India through to antiquity, for immediately, we find ourselves mired in the ontological minefield of questions such as ‘whose India? which India?’ The modern, political entity that is known as India, presents a picture of immense geographical and cultural diversity, its billion people belonging to several racial groups, and following seven prominent religions (Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism) that are further divided into hundreds of sects and castes. India is home to nearly two thousand dialects, associated with fourteen well-established languages (each with its own script and literature) as well as English.[2] Throughout history, India has experienced myriad representations in the narratives of all those who have come across it, as visitors, conquerors, merchants, pilgrims, and imperial masters, but strikingly common among all these different impressions is a paradoxical discourse of wonderment, combined with lack and civilisational decay.

In this post, I seek not to discover any “original” India, but to explore India’s position in Western (including Islamic) understanding of the world and world history. Each “foreign” group that has encountered India, from the Ancient Persians through the Ancient Greeks, Muslims, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and finally the British, created its own India; therefore, the nationalist leaders in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who wished to overthrow the rule of the British Crown in India had to first create their own India that was inclusive of the mind-boggling diversity mentioned above. This fight over the right to represent India is not yet over, as resurgent hindutva in the form of the Bharatiya Janata Party sweeps across India, accusing its rivals of pseudo-secularism, while its foes, primarily the Congress (I), accuse in return, the BJP of fomenting communalism and Hindu fundamentalism.[3] It is very appropriate, then, to look to history for answers, something all political parties seem to have done while keeping their own interests foremost. There are many questions that my inquiry will raise that cannot be answered as they are not entirely pertinent to my topic. Questions regarding the different cultural meanings and implications of decline and failure, regarding the temporal aspects of these phenomena, and questions regarding cultural perspectives of time itself are beyond the scope of this post but fruitful seed ideas for future posts. Here and now, then, I briefly analyse the past of a once almost mythic but now very real, though imagined, India.

India in Antiquity: Ancient Persia, Ancient Greece, and Rome

The first recorded military encounter the people inhabiting the regions of the Indus Valley had with “outsiders” is recorded in Ancient Persian and Ancient Greek sources. King Darius I of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty led a successful campaign against the Indians in approximately 520-515 BCE. After annexing what is today Pakistan and parts of northwestern India to his empire, Darius I made the region into his 20th satrap, or province. Records of the riches of this province and its impact on Persian thought come down to us more through Ancient Greek sources than Persian works. Herodotus lists the revenues the Persians received from the Indus region, one of twenty satrapies, as 360 talents of gold dust, 33% of the state’s income from foreign tributes.[4] Prior to the Indian campaign of Alexander the Great (327-325 BCE), Persia had served as the conduit for the transmission of information and trade between India and the West. Extensive trade routes existed between Europe and India through Persia, as India was the main source of spices, aromatics, perfumes, precious stones, and pearls, while the Indians consumed luxury goods such as linen fabrics, silver vessels, gold, and wine.[5] India was also a vital intermediate trading centre for merchandise from China, above all, much-coveted silk. The Ancient Greeks viewed India “as a peripheral phenomenon or a vaguely conceived realm beyond the Eastern horizon of the known world.”[6] After Alexander’s invasion, Ancient Greece maintained steady relations with Indian kings for a time. Megasthenes, the Ancient Greek scholar and perhaps the first European to write about India, served at the Mauryan court during this period, and his writings on India were all the information Europeans had for a long time.[7]

Relations between these ancient civilisations were not restricted to merely pecuniary matters. There is ample “linguistic and external evidence” in Ancient Greek and Ancient Persian sources of regular contacts with India, and explicit proof in some of the rock inscriptions on the fourteen pillars erected by Emperor Ashoka that “Indian orientation of life towards social responsibility and piety” had a profound influence on Ancient Persian and Ancient Greek life.[8] In Persia, by the time the Sasanid dynasty had come to power in Persia, many Indian books had been translated into Persian.[9] Khosrow Anoshirvan, a Sasanid king, (531-579 CE) commissioned translations of the Panchatantra, as well as other Indian treatises on philosophy, theology, statesmanship, jurisprudence, and medicine. Some of this foreign knowledge was even incorporated into local systems, especially in legal matters.[10]

The fabulous wealth, trade, and cultural links not withstanding, the Ancient Greeks considered the Indians and the Orient to be “barbaric” and inferior to them. The Greek doxographer Diogenes Laërtius, for example, stated that the term “philosophy” defied all attempts at translation into oriental, “barbaric” languages.[11] Although Herodotus, Plato, and Aristotle acknowledged the Greek debt to the Orient in the sciences and theology, they further stated that whatever the Greeks borrowed from the “barbarians,” they ultimately improved upon it and ennobled it.[12] Even the work of Megasthenes, critics have noted, framed Indian society in a Greek framework, losing much of substance in his translations.[13] These narratives of an India lagging behind Europe were surprisingly persistent, and Europeans following the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama to India after the 1500s inherited these very ideas from antiquity.

 Islamic Encounters with India

The political, cultural and economic impact Islam has had on India cannot be understated. Islam is generally thought to have been brought to India when Sind and Multan (in modern Pakistan) were invaded by Mohammedbin Qasim in 711, a general of the Umayyad governor, Hajjaj bin Yusuf. It is, however, possible, that it had entered India earlier, through Arab traders visiting the Malabar Coast. Islam did not have a political presence in India until the Sultanate of Delhi was created by Qutb-ud-Din in 1206. Several Islamic dynasties then continued to rule India from Delhi until they were finally ousted by the British in 1857.[14]

After the Islamic Empire severed direct connections between India and Europe, Muslim scholars and their works were influential upon European images of India. Many Indian texts, dealing with topics as diverse as medicine, astronomy, mathematics, alchemy, and astrology were translated, sometimes from already available Persian ones. Among the most famous studies of India conducted by Islamic scholars is Alberuni’s Kitab al-Hind. Alberuni’s methodological approach was very different from his contemporaries. Although a devout Muslim, Alberuni translated Hindu concepts his Islamic contemporaries considered “strange” or “heathen” without forcing them into an Islamic framework as Megasthenes had done. This “objectivity” did not prevent him from characterising many of the phenomena he encountered as “bizarre, repugnant, and unacceptable.”[15] Alberuni’s understanding of Indian thought was quite sophisticated—he distinguished between the beliefs of the elite (monotheistic, almighty, non-anthropomorphic God) and the masses (polytheistic).

