India in Europe’s Orwellian Past – I
by Bhaskar Menon on 19 Nov 2018 2 Comments

Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), a German theorist credited with the insights that led to the birth of Anthropology, asserted that Europeans were the only people with a sense of history. He saw societies in China, India and the Americas as experiencing change, but not possessed of the capacity to perceive it as cumulative development; their past was thus not history in the European sense. Other Europeans readily accepted that concept, for they were in a period when theories of inherent European superiority were popular in explaining the region’s growing global dominance. As with so many ideas of that time of ferment, credit for Europe’s sense of history was given to ancient Greece, and specifically to one man born in Halicarnassus, now in Turkey.


Ancient Greece


Europe came to acknowledge Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484 to 425 BCE) as the “Father of History” because he had written a chatty account of how Greece and Persia became enemies. It wasn’t exactly history as we know it now, for he tended to drift into interesting yarns about things like the dog-size ants that dug up gold in India; but he did explain why Persia and Greece got to fighting. (If he is to be believed, it all began with the kidnapping of a woman.) A younger contemporary, the Athenian statesman and admiral Thucydides (460 to 400 BCE), got credit for being the first to separate history from religion; in writing of the Peloponnesian War, he did not refer to the gods as active participants.


The “historiography” that Europeans eventually developed from those roots involved a “science of history” dealing with the use of evidentiary sources, and a “philosophy of history” exploring its nature and aims. The European mainstream moved towards the belief that the “real past” was unknowable because knowledge of it was inescapably limited: all an individual historian could do was to make an honest assessment of the evidence available, and leave overall truths about the past to emerge over time.


The widely influential Oxford Professor R.G. Collingwood put history at a yet farther remove from reality with the argument, in his posthumous 1946 book, The Idea of History, that the dead past and the living present were separate in Nature, and were brought together only in the “historical imagination.” At one point in his disquisition, he wrote, “The historian cannot have certain knowledge of what the past was in its actuality and completeness … The past in its actuality and completeness is nothing to him; and as it has finished happening, it is nothing in itself; so his ignorance of it is no loss.”


History as Class


A subset of thinkers, most prominently Karl Marx (1818-1883), conceived an even narrower frame for the study of the past, defining history as the changing of class relationships brought on by progress in the means of production. Marx saw history as movement from the “primitive communism” of tribal society to the elite rule of feudal landowners and then to bourgeois capitalism, socialist revolution, and finally advanced communism conceived as a working class utopia. Thus, while mainstream European historians groped around in the past like blind men examining an elephant, each declaring his or her own perception, and every generation creating revisionist palimpsests, Marxists developed a firmly deterministic sense of the historical process. In reality, both Marxist and mainstream European historians tended to be obedient not to their declared principles but to the prevailing power structure of their societies; the main difference between them was in the nature of that control.

Europeans on Indian History

While Europe was evolving its peculiar historiographies, there developed among its intellectual elite an affected sense of superiority towards India that reflected the prejudices of Christian missionaries and gossip of traders. John Locke (1632-1704) was typical, dismissing India’s rich philosophical tradition (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding) with a passing reference to “the poor Indian philosopher” who believed the world was held up by an elephant, and when asked what supported the elephant, said it was a turtle which stood on something he knew not what. Locke’s lofty attitude disguised the rampant purloining of Indian philosophical concepts and theft of its mathematics. [See
Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics by George Gheverchese Joseph]


James Mill: The East India Company, which was engaged in the theft of far more than ideas, took the extraordinary step of commissioning and publishing a History of British India by James Mill (1773-1836). Mill was a London journalist who had never been out of Europe and knew nothing of India, but the Company fed him stuff from missionaries, assorted travellers and its own officials in the country, from which he concocted six scurrilous volumes that trashed Indian history as a “monstrous and absurd” concoction of legends and myths. In fact, said he, Indian society “presented a very uniform appearance during the long interval from the visit of the Greeks [under Alexander] to that of the English.” Their “annals … from that era until the period of the Mohomedan conquests, are a blank.”


