The White Man’s Burden

The British objective to exercise their superiority on the “other” has always been the psychological and ideological basis for the Europeans’ imperialist strategies.

A common reason widely accepted for the British adventures in India are the monetary prospects they found to realise from trading with India and more so by controlling/ruling it. It is also widely accepted at least among our ‘intellectuals’ that the British rule, with some exceptions has proven to be very useful to India as it brought light and civilization to us.

But, in my previous writings we have seen that India was not waiting to be civilized; that India had its own civilization comparable to any other in the world, since millenniums. Now, if this altruistic mission of the British to civilize India is discounted, the main objective of the British conquest would be profits on one hand and exercising superiority of the west on the other. While, the first motive is fairly known, the second one is rarely so.

This objective of the British (Europe rather) to exercise their superiority on the “other” has always been the psychological and ideological basis for the Europeans’ imperialist strategies. It has a strong bedrock basement that everything west is superior to anything east (or non-European) and the world’s destiny is effectively determined by the west.

That the east, though seemingly exotic initially, in its essence is immature and backward, and hence, it has to either get destroyed or develop itself to be like the west. This mind-set was very much the driving force, implicitly or explicitly, for all the European ambitions of controlling far-away lands. Edward Said, in his introduction to his classic “Culture and Imperialism” says,

“……..What are striking in these discourses are the rhetorical figures one keeps encountering in their descriptions of “the mysterious East,” as well as the stereotypes about “the African [or Indian or Irish or Jamaican or Chinese] mind;” the notions about bringing civilization to primitive or barbaric peoples, the disturbingly familiar ideas about flogging or death or extended punishment being required when “they” misbehaved or became rebellious, because “they” mainly understood force· or violence best; “they” were not like “us,” and for that reason deserved to be ruled.” [Edward W Said]

The above stanza vividly describes how the western mind perceived the non-western/non-European mind. It establishes a relationship wherein heterogeneity of non-Europeans essentially perceived as barbarism, and backward-ness, and which in turn led to subjugation by Europe of various other people to ‘impart civilization’ and show light to them. It created a world where (even today), European/American is equated to Modern and civilized.

This ideology has touched upon almost all the continents: the First people of Americas (called the native Indians), the aboriginals of Australia, the Pagans in Europe (the pre Christian Europe) and many African nations. Their lands taken, people killed or enslaved, resources plundered and culture and languages completely uprooted and destroyed.

Therefore, it is important to recognize and learn about this ideology and mind-set. In fact, we can take lessons from a wide variety of facts, researches and writings that perhaps is unrelated to India in particular. The objective of this writing is to explore this concept further and to bring it to the forefront.

The European conquests to the unknown world, was significant during a period between 15th century and 18th century, what is now called as the “Age of Discovery”. This was the time when Spain, Portuguese, Britain and few other European nations sent their sailors to sail across the sea and find new territories for colonial expansion. While the main motive of these explorations was finding new prospects for profits: trading companions and trading routes to Africa and Asia, this was just one side of the coin. The other side was the attitude of superiority over the “other”.

This superiority, obviously leads to a moral responsibility of the superior to uplift and civilize the inferior. This idea is presented in a poetic way, by a British poet, Rudyard Kipling, in his poem “The white man’s burden” written in 1898. He says,

Take up the White Man’s burden, Send forth the best ye breed
  Go bind your sons to exile, to serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild—
  Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child. [1st stanza]

A great poem it may be, but it amply showcases the imperialist and racist background evident in the western view of the world. The poem itself may have been a recent one, but the idea it presents has lived for long. Also, please note the adjectives used by Kipling to describe the “other”.

This idea of superiority over the “other” has deep roots in western civilization itself. It takes various forms on the basis of religion, race and geography. In exploring the depth of this self-proclaimed superiority of the West, we find at the base of it, an essentially Christian foundation. It cannot be discounted that all of the European conquests and discoveries had a Christian side to them; the motive of spreading Christianity. Though, in comparison, the British were not too explicit and aggressive in their implementation of Christian beliefs, mainly because of the advent of secularism; they nevertheless gave a relatively free hand to various missionary activities.

