The Politics of British Orientalism
The Politics of British Orientalism: Evangelism and the Aryan-Dravidian Dichotomy

That we Indians still hold on to idea of there have been an ‘Aryan invasion’ of our country is an indication of the supreme extent to which are minds are colonized. Removing this theory (garbed as fact) from our school textbooks can be a purposeful step towards decolonizing them.

Knowledge is Political

Any knowledge that does not strictly fall within the boundaries of the physical sciences can be, and often is, intensely political. By this I chiefly mean two things. Firstly, its character is determined by the ideological biases, interests and world-view of those who produce it. And secondly, that it might be consciously deployed to induce people to think in certain ways and promote particular agendas. Take, for instance, the discipline of economics. Its major strains – Marxist and liberal – are very obviously the outcomes of the ideological biases of groups of economists and are used to promote the socialist or the free-market agenda. Another very political discipline is history. Barring political-science itself, it is perhaps the most political of all the social sciences. Due to the broadly left-of-center political bias of the history departments of our major universities (Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of Delhi), all instances of temple destruction in medieval India are either glossed over or barely mentioned by our professional historians. Their agenda has been to shield the pre-colonial Muslim dynasties from all infamy and promote the empirically untenable narrative of a generally assimilative and ‘syncretic’ Indian Islam. Our professional historians do this since the left-of-center political parties of our country prefer this narrative; they endorse it to endear themselves to their Muslim constituencies. Sometimes, even a physical science such as biology can fall prey to ideologically biased manipulation and distortion, as it happened in Hitler’s Germany. In the Nazi determined school curriculum, biology was not just another subject. It was an instrument of inculcating the idea of German racial superiority in the children of the Third Reich.

In this article I seek to discuss the politics of the British protagonists of a now forgotten, but once very influential, province of knowledge called ‘Orientalism’. To be more particular, I will seek to uncover and analyze a crucial bias that the British ‘Orientalists’ were motivated by and the agendas that it eventually made them pursue. But before I do this, let us try to make some proper sense of ‘Orientalism’.

Understanding ‘Orientalism’

From the eighteenth century till the end of WWII, there existed, to borrow a phrase employed by the historian and Indologist Ronald Inden, a global “Anglo-French imperial formation”.[1] In other words, England and France were the preeminent colonial powers in this period. This happened as, along with Africa, they carved up large swathes of Asia as their colonial possessions, ‘mandates’ or ‘spheres of influence’. What remained of Asia was grabbed by a second rung power like Holland; tiny bits fell to the share of Portugal. Asia, or the ‘Orient’, thus, fell under the thrall of the Europeans. As the Europeans dispatched their armies and administrators eastwards, to control and govern their non-European subjects, they required to understand them as well. ‘Orientalism’ was the outcome of this political reality. The late Edward W. Said, a much quoted post-colonial theorist, called it “the system of European or Western knowledge about the Orient…synonymous with European dominance of the Orient.”[2] This knowledge mainly took the form of philological (relating to the study of languages) and textual explorations of India, China, the Arab lands and Persia (Iran). The scholars who undertook them studied, and speculated upon, the origins and historical evolution of classical oriental tongues such as Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian and Mandarin, or edited, translated and interpreted the religious and literary texts composed in these languages. Of course, it was not all a labor of love (except when undertaken by the Germans who did not have any Asian colonies). ‘Orientalist’ knowledge was mandatory to fully understand the histories, religions and customs of the Asian peoples. The imperialists sought this knowledge to control or manipulate them competently. In fact, so eagerly did the colonizers seek ‘Orientalist’ knowledge that Lord Curzon, that imperialist per excellence, termed it a “part of the necessary furniture of Empire.”[3]

The Evangelical Bias of British ‘Orientalism’