Mill believed that the “meritorious researches of the modern Europeans,” were responsible for what we know about the Indian past: “We cannot describe the lives of their kings, or the circumstances and results of a train of battles. But we can show how they lived together as members of the community, and of families; how they were arranged in society; what arts they practiced, what tenets they believed, what manners they displayed; under what species of government they existed; and what character, as human beings, they possessed.”


He endorsed the view that the “sudden, violent, and unprepared revolutions incident to barbarians,” were “so much guided by caprice, and terminate so often in cruelty, that they disgust us by the uniformity of their appearance, and it is rather fortunate for letters that they are buried in silence and oblivion.”  In that respect, there was “perhaps but little to regret in the total absence of Hindu records.”


The book was a great success and its ignorance came to be the default view of well-read Europeans. To understand why the East India Company wanted that outcome we have to step back and look at what happened in the first decades after it conducted a coup in 1757 against Suraj ud Dowlah, the teenage Sultan of Bengal. The Company took over the job of Mughal tax collector from the Sultan and proceeded to raise ruinous levies on what was then the richest province of Mughal India.


Edmund Burke speaking in the British parliament to impeach Warren Hastings of high crimes in India noted how his tax collectors operated in Bengal. “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. … It did not end there. The wives of the people of the country only differed in this; that they lost their honor 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.”


Such fierce exactions destroyed the 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 their rule some 7 million people starved to death, fully a third of the population. (By the time British rule ended, the all-India toll would stand, by conservative estimate, near two hundred million.)


When even the most draconian measures could not squeeze any more out of Bengal’s private holdings, the East India Company turned its attentions to the wealth locked up in temple and mosque endowments, the revenues from which supported village schools and vaids (healers), and maintained roads, tanks and dams. Unable to decipher the Sanskrit and Persian endowment records, and not trusting local translators, the Company assembled in Calcutta during the last quarter of the 18th century a small group of linguists: the first Orientalists.


The Orientalists

The Orientalists uncovered much wealth for the Company, the taxing of which soon undermined the entire structure of traditional civic arrangements in Bengal and set off the great famine. But as people were dying by the millions, the Orientalists were translating the works that made them famous: the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita and teachings of the Buddha. They translated much poetry and the play Sakuntala, sparking the Romantic Period of European literature. They uncovered a tradition of mathematics and astronomy a thousand years before Copernicus and Newton (from which both men likely “borrowed”). They discovered fables that fathered those of Aesop; treatises on love, architecture, horses, elephants; books of fortune telling and prophecy, chants and magic.


William Jones: The most eminent of the Orientalists, William Jones, a Welsh polymath proficient in scores of languages, also arrived at a startling conclusion: Sanskrit belonged to the same family of languages as Latin and Greek. In 1786, he delivered a lecture in Calcutta declaring the existence of an ancient Indo-European language family in which Sanskrit held pride of place. “The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer (sic) could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.”


Other Europeans before Jones had noted the similarities between Sanskrit and their own languages, but no one had thought to question the concept of instant Babel contained in the Bible, which was then still considered authoritatively factual. The idea of a family of languages that had evolved from a common source was revolutionary. In an effort to fit his theory into the Biblical narrative, Jones in his 1791 address to The Asiatic Society placed it in the context of the story of Noah. “The only human family after the flood established themselves in the northern parts of Iran. … as they multiplied they were divided into three distinct branches, each retaining little at first and losing the whole by degrees, of their common primary language.”


One branch of the family had spread north in “scattered shoots” across Europe and Asia to the oceans at Eastern and Western extremes, and “at length, in the infancy of navigation, beyond them both.” That branch of the family “cultivated no liberal arts, and had no use of letters, but formed a variety of dialects as their tribes were variously ramified.” Another branch (the “children of Ham”) meanwhile, founded in Iran itself the “monarchy of the first Chaldeans, invented letters, observed and named the luminaries of the firmament, calculated the known Indian period of 432 thousand years,” and “contrived the old system of mythology” that was partly allegorical, partly veneration of their great leaders and lawgivers. At different times colonies from that branch spread to Scandinavia and Greece, Italy, India, Egypt and Ethiopia, to China and across the Pacific to Mexico and Peru. The third branch of the family (the “children of Shem”), peopled Arabia.”


