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Indian Culture & History: Whose Narrative Should It Be- 2

This article will look at the narratives on India that emerged as a result of the foreign gaze.

In Part 1, I discussed the Indigenous and Ambedkar’s views of our culture and history. The Indigenous view covered how the sages viewed our Shastras. According to this view, spirituality is at the core of our cultural heritage. Ambedkar’s view is nuanced with a deep historical perspective. An outstanding scholar, Ambedkar has many political claimants: Dalits, Leftists and Hindutva. However, the political spectrum is claiming him via selective reading only.

Indian Cultural History is unique, in that it has many perspectives that have not been reconciled and thus, are given to fierce debate. In this Part 2, we cover all narratives transpiring from the foreign gaze: The Colonialist, Orientalist and the Marxist.

1. Colonialist Narrative

After the Islamic period, came the British rule, which viewed the Indian culture from a heavily tinted Christian lens. The reason I have changed the chronology here is because the history of the Islamic period was by and large written by Colonialists and Marxists. Therefore it is important to understand the Colonialist perspective before we go into their reading of the Islamic period.

William Jones

Let us start with William Jones (1746-94). He had impeccable credentials, with Harrow and Oxford education, a scholar of languages and culture. Even before arriving in India in 1783, he was well published and highly regarded. He was a judge at the Calcutta Supreme Court when Warren Hastings was the governor. His view on Hinduism will provide you with an idea of what the colonial lens was.

Jones looked at India from the lens of romantic primitivism. His thesis was that while Europe had moved forward towards reason, Hindus were still stuck in a primitive state.

Primitive religions, he reasoned, converted natural forces into gods, being not yet capable of rational and abstract thinking. For Jones, Hinduism was more to do with imagination than with reason and therefore was an erroneous religion.

He formulated the Hindu laws and Muslim laws. To formulate the Hindu laws he pulled out the Manu Smriti.

William Ward

Now let us look at another colonial ‘Indologist’, Reverend William Ward (1769-1821). He had studied the Vedas, Puranas and other ancient texts in great detail. Here is what he concluded:

About Yogis – “The absurdity on which yogic practices are founded need not be exposed. The doctrine, which destroys all accountability to the creator, and removes all that is criminal…must be condemned by every good man. The absurdity of rejecting the rational enjoyments which prove the beneficence of the creator and contribute to the refinement of our nature is so flagrant that the slightest notice of it may surely be considered as more than necessary to the discharge of our duty to the interest of Christian morals.”

About the philosophy of Brahman – “The Hindoo is perverted by the idea that God in man is the author of every volition that is evil and good. He does not perceive the evil of ascribing every villainous action to God.”

About Idolatry – “Heathen deities owe their origin to the common darkness and depravity of men, who consider God too great to worship directly, choose such images as their darkness and passions suggested.”

On Tantra – “it is not devotion that leads Hindoos to the temple but licentious appetite.”

This is how it went. The church was the B-team of the colonial administrators and they combined to first trash the venerable ancient wisdom of the natives. Then they used Macaulayan education to instill a sense of inferiority. The clear intent of the Church was to convert the heathens to Christianity. However they were not fully supported by the East India Company who did not want the resultant upheaval to interfere with their business.

The narrative revolved around the contrast between true and false religions. False religions are those that are invented by men to satisfy their own desires in the name of God. True religion on the other hand is a revelation of God.

In this narrative Hindu priests imposed rites and restrictions to control and manipulate the masses. Caste system was a proof of this. Note how the Marxist historians have kept up this thinking.

Max Muller

Now let’s look at Max Muller. Macaulay used his influence to fund Max Muller. There can be no doubt about Muller’s commitment to conversion of Hindus to Christianity. Here are some quotes from Muller:

“History seems to teach that the whole human race required a gradual education before, in the fullness of time, it could be admitted to the truths of Christianity. All the fallacies of human reason had to be exhausted, before the light of a higher truth could meet with ready acceptance. The ancient religions of the world were but the milk of nature, which was in due time to be succeeded by the bread of life…”

“Large number of Vedic hymns are childish in the extreme: tedious, low, commonplace…they contain…childish thoughts.”

“…Vedas is the root of their religion and to show them what the root really is, I feel, is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last three thousand years.”

The ancient religion of India is doomed and if Christianity does not step in, whose fault will it be?”

Max Muller was the father of the Aryan Invasion theory. It helped the British in two ways. Firstly it introduced race differences in India – Aryans, Dravidians and Tribals. Second, using this fabricated story, they could claim that India was ruled by foreign invaders – first by Indo-Europeans, then by Muslims, and now by the British. In this narrative the British were really a return of the Indo-Europeans. Christian missionaries took advantage of this to call the Bible Yesurveda – Veda of Jesus.