Supremacist behaviour due to religious beliefs is found in all Abrahamic religions. It is obvious and logical for them as they believe that their respective religions are the only truth, their god the only God and their way the only way. This exclusivity leads to the notion of superior and inferior, which then leads to the supremacist behaviour.

But, for now, let us concentrate only on the Christianity associated with European conquerors. The bible itself speaks on this,

“For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, ABOVE all people that are upon the face of the earth.” [Deuteronomy 7:6]

“ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me, above all people.” [Exodus 19:5]

“Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.” [2 John 1:9-11]

The above verses, among many, explicitly attributes divinely ordained superiority of “the chosen people” over the others.  There are many more such verses in the Bible, which assigns a sense of superiority and exclusivity to Christians. Accordingly, Columbus, when he arrived at an island in the western Atlantic (which he thought is an island in Asia near India) on 12th October 1492 from Canary Islands, writes his feelings in his diary, thus:

“….. Your Highnesses, as  Catholics and Christians, the chief lovers of the holy Christian faith… and enemies of the sect of Mohammed… have  thought to send me, Christopher Columbus, to these parts of  India to see these leaders and their peoples and lands and, above all [to understand] how we might convert them to our holy faith.” [Quoted as in Enrique Dussel]

There was also an explicit consented by the then church authorities to explore new lands and primarily find new converts to Christianity. In a blunt voice, in 1452, then Pope Nicholas V, in his papal bull named “Dum Diversas” gave consent to the then king of Portugal:  Afonso V’s military conquest of Northern Africa, thus:

“……………we grant to you full and free power, through the Apostolic authority by this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ…………..”

In the year 1493, a papal bull was issued by the then pope Alexander VI, granting Spain the possession of lands discovered by Columbus. The Pope ordered the Spanish monarchy thus:

“………..Among the works most acceptable to the Divine Majesty, and desirable to our hearts, that is certainly above all, that the Catholic faith, and the Christian religion, especially in our times, should be exalted and everywhere diffused and spread; and that the salvation of souls be sought after, and barbarous nations subjected, and brought over to the said faith………..” [Samuel Edward Dawson]

The pope is clearly enumerating the process of colonization and subjugation of non-Christians by Christian rulers. Note that the other-ness of religion is referred to by the adjectives infidels and barbarous. Further, Pope Alexander VI also orders the royalty of Spain to appoint loyal, upright and God-fearing men to initiate the natives of the conquered regions into the Christian faith.

These may have been bulls issued to Portugal and Spain w.r.t to North Africa and the Americas, but it clearly presents the ideology. It is no secret that the medieval Europe was indeed very religious. It is also in popular belief, how Vasco Da Gama was keen to convert the residents of Goa as soon as he arrived there.

Moreover, we find in many writings an inter-twined supremacy of religion, race and geography. The above stated poem itself serves as an example: the “white” in the title is an expression of a belief that white is associated with truth and purity, while the terms black or dark is associated with falsity and impurity. (A notion, which is completely alien to Indian mind, whose many of the major Gods have dark complexion)

Among many such writings, we can find the philosophical development of this ideology in the works of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (among many others), an enlightenment German philosopher of the late 18th, early 19th century. Hegel’s works are considered to be the foundational bedrock of western supremacy and euro-centrism (at least in the philosophical sense).

Hence, it is important to study Hegel, for he tries to put-forth a philosophical justification for western supremacy and euro-centrism. It is also important to study him because of his profound influence, among many others on Karl Marx; whose ideologies have dominated Indian academia for so long now.