The rule of the East India Company (hereafter EIC) can be said to have formally commenced in the Indian Subcontinent in April 1772 when Warren Hastings assumed charge in Kolkata (then Calcutta) as the first Governor-General of its territorial possessions. Soon, the EIC officials were producing bits and pieces of ‘Orientalist’ knowledge. They were urgently required – to administer and dispense justice in the territories that the EIC now ruled. Thus, in the year 1776, Nathaniel Brassey Halhed (1751-1830), an employee of the EIC, produced A Code of Gentoo Laws, or, Ordinations of the Pundits (here ‘Gentoo’ is a transliteration of Hindu). It was a clumsy rendering into English of a legal treatise – Vivadarnavasetu – produced in Sanskrit by a group of Brahmans hired by the EIC. The Vivadarnavasetu compiled legal prescriptions derived from the authoritative Sanskrit textual sources; alongside, the Brahmans had also prepared and included in it a commentary upon these prescriptions.[4] The text was meant to be used by the judges of the EIC when deciding disputes between the ‘natives’. Halhed followed up the Code with A Grammar of the Bengali Language; it was placed before the Board of the EIC by Warren Hastings on 9 January 1778.[5] Presumably, the Grammar was to help the EIC officials pick up Bengali, so essential if they were to be competent administrators amid Bengali-speaking Indians. Meanwhile, Charles Wilkins, another EIC functionary who designed the Bengali type (metallic alphabets) required for the printing of the Grammar, was working on a translation of the Bhagwad Gita (eventually published in 1785).

British ‘Orientalism’, however, genuinely took off only after the indefatigable William Jones’s (1746-1794) arrival in Calcutta as a judge in the Supreme Court of Judicature – the topmost court in the EIC’s domains. Much before he had even thought of coming to India, Jones had been seriously engaging in ‘Orientalist’ researches – he had published a Grammar of the Persian Language in 1771.[6] It had earned him the epithet ‘Persian Jones’.[7] Understandably, when he found himself in the ‘Orient’, in India of all places, his appetite for ‘Orientalist’ knowledge was whetted beyond measure. Thus, within months of arriving in India, the ship bearing him reached Calcutta on 25 September 1783, Jones sought to create an ‘Asiatic Society’ to systematize and coordinate the ‘Orientalist’ researches of individual Englishmen. Jones’s efforts bore fruit and the Asiatic Society was formally founded by a gathering of the EIC folks on 15 January 1784 in the Grand Jury Room of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William.[8] Thereafter, Jones immersed himself in discovering India’s textual heritage with an incredible ardor. He employed Brahmans to teach him Sanskrit and published his translation of Kalidasa’s Abhigyanashakuntalam in 1789 (entitled Sacontala, or the Fatal Ring: An Indian Drama by Calidas) and that of the Manusmriti in 1794 (entitled Manava Dharma Shastra or the Institutes of Manu).

However, as he undertook these ‘Orientalist’ labors, a certain bias never left Jones. Throughout, he remained prejudiced in favor of his parent creed, Christianity. Jones definitely admired aspects of Hinduism. For example, its “concept of the hereafter”[9] being a cycle of rebirths till the soul attains liberation. But he held no doubt, as he implied in the preface to his translation of the Manusmriti, that his own country had been blessed with the “only true revelation”[10] – the one that the Bible contained. This is confirmed by the American historian Thomas R. Trautmann. According to him, “there was no question in Jones’s mind that Christianity was the only true religion.”[11] This certitude, in fact, was one reason why Jones was making such an intense study of the Sanskrit corpus. He was looking out for textual references that verified the Biblical narrative – so much better if the scriptures of the non-Christians could be used to bulwark Christianity. Trautmann, thus, points out that Jones was much enthused by the Puranic story of the great deluge. It could be seen as “independent confirmation of the flood of Noah” and “fortified Christian truth against the skeptics.”[12]