Herbert Risley

Herbert Risley was a race scientist. Race science was a discipline that concluded that all races are not equal. They did this by distorting Darwin’s theory. They had methods like size of the skull and length of the nose to determine which races were superior and which were inferior. It is no surprise that the Caucasian race topped the chart while the African race was at the bottom.

We have already seen that the varna system was not hierarchical and individual varna was based on worth. Much later it was corrupted and made hereditary. Jaati was based on guilds. It was quite flexible. Jaati could be changed if one changed one’s profession and new jaatis could be formed. Over time however the jaati system got more rigid. Risley used race science to create castes (from Portuguese Casta). He organised them in descending order. Despite objections from people, they had to comply for administrative reasons. This cemented the caste system.

Boden Chair for Sanskrit

Lieutenant Colonel Boden willed his estate to the University of Oxford to establish a chair for Sanskrit with the special objective to promote the translation of the Bible into Sanskrit so as to enable the conversion of natives of India to Christianity.

The date of the Will was 15th August, 1811. In terms of the Will of Lieutenant Colonel Boden, who died on 21 November, 2011, his estate passed on to the University of Oxford after his daughter Elizabeth died in August 1827. The extract of his Will is as follows:

“I do hereby give and bequeath all and singular my said residuary estate and effects, with the accumulations thereof, if any, and the stocks, funds, and securities whereon the same shall have been laid out and invested, unto the University of Oxford, to be by that body appropriated in and towards the erection and endowment of a Professorship in the Shanskreet language, at or in any or either of the Colleges in the said University, being of opinion that a more general and critical knowledge of that language will be a means of enabling my countrymen to proceed in the conversion of the natives of India to the Christian Religion, by disseminating a knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures amongst them, more effectually than all other means whatsoever.”

Before ending this section let us go back to William Ward, who said in the 18th century:

“The Hindoo is perverted by the idea that God in man is the author of every volition that is evil and good. He does not perceive the evil of ascribing every villainous action to God.”

This question continues to be asked even today. If we think we are God then whatever we do or think must be good, for God can do no evil. This is extremely dangerous, they say, and will lead us down the path of evil.

Here is what Swami Vivekananda had to say to this:

“Can it be proved that on the other side (Man is not divine), the same danger does not exist? They have been worshiping God in heaven separate from them and a God they fear. Has the world been made better. Those who worshipped a personal God and those who worshipped an impersonal God, on which side have been great gigantic workers and moral powers. Certainly the impersonal. How can morality develop through fear, its basis is freedom.

“So it is not right to say that the impersonal idea will lead to evil as if the other doctrine never lends itself to works of evil, as if it did not lead to sectarianism…that is the outcome of dualism all over the world”

2. Orientalist Narrative

Based on a Western sense of superiority, the Colonialist view got codified as Orientalism in English and European universities. After the World War II, however, the academic centre of gravity moved to the US universities and we find the American Orientalists viewing the narrative from a Marxist lens.

Let us look at the theoretical basis of orientalism. The Orientalists have viewed Hinduism from the lens of Western philosophy. Rajiv Malhotra lists three main influences:

  1. Giambattista Vico, the 17th century Italian philosopher, analysed the transcendental and worldly realms. In this view, the secular is separated from the transcendent. The ancient thinking is termed pre rational, mythically oriented and emotional. This has been used to conclude that the Vedas are not a true reflection of transcendence.
  2. Walter Benjamin was a 19th century German philosopher and a Marxist. He theorised that languages spread because of the use of aesthetics by the elite. Elites would present the language in aesthetic ways to popularise it. But the real motive was to control and manipulate the masses. His theory is called Aesthetisation of Power. This has been used to create the theory of Sanskrit as a weapon of political control.
  3. Antonio Gramsci was an early 20th century Marxist and a key thinker in the development of Western Marxism. He opined that in a capitalist society there is a division between political society and civil society. A capitalist state works because the political society exercises hegemony over civil society with their consent. He was a proponent of historicism where ideas have meaning only in a socio-historical context. He has become an important figure in the current academic discussions in cultural studies and political science.

Yvette Rosser, the American scholar of Hinduism, succinctly points out the difference between how the west views history and how Indians view history. She says:

There is at the core a basic difference in the orientation towards historiography. In the West, we see our ancient past as something alien, to be studied as “isolated projects”. Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment scholars saw the past as primitive and irrational, “as something from which to escape, in Collingwood’s words, [as] ‘sheer terror [and] devoid of all positive value whatever.’ When gauged against the standards of the present, it failed to measure up.”  In the West, “when the past is presented in chronological order, it is prioritized [and] only the post-Renaissance past appears relevant to the present; the earlier past is presented…as an object of curiosity.”