Unfortunately, a systematic study such as the Kitab al-Hind did not enjoy recognition commensurate with its significance and the fame of its author. Works better known in the West, such as Kitab al-Milal wa’n-nihal by Shahrastani and Rashid ad-Din’s Jami at-tawarikh, did not exhibit the “spirit of philosophical and hermeneutic reflection” found in Alberuni’s work.[16] Said bin Ahmad Andalusi, the eleventh-century astronomer and mathematician, described the Indians as the first nation to have contributed to the sciences, and even “though they were black,” Allah ranked them above many white and brown peoples.[17] However, all authors agreed that India was a strange and exotic land. Another famous scholar, the Indo-Persian poet Amir Khusrau (1253-1325), glorified in one breath the “destruction of Hindu temples for the sake of transformation into mosques,” while praising “the unequalled learning of the Brahmins and the beauty of the Sanskrit language.”[18] Thus, Islam penetrated India, but maintained a peculiar tradition of confrontation and disregard, but also coexistence and occasional symbiosis with Hinduism. Periods of radical Muslim proselytising zeal were followed by extended periods of coexistence. For example, the influence of the Upanishads on Dara Shukoh’s Sirr-i Akbar is undeniable, as is the influence of Hinduism upon Sufism, while simultaneously, Muslim rulers levied a pilgrimage tax, the jizya, upon non-believers.[19] Yet without much common ground between Islamic and Hindu beliefs, relations between Hindus and Muslims retained misunderstanding, mutual isolation, and unreconciled opposition.

After Europe’s rediscovery of the route to India, these Persian and Arabic texts played an especially important role in rekindling Europe’s interest in Indian thought.[20] It was Dara Shukoh’s Sirr-i Akbar that the French scholar Anquetil Duperron translated (Oupnek’hat, 1801) to give Europe its first glance at the Upanishads. However, Islamic critiques of “repugnant and bizarre” Hindu customs also played a role in European Indology. It was the Islamic perception of the people of India as the “other” that created Hinduism as a monolithic entity in clear opposition to themselves, however nebulous the precepts of Hinduism were internally, for ‘Hindu,’ in Islamic texts, referred generally to the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent rather than adherents of a particular system of beliefs.[21] Thus, Islam’s ambiguous image of India was transmitted to Europe.

Early European Representations

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel aptly described the place of India in Western imagination in the following passage: “Without being known too well, it has existed for millennia in the imagination of the Europeans as a wonderland. Its fame, which it has always had with regard to its treasures, both its natural ones, and in particular, its wisdom, has lured men there.”[22] However, more than wisdom, it was “Christianity and spices” that were of immediate concern to the Europeans coming to India in the immediate aftermath of Vasco da Gama’s arrival in the South Indian city of Calicut in 1498.[23] So little was known of Asia that the main task for explorers in the sixteenth and seventeenth century was to simply record their impressions of the bewildering variety of strange new worlds that the Europeans had been exposed to with their constricted medieval vision.[24] In fact, most of what the Portuguese had learned about India related to the spice trade. In addition, the desire to search for Christians behind the Islamic flanks, a legacy left over from the Middle Ages, also played a role. Regardless of their initial motives, the primary objective in India soon became to convert more “heathens” into Christianity.[25]

Only a tiny minority of Europeans who travelled overseas in this period knew much about scientific discoveries that were profoundly transforming the Western world. Most travellers viewed the world in much the same way as the subjects of their travel journals. “Perhaps most important, European belief systems were at least as firmly grounded in religion as those of Asians.”[26] Hence, it was not astonishing that for almost all European observers, the most decisive distinction between themselves and the people they encountered was religious. Few observers sensed that western Europeans had gained a lead in technology by the end of the 1500s.

In the initial years of the European rediscovery of India, Europeans seemed determined to find “lost Christians” in India, and persisted in seeing Hinduism as a remnant of a lost Christianity that had been altered by brutal Islamic suppression.[27] Consequently, they sought to explain Hinduism in a Christian framework rather than understand Hinduism for itself. Not surprisingly, early missionaries remained reserved about the superstitions and idolatry of Hinduism. It would be inaccurate, however, to suppose that Europeans remained ignorant about Indian intellectual traditions. It was their tendency to historicise and recapitulate Indian society in a European paradigm that caused misunderstanding. Missionaries of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, and later, Jesuits, such as Antonio Criminali, Francisco Xavier, Manoel d’Oliviera, Roberto Nobili, and others studied Indian languages and translated many Sanskrit works into European languages.[28] This was done not out of interest in Indian religion or society, but to prepare themselves to preach Christianity.[29] As these translations permeated through European intelligentsia, they received the same criticism they had received earlier from the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Persians. European thinkers opined that although “the Indians did indeed possess a pristine and natural knowledge of God, it had decayed almost completely into superstition as a result of moral lapses.”[30] Others, such as seventeenth century travellers F. Bernier, J.B. Tavernier, and P. Sonnerat, regarded Hinduism as “a partial revelation of God’s will,” and a transitional stage from paganism to Christianity.[31] In the early years of exploration, as Michael Adas has pointed out, Europeans rarely resorted to racial explanations of differences between themselves and non-Europeans. Environmental factors and the absence of Christianity were perceived as the reasons for the backwardness of the “other.”[32]

It is not difficult to surmise later European attitudes towards India and Hinduism once India was created thus, in words strikingly similar to those used by the Ancient Greeks, the Ancient Persians, and the Muslims, as heathen, barbaric, or lagging behind. On one hand, the impression was that India was a highly advanced civilisation, with philosophy, theology, mathematics, astronomy, and science. On the other, was an impoverished India that had gone astray and was now in moral degeneration. It is startling how these same themes were to be repeated again in Indian history under the East India Company and the British Crown.

