Rulers Gaze British Ancient India
Deadly distortions of Colonial Rule- Notes from ‘A Ruler’s Gaze’ by Arvind Sharma- III

There is a remarkable convergence of thought on India’s sense of lack of its own history by the British and Muslim rulers. Sadly, the narrative was continued by our own ill-informed historians who failed completely to create a grand narrative for our country. Any attempt to correct the narrative or inject some pride in our heritage and history becomes ‘saffronisation.’

We saw in the previous parts the application of Saidian lens to assess British rule over India. Knowledge produces power; later, power becomes knowledge. True to this paradigm, the Greek accounts differed significantly from the British accounts. With regards to the Greeks, it was respect and admiration to some extent as they looked with awe and wonder towards India. The Muslim and British rulers had no such respect, true to their ruling status and their pressing need to depict India as sufficiently primitive and barbaric.   

Ancient Greek and Modern European Accounts of India

The author says that it is difficult to understand the difference in Indian civilization narrative between the ancient Greeks and the modern Europeans. In terms of civilizational genealogy, Europeans consider themselves descendants of ancient Greeks, yet their respective assessments of Indic civilization are a study in contrast.

For modern Europe, abject poverty pervaded India; and for the Greeks, it was a land of plenty. The Europeans wrote of the country as a land of ‘oriental despotism,’ a land of horrible Sati practice, a land of pagan religion at odds with Christianity, as an inegalitarian society, and as having a philosophy irrelevant in the modern scheme of things. However, the Greeks wrote of India as a land of republicanism with the heroic system of Sati. India’s religion was like the Greek theological tradition; and India constituted an outstanding example of egalitarianism. India’s philosophy was extremely inspiring and there are reasons to even suspect that many Greek ideas in philosophy originated from Upanishidic thoughts. This contrast in representing the same civilization is curious, and the author sets out the reasons for them in a detailed manner.

Megasthenes (4th century BC) in his ‘Indica’, Diodorus, and other Greek accounts ascribe a high level of material prosperity to India, including a lack of famines. The latter was probably not completely true. They wrote of India with high principles in warfare where the non-combatants like tillers were unmolested by the winning armies. The Manusmriti and the Arthashastra were clear in fair-play rules of war. The latter texts distinguish between righteous conquest (dharmavijaya), larcenous conquest (lobhavijaya), and demonic conquest (asuravijaya). The Greeks were impressed by the abundant Indian agricultural and mineral resources, the skill and industry of its inhabitants and the flourishing cities.

The English were convinced that India had no history prior to the Muslim rule and were always in abject conditions. Their narrative firmly established the permanent poverty of India, just as the Greeks though that India was permanently rich! The Greeks spoke highly of the Indian republic systems well collaborated by Indian accounts too. At the same time, they spoke of the ancient genealogies of Indian kings extending for 6000 years. The Muslims rulers, Christian influenced Britishers, Marxists of today and Western Indologists have no hesitation in painting India as an inegalitarian society, but the Greek accounts called India even more egalitarian than Greek society. Greek sources describe India as a land without slavery. Slavery did exist but in a much milder form which the Greeks did not notice. It is also significant that the Greek accounts did not find the caste system as compromising egalitarianism in the manner or the extent it did, as represented by the future Europeans and Western Indologists. The modern West was initially impressed and later obsessed with the caste system in contrast.

The Greeks drew deep parallels between their own gods Dionysus and Heracles with the Hindu pantheon of gods like Shiva and Krishna respectively. The latter was sometimes associated with Indra. Polytheism tends to be more tolerant and accepting than monotheism, and the author feels that Greek polytheism was at play here when accepting Hindu religious rituals, mythologies, and even philosophies. Europeans condemned Hinduism directly except at the very beginning ‘honeymoon’ period of Jones and Hastings. The Greeks, despite their criticism of Hindu religion were willing to see it as a representation of their own; however, the British were content to see no parallels at all from a now extinct civilization. They vehemently denied any comparability between Hinduism and Christianity.

Indian systems of philosophy include the six systems of thought and doubles up as a way of life. The philosophy ultimately transcended life to reach the unity. The relation of the one with the many and the final path to achieve a unity is the overriding theme of Indian philosophy. The ancient Greeks welcomed ancient Indian philosophy and tried to integrate it at some level. There are accounts of their attempts to study the Indian systems and the role of various varnas in the scheme of things. In contrast, the intellectual history of modern Europe (Rationalism, Enlightenment, and so on) and influential philosophers like Hegel, Kant ignored or went to extraordinary limits to deny any Indian contribution to philosophy. There was no doubt some dissenting voices and there were some changes of stance after more information; but the overriding message perpetuated by the European accounts and permeated into the psyche of Westerners and the English educated Indians is that Indian philosophy is inconsequential. This is sad because even today most Indians are simply unaware of the strength of ancient Indian philosophy. Indian philosophy significantly asked and sorted many of the existential questions a few thousand years before the European schools of philosophy in the 16th or 17th centuries. Recent timelines based on astronomy suggest a still ancient tradition of Upanishads in India stretching before 10,000 BC (Nilesh Oak); this may perhaps show that ancient Greek were undoubtedly rooted in Indian philosophy.