The Indian perception of history is diametrically different. “The ancient and medieval periods are presented in a manner which ensures that they carry the same aura of relevance to the present as the modern period does… The message of an underlying continuity is explicit…and imparts to the nation-state a civilizational heritage which is historically continuous.”

Let us look at the current Orientalist Narrative. We analyse one of their key proponents here.

Sheldon Pollock

Sheldon Pollock is an academician at Colombia University. He is a Sanskrit scholar and is well acquainted with our ancient texts. Rohan Murthy, son of Infosys founder Narayan Murthy, has appointed him as head of the ambitious Murthy Library, which plans to translate about 500 of our texts into English for large-scale dissemination.

On Sanskrit

Sheldon Pollock wrote a paper called ‘Death of Sanskrit.’ Before I summarize the main arguments he makes, a word on the indigenous view on Sanskrit will be in order.

Sanskrit is multifaceted.

  1. It has a spoken language component.
  2. It is the language of mantras and tantras, used both in yajnas and meditation.
  3. There is a vibrational aspect to the language. The Vedas go into excruciating details of how shlokas are enunciated.
  4. It is now used in computational linguistics.

Pollock argues that Sanskrit was not a spoken language and only used by the Brahmins to recite Vedic shlokas and perform yajnas. He believes Yajnas are nothing but black magic used by Brahmins to hypnotize and control the masses. He holds that the mantras are hymnology-chants without meaning. Pollock does not accept the transcendental aspect of the Vedas. He sees Sanskrit as a language of oppression of Shudras, women and Muslims.

Arguing against historical evidence, he says Sanskrit died before Muslim rule. The Hindu kings, according to him, could not defend Sanskrit because its essence is abusive. Any criticism of Mughals or the British for playing a role in destroying Sanskrit is totally false. Muslim kings, and later the British, tried to revive Sanskrit but were not supported by Hindu kings and Indians in general.

He goes on to theorize that the Buddhists created the Brahmi script, which was patronized by Kushan rulers. Till then, according to him, Sanskrit existed only as an oral language. The first kavya (literature) was thus the Buddhist Jataka Tales. The Brahmins, not to be left behind, wrote their own kavya – Ramayana in 1st century CE. The purpose of Ramayana was to legitimize the oppression in the Vedas as a popular tale. He sees a nuanced text like Ramayana in binary terms – divine king verses demonic other. The kings, because of their divinity, could do pretty much what they wanted. There is no reference, in his narrative, to Dharma Shastra and Artha Shastra, the Dharmic principles that guided rulers.

On Ramayana

Ramayana was not important till the 12th century CE. No big temples or public buildings were built before 12th century (this too is factually incorrect). In the 12th century there were invasions by Turks, and the Hindu kings used Ramayana to assert their own divinity and present the Muslims as demonic.

He writes “In the age of Hindutva inaugurated in the 90s by BJP and VHP…religious nationalism…is distorting India’s past. Few things are as central to the religionism as Sanskrit. Hindutva propagandists have sought to show that Sanskrit is an indigenous language.”

He goes on to say that BJP, VHP are being chauvinistic about Sanskrit and from the very beginning it has been used to vilify Muslims.

On Kavya (Literature)

His theory of Kavya is that that the 11th century CE King Bhoja came out with the first Kavya Shastra. He ignores Natya Shastra and other such texts which are much older. His choice of Bhoja’s Kavya is political. It is a Kavya that praises the king and is devoid of rasa – the emotional surrender and absorption that leads to the divine. Since he does not acknowledge the transcendental aspect, he does not acknowledge rasa.

In essence, he first removes the sacredness and transcendental aspects from the Vedas, but adds oppressiveness and political domination. His objective for the revival of Sanskrit is from the point of view of political philology.

Let us see how Orientalists defended the charge that they were racial. Edward Said, a Palestinian by birth and professor of Literature at Colombia University, charged the Orientalists of being racist in his 1978 book “Orientalism”. Their response was the most curious. They said that they learnt racism from Sanskrit since the language contained racial biases.

According to Pollock’s “Deep Orientalism?” (1993), “European Indologists and the British colonialists merely propagated the pre-existing oppressive structures inherent in Sanskrit such as varna.”

Pollock postulates that the Nazis benefited from Sanskrit as an instrument of hegemony and domination, to formulate anti-Semitism, which led to the holocaust.Sheldon Pollock was awarded the Padma Shree in 2010, by the then UPA government.