The East India Company and the Raj: Dominance and Hegemony

The British East India Company established its base in India in 1608 in Surat, Gujarat. After a commercial treaty was signed with the Mughal emperor, Jahangir, in 1615, the company rapidly expanded and eclipsed its European counterparts in power, influence, and trade.[33] From the beginning the British conceived of India as a land of dirt, disease, and death. The hot climate brought with it not only disease and discomfort, but also, according to the British, a degeneration of mind and body.[34] British comprehension of the Indian subcontinent remained severely circumscribed until the late eighteenth century and had to rely on Indian diplomats and deputies. Very often, references to India were made to serve polemic ends. Although India was viewed as the seat of an extraordinarily old and pristine culture and tradition, it also served as a reminder of degeneration and decay, as tradition that had not been able to safeguard its original purity against superstition and priestly fraud.[35] Until the British project of Indology was launched in the 1770s, there was little the English knew firsthand about India. Most of their knowledge was hearsay from the mainland of Europe.[36]

British “Indomania,” as Thomas Trautmann has aptly phrased it, probably began with the Asiatic Society at Calcutta, founded by Sir William Jones. Jones knew Persian, Arabic, and Turkish, and had a name for himself in England in Oriental Studies. The Society undertook translations of various Indian texts, and was widely received in Europe. As a result, the Asiatic Society gave institutional form and definition to a group of scholar-administrators who were fashioning a new claim for authority over that of the older Orientalism that had been based on religion. As Englishmen acquired more Indian languages, they began to be employed by the East India Company as experts on Indian customs and Hindu law.

Indomania, however, did not conceive a favourable image of India as the word suggests.[37] Even in Jones’s mind, there was “no question that Christianity was the only true religion, and that Europe’s talents, on a whole, surpassed those of Asia, as they had since the times of the Ancient Greeks.”[38] Jones further admitted, “…reason and taste were the grand prerogatives of European minds, and in science, it must be admitted that the Asiatics are “mere children.”[39] Jones’s project was primarily ethnological, not linguistic. He wished to apply a Biblical framework to the Asian history and the origin of Asian nations. The development of philological theories regarding Sanskrit and European languages made language instrumental to the ethnological goal. Jones identified the Indians as the descendents of Ham, Noah’s third son, in the Bible.[40] The close parallels between the Biblical story of the Great Flood and the Hindu myth of Vishnu’s third avatar as a great fish (makara avtara) caused him to proclaim that pagan mythologies and historical traditions are essentially the same story of one original people.[41] Such views found sympathy among thinkers of the Romantic Movement like Herder,Schlegel,Schelling, and Schopenhauer, who sought to critique the European present.

Thus, the British attempt to reach some understanding of the nature of Indian society and religion was inseparable from the parallel effort to devise an ideology that would help sustain their rule over the subcontinent. They were determined not only to rediscover India’s past, but to order this past so as to create a secure place in it for themselves.[42] To legitimate the conquest of India, it was necessary to contain the guilt implicit in the colonial enterprise, and hence the British sought to be seen as ruling in the interests of the Indian people. “Imperialism,” in other words, “could be made moral by a just governance that would reconcile the Indians to their subject status.”[43] Thus, the British venture in Indology was tainted by a wish to affirm that “chicanery and lying [were the] established norm of Indian behaviour, [so that] the British could at once reaffirm their own moral superiority.”[44]

Perhaps partially in response to Indomania, the early nineteenth century saw the rise of an Indophobia supported by Evangelicalism and Utilitarianism. Two of the most prominent advocators of Indophobia were Charles Grant, an Evangelical Scotsman, who wrote Observations on the state of society among the Asiatic subjects of Great Britain, particularly with respect to morals; and the means of improving it, and James Mill, author of the famous History of British India.[45] Although Grant and Mill proposed different reforms in India, they agreed that India was backward and despotic—the charm of ancient India had vanished by then.

Grant was driven by his Evangelical sensibilities, and also by the course of the French Revolution.[46] Demanding that the East India Company allow missionaries access to India,Grant saw moral decay in India stemming from two sources: the government and religion.Grant’s argument about government relied heavily upon the trope of Oriental despotism that had been used at least sinceAristotle.Grant argued as his predecessors did that despotism prevailed among all Eastern peoples, and although he agreed with Indomania that Islam debased Indian society, he disagreed that Hindu society had once been highly civilised. He argued,

“The Hindus did not receive the despotic form of government from the Tartars, nor were they degraded only when they became subject to Mahomedan conquerors. They have had among themselves a complete despotism from the remotest antiquity; a despotism, most remarkable for its power and duration that the world has ever seen.”[47]

However,Grant could not explain how ancient India had flourished under the same depraved moral religious practices they followed contemporaneously—the discovery of ancient Indian texts inevitably undercut the notion that India was a land subject to Oriental despotism.Grantopposed the argument by positing that the case for ancient India had been overstated. In a word,Grant’s proposal is to educate Indians in European ways and Christianity. English, Grant believed, was the key to open a new world of ideas to the Hindus.