Voltaire: As the intelligentsia of Europe marveled at these discoveries and flowered under their influence in a new “Oriental Renaissance,” Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, 1694-1778), the most influential of the French philosophes, declared India the foremost of civilizations. “Is it not probable that the Brahmins were the first legislators of the earth, the first philosophers, the first theologians?” he wrote. “Do not the few monuments of ancient history which remain to us form a great presumption in their favour, since the first Greek philosophers went to them to learn mathematics, and since the most ancient curiosities collected by the emperors of China are all Indian?” 


Such vocal appreciation of Indian pre-eminence did not sit well with two powerful constituencies in Britain with a strong vested interest in maintaining the fiction that Britain had a civilizing mission in the country. One was the powerful group that profited from the East India Company (including the Crown): the other was missionaries. A backlash was inevitable, and it came first from evangelical leader William Wilberforce.


William Wilberforce: In a parliamentary debate he initiated in June 1813, Wilberforce represented Indians as desperately in need of moral, spiritual and cultural succour. Citing authorities from Tamerlane to Company bureaucrats, he depicted Indians as intellectually “totally uncultivated,” possessed only of a “low cunning which so generally accompanies depravity of heart.” They were indolent, “grossly sensual, cruel, cowardly, insolent and abject,” and “without a sense of religion.” They had “all the vices of savage life without any of its virtues.” They were habitual liars whose religion was mere superstition, with rituals both degraded and debauched: 100,000 of them committed religious suicide at the annual festival of “Juggernaut” (Jagannath) at Puri, and 10,000 widows immolated themselves every year on the funeral pyres of their husbands. Three years later, Mill’s book was on sale throughout Europe. India’s image was never the same in Europe after that double assault. 

G.W.F. Hegel: Even observers with a high regard for India saw it as having no history. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) declared in his History of Philosophy how surprising it was that “a land so rich in intellectual products, and those of the profoundest order of thought, has no History.” India, he said, “has not only ancient books relating to religion, and splendid poetical productions, but also ancient codes; the existence of which latter kind of literature has been mentioned as a condition necessary to the origination of History – and yet History itself is not found.”


Asiatic Mode of Production:


Marx explained that lack of history in terms of what he called the “Asiatic mode of production.” Toiling away in the library of the British Museum, never having set foot anywhere in Asia, he pontificated on the “unchangeableness of Asiatic societies” brought on by the “simplicity” of the village economy. Except for the tithe paid to the larger structure of the state, villages consumed what they produced, and were not involved in the exchange of commodities; they remained “untouched by the storm-clouds of the political sky.”


Indian society, Marx declared, “has no history at all, at least no known history. What we call its history is but the history of successive intruders on the passive basis of that unresisting and unchanging society.” D.D. Kosambi (1907-1966), the avowedly Marxist Indian historian, pointed out how wrong that assessment was: “the greatest periods of Indian history, the Mauryan, the Satavahana Gupta, owed nothing to intruders” yet marked “the formation and spread of the basic village society or the development of new trade centers.” He did not point out that Indian traders had supplied ancient Greece and Rome with the spices that made unrefrigerated meat palatable, that Japan and Scotland have temples to Rama and Shiva, that the Arabs got their Algebra from India and that the Indian Zero revolutionized mathematics globally.


Kosambi did question Marx’s explanation that a lack of historical sense arose from the “Asiatic mode of production,” noting China’s “great annals, court and family records, inscriptions, coins,” and archeological excavations that provided a chronology “virtually undisputed from 841 BCE down.” Most Marxist historians have not let such facts get in the way of the Master’s theory, and India became in their view the archetype of the “timeless East.”

(To be concluded…)

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