3. The Indian Marxist Narrative

The Marxists viewed our ancient texts from the lens of Brahminical oppression. To analyze this, we will look at the views of D D Kosambi on the Bhagavad Gita. Marxists had a major role to play in interpreting the long history of India. We will look at their historiography and later provide the counter view of the Revivalists.

D D Kosambi on Gita

In an essay titled “Social and Economic Aspects of the  Bhagavad-Gita”, published in “Myth and Reality: Studies in the Formation of Indian Culture” (1962), Kosambi argues that the Gita is a text of “slippery opportunism” whose utility “derives from its peculiar fundamental defect, namely, dexterity in seeming to reconcile the irreconcilable.”  He adds that the Gita was composed between 150 and 350 CE (many date the Gita to 3000-1500 BCE).

He argues that the Gita is flexible and can be variously interpreted. He says Sankara, Ramanuja, Jnaneshwara, and later Gandhi and Tilak, were all influenced differently by the same text. This, he interprets as a proof that the ideas in the Gita had no singularity and hence it is not a serious text. He goes on to say that the Gita did not influence the laity at all. He gives examples of Kabir and Tukaram to prove that their inspiration lay outside the Gita. He concludes that the ‘leisure’ class read the Gita.

His main thesis is that the Brahmins and rulers used the Gita as scriptural justification, to appropriate insufficient surplus without having to resort to violence.

According to him, major portions of Chapter 2 could not have been possible without the influence of Buddhism. This section of the Gita covers Samkhya Yoga and more specifically Sthithaprajna – qualities of a jivanmukta (an enlightened being firmly established in the supreme).

There are 5 Shlokas he has specifically chosen to prove that Gita is against lower castes. In brief these are:

The four-fold varna has been created by me according to the differentiation of gunas (4.13).

Sages look with equal eye on the learned Brahmana, cow, elephant, dog and outcast (5.18).

For taking refuge in me they also who may be of sinful birth, women, Vaishyas, Shudras, even they attain the supreme (9.32).

Agriculture, cattle rearing and trade is for Vaishyas and service is the duty of Shudras (18.44).

His main point of criticism is that the Gita says that God created caste. Gita was thus written to justify caste exploitation. He has taken the meaning of the quoted shlokas quite literally as in Shudras being clubbed with assorted animals. The disdaining tone towards women, traders and low castes also disturbs him.

It is important to explain the Indigenous view of the shlokas quoted by him:

The reference is to varna and not caste. One of the themes in the Gita is Gunas and how to move from Tamas to Rajas to Sattva, and finally to transcend the Gunas. Varna is based upon the individual Guna composition. The Marxists and Colonialists have, in my opinion, focused disproportionately on varna as scriptural justification for caste conflict. Further they have collapsed varna and jaati, which are two different ideas. Ambedkar, who they quote extensively, understood this distinction.

Gita talks about the duties of each varna for the smooth functioning of society. No varna is higher than the other. Brahmins have ascendency in rituals, Kshatras in administration and warfare, Vaisyas in commerce and Shudras in craftsmanship. It is in this context that the Shudra’s role to serve the traders and rulers is placed.

What Kosambi interprets as Shudras being clubbed with dogs and elephants, is intended to convey that the sage’s level of awareness is such that he sees the divine in everything without distinction.

“Even women, Vaishyas and Shudras will attain the supreme if they come to me”.

Here the deeper meaning is: Striyah symbolizes binding attachments; Vaishya symbolizes the tendency to calculate profit even from psychological investment while Shudra symbolizes the attitude of slumber and slothfulness. All these qualities are impediments on the path of self-realization. Yet Krishna says if they approach the divine sincerely, they too will attain The Supreme.

Post-colonial Marxist History

Marxists have dominated the historical discourse in the post-colonial era. Nehru, and later, his daughter Indira Gandhi, entrusted the writing and teaching of history to Marxists. Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra, Irfan Habib, Barun De, Amalendu Guha, Nurul  Hasan and D D Kosambi, to name a few.

Historians more steeped in the indigenous tradition like the Gandhian R C Majumdar, Jadunath Sarkar, G S Ghurye, Sitaram Goel, did not find favour.

Some of the key contours of the historiography of the Marxists are captured here.

There was no Hindu identity till Turkic rule

The Marxist view is that there was no sense of cultural unity in the geography called India till after 5th century CE.

In “Communalism and Ancient Indian History”, Romila Thapar writes “The recognizable Hindu begins to emerge in the post-Gupta period post 5th century CE…There is ample evidence…to suggest that religious sects and groups in pre Islamic India did not identify themselves as Hindu and as a unified religion.”