What Jones had been doing was by no means exceptional. Before him, another EIC employee by the name of John Zephaniah Holwell (1711-1798) had begun studying the scriptures of Hinduism with the intent of buttressing Christianity. As Trautmann puts it, “Holwell came to believe, and publicly declared, that the Hindu scriptures completed the Biblical narrative and supplied its hitherto hidden meaning.”[13] In fact, Nathaniel Brassey Halhed too, in later life, after leaving India, sought to find support for Christian doctrines in Hindu concepts by taking recourse to making their “symbolical and allegorical interpretations.”[14]

By the early decades of the nineteenth century, Indo-centric ‘Orientalist’ researches had caught on in Great Britain. Much of these researches had a full-blown evangelical intention, not just a subtle bias towards verifying the Christian truth with the aid of Indic scriptures. This was since certain individuals in the British ‘Orientalist’ establishment felt that India can be properly Christianized only when there is greater knowledge about her and her classical heritage. One of them was Horace Hayman Wilson (1786-1860) who had spent many years in Bengal as a surgeon in the employ in the EIC. Apparently, he ardently wished to ‘save’ the natives of India from their ‘heathenism’. He deplored the fact that not enough of the Christian clergy bothered to learn the Sanskrit language. The result of this was that, he wrote in 1830, they “had been unable to freely communicate with the Hindus” and “failed to exercise their influence over them.”[15] After all, to eradicate Hinduism from the minds of Hindus one had to understand it fully. For this, Wilson believed, it was essential that the British missionaries learnt Sanskrit. Another old EIC hand, Lt.-Colonel Joseph Boden, too had similar ideas. For a military man his thinking was quite canny. Lt.-Colonel Boden thought that “a more general knowledge and critical knowledge (sic.) of the Sanskrit language” will serve as a means of converting “the Natives of India to the Christian religion…”[16] Very generously, thus, he bequeathed all his property, worth £ 25,000, to the University of Oxford to found a Professorship of Sanskrit. Oxford did as he wished and created a position which came to be known as the Boden Professorship of Sanskrit. The first ‘Orientalist’ to be elected to it (candidates campaigned and ballots were cast to decide who will hold the position), in the year 1832, was none other than H.H. Wilson. The evangelical bias of British ‘Orientalism’ now had proper institutional support.

As to how seriously this support was taken came to light in 1860, the year Wilson died. The vacant Boden Professorship of Sanskrit was then hotly and acrimoniously contested by two candidates – both with a towering ‘Orientalist’ reputation. Their names were Friedrich Max Muller (1823-1900) and Monier Williams (1819-1899). Muller was then editing the Rig Veda and Williams’ efforts, in a decade’s time, were to produce a monumental Sanskrit-to-English dictionary. It was not easy to choose between the two. So Williams’ supporters persistently emphasized his greater commitment to the Christianization of India. Williams himself drew attention to the fact that, as opposed to Vedic Sanskrit (which Muller specialized in), his forte was classical Sanskrit which “lived and breathed in the current speech” of the people of India.[17]  Hence, his researches, which were on the religious texts composed in classical Sanskrit, were to be of greater utility to the missionaries. Presumably because, as the linguistic usages of these texts survived in the everyday speech of the Indians, the religious beliefs contained in them also did. The diligent Prof. Williams will help the missionaries understand and weed them out. Seemingly, a certain group in Oxford was quite convinced by his claims. In a handbill it distributed in Oxford, they urged Williams’ election to the Professorship since he was “a trustworthy depository of the Christian interests of a Christian foundation”[18] – namely, the University of Oxford. These efforts bore fruit and Williams was elected to the Boden Professorship.

The whole election episode left Max Muller very bitter. He passionately desired the Boden Professorship and thought himself to be completely worthy of it, and it was not because of his scholarship alone. One of the charges that the supporters of Williams had brought up against Muller was that he was not a native of England. But, though of German birth, he was by then effectively a naturalized Englishman. Muller had been residing in Oxford, England since 1846 (he continued to do so till his death in 1900), was married to an Englishwoman, and produced all his scholarship in English. In every sense, he was an insider to the British ‘Orientalist’ establishment. This begs a vital question. Did Muller identify with the evangelical drive of Indo-centric British ‘Orientalism’? This question attains further importance in the light of another charge made against Muller by his opponents – they said that he was irreligious.

