Dear Sujit Saraf: Indians did not always believe White to be Right

In a piece published on 8 September in the Times Of India, but highlighted recently following Modi’s visit to the United States, a Bay Area based IT official and playwright Sujit Saraf claimed ”In his heart, every Indian feels white.’ Unlike many individuals who accuse Indian obsession with fair skin (which is true whether we like it or not) on specious theories, Saraf puts forth a different and likely reason:

Indians continue to hanker after light skin long after they have settled in the land of rainbow skin colors. I think this preference is less pronounced in second-generation Indian Americans — they are perhaps arriving at the American mean……Our obsession with light skin has even infected our self-image. ….In his heart, every Indian feels white…Our white self-image shows up everywhere, in over-exposed photographs (I look fair-skinned in all studio pictures taken in my childhood in Bihar) as well as women’s foundation that is two shades lighter than the skin…….I doubt this obsession will ever loosen its hold. It is difficult not to regard light skin as desirable in a world dominated by white-skinned people.

More or less, he does make a point. When we take a look at most advertisements splashing on our TV screens, the cosmetic products are often less about magnifying beauty but more about proving the unfair adage ‘White and bright makes everything right.

This is quite an off-putting phenomenon for a diverse as well as modern India. One should look at the civilizational ethos of our nation to understand if we were always obsessed with the colour white. Excerpts from this learned piece can shed some light:

The fundamental question to ask is this: how important was skin colour in ancient Indian thought, philosophy, mythology, and in general, literature. The answer: almost zero. When analyzing questions like this, it is important to take a holistic and wholesome view rather than a reductionist/narrow view of the subject.

The concept of associating colour with specific human traits such as good and evil holds minor, or no significance in Indian thought. Indian philosophy has no place for the (in)famed problem of evil because both good and evil are seen as deriving from the same source, two sides of the same coin. ….…. The use of skin colour–black and white as character/behavioural attributes is needless to say, a product of White racial superiority theory. In one of his essays on Indian art, Ananda Coomaraswamy severely criticizes Western critics of Indian art for holding the view that Indian sculpture/idols were not artistic because they were “hideously dark/black.” I don’t need to spell it out that black was associated with evil. Also sample the famous phrase, “black magic,” a Christian/Western concept, which only has evil connotations…..Specifically, there’s not a single text in the whole of ancient Indian philosophy/mythology which treats black as evil or inauspicious. Equally, our epics provide valuable insights….. The Mahabharata like other Indian philosophical/mythological texts and treatises, is replete with symbolism. Krishna and Arjuna both individually and together represent one of the most fantastic symbols we’ve been given.…..The word Krishna is derived from the Krush root (dhaatu), which means to attract, to rub (from this root is derived the word, Aakarshana or attraction); it also means the colour black. Therefore, the word Krishna means, one who attracts, who is capable of attracting, and so on. If one examines the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata and the Purana lore, they fit perfectly with Krishna’s character: there was none who escaped his charms.And the literal meaning of the word, Arjuna is white, clear, (of the) lightning, (of) milk, etc. One of Arjuna’s ten names happens to also be Krishna, an apparent contradiction. But this is understandable if one goes beyond the colour/skin colour framework, and understands it from the perspective of the root, Krush.…

.Symbolically, the characters of Krishna and Arjuna is a stroke of Vyasa’s genius. Interpreted purely in “skin colour” terms, the contrast cannot be more severe: “black” and “white” side-by-side, day and night side by side, close friends and confidants. This is exactly the opposite of Western thought that regards black and white as eternal, irreconcilable foes.

saarthi

As one can deduce from the cited excerpt, this ‘White is right’ is a larger part of the colonized Indian mind. This colonization of the mind led many Indians to accept spurious concepts like the Aryan Invasion Theory leading to social divisions and hostilities, which continue to plague the India of today.

One must remember that at a key stage during the expansion of European colonialism, the colonial officials often employed missionaries to present the history of the people of continents like Asia, Africa and the two Americas. The missionaries derived the lineage of these people from Ham, a son of the Biblical figure Noah who cursed him and his descendents with servitude to the offspring of Noah’s other two sons.  This so-called curse of Noah was used by colonialists to validate slavery as well as racial prejudice. Even after an era of repression and possible genocide, one will still find many Europeans feeling good about their forefathers “civilizing” the dark-skinned races of the world who were at one point ‘The White Man’s Burden.’

slaves

In India this Noahide myth was repackaged as the dark-skinned Dravidians crushed by the fair- skinned Aryan invaders. Like most myths this was one was also busted by facts and research. But it seems the Hindi phrase ‘Angrez Chale Gayen, Soch chor gaye’ is very true when it comes to the Indian notion that only the fair can be lovely. One hopes that at least this generation of Indians will finally get over this baseless colonized obsession. I believe a revisit to the laudable works on ancient Indian thought, philosophy, mythology, literature plus an understanding of the scientific method will do the trick.

  • Shubhangi Raykar

    How do you account for the fact that Lord Krishna said “Chaturvrnyam maya srushtam gun karma vibhagsha: I “Where does the verse mention colour? Again Krishna was dark but was a khatriya. Aryas may have been from India only. The love for white skin is largely due to advts campaigning massively. Again, creating inferiority complex in the minds of dark skinned girls. This a different kind of colonization.

  • Sujit Saraf

    I don’t know how accurate this claim is. It isn’t an accident that “varna” means color. The concept of skin color, and a likely preference for light skin, may have existed as early as the Purush Sukta in the Rg Ved. And it would not be all that surprising, if one accepts the theory of the gradual migration of light-skinned people into a dark-skinned continent (I realize that that theory is now under question). Again, almost all biographies of the Buddha (the earliest was written five hundred years after his death, yet before the christian era) make it a point to comment on his skin color, saying that his “complexion remained clear” during arguments. Others refer to his “golden” complexion. Much has been lost in the Pali->Sanskrit->English translations, yet, by cherry-picking the historical evidence, one could argue either way: that ancient Indians admired light skin, or they did not. I am inclined to believe it has always been this way, and that colonization by light-skinned people was partly the result, not the cause, of the Indian obsession with light skin (of course, there are other more significant reasons for the relative ease with which European powers gained ascendance in India).

    Sujit Saraf

    • Gangaraju VP

      Yeah they might have used it to describe the person also just like they described Krishna.
      And regarding the word Varna it depends upon the interpretation like word Jihad. To some it means Violence and violence only and to some its Internal battle of controlling one’s own mind from desires and not harm others.

    • varNa is also applied to the pancha-bhutas. Earth is associated with orange, water with blue, air with green and ether with green. In some traditions, the colours may be different. Each element is also associated with one of the 5 senses. Associating a varNa with a “caste” does not show any preference for a particular colour.