They support the theory of Aryan Invasion/ Migration

Despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary, they go along with the Colonialist narrative that the homeland lay west of India and the invading/ migrating Aryans took control, became the higher castes, wrote the Vedas and oppressed the Dravidians and tribal people. Since the Colonialist did not go further back from 4004 BCE (that’s when the world was created according to the Bible), Indus Valley civilization is dated 4000 BCE while the Aryan Invasion/ migration is dated 1500 BCE. Further there is no continuity between Indus Valley civilization and the Aryan Vedic civilization. They also claim, contrary to archaeological evidence, that only the North West of India was populated till the invading/ migrating Aryans pushed Dravidians and tribal people to the Gangetic plains and further south.

Pre Islamic India was the age of strife

Before the Islamic invasions, India presented a story of fragmentation, internal strife and Brahmin hegemony. The sacredness of our tradition is not given importance. The lens from which it is seen is one of caste struggle.

Islamic era is seen as age of synthesis

The narrative attempts to juxtapose Islamic invaders with Indian kings to put forth a thesis that they were no different from Indian rulers. They are not seen as alien invaders. Their atrocities have been attributed to economic motives and not religious zealotry.

Mahmud Ghaznavi (971-1030) is portrayed as an incidental Mohammeden. Jawaharlal Nehru said: “As a matter of fact, Mahmud was hardly a religious man. He was a Mohammedan, of course, but that was just by the way.”

Romila Thapar proposed that the motive behind the sacking of Somnath was for its wealth and not religious bigotry. Her theme is that Islamic invaders were no different from Indian rulers, they were not religious zealots and their excesses were due to financial motives or the need to assert their power by token destruction.

Nehru saw the invasion of the Mughals as a positive event. He wrote: “A foreign conquest, with all its evils, has one advantage: it widens the mental horizon of the people and compels them to look out of their shells. They realize that the world is a much bigger and more variegated place than they had imagined… The Mughals, who were far more cultured and advanced in ways of living than the Afghans, brought changes to India… Babar is an attractive person, a typical Renaissance prince, bold and adventurous, fond of art and literature and good living.”

Marxists have portrayed Mughals as an integral and defining part of Indian history. They are shown as enamoured by India. The Muslim invaders have been juxtaposed with Indian rulers and integrated into the culture. The era is shown as the age of synthesis as opposed to the pre-Islamic era which was the age of conflict. Mughals are lauded for their contribution to architecture, paintings, literature and music.

The extremely violent aspects of the Islamic era have been whitewashed. In a recent book, Romila Thapar has stated that the raid by Ghaznavi on Somnath in 1025 was not considered as being of any consequence by Hindus. She discounts religious frenzy as the cause of the raid.

The main takeaways are:

  1. Conflict ridden history with caste oppression, dowry and sati – a human rights nightmare.
  2. All knowledge came with invaders. Starting with Aryans, then Greeks, down to Arabs and British.
  3. Mughals vitalised the culture.
  4. British brought education and railways.
  5. India was not a nation or cultural entity. The British cobbled together a nation.

In Part 3 of this series we will discuss the Revivalist challenge to the Orientalists and the Marxists.

References:

  1. Sharadha Sugirtharaja, Imagining Hinduism A Post Colonial Perspective. Routledge, 2003
  2. William Ward, Account of the Writings, Religion, and Manners of the Hindoos,’ Serampúr, 1811
  3. The Purpose of Boden Chair of Sanskrit in Oxford University, Sulekha
  4. Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works Books 1,2,3
  5. Rajiv Malhotra, On Sheldon Pollock ‘Battle for Sanskrit’, YouTube
  6. Rajiv Malhotra, Hinduphobia in Academia, YouTube
  7. D D Kosambi, Social and Economic Aspects of  Bhagavad Gita, Myth and Reality: Studies in the Formation of Indian Culture (1962)
  8. Makarand Paranjpi, Analysing Myth and Reality
  9. Hari Ravi Kumar, Deconstructing D D Kosambi, Indiafacts.org, 23.12.15
  10. N. S. Rajaram, Distortions In Indian History, Indiafacts.org, 19.3.2015
  11. Yvetta Rosser, Imagining Jambudvipa: Rescuing Indology and Indian History, Indiafacts.org, 15.9.2014
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Atul Sinha is a former senior corporate executive. He is the founder director of a leading Brand Design company. An interest in Indian spirituality led him to pursue a PhD program at Svyasa Bangalore. He writes on Vedanta.