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and greater understanding of Indian science, Europeans began to explain Indian failure in increasingly scientific terms rather than religious reasons. Indians were seen as indifferent to the methods and discipline that was central to scientific investigation for centuries and essential since the time of Isaac Newton. Indians were considered careless, satisfied with approximations, and prone to error in calculations.[48] The growing importance of scientific achievements and inventiveness as gauges by which Europeans evaluated other civilisations in the era of the Enlightenment and the “myth of the subjugation of hundreds of millions of Indians by a handful of Europeans with superior organisation and military technology” further bolstered a sense of European superiority.[49] James Mill’s book became the single most important source of British Indophobia.[50] According to Mill, the prescription for Indians was not Christianity, but modernisation. Mill promoted the civilising project of liberating Indians from their own past.[51] Instead of usingGrant’s moral scale,Mill propounded a scale of civilisation based on science, technology, governance, and the rights of man in a classic liberal sense. Thus, the criterion of utility was the measure of social progress.

Other scholars also weighed in on India’s place on the scale of civilisations. Generalised assumptions about the correspondence between the mastery of nature and social development influenced European pronouncements upon India. Prominent thinkers of the period such as James Hunt, Robert Knox, and F.W.Farrar, “saw scientific and industrial achievements as the best proof of British ‘racial’…superiority.”[52] Lord Monboddo, an English judge at Edinburgh’s Court of Sessions, declared confidently “…that the arts and sciences, of which it is certain the Indians have been in possession for many ages, have risen from seeds sown there by the Egyptians.”[53] Some Indophobes even claimed that the Sanskrit language was a fabrication of artful priests who had borrowed from Ancient Greek, and therefore there was no common ancestral language between the two.[54] Karl Marx commented in a newspaper article in 1853, “Indian society has no history, at least no known history. What we call its history, is but the history of the successive intruders who founded their empires on the passive basis of that unresisting and unchanging society.” Thus, “from Montesquieu’s ‘Persian Letters’ to the invocation of the ‘noble savage,’ the philosophes of the Enlightenment drained non-European societies of all content.”[55]

As Indology progressed along its highly political course, the British turned their attention increasingly from climactic determinism to what they saw as the enduring cultural and racial characteristics of Indian people. Friedrich Max Müller, a German Sanskritist deeply influenced by the theories of Charles Darwin, was the creator of the notion of the Aryan race.[56] Basing difference on racial criteria solved several problems. First, in British eyes India presented the spectacle of a dark-skinned people who were evidently civilised, and as such it constituted the central problem for Victorian anthropology, whose project it was to achieve classifications of human variety consistent with the master idea of the opposition of the dark-skinned savage and the fair-skinned civilised European. Therefore, it was theorised that India’s civilisation was produced by the clash and subsequent mixture of light-skinned civilising invaders and the dark-skinned barbarian aborigines.[57] Second, it provided an explanation for India’s failure since its heyday in antiquity, and it allowed the British to formulate a policy based on difference. Third, on one hand, the Aryan idea always had a function of being a sign of kinship between India and Great Britain and presented a way in which Indians may be bound to British rule.[58] On the other hand, Laura Stoler has argued, as more and more colonial subjects accepted Western ideals and became pseudo-Europeans, it was necessary to secure colonial control and profits “by constantly readjusting the parameters of the colonial elite to delimit those who had access to property and privilege and those who did not.”[59] Therefore, the political relationship between the coloniser and colonised was framed through the language of racial difference. Colonisers lived in artificial communities that were consciously created and fashioned to overcome economic and social disparities that would otherwise cause conflict amongst their members. Racism became a “classic foil” invoked to mitigate such divisions and thus became a critical feature in the casting of colonial cultures, essential to the social construction of an otherwise illegitimate and privileged access to property and power. Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century, hostility to Sanskrit had two sources: British Indophobia, essentially a developmentalist, progressive, liberal, non-racial-essentialist critique of Hindu civilisation, and race science which theorised that the Indians were a separate, inferior, unimprovable race.[60]

The fundamental debate between Indomania and Indophobia was based on the validity of India’s ancient wisdom. It became a Foucauldian struggle of attaining power through knowledge (which in itself is a social formation)—the winner influenced Great Britain’s Indiapolicy. It is important to note that neither depicted India as anything but lacking or decaying. Even British liberalism was informed by radical universalism. European culture alone represented civilisation, and no other culture had any intrinsic validity. “There was no such thing as ‘Western’ civilisation; there existed only ‘civilisation.’”[61] Thus, through a theory of decline that positioned Britain favourably, the history of India was made to not only accommodate the Raj, but make it necessary. Decline posits the existence of an ideal state in the past, while failure places it in the imagined future–which would have implied the futility of the liberal, civilising mission.[62] Decline was initially expressed in terms of religion, then environmental and cultural criteria, and eventually race. Thus, Indians had to remain “forever distinct, different, and inevitably, inferior.”[63]

Nationalist India

“We have no history! – We must have a history!” singularly explains the problems and focus of Indian nationalists in the late nineteenth century.[64] History was seen as the struggle for power, for the power to represent oneself is nothing other than political power itself. The period between 1814 and 1904 is usually considered the time when the tradition of history writing emerged in Bengal.[65] This emergence of a sense of historicity marked the beginnings of, to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase, an “imagined community” of a nation. Indian nationalists first had to counter the European claim that India was a land lost in time, and therefore, possessed no history.[66] They also had to answer the challenge to Hinduism’s morality, based on ethics and monotheism. The discovery of ancient Indian texts aided this cause. Nationalists argued in local newspapers like the Dharmapracharak that Europeans had a sense of history because their history went back only a few centuries.[67] Some Indian scholars like Mrityunjay Vidyalankar and Tarinicharan Mitra cited works like Rajatarangini as proof of ancient histories while simultaneously working on modern histories.[68] In defence of Hinduism, Indian scholars cited works quoted in Orientalist treatises and theories of the Aryan race that they appropriated—since the Aryans were the origin of every field of knowledge from science to philosophy and the authors of the Vedas and Upanishads, Hinduism was imbued with greatness from antiquity. Ancient India became for the nationalist the classical age, and the contemporary period was the modern renaissance, while the period between the ancient and the contemporary was a dark age. This inevitably labelled the Muslim period as a dark age for India, and the classical heritage of Islam remained external to Indian history.[69] Thus, nationalists began the task of wresting Indian history from the Europeans and forging a national identity.