On the basis of what we know about him, and what has survived of his private correspondence (quite a lot indeed), we can safely conclude that he wished the conversion of India to Christianity as strongly as Williams. He, for example, in a letter he wrote to his wife in 1864, gave the following reason for his obsession with the Rig Veda

“It is the root of their (Indians’) religion, and to show what that root is, is, I feel sure, the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last 3000 years (italics mine).”[19]

The ultimate objective of both Muller and Williams was, thus, identical. Both were driving at a fuller understanding of Hinduism to help the missionaries contest and destroy it. We also learn from Muller’s biographer, Nirad C. Chaudhary, that towards the end of his life he tried to persuade the adherents of the Brahmo Samaj to declare themselves Christian.[20] He sought to achieve this end by influencing his friend Pratap Chandra Majoomdar, the leader of a Brahmo faction, with whom he corresponded frequently.

Construction of the Aryan-Dravidian Dichotomy

Some years after H.H. Wilson took charge as the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford, a particularly zealous missionary arrived in India. The twenty-four year old Robert Caldwell (1814-1891) landed in Chennai (then Madras) in 1838 as a representative of the London Missionary Society. Had Wilson met Caldwell, he would have liked the young man. Caldwell freely communicated with the Hindus. Though he did not learn Sanskrit, he acquired mastery over another classical Indian language – namely, Tamil. This was since his evangelical efforts drove him into ‘Orientalist’ researches – he eagerly took to studying the language, religious beliefs and practices of the Tamils among whom he was proselytizing. Eventually, to subserve his proselytizing efforts, Caldwell imagined a racial dichotomy operative in Indian history and civilization. The impact of Caldwell’s racial theory has been major and extremely malevolent. In fact, the racial ideas which served as grist to the mill of the separatist Tamil politicians in the 1960s originated with Robert Caldwell.

Caldwell’s theater of operations was the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu where he sought converts in the Nadar caste (also called Shanar). He was, however, not very successful. Frustrated, he appears to the have ascribed his lack of success to the influence the Brahmans had upon the minds of the Nadars. Caldwell, thus, writes the American anthropologist Nichols B. Dirks, came to think that “only if Shanar religion, and by implication Tamil religion more generally, could be understood to have existed as a separate and autonomous system [in the past]…Brahmanic (sic.) belief might be undone.”[21] Presumably, Caldwell thought that once he succeeds in undoing the power of ‘Brahmanic belief’, he will also efface the influence the Brahmans had over the Shanars (and all other non-Brahman Tamils). They will be, thus, detached from the body of Hinduism and rush in droves to embrace the cross.

Caldwell, in order to attain his objective, immersed in philological speculations (contained in A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages which he published in 1856). Their outcome was his claim that Sanskrit was foreign to South India and so were Brahmans and their religiosity.  He contended that “Brahmans had brought Sanskrit with them when they moved from the north to the south, along with a strain of Hinduism that emphasized idol worship.”[22] The original Tamil religion had neither – Sanskrit or idols. Thus, writes Dirks pointedly, “in claiming the [civilizational and religious] independence of the Tamils, he seemed also to claim their souls for Christian conversion.”[23] As though this was not mischievous enough, Caldwell did more – he ascribed the Brahmans a distinct ‘racial’ identity and imagined that India had a history of ‘race wars’. Caldwell averred that Brahmans were of the ‘Aryan’ racial stock. They had moved southwards as “colonists and instructors” once the Dravidians were militarily defeated by the Aryans.[24]

