The Contradictions and Contemporary Relevance of Orientalism

British Raj

Every application of knowledge and especially such as is obtained in social communication with people, over whom we exercise dominion, founded on the right of conquest, is useful to the state … It attracts and conciliates distant affections, it lessens the weight of the chain by which the natives are held in subjection and it imprints on the hearts of our countrymen the sense of obligation and benevolence… Every instance which brings their real character will impress us with more generous sense of feeling for their natural rights, and teach us to estimate them by the measure of our own… But such instances can only be gained in their writings; and these will survive when British domination in India shall have long ceased to exist, and when the sources which once yielded of wealth and power are lost to remembrance (Warren Hastings, The first Governor-General of Bengal)

NPG 4445,Warren Hastings,by Sir Joshua ReynoldsWarren Hastings, the first Governor-General of Bengal, made the given remarks in the introduction of the first English translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Charles Wilkins in 1785.  Hastings clearly indicates that the function of developing an understanding of Indian writings was to aid in the governance of a British colony. So it should be evident that British works regarding India in the colonial era, aren’t rooted in the idea of objective knowledge acquisition but rather a form of biased knowledge acquisition designed to promote narratives that would help the British achieve their sole end objective: commercial gain. Such efforts of biased knowledge acquisition serve as foundations from which the British constructed an ideological, cultural, historical and social framework that facilitated the rise of the British Empire in East Asia. Hastings acknowledges that these objects of biased knowledge will play a powerful role in shaping the understanding of Indian culture by future generations. The implicit danger here is that the future generations whose perceptions such writings will mold, will not appreciate the biased filters through which these writings were processed and might even comfortably believe in the illusion of objective knowledge acquisition championed by the British Empire.

The main projects of Orientalist learning were to (i) patronize institutions and religious/literary specialists in India who broadly conformed to British perceptions and narratives, (ii) objectify and use Indian languages as instruments of rule and, (iii) discover and construct an ancient past for India that was aligned with British narratives.

Sir William JonesThe British administrators in India looked to patronize institutions and religious/literary specialists who broadly conformed to their own perceptions and narratives. In the Indian context, “orientalist knowledge” is a reference to the biased body of knowledge developed by the British for the purpose of colonial rule. This bias was primarily a consequence of the nexus between colonial administrators who lusted for material returns and colonial intellectuals who needed the sponsorship of the colonial administrators.  The colonial administrators thereby funded institutions and individuals who undertook projects that they believed would help them rule. This naturally led to a bias towards the narratives preferred or rewarded by the colonial sponsors. The Asiatic Society founded in 1784 by Sir William Jones is a good example of an institution that was set up by the British to systematically develop an understanding of India in this fashion. Note that the Indian “specialists” that the British sponsored to interpret Indian religions and texts weren’t representative of a majority of the Indian populace as they typically belonged to the economic or religious Indian elite.

The British suppressed the inherent dynamic nature of colloquial languages spoken by a bulk of Indians by formally codifying them. They undertook this process of codification for the purpose of teaching Indian languages to British and Indian administrators who would serve as components of the British bureaucratic machine designed to economically exploit the British Empire’s Indian colony. For the British, understanding and learning the Indian languages was a mechanism through which they could maximize commercial gains. This codification process thereby wasn’t designed to capture the subtleties of the eternally evolving culture, attitudes and trends reflected by the colloquial languages of a majority of Indians. The features of the Indian languages that probably captured such aspects of Indian society, but didn’t serve any function for the British were eliminated in this process of codification. The codified versions of these languages were used to teach Indians their own languages in British India’s schooling systems. The British thereby significantly altered the relation of Indians with their own native languages in the British quest for economic power.

The British adeptly “discovered” and constructed a version of Indian history that helped justify their presence and increasingly powerful role in the Indian subcontinent. The Nobel Prize winning economist, Amartya Sen, astutely notes that,

Even though early colonial administrators took a broad interest in India’s intellectual past, the narrowing of the imperial mind was quite rapid once the empire settled in. Coercion and domination demanded the kind of distancing that could sustain the ‘autocracy set up and sustained in the East by the foremost democracy in the Western world’ (as Ranajit Guha has insightfully described colonial India). (Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian)

EDWARD SAIDIn his ground breaking work “Orientalism”, Edward Said observes that Western writing about the Orient is rooted in the perception that the Orient is quintessentially inferior and backward. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the colonial historian, James Mill, blatantly states that, Indians had just taken a, “a few of the earliest steps in the progress to civilization”, in his influential work, The History of British India. A tacit affirmation that the British were really doing a favor to the backward and inferior Indian people.  He even declares that, “under the glossing exterior of the Hindu, lies a general disposition to deceit and perfidy.” Thomas Macaulay describes Mill’s work on Indian history as “the greatest historical work which has appeared in our language since that of Gibbon.” An ironic statement considering that Mill never visited India or understood any Indian language. Mill’s work and Macaulay’s statement exemplify the biases and priorities of Orientalist knowledge.

