Indian History And Its Historians

Part VI :  The Pernicious Effects Of A False History

An Indian stamp honoring Pāṇini.
An Indian stamp honoring Pāṇini.

One of the criticisms leveled at the new breed of Indian historians who wish to uncover the authentic history of India, after the morass of inconsistencies into which it has sunk, is that they are motivated by political considerations and that they are ‘nationalistic’. 

While one fails to see any violation of ethics in being a nationalist, the charges seem lame if perplexing to us Indians. Political motivations have always dominated the pursuit of Indological studies during the colonial era right from the outset, since the time Sir William Jones discovered the Sanskrit language. One such political motivation was the need for the Europeans to define their identity outside the burdensome framework of Semitic traditions, which dominated their religious life until then. The notion that the North European Viking owed much of his civilisation to the Mediterranean Semite was not palatable to most of the elite in European countries. The length and intensity of that shame is unimaginable today but was as real as their current deep reluctance to accept the historical facts that locate the Proto-Indo-European in India ! 

The discovery of Sanskrit was a matter of immense “political” relief : that, finally, the languages of Europe did not after all derive from Hebrew but from an ancestor language which was initially assumed to be Sanskrit. In the immediate aftermath of the discovery of Sanskrit by Sir William Jones, there was a great gush of admiration and worship of the sublime nature of Sanskrit texts such as Kalidasa’s Sakuntala. But that appreciation was political, not in truth, barring a few souls, of whom Voltaire was amongst the foremost. 

The ideas of racial superiority were still dominant in 18th Century Europe despite the Renaissance and the much celebrated Age Of Enlightenment. And it showed, as the Europeans realised that the present day practitioners of Sanskrit were not blonde and blue-eyed, nor as mightily depraved or strong as they themselves were. The fact that they had conquered, robbed and tortured, their own cultural forebears would have been a horribly uncultured thing to do on part of the Europeans, and was hence equally shameful and unacceptable. 

The European Indologists therefore came upon an ingenious explanation, which led them to declare that the Sanskrit culture of the subcontinent was not native to the subcontinent but was impregnated by a small band of nomadic Viking like marauders – the Aryan invaders. These “specialist” scholars then proceeded to root and project themselves, within the short span of 200 British-rule years, as being the intellectual class of India. Of course, the Macaulian project would “educate” the natives and create sidekicks by thousands, and increase their tribe.

This hypothesis (because that is what it was) had of course no basis in fact, but it served the purpose and killed several birds with one stone. It denied India the autochthonous legacy of the dominant culture of the subcontinent, helped create a schism in the Indian body politic, implied that the native Indic was incapable of original thought and certainly not capable of producing a language like Sanskrit. It still fulfilled their obsessive need to escape from the Semitic umbrella and yet did not pin them down to the influence of a “subject” people. The thesis held the ground that their ancestors did not come from India but from a long lost Shangri-La, of whom there were no survivors; an exceptionally nice fit, to say the least, since the hypothesis could never be contradicted !

Thus was born the mythical Aryan, whose only qualification was that he should hail from a land that was anywhere but India, a nowhere, preferably from a region not very densely inhabited or conscious of their antiquity. It gave the excuse for the British to claim that they were indeed the later day version of that long-lost impregnating race, destined to lord it over lesser, more unfortunate people by reason of the fact that they were “Aryans.” One only has to refer to some these stalwarts such as Trautmann (1997) or Chakrabarti (1997), to feel the perversion.

In sum, Indic study during the British era has always been accompanied with a healthy dose of imperialist dogma and by the colonialist’s disdain for a people who, they felt, could be so easily vanquished in battle by a handful of Englishmen. These attitudes and presuppositions are deeply entrenched in the psyche of the Occidental, fortified as they are by text books which retain the caricaturised view of India and its native people. This is in addition to the normal human tendency to exhibit a degree of pride and the urge to devalue civilisations other than their own. 

This is a train of thought that needs to be explored further, but let us revert to our topic. It is not as if there was a total lack of scholarly impulse and intellectual curiosity among Indologists then, regardless of nationality and despite much pressure from European academics to toe the embedded line. But this stream of objective scholars died out pretty soon and became almost extinct in the nineteenth century, with a few exceptions amongst the French. European Indologists came to subscribe to the promoted thought, and fell into the habit of emphasising that Indic research by native scholars, who threw up alternate conclusions, were shallow and unsubstantial, or were derived from work done by the Greeks, as Sir William Jones had postulated. 