Hegel, in his “Philosophy of history” develops a philosophical basis for the western supremacy by establishing a world-order where the events that unfold in the world (i.e. history) would take a certain direction and moves towards a particular goal. He argues that world history is the realization of the consciousness of the absolute spirit (God): a movement from irrationality to rationality, knowledge and freedom. For him, in simple words, history is progressing through time and is culminating in a particular goal. It is the process, which culminates into a state of government, society and people wherein God fully becomes conscious of him-self. He says:

“…….God is thus recognized as Spirit, only when known as the Triune. This new principle is the axis on which the History of the World turns. This is the goal and the starting point of History. “When the fulness of the time was come, God sent his Son,” is the statement of the Bible. This means nothing else than that self-consciousness had reached the phases of development [Momente], whose resultant constitutes the Idea of Spirit, and had come to feel the necessity of comprehending those phases absolutely…..” [G W F Hegel]

Accordingly, this unfolding of the spirit through history happens according to a pre- determined design, and thus, the various people, cultures and places of the world are placed in various levels of this process. It is here that Hegel classifies the entire world into different compartments viz. pre-history, the beginning of history and the end of it. For instance: the native Americans, Africans and Indians are pre-historical. The Asians representing the Mongolian race are the beginning and the European race is at the end of this process.

Further, as rationality is only to be found in the west, the east (i.e. Indians, Africans, etc.) is irrational, chaotic, confused and drowned in meaningless imaginations without a goal. So, Hegel argues that the east is only the beginning of the history, but the end of it is essentially the west. He says:

“…..The History of the World travels from East to West, for Europe is absolutely the end of History, Asia the beginning…….” [ibid]

Further, Hegel explains how the Christian belief of the fall of Adam from heaven is not any “casual conception” [ibid] but “the eternal history of Spirit” [ibid] itself.

Thus, Hegelian history links the unfolding of history to two things. One: to the “absolute spirit” and two: to the geography from and to where the history develops. Accordingly, the culmination of history wherein the complete self-realization of the absolute spirit is achieved can happen in the Christian religion only and the place in which the culmination takes place is essentially Europe. (Though, Hegel believes that the west is the end of History in general; he was a German supremacist at a more fundamental level. For him, the culmination of history was to be realised nowhere, but in Germany. Many of his thoughts bare a stark similarity with that of the ideology of Hitler)

But, what kind of a God needs to realize him-self? Is he God enough if he has not got complete self-realization? If God realises himself through the unfolding of history, he has not realized himself completely, since history is still being created each moment and there is much more, which is yet to come. If so, is God incomplete at this point in time? According to Hegel, history is moving from irrationality to rationality and simultaneously, it is God’s unfolding self-realization; does that mean God’s self was irrational at the beginning of history? Is it also that God had no self-realization before the creation? What is the correlation between History and the self-realization of the absolute truth? This and many more questions, Hegel does not address.

At this stage, the study of Hegel is also important because of his views on India. Comparing India to a beautiful woman, Hegel praises the Indian beauty of philosophy, literature and art, its imagination, its capability to digest roughness and contradictions, and then suddenly, he changes his tone and says that there is much beyond these attractions. If looked closer, he says, the “unworthy-ness” of the Indian-ness will be realized.

This view reflects the actual situation of the European romanticism with India, which exists for a brief period during initial contacts, but then transforms into sudden disinterest and apathy towards everything that is Indian. It shows the incapability of the western mind to understand and appreciate what they call the “Indian chaos and contradictions”.

While talking about eastern (Indian) religions, he says that the Indian view is some sort of a universal pantheism of imagination and not of thought. He ridicules the idea that one essence pervades the whole of things and that the sensuous matter (object) is merged with the immeasurable and the universal as bizarre and confused. Further, he discounts the Indian view as just a figment of imagination.

Here, Hegel seems to be having a problem particularly with the doctrine of Advaita. His explanations do showcase a lack of understanding of Advaita itself, but also his failure to recognise that Advaita is just one doctrine out of 22 Vedic doctrines and traditions that have flourished in India and hence brands it, in a generalised way, as “the Indian” view. He seems to ridicule this theory as it is in sharp contrast with the belief of Christianity that the divine is strictly beyond the sensuous; that the creator is distinct from the created.