The nationalist struggle also used language and education as avenues to express dissent and oppose the British. English schoolbooks were reinterpreted to give legitimacy to the nationalist struggle.[70] Bengali authors such as Akshay Kumar Dutt asserted forcefully that English could never become the lingua franca of India.[71] Even authors who wrote in English used the language to create culture-specific ideals relating to myths about language, religion, caste, race, and gender. For example, in Raja Rao’s Kanthapura (1938), Rao uses direct translations of Indian expressions into English that would bewilder a Western reader.[72] Another device Rao uses is cultural expressions that would hardly be understandable to anyone not from that particular culture.[73] At other times, Rao interchanges an English proverb or idiom with an Indian equivalent.[74] The use of graphic nicknames to identify a person with their social status or caste group is yet another method Rao uses.[75] By infusing local spirit into his prose, Rao creates a distinct feel to his novels. By such “culturalisation” of English, Indian authors were able to retain the natural idioms and rhythms of Indian speech.[76]

The modernity that nationalists endeavoured to create had to be of a kind that could demonstrate the roots of the modern in Indian traditions so as to reject modernity’s European heritage of material superiority. In the absence of any notion of a uniform community, identities were forced segmented to be readily identifiable as Indian. These largely took the form of Hinduism, the most consistent attribute of people in India. The project was mimetic in creating a discourse of Protestant ethics and monotheism within Hinduism, but also astutely divided the world into two spheres, material and spiritual. Thus, nationalists were able to accede to Western domination in the material field of science and technology, while they challenged it in the moral sphere. Thus, anticolonialism was cast as a moral battle. Within the internal sphere were situated key elements of Indian tradition: women, religion, and villages.[77] Such an alignment took these areas out of political contestation, and they became markers of Indian modernity, defined explicitly as different from the European model. In Partha Chatterjee’s controversial assertion, women became repositories of honour, culture, and tradition, while the decentralised village became a symbol of Indian modernity, as well as a symbol of indigenous cultural standards. In addition, passages taken from various religious texts, particularly the Mahabharata, such as those that emphasized the duties of a king (which, obviously, the British were not performing) and the people’s right to overthrow a king who did not follow dharma,[78] were utilised in support of the nationalist cause. Indians who wished to press for social and intellectual change did so within this context, “insisting that they were confronting modernity with religious sensibilities derived from an indigenous past.”[79]

Thus, the greatness of Hinduism, or the representation of what was constructed as Hinduism, could only be demonstrated by reference to history. India, a “Hindu” nation, was depicted in direct opposition to Europe in this image as an “expressive totality, which manifested itself through differences and diversities,” which was why it absorbed but never conquered.[80] In an essay titled ‘Swadeshi Samaj,’ Rabindranath Tagore, the famous Indian Nobel laureate, wrote that “it is in the national character of India that differences are not regarded as antagonistic; others are never recognised as adversaries.”[81]

Post-Colonial Attitudes

Independence was not the panacea some Indians thought it would be. Immediately after independence, India was straddled with a bankrupt economy, ravaged by 190 years of stagnation, a large population, and the lack of adequate infrastructure in civic services as well as a bureaucracy.[82] Modern Indian thought finds itself in a historical context created by Europe, and it has difficulties speaking for itself. Even in its self-representation and self-assertion, it speaks to a large extent in a European idiom.[83] Europe has become the benchmark for the study of modernity and capitalist transitions of non-Western Europe.[84] This hyperreal Europe that serves as the ideal, carries with it some peculiarly European assumptions about disenchanted space, secular time, and human sovereignty, from which any society not sharing the same mores would seem lacking, incomplete, inadequate, or failed.[85] Furthermore, the effects of two centuries of European literature that labelled India as backward and stagnant had profound implications upon independent India: in a 1955 poll of 181 prominent Americans that asked about their impressions of India, 46 mentioned Katherine Mayo’s Mother India, while many others offered Rudyard Kipling’s collected stories as the source of their information.[86] In the arena of foreign policy, the State Department tagged Nehru with a variety of epithets that reflected their opinions of Indians in general: vain, naïve, evasive, volatile, and “just another politician keeping himself on top of his dung heap.”[87] Indian concepts of time, space, families, economics and race continued to be seen through an Orientalist lens. Even twenty-five years after independence, the image of India was hardly any better. Henry Kissinger, U.S. Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon said of the Indians in 1971, “…the Indian subcontinent has existed through the millennia as a world apart…Its polyglot peoples testify to the waves of conquerors who…have established empires and then vanished, leaving multitudes oblivious of either the coming or the going.”[88] This was not far from Jones’s view in the last decade of the 1700s that the Indians lived in a timeless existence!

