History as Karma
by Bhaskar Menon on 02 Feb 2015 5 Comments
During the colonial era Europeans considered themselves unique in having a sense of history. All the rest of us, including the Chinese with their exact millennial court records, were deemed to have a sense of passing Time but not of history. That assessment had two elements. One was a sense of racial superiority born of easy dominance over all other regions. The other lay in the European belief that history was a fluid intellectual construct amenable to countless Orwellian revisions: those who control the present control the past; those who control the past control the future. 

In that perspective the Indian view of the past as an unalterable karmic progression seemed “fatalistic,” and it led the British to imagine that by creating their own narrative of Indian history they could control the country’s future. 

The first effort at such rewriting, paid for and published by the East India Company, was by James Mill (1773-1836), a London journalist who wrote a six-volume history of India without ever visiting the country or knowing any of its languages. Mill trashed Indian history as a “monstrous and absurd” concoction of legends and myths. He thought Indian society “presented a very uniform appearance during the long interval from the visit of the Greeks [under Alexander] to that of the English,” and that their “annals … from that era until the period of the Mohomedan conquests, are a blank.” 

Since that early 19th century work, there has been a huge outpouring of British writing reinforcing those themes, almost all of it racist, much of it intellectually disreputable in terms of motive, and some blatantly dishonest. 

An author who bundles all those elements is John Keay, whose books can be found in most bookshops and libraries in India. The following is my review of one of his books (done for the Amazon web site). 


Propaganda as History

“Two hundred years ago India was seen as a place with little history and less culture,” says a blurb on the back cover of John Keay’s “India Discovered,” originally published in 1984. The book credits the British for transforming India into a country now “revered for a notable prehistory, a magnificent classical age and a cultural tradition unique in both character and continuity.” 

Keay makes his case with a massive amount of distortion. For instance: “It is hard to appreciate now that as late as the end of the eighteenth century nothing whatsoever was known of Indian history prior to the Mohammedan invasions.” 

That is utter nonsense. India has never lost sight of its literary tradition dating back many thousands of years to the ordering of the Vedas. That tradition includes the philosophy of the Upanishads, the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the teachings of the Buddha. All of them constitute an understanding of the past that is incontrovertibly “history,” and much of it has remained common knowledge down to the village level. 

The Buddhist tradition in particular is specifically historical, yet Keay asserts that the British were responsible for the “realization” that the Buddha was “not a god but a historical figure.” A Buddhist scholar is likely to laugh out loud at that. 

Another laugh-out-loud assertion is that Warren Hastings promoted the study of Sanskrit because he “loved the people of India and respected them to a degree no other British ruler has ever equaled.” If Hasting loved Indians, Hitler loved Jews. 

Edmund Burke’s blistering indictment in the British parliament when it moved to impeach Hastings for a variety of high crimes and corruptions made clear just how much the former East India Company honcho in Calcutta cared for Indians. 

Of the tortures the Company’s tax collectors used in Bengal under Hastings, Burke said, “Virgins whose fathers kept them from the sight of the sun were dragged into the public Court [and there] vainly invoking its justice, while their shrieks were mingled with the cries and groans of an indignant people, those virgins were cruelly violated. …. The wives of the people of the country only differed in this; that they lost their honour in the bottom of the most cruel dungeons … they were dragged out naked and exposed to the public view, and scourged before all the people … they put the nipples of the women in the sharp edges of split bamboos and tore them from their bodies.” 

Hastings assembled the first group of “Orientalists” to study Sanskrit for only one reason: to comprehend the financial records of temples so he could tax their vast hidden wealth. In a few years his taxes drained the resources that had always before supported a great variety of social services, from village school teachers and vaids (doctors) to maintenance of roads, upkeep of water works and famine relief. 

The East India Company’s fierce exactions destroyed not only that system but the entire agricultural economy of Bengal and pushed it into the first of the great “man-made famines” the British brought to India. In the first decade of its rule some 7 million people starved to death, fully a third of what had been the richest province of the Mughal Empire. By the time colonial rule ended in 1947, the death toll from British “man-made famines” would be estimated at several hundred million. 

Keay also engages in a great number of subtler distortions that are hardly unimportant. For instance, in referring to Hastings as the “first Governor General of India” and adding parenthetically that “Clive had been Governor of Bengal only,” he creates the impression that British rule was far more extensive than it was. In fact, it remained virtually unchanged under Clive and Hastings; the main difference was that the latter had the title of “Governor General of India.” 

Under both, the East India Company continued to collect taxes on behalf of the Mughal Emperor in Bengal and to extort revenues in lieu of debt repayment from the indigent Nawab of Arcot in Madras. 

Over the next century the Company would continue to collect taxes in the name of the Mughal as it slowly added to its territories. The British Crown would assert sovereignty only after the national uprising of 1857. After that, it would rule some 3/5ths of undivided India for just 90 years, a third of that in steady retreat before the strengthening nationalist movement under Mahatma Gandhi. 

Given that reality, how do we explain the undeniable zeal that fired so many Englishmen, most of them with other day jobs, to search out the Indian past? 

The explanation is rich in karmic ironies. 

Warren Hastings initiated the work of the “Orientalists” to get more taxes. They brought to light not only a great mass of public wealth but the riches of the Indian past. That had the effect of reconnecting modernising Indians to their national roots: Gandhi, for instance, first read the Gita in London, in Edwin Arnold’s English translation. 

What sustained the zeal for discovery into the 19th century? 

It was the theory of an Indo-Aryan language family proposed by William Jones, the most brilliant of the first Orientalists. It was misinterpreted to mean there was an actual flesh and blood “Aryan race,” a possibility the British seized on eagerly because they could be the “original Aryans” and thus legitimate rulers of India. Thereafter, everything they did to uncover Indian history was driven by the hope of finding concrete evidence of that link. 

Meanwhile, the karmic current of the “Aryan race” gained enormous energy in Germany and France, where it was seen as justifying White supremacist racism. Hitler epitomized that view, and his reach for Aryan supremacy precipitated World War II. 

As if to underline this whole string of karmic ironies, the armies that devastated Britain’s capacity to hold on to India marched under the ancient Indian symbol of good luck, the Swastika. 

Keay’s flat self-serving presentation of the British Indian relationship is typical of almost everything that has been written on the matter since colonial times. It reflects at one level a basic incomprehension of the multi-layered subtleties that have been in play, and at another, a determined refusal to see India for what it is. 

What can break that pattern as accelerating changes in international relations force once powerful countries to turn in small corners will be a pressing issue in the years ahead. 



The British seem to have learned nothing about karmic consequences from their experience of ruling India. They are undoubtedly behind such initiatives as the EPIC Channel and the attempt by the Hindu Mahasabha to glorify Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse. They will inevitably spur Indians to a reawakening of their spiritual and political history that would have taken much longer otherwise.   

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