The colonial narrative was that there were broadly three periods of Indian history. A glorious period of Hindu rule, an intolerant period of Muslim rule and an ongoing benevolent period of British rule. The British chose to chastise the “Muslim Indian rule” as being corrupt and decadent in order to justify their presence as liberators who promise recovery to glorious times. This narrative also helped sow the seeds of the Hindu-Muslim sectarian rhetoric that aided the British in their rule. Their representation of the barbaric Muslim rule in India is thereby severely biased. Amartya Sen highlights that,

It would be silly to deny the barbarities of the invasive history as it would be to see this savagery as the main historical feature of the Muslim presence in India. Recounting the destructions caused by Mahmud of Ghazni and other invaders cannot make us forget the long history of religious tolerance in India, and the fact that the conquering Muslim rulers, despite a fiery and brutal entry, soon developed – with a few prominent exceptions- basically tolerant attitudes. (Amartya Sen, The Argumentative India).

AKBARIn his book, The Argumentative Indian, Sen goes on to highlight that many Indian Muslim rulers chose to celebrate diversity and tolerance. He discusses a specific instance of how Orientalist knowledge selectively highlights the intolerance of Aurangzeb and not the fact that Aurangzeb’s son rebelled against his father with the help of Hindu Rajput kings.  According to Sen, Akbar had a genuine interest in different religious philosophies (like Hinduism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism). Akbar’s courts were filled with members of multiple religions and he made progressive pronouncements on religious tolerance and acceptance. Akbar even promoted robust reasoned dialogues as he advocated that ‘the pursuit of reason’ rather than the ‘reliance on tradition’ as the ideal approach to addressing any social disagreements. Sen observes that,

…when Akbar was issuing his legal order that ‘no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him’ and was busy arranging dialogues between Hindus, Muslims Christians, Jains, Parsees, Jews and even atheists, Giordano Bruno was being burnt at the stake in Rome for heresy, in the public space of Campo dei Fiori.  (Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian)

It even turns out that the legitimate heir to the Mughal throne after Shah Jahan, Dara Shikoh, (who the infamous Aurangzeb kills in his quest for power) had “learned Sanksrit and studied Hindu philosophies extensively.” Dara even translates the Upanishads (which are Hindu scriptures) and attempts to draw favorable parallels with the messages of the Quran with the help of Hindu pundits! Since such realities didn’t align with the British narrative of the “British liberating India from the yoke of the evil and decadent Muslims”, the Orientalist simply chose to ignore or misrepresent them.

Orientalist representation of Indian history chooses to selectively misrepresent or ignore, Emperor Ashoka’s adoption of Buddhism and promotion of public discussion. It chooses not to highlight that in ancient times, Hinduism was a religion of immense complexity and flexibility which tolerated and sometimes integrated a multitude of religious beliefs and perspectives. The list of omissions and misrepresentations can go on and on. What should be evident by this point is that, in the Indian context, Orientalist knowledge reeks of biased propaganda.

A direct consequence of the propaganda of Orientalist history is that generations of Indians don’t appreciate the recurrent role of public reasoning and dialogues, rationalism, and pluralism in Indian history. So Orientalist knowledge managed to effectively erase these critical aspects of Indian history, that are worth celebrating and retaining, from the collective consciousness of Indian society. This lack of appreciation has translated to unfortunate social, economic and political realities in contemporary India.  Amartya Sen describes some of the persisting biased perceptions of Indian history that have its origins in Orientalist knowledge.

An adequately inclusive understanding of Indian heterodoxy is particularly important for appreciating the reach and range of heterodoxy in the country’s intellectual background and diverse history. This is especially critical because of the relative neglect of the rationalist parts of Indian heritage in the contemporary accounts of India’s past, in favor of concentrating on India’s impressive religiosity. That selective inattention has, in fact, produced a substantial bias in the interpretation of Indian thought, and through that in the understanding of the intellectual heritage of contemporary India. The exaggerated focus on religiosity has also contributed to an underestimation of the reach of public reasoning in India and the diversity of its coverage… The neglect has also led to the long tradition of rational assessment central for Indian science and mathematics, being underestimated. (Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian)

INEQUALITY INDIAThe exacerbating negative trends in contemporary India’s social, economic and political systems indicates that there is a constant threat of destructive change in India. The economic elite of India almost exclusively determine a majority of these social, economic and political trends. The heavily adulterated perception of Indian history and the remnants of the social, cultural, and ideological frameworks laid out by India’s colonial rulers have contributed to the adoption of a culture of passivity and the rejection of the enlightened self-interest by a majority of the economic elite. This compromises the very foundations of democratic principles as “democracy is intimately connected with public discussion and interactive reasoning.”(Sen). It is thereby evident that the egregious consequences of the large scale acceptance of various aspects of “Orientalist” knowledge and it’s implications have not only persisted well into 21st century India, but also threaten to significantly undermine India’s shot at achieving collective and sustainable prosperity, as the nation stands poised for change in the crossroads of history.

In contemporary India, there is a pressing need for a systemic celebration and revival of aspects of the historically rich Indian culture (the celebration of the spirit of measured deliberation and public reasoning) that have been suppressed by the deep rooted social and cultural frameworks manufactured by Orientalist knowledge. I strongly believe that casting away the dark shroud made of the remnants of Orientalist knowledge will help facilitate India’s awakening into a “heaven of freedom.” (Tagore).

( Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening thought and action; Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake”  (Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali) ).

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