Indians, however, have become more forceful in their rebuttal to such claims. The quest for India’s modernity has taken shape in the acquisition of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and a space program. The BJP’s campaign slogan in 2004, India Shining, was indicative of the feeling of large numbers of Indian urbanites with top positions in multinational companies. However, internally, the debate still remains fragile as ever. India’s leading English daily, The Times of India, ran a story on February 20, 2003, on the perceptions of national identity within the BJP coalition.[89] An RSS spokesperson was quoted contradictory defining India as a Hindu nation and as mentioned in the Vishnupuran, as a land situated between the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean. That this definition in the Vishnupuran was merely spatial and made no mention of race or religion went unnoticed in the party. The nervous fervour to create a unitary national past continues as it had during the Raj, and with as much success—even though India exists today as a political nation-state, the nation itself is yet to be born. However, finally, after 2,500 years,India was no longer barbaric. Yet as a Third-World nation, it still lives with the historical discourse of lack, now more fashionably termed, “development”.

Looking back at the last 2,500 years, history appears as our lost referential, that is to say, our own myth, and it is a strong myth.[90] Historicism, which Chakrabarty defines as “tak[ing] the object of investigation to be internally unified, and see[ing] it as something developing over time,” conceals the plurality that inheres in the ‘now,’ the lack of totality, the constant fragmentariness, that constitutes one’s present.[91] To point out the historicism in representations of India both, by the nationalists and the “foreigners,” would be a moot point. As Partha Chatterjee has commented, it is the singularity of the idea of a national history of India which divides Indians from one another.[92] India is a continuity in space, but not in time, and nationalists only deluded themselves into the belief that in turning to ancient India, they were rediscovering their roots.[93] The only reality about India save its geographical markers, is ironically, its own illusion.  The impossibility of rediscovering an absolute level of the real is of the same order as the impossibility of staging illusion. Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible. “The simulacrum,” as Baudrillard reminds us, “is never what hides the truth—it is in fact the truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true.”[94]


[1] De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Vintage Books Edition. Reprint of the 1953 Edition by Alfred Knopf.New York: Vintage Books, 1959. Page 175.

[2] Vohra, Ranbir. The Making of India: A Historical Survey. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997. Page 17. The name India is derived from Sindhu, the Sanskrit word for river, which referred to the Indus river. In its adoption to Persian, the ‘s’ was dropped, making it ‘Hindu,’ which was what the Persians called the land associated with the Indus river. The Ancient Greeks dropped the ‘h,’ and referred to the region as Indus. Later, the Romans used the name to refer to the entire subcontinent.

[3] A Hindu nationalist agenda is more descriptive of groups such as the Bajrang DalVishwa Hindu ParishadRashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and the Shiv Sena. Of these, only the Shiv Sena is a political party, though the others have a loud political presence.

[4] Cook, John. The Persian Empire.New York: Schocken Books, 1983. Page 79.

[5] Wiesehöfer, Josef. Ancient Persia from 550 BC to 650 AD. London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2001. Page 147. The ability of a society to consume luxury goods, Kenneth Pomerantz argues in The Great Divergence: EuropeChina, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, though for a much later period, are signs of an advanced community that has moved beyond mere subsistence.

[6] Halbfass, Wilhelm. India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding.New York: State University of New York Press, 1988. Page 11.

[7] Thapar, Romila. Interpreting Early India.New Delhi:Oxford University Press, 1992. Page 63.India was not a part of the Ancient Greek world after they lost their Indian provinces. Contacts became sporadic and limited and linguistic barriers prevented closer interaction.

[8] Wiesehöfer, Page 111.EmperorAshoka was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan dynasty in India. During the reigns of Chandragupta Maurya, his son Bindusaras, and Ashoka, the Ancient Greeks were gradually pushed out of India. The fourteen pillars, scattered throughout modern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, proclaim Ashoka’s reforms and policies, and his Buddhist ideology. The rock inscriptions on them offers us insights into a powerful and capable ruler’s attempt to establish an empire which makes the moral and spiritual welfare of his subjects its primary concern. The Mauryan Empire lasted from approximately 326-184 BCE.

[9] Wiesehöfer, Page 216.

[10] Wiesehöfer, Page 218.

[11] Halbfass, Page 3.

[12] Halbfass, Page 6.

[13] Halbfass, Page 14.

[14] In the interim years (between Qasim’s invasion and the establishment of the Sultanate of Delhi), the Turkics, Persians, and Afghans led a series of raids on India, the most famous under Mahmud of Ghazni from979-1030. The Muslim dynasties were: the Mamluks (1206-90), the Khilji (1290-1320), the Tughlaq (1320-1413), the Sayyid (1414-51), and the Lodi (1451-1526). The Mughal emperor Babur captured the throne of Delhi in 1526 after the Battle of Panipat. Although the Mughals had been steadily declining in power sinceAurangzeb’s death in 1707, 1857 marked the end of Islamic rule in India.

[15] Halbfass, Page 27.

[16] Halbfass, Page 30.

[17] Andalusi, Said bin Ahmad. Science in the Medieval World: Book of the Categories of Nations. Translated by Sema’anI.Salem, Alok Kumar. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991. Page 11.

[18] Halbfass, Page 31. See also, Adas, Pages 49-68.

[19] Halbfass, Page 34. Dara Shukoh was Aurangzeb’s brother, who was murdered in 1659 in a struggle for ascension to the throne. Aurangzeb was the sixth Mughal emperor, and his death in 1707 marked the beginning of the decline of the Mughal Empire. For Indian influences on Sufism: R.C. Zaehner has argued that Abu Yazid al-Bistami had access to Advaita philosophy from India, probably through his teacher, Abu Ali al-Sindi. This could have had a great impact upon Sufism. See R.C. Zaehner. Hindu and Muslim Mysticism. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

[20] Some of the other eminent scholars who have had a profound impact on later Western scholars that I have not mentioned due to lack of space are Abul Hasan Ali Ibn Husain Ibn Ali al-Masu’di (Muruj-al-Zahab wa al-Ma’adin al-Jawahir), Abu Zayd ‘Abd-ar-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldun al-Hadrami (Muqqadamat), Abu ‘l-Fazl ‘Allami (Ain-i-Akbari, Akbar Nama), and Mohammed Qasim Hindu Shah Astarabadi Firishtah (History of the Rise of the Mahomedan Power in India till the Year A.D. 1612, The History of Hindostan; From the earliest Account of Time, to the Death of Akbar).