The fact is that British presence in India began with nibbles and encroachments long before the Battle of Plassey, in 1757 CE, but so overriding was the British concern for commerce and power that they remained insulated from subcontinental culture and its civilisational treasure for almost three hundred years, until the arrival of a relatively well educated scholar like Sir William Jones. He indeed noticed the similarities between Sanskrit and European languages. Prodosh Aich, after extensive research into primary sources, comes to the conclusion that the vaunted linguistic scholarship of Sir William was, to put it mildly, much exaggerated. 

The coming of the British and the discovery of Sanskrit by Sir William had a terminally fatal effect on the conduct of scientific studies in India. It cut off the Indic from his own native source of traditional learning and replaced it with the traditions of a land far away, with which he had no contact and did not relate to. One consequence was that literacy fell to 6% of the population at the turn of the 20th century. Education was tightly controlled by the government and all support to schools that did not teach English was summarily stopped, except in states that were ruled by a local Maharajah such as Travancore, Cochin, Baroda and Mysore. 

India was turned into a vast Gulag where no ideas, other than those of the British, were allowed to flower and propagate, and the Indian was effectively barred from traveling to foreign lands, except on a one way trip as indentured labor, lest they return with subversive notions of freedom and democracy which, as Churchill remarked on more than one occasion, were not applicable to subject populations of British colonies. So great was the travel restriction that the Indic internalised this consequence to be a native characteristic that presumed aversion to adventure and exploration. There was no fund allocation for research and no encouragement to savants, who had little opportunity to pursue further studies. The steady stream of Indic scholars and researchers, which lasted till about 1780 CE, finally dried up.

Most certainly, there were gains from change in the medium of instruction to English. Indic youngsters in later times were at an advantage when it came to gaining admission to graduate studies in North American universities, in part due to the fortuitous circumstance that a substantial part of the new world communicated in English language. Coupled with the investment in higher education made by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, it catapulted India into one of those leading countries that supplied educated hands to western economies. More lately, it has been a major player in the Information Technology for a while. 

But the negatives remain. The vast majority of the Indian population is not a participant in this new bounty, because they do not have access to expensive schools that are modelled to include costly environment and scarce scholars with teaching abilities in a foreign tongue. The most telling impact of the newly coined endeavor called philology, with its unwanted gush of attention engendered ever since the discovery of Sanskrit, was the manner in which the Indic was viewed by the rest of the world and, even more importantly, the internalisation of British and European view of India by the average literate English educated Indic. Till then, the Indic was widely respected throughout the world and his geographical origin was synonymous with scholarship. 

Today it is commonplace in India to deride somebody who expresses pride in his tradition, and his civilisation, as being jingoistic. The British went to extraordinary lengths to undermine the civilisational commonalities amongst the people of India by various means and diverse instruments. Anything that had a negative impact was played to the hilt. The knowledge and pride of India’s antiquity, history and cultural heritage, was systematically downvalued and new datelines had to conform to the belief that India did not contribute anything of significance to the civilised world, and that all she knew in the area of science and mathematics was learnt from the Greeks. The Indian was uniformly characterised as a shiftless, indolent individual with very few redeeming qualities. 

So great was the change and so lasting its effect that today vast numbers of Indian youth have almost the same opinion of India and Indic traditions that the colonial overlords had, and propagated, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. There has been a massive change in the psyche of the Indic, much of it for the worse, a fact that was brought out in vivid portrayals by V S Naipaul, when he coined the phrase ‘the wounded civilisation’ in his reference to the Indian subcontinent. Examples of the internalisation of the European views of India abound today. Even eminent Indian historians like RC Majumdar have expressed some of these views in his works, without substantiating how they have been arrived at.

… to be continued

English: This is one of 12 miniatures from a m...
One of 12 miniatures from a manuscript of Hindu rituals and devotional tracts. The manuscript is written in the Sanskrit language, in Sarada script. It has 74 pages and was made in Kashmir during the 18th century.

Read more of Kosla Vepa uploads 

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Indian History And Its Historians

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s