When it came to science, again India did not seem to have anything useful to offer. Even Al Basham who wrote ‘The Wonder that was India,’ perpetuated the two great Western exclusions in dealing with Indic civilization- philosophy and science. Europeans and Islam considered India as primitive and Greek as the initiator of scientific method, but what did the Greeks themselves think of India? And what did the Indians think of the Greeks? The feelings were of mutual admiration; but the author strives to show that Indians applauding the Greeks for astrology and the Greeks applauding Indians for yoga; both antithetical to modern science! Indians implicitly believe in astrology, according to Europeans, but most Europeans overlook the fact that astrology is Greek in origin! Perhaps, the reason for this may be that Europeans presume Greeks to be rational, and hence hesitate to hold Greek influence responsible for the growth of astrology in India. The author is very emphatic about this point.

While Greeks excelled Indians in science as defined in modern times, Indian excelled in other ways. The   value given by Aryabhata expressed it in the form of a fraction 62832/20000 which gave the value 3.1416, accurate up to four decimal places. It was more accurate than the value assigned by the Greeks. Seidenberg, a historian of science, clearly asserts that the Satapatha Brahmana clearly had knowledge of the famous Pythagoras theorem. The author quotes the Syrian astronomer Severus Sebokht who says:

I shall speak of the knowledge of Hindus…of their subtle discoveries in the field of astronomy-discoveries       even more ingenious than those of the Greeks and the Babylonians-of their rational system of mathematics, or of their method of calculation which no words can strongly praise enough-I mean the system using the nine symbols. If these things were known by the people who think that they alone have mastered the sciences because they speak Greek they would perhaps be convinced, though a little late in the day, that other folk, not only Greeks, but men of a different tongue, know something as well as they.

Similarly, if the term phonology gets an inclusion as science, then devising Sanskrit, the most scientific alphabet in the world (in the sense of being most phonetic), was an accomplishment of Hindu civilization. The Vedas recited in pristine purity by the oral route since times immemorial show a lot of importance to the science of sound production. The ancient rules of grammar in Sanskrit laid by Panini are the most perfect for any language.

How do we account for the differences in Greek and European perceptions about India? First, conditions in 4th century BC were different from the 18th century India. However, as an aside, Angus Maddison has clearly shown that India was a top economy contributing to almost 25-30% of the world GDP when the East India Company landed on its shores to begin the story of loot and plunder. Second, the Greeks never won over the country like the Muslims or the Britishers. Maybe, that helped in giving them a sense of awe and respect towards India. The position of a ruler distorts the representation of the ruled civilization as we go back to our Saidian hypothesis. India aborted and repulsed Alexander and his Greek successors successfully. They were partially successful in conquering India. If Indian mutiny defeated the British in 1857, would their depiction of India later be different? This is a very significant question raised by the author in the light of all the Greek accounts we have about India.

Greeks tried to conquer India and failed. They had mutual feelings of both contempt and admiration at some levels. But, it was an unpredictable impact which the Greeks had on India. However, the British were very successful in conquering and ruling India and their impact forceful and long-lasting. The Indian reaction to Greeks ascribed religion, greed, and ambition as the motives. For the British, the motives translated as Christian evangelization, territorial ambition, and economic plunder. Charles Grant advocated the evangelization well ahead of the British rule.

Finally, true to Saidian thesis, in contemporary times, Percival Spear at the end of his book, ‘India: A Modern History,’ says, ‘In the past, light came from the East; in the future it will come again.’ India, on the other hand, has happily adopted the English language and the legal system. The author summarizes by saying, ‘India has become a part of the extended Western civilization because of British successes in India. By contrast, because of the Indic success against the Greeks, the Greeks who remained in India got Indianized.’

British and Muslim Accounts of India

Power and knowledge has an intimate connection as Saidian hypothesis suggests. If that is the case then a proposition follows that since both Muslims and the English ruled India, their attitudes towards the ruled Indians should be similar. The author examines this in the last chapter in relation to Indian language, religion, sexual habits, social relations, sense of history, and the sense of mission the ruling power may have felt towards the ruled. If there is a divergence of opinions then the Saidian hypothesis may itself come into question.

The initial Muslim writers like Albiruni (973-1048) and English people like William Jones praised the language for its depth and range; however, with increasing power accumulation, in no time Sanskrit came to be a deficient language. The British even held it responsible for the class exploitations in Hinduism based on the language. For example, James Mill (1773-1836) severely criticized William Jones for his high praise of Sanskrit when the British power was firmly in place. An abridged version of ‘The History of British India’ notes: A language that had thirty words for the sun must lack philosophical precision and backward. The perfection of a language would consist in having one name for everything which required a name, and no more than one… It is difficult to deny that barring a few exceptions, both Muslims and the British rulers shared negative feelings about Sanskrit. Some over-generalizations about the language became popular by people even without knowing the language; and surprisingly, presently too the same trend continues by the likes of Sheldon Pollock and Wendy Doniger about the dead status of Sanskrit, without knowing the language in the latter example.