[21] Metcalf, Thomas. Ideologies of the Raj. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Page 132. It was the British, who, by imposing their ‘knowledge’ upon it, made of Hinduism, a previously loosely integrated collection of sects, something resembling a religion, though the British never viewed it as a ‘proper’ religion. Metcalf, 134.

[22] Hegel, G.W.F. Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte II: Die orientalische Welt. Edited by Georg Lasson.Hamburg:F.Meiner, 1968. Page 344.

[23] Halbfass, Page 36.

[24] Adas, Michael. Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideas of Western Dominance. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994. Page 25.

[25] Halbfass, Page 37.

[26] Adas, Page 31.

[27] Lost Christians were those who had suffered a loss of faith, had been forcibly converted, or had been corrupted by local practices.

[28] Halbfass, Pages 37-47.

[29] Patrios abnegare mores, et inter Indos Indum esse (to set aside the customs of one’s homeland and be an Indian among Indians). Halbfass, Page 41.

[30] Halbfass, Page 47.

[31] Halbfass, Page 51.

[32] Adas, Page 65.

[33] The British East India Company was founded as “The Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies” in 1600, with a charter for a mere 15 years. By 1670, King Charles II had provisioned it with the rights to autonomous territorial acquisitions, to mint money, to command fortresses and troops and form alliances, to make war and peace, and to exercise both civil and criminal jurisdiction over the acquired areas.

[34] Metcalf, Pages 171, 172.

[35] Voltaire credited India in his Essai sur les moeurs, with the oldest form of religion, designed by the Brahmins to be based on universal reason. Halbfass, Page 57.

[36] Bayly, Christopher. Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Page 44.

[37]“As to the intellectual content of Indomania, its fundamental postulate was the great antiquity of civilisation in India, and the enthusiasts drew upon some subset of the following propositions: that India’s arts and sciences came from Egypt, or that India had colonised Egypt in ancient times and planted its civilisation there; that India’s civilisation, in relation to that of Greece, was original and older; that in its religion was to be found not only the living representative of a unitary ancient paganism, but the primitive truths of natural religion from which that paganism was a departure; and that its scriptures, being very old and independent of the Bible, either supplemented or confirmed its authority.”Trautmann,Thomas. Aryans and British India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Page 64.

[38] Trautmann, Page 60.

[39] Trautmann, Page 60.

[40] It had long since become a commonplace in Muslim histories that the Hindus had descended from Ham. Trautmann, Pages 42, 43, 58.

[41] Trautmann, Page 58.

[42] Metcalf, Pages 15, 148.

[43] Metcalf, Page 20.

[44] Metcalf, Page 24.

[45]James Mill had never visited India—a fact he noted proudly because he believed that it heightened his capacity for objectivity. However, his book became required reading for British youths preparing to rule, conduct trade, or win Christians in India. Adas, Page 166, 171.

[46] The Evangelical movement was divided over the French Revolution. However, with the events of 1792 and the rise of the Terror in 1793, most Evangelicals increasingly expressed their disillusionment and even disdain for the direction the Revolution had taken. As the French Revolution moved from its idealistic beginnings towards the Terror of 1792-1794, Evangelicals almost unanimously pointed to the rise of atheism and irreligion as the perpetrators of the barbarities. The Enlightenment, the ideological predecessor of atheism and the French Revolution, had reduced Christianity to little more than a set of moral guidelines. For more on Evangelicalism and the French Revolution, see Brown, Ford K. Fathers of the Victorians: The Age of Wilberforce. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961. Brown, Philip Anthony. The French Revolution in English History. New York: Barnes & Nobles, Inc., 1965. Watts, Michael R. The Dissenters: From the Reformation to the French Revolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978. Watts, Michael R. The Dissenters Volume II: The Expansion of Evangelical Nonconformity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. Bebbington, David. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989. Gascoigne, John. Cambridge in the Age of the Enlightenment: Science, Religion and Politics from the Restoration to the French Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

[47] Trautmann, Page 104.

[48] Adas, Page 106.

[49] Adas, Page 125.

[50] Trautmann, Page 117.

[51] Trautmann, Page 129.

[52] Adas, Pages 148, 299, 301.

[53] Trautmann, Page 81.

[54] Trautmann, Page 124.

[55] Metcalf, Page 5.

[56] Trautmann, Page 172.

[57] Trautmann, Pages 3, 4. The idea of the Aryan race arose when linguists identified the Avestan and Sanskrit as the oldest known relatives of all the major European languages, including Latin, Greek, and all Germanic and Celtic languages. They argued that the speakers of these languages originated from an ancient people who must have been the ancestors of all the European peoples. These hypothetical ancestors were given the name Aryans, from the Sanskrit and Avestan word Arya, which means “noble person”. The major dichotomy was seen as between Aryan and Semitic in Europe, and as between Aryan and Dravidian in India. In the Vedas, the word Arya is never used in a racial or ethnic sense. Isaac Taylor, a British Sanskritist, provides a summation of the Aryan theory: “The Aryan invaders, few in number, who were settled on the banks of the Upper Indus, are found gradually advancing to the south and the east in continual conflict with the Dasyu or dark-skinned aborigines, who spoke a strange language, worshipped strange gods, and followed strange customs, till finally the barbarians are subdued and admitted into the Aryan state as a fourth caste, called the “blacks,” or Sudras. The higher civilisation and the superior physique of the northern invaders ultimately prevailed, and they imposed their language and their creed on the subject tribes; but the purity of the race was soiled by marriage with native women, the language was infected by peculiar Dravidian sounds, and the creed with foul Dravidian worships of Siva and Kali, and the adoration of the lingam and the snake.