By the end of the nineteenth-century, this malicious ‘race theory’ had become a “settled fact” – that Indian civilization had emerged in the wake of a military clash between “invading…Sanskrit speaking Aryan” and dark-skinned “aborigines”[25] which left the latter defeated and subjugated. The canonization of this idea had a lot to do with the fact that no other than Max Muller had to put his weight behind it. The reason why he did so had its own politics. To be fair to Muller, he had no racial theories in his mind when he began his researches. He opined that all speakers of Indo-European languages, irrespective of their complexion, make one human family. As Trautmann puts it, Muller thought that “the same blood ran in the veins of the soldiers of [Lord] Clive as in the veins of the dark Bengalese (sic.)…”[26]

But now a new field of ‘knowledge’ had emerged in Europe – that of ‘race science’ – wherein racial taxonomies were identified on the basis of the skin color of human groups. It was unacceptable to ‘race science’ that dark Indians and white Europeans could be one human family. So also was the idea that dark skinned peoples were capable of building civilizations on their own. Muller now had to explain as to how the dark or swarthy Indians had built a civilization so magnificent. The hypothesis that he came up with was that, at a point in the ancient past, India had been invaded by a fair-skinned ‘Aryan’ race. He very nearly teased the Rig Veda to find evidence that it refers to ‘non-Aryan enemies.’ But the result was still meager. It appears that Muller himself was aware how flimsy the foundations of his hypothesis are when he wrote that

“The only expression that might be interpreted in this way [as referring to ‘non-Aryan enemies’] is that of “susipra,” as applied to Aryan gods. It means “with a beautiful nose”…[as opposed to] vrsasipra in the Veda, which seems to mean goat or bull-nosed, and the “Anasas” enemies whom Indra killed with his weapon (Rv. V, 29,10), are probably meant for noseless…”[27]

It is important to know that “Muller himself later abandoned his interpretation of the word sipra, so that evidence as to noses was reduced to a single word (anasa) in a single passage [of the Rig Veda] (RV 5.29.10)…” That we Indians still hold on to idea of there have been an ‘Aryan invasion’ of our country is an indication of the supreme extent to which are minds are colonized. Removing this theory (garbed as fact) from our school textbooks can be a purposeful step towards decolonizing them. If not, this malevolent theory has to be presented to our school kids for what it is – an outcome of the politics of British ‘Orientalism’.


[1] He uses it in his book Imagining India, Hurst & Company, London, 1990 (First Edition)

[2] See Orientalism. Western Conceptions of the Orient, Penguin Books, 1995, p.197.

[3] Orientalism, p.214.

[4] See Rosane Rocher, Orientalism, Poetry and the Millennium: The Checkered Life of Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, Motilal Narasidas, Delhi, 1983, pp.48-51.

[5] Orientalism, Poetry and the Millennium, p.74.

[6] Garland Cannon, The Life and Mind of Oriental Jones. Sir William Jones, the Father of Modern Linguistics, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p.36.

[7] The Life and Mind of Oriental Jones, p.40.

[8] The Life and Mind of Oriental Jones, p.203.

[9] The Life and Mind of Oriental Jones, p.321.

[10] The Life and Mind of Oriental Jones, p.349.

[11] Aryans and British India, Yoda Press, New Delhi, 2004, p.60.

[12] Aryans and British India, p.58.

[13] Aryans and British India, 68.

[14] Orientalism, Poetry and the Millennium, p.138.

[15] See Nirad C. Chaudhary, Scholar Extraordinary. The Life of Professor the Rt. Hon. Friedrich Maxmuller, P.C., OUP, Delhi, 1974, p.131.

[16] Scholar Extraordinary, p.221.

[17] Scholar Extraordinary, p.224.

[18] Scholar Extraordinary, p.225.

[19] Scholar Extraordinary, p.90.

[20] Scholar Extraordinary, p.330.

[21] Castes of Mind. Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2016 (Ninth Edition), p.138.

[22] Castes of Mind, p.140.

[23] Castes of Mind, p.140.

[24] Castes of Mind, p.140.

[25] Aryans and British India, p.194.

[26] Aryans and British India, p.194.

[27] Aryans and British India, p.197.

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