Both Muslim and British accounts focus heavily to denounce Hindu religion. Muslims and Christians had a pre-invasion contact with Hinduism when there were hardly any denunciations and conflicts. However, as political domination ensued, Hinduism became a target. Both began taking a low view of the Hindu’s calibre- moral or martial. They came described as degenerates and slaves. Both compared the Hindus in their writings and attitudes to the pre-Islamic Arabs and the pre-Christian Romans, whom Islam and Christianity had been successful in converting. Both assaulted the symbols of Hinduism to undermine it; the Muslims concentrated on monuments and the British on human beings. The famous Nand Kumar assassination, a Brahmana, was to show that their caste was not inviolable. Both thought that Hinduism as a religion which does not accept converts. Both considered Hindus as effeminate, perhaps because their own virile race had militarily triumphed over them. The rulers in a very similar fashion perpetuated and consolidated the image of the Hindu as a coward, a loser, and a slave. And their accounts were firmly in place that they had a civilizing mission in India. Both the Muslim rulers and Europeans felt that they had a serious mission to civilize the backward nation, either in terms of culture, religion, or otherwise. The fact remains that they failed. Perhaps there could be another book to understand the reasons why the civilizing missions always failed. For example, James Mill wrote that India gained considerably by passing from a Hindu to a Mohammedan government and Muslim scholars like Aziz Ahmed identified the role of Muslims in readying Hindus for British rule. Thus, both the Muslims and the British could slap each other’s backs, while riding on the Hindus backs, says the author!

Sexual depravity in Hindus was a common theme of both accounts and both rushed to show the Shiv linga as a phallic symbol. In assessing social relations, both the Muslim rulers and the British identified equally caste as a barrier preventing a foreigner to know a Hindu. For Albiruni, who accompanied Mahmud Ghazvi in his conquests, the flipside of Hindu theological tolerance is Hindu social tolerance. Also, science plays an important role in Saidian discourse. Accordingly, the subjugated culture does not have the cultural capacity to scientifically advance on its own and whatever science it has is because of the subjugating cultures or a foreign influence (like the Greeks for us). This theme played to a fullest extent by both the Islamic rulers and the British rulers with remarkable parallels.

The author notes with wonder that a great historian called Vincent Arthur Smith in his ‘Early History of India from 600 BC to the Mohammedan Conquest’ devotes a seventh of the book to the invasion of India by Alexander. There is hardly any mention of Alexander surprisingly in Indian sources. Vincent writes of the ‘inherent weakness of Asiatic armies when confronted with European skill and discipline.’ One modern Indian historian however says, ‘…The only permanent result of Alexander’s campaign was that it opened a channel of communication between Greece and India. Despite the halo of romance weaved around Alexander, the historian of India can regard him only as a precursor of the recognized scourges of humankind (like Tamerlane, Nader Shah, Ghazni) …’  The Orientalist construction would show Alexander in glowing terms, but a significant Indian version would be possibly he had to beat a retreat. The defeat and disastrous retreat of Alexander however finds a mention in modern historical accounts, like an article of Robert Kaplan in 2009. This would have been impossible in British India. All the accounts of British and the Muslim rulers is not India as such but the India as it matters to the conquerors.

There is a remarkable convergence of thought on India’s sense of lack of its own history by the British and Muslim rulers. This is the general Western perception about India’s sense of history. Sadly, the narrative was continued by our own ill-informed historians who failed completely to create a grand narrative for our country. The strange underdog and subjugated theme characterisation continued unabatedly for almost two generations in an amazing fashion. Unfortunately, so strong is the hold of the popular left generated narrative that any attempt to correct the narrative or inject some pride in our heritage and history becomes ‘saffronisation.’

In the concluding chapter, the author discusses the limitations and extensions of Saidian Orientalism. There were exceptions to the narrative, people who were genuinely interested- both in the Muslim and the European world. Their voices however never reached important levels. Orientalism operates by dehumanizing the others, but the fact remains that both the parties are still humans. Sometimes, true facts in the accounts may become denied by looking only through the Saidian lens. Saidian hypothesis also does not mean that only the insiders have a right to study a culture. The author notes significantly that as an extension of Saidian Orientalism, ‘what the Orientalist has to say about the target culture or religion may tell us more about the Orientalist’s culture and religion than about the target culture.’ And this is interesting.

This book is a must read for every Indian for the scholarly assessment of British rule in India. Thankfully, the book generates no passions against anybody; only extreme sadness at the mistakes we have made in the immediate past and continue presently, without learning from the past. The cultural and historical distortions of our country have been significant and the sad aspect is we have internalized all of them. We lost sixty years after Independence in failing to create a grand narrative for ourselves, as rued by Rajiv Malhotra. Europe, UK, USA are very firm in their historical narratives so that a student who finishes school has a justified pride in his or her own country. Each country has its flaws but selective white-washing helped in creating a default mode of pride in one’s own heritage. The history of US is only 300 years. Unfortunately, our default mode is of shame and denial of our own heritage, culture, and history. The rulers had a purpose of demeaning India, but why our own historians? Why did they have to continue with the previous interpretations and failed so badly in creating an alternative narrative?

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