The Aryanisation of Europe doubtless resembled that of India. The Aryan speech and the Aryan civilisation prevailed, but the Aryan race either disappeared or its purity was lost.” Trautmann, Page 185.

[58] Trautmann, Page 15.

[59] Stoler, Ann Laura. Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Page 78. Stoler comments on this in another article: “To acquire European legal equivalence in 1884, one had to (1) be Christian, (2) speak and write Dutch, (3) have a European upbringing and education, and (4) demonstrate a suitability for European society.” Stoler, “Rethinking Colonial Categories: European Communities and the Boundaries of Rule,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 31, No.1 (Jan. 1989) Page 154.

[60] Trautmann, Page 188.

[61] Metcalf, Page 34.

[62] The distinction between decline and failure is most important in understanding Western perceptions of their conquered lands.

[63] Metcalf, Page 90.

[64] Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993. Page 76. The quote is attributed to Bankimchandra Chatterjee by Ranajit Guha.

[65] Basu, Shamita. Religious Revivalism as Nationalist Discourse: Swami Vivekananda and New Hinduism in Nineteenth Century Bengal. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002. Page 40.

[66] Many of these nationalists were themselves Western-educated. It is a perverse trick of history that Lord Macaulay’s famous “class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect” led, not the British government in India, but its opposition, the Indian National Congress. At the head of the pantheon was Mohandas Gandhi, a barrister educated in London. Another stalwart of the INC was Sardar Vallabhai Patel, also educated in London as a lawyer. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, one of the drafters of the Indian Constitution, received doctorates from Columbia and London universities. But surpassing all in his influence on independent India was Jawaharlal Nehru, educated at the most prestigious British institutions: Harrow, Cambridge, and London’s Inner Temple. Khilnani, Sunil. The Idea of India. London: H.Hamilton, 1997. Pages 6, 7.

[67] Basu, Page 44.

[68] In an amusing turn of events, Tarinicharan described the Ancient Greeks as “much less qualified in their knowledge of trigonometry than the ancient Hindus.” Basu, Page 62. The nationalist exercise to revive and relate the past to the present, ironically, reestablishes the unchanging Sanskrit Indic civilization of Orientalism.

[69] Chatterjee, Page 95, 113. Turko-Afghan or Mughal rule was also seen as the political history of Islam, not India. In Bharatbarser, or in Rajabali, which recounts the history of India through dynastic lineage, Muslims were depicted as outsiders. Hinduism took shape in British minds as the religion of the native Indians, in distinction from the Muslims, who were regarded as foreign conquerors. Trautmann, Page 67.

[70] Chatterjee, pages 88, 89.

[71] Pannikar, K.N. Culture, Ideology, Hegemony: Intellectuals and Social Consciousness in Colonial India.London: Anthem Press, 1995. Page 17.

[72] Oh! To have had a father with a heart pure as the morning lotus.

[73] I shall offer them a jolly good blessing-ceremony in the choicest of words – implies irony, and has to do with raking up mischief.

[74] And then there is such silence that a moving ant could be heard – as opposed to pin-drop silence.

[75] Drunkard Dhirappa, That-House people, Tree-House people

[76] Seth, Rumina. Myths of the Nation: National Identity and Literary Representation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pages 39-71.

[77] “By assuming a position of sympathy with the unfree and oppressed womanhood of India, the colonial mind was able to transform this figure of the Indian woman into a sign of inherently oppressive and unfree nature of the entire cultural tradition of a country.” Chatterjee, Page 118.

[78] Dirks, Nicholas. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. Pages 28, 29, 74. Also see Ranajit Guha. Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997. Page 58.

[79] Bayly, Christopher. The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2004. Page 328.

[80] Basu, Page 66.

[81] Basu, Page 70.

[82] The Indian per capita Gross National Product did not rise between 1757, when the British East India Company became the dominant power in the subcontinent after the Battle of Plassey, and 1947, when India gained her independence. Davis Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts; El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World.London: Verso, 2001. Page 311.

[83] This is what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls, ‘politics of despair.’ Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts?” Representations. No. 37 (Winter, 1992): 1-27.

[84] Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000. Pages 27, 29.

[85] Chakrabarty, Pages 14, 31, 34, 37. Nativism, however, does not offer a solution to Eurocentric narratives because European intellectual thought and the universals propounded by the Enlightenment remain indispensable, although inadequate, to any social critique that seeks to address issues of social justice and equity. Chakrabarty clarifies that it is not his project to “reject or discard European thought.”

[86] Rotter, Andrew. Comrades at Odds: The United States and India, 1947-1964. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000. Page 1.

[87] Rotter, Page 21.

[88] Kissinger, Henry. The White House Years.Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1979. Page 842.

[89] Times News Network. “BJP’s Nationalism Alien to Indian Culture.” The Times of India. 20 Feb. 2003. The Times of India 21 Nov. 2004.

[90]Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994. Pages 43, 47.

[91] Chakrabarty, Pages 23, 243.

[92] Chatterjee, Page 115.

[93] Seth, Page 175.

[94] Baudrillard, Page 1.

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a doctoral student in History at Vanderbilt University, where he is writing his dissertation on India’s nuclear policy. Prabhu also holds an undergraduate degree in Engineering from the same university and a Master’s from the George Washington University. Although Prabhu’s core competency is foreign and nuclear policy in Western Europe, South Asia, and the Middle East, he is a keen observer of energy and security policy; he is also known to dabble in philosophy, literature, and cooking. When allowed to misbehave, Prabhu likes his scuba, ghalyoon, and football.

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