Further, w.r.t the relationship between India and the development of history, he says:

“………..The spread of Indian culture is pre-historical, for History is limited to that which makes an essential epoch in the development of Spirit. On the whole, the diffusion of Indian culture is only a dumb, deedless expansion; that is, it presents no political action. The people of India have achieved no foreign conquests, but have been on every occasion vanquished themselves…..” [ibid]

By pre-history, Hegel simply means that part of history, which is of no relevance whatsoever. It is some isolated and frozen time-frame, which Hegel uses to dump all non-European cultures. For him, Indian history is nothing, but some imagined mythical constructs. But, the history of its conquerors’ is real. Therefore, ‘real’ Indian history is that of her conquerors only.

He then gives a rather long description of the “Hindu caste system”, its brutalities, etc. He tries to paint a picture throughout pages that entire India is (or rather was) governed by the Manu Smriti (whose proper value and authority has not been understood even today by our ‘intellectuals’), regular stereotypes of mothers throwing their babies into rivers, men lying under chariot wheels to be torn apart into pieces, yogis burning in sun and fire and obviously, the dishonesty and cunningness of the evil Brahmins, idol worship, etc.

He further describes various other people of Africa and America as barbarous, immature, incapable, etc. and argues that it is inevitable for these “others” to move towards the goal of rationality and freedom by embracing the west. He also justifies the colonization of these parts of the world by Europe as an instrument to that effect (he sometimes condemns the brutality of colonization, but not colonization itself).

He declares emphatically the fate of Asia thus:

“…….The English, or rather the East India Company, are the lords of the land; for it is the necessary fate of Asiatic Empires to be subjected to Europeans ; and China will, some day or other, be obliged to submit to this fate……” [ibid]

In fact, these were (they still are) the thoughts of all those European conquerors, including the British that motivated them to conquer “other” lands and destroy their essential culture and ways of life. It is also the mind-set of today’s America (which is now the undisputed leader in the west and thus of civilization and rationality), which motivates it to interfere with “other” countries’ affairs through military, finance, and NGOs; to invade others’ lands and topple their governments in the name of Human rights and democracy. This need not create an anti-Americanism among us, but should definitely remind us the excesses of American policy towards other countries.

More importantly, we in the east have to recognise these supremacist thoughts to be the underlying phenomena of the European conquests into India before understanding the tragedy these conquests brought to us. It was in fact this mind-set, which not only led to the plunder of our country, but also to the degradation of our culture and religion. Unfortunately, the attack on Indian culture and traditions continues to this day and it is high time, one understands the ideology and mind-set, which is at the heart of breaking India forces.

Bibliography

  1. Edward W Said, Culture and Imperialism, New York: Knopf, 1993, (PDF file), available at http://artexte.ca/wp-content/uploads/Culture_and_Imperialism.pdf
  2. Enrique Dussel, “The invention of the Americas”, translated by Michael D Barber, The continuum publishing company, New York, 1992 & 1995 (PDF file) available at http://enriquedussel.com/txt/45.The_invention.pdf]
  3. Pope Nicholas V (1452), “Dum Diversas (English Translation),” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, http://unamsanctamcatholicam.blogspot.com/2011/02/dum-diversas-english-translation.html, DOA 02/072016, 12:08
  4. Samuel Edward Dawson, The lines of demarcation of pope Alexander VI, Transactions of Royal society of Canada, 2nd series, vol 5, sec 2, 1899, (PDF file),  available at https://repository.library.nd.edu/view/1443/000996012.pdf
  5. G W F Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of history, translated by J Sibree, G Bell & sons, London, 1914, (PDF file), available at https://ia601408.us.archive.org/23/items/lecturesonphilos00hegerich/lecturesonphilos00hegerich.pdf
  6. Malhotra, Rajiv (2011), Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism, HarperCollins Publishers, India.
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Philosopher and Economist, writing on Philosophy, History and current affairs.