Orientalism and Hinduism

Orientalism and Hinduism

by David Smith

“The horror, the horror.” These words transposed by Coppola from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) sum up in Apocalypse Now (1979) both the American war against Vietnam and Oriental religion. In Coppola’s film the US soldiers in Cambodia confronted by the ruins of Angkor exclaim at their strangeness, at the giant heads of the Bodhisattva-Śivas entwined with the roots of the allswallowing jungle. Amid the ruins, the boat rounds a bend in the river to discover a motley array of native soldiers, accompanied by a profusion of hanging corpses. The lost colonel Kurtz – like Conrad’s Kurtz – has gone mad and is killing wildly deep in the jungle. He, then, is horrifying to those who are searching for him. But Kurtz has a little shelf of books in his womb-like center of the temple complex, where a statue of the Buddha sits beside him, a shelf that bears the Golden Bough and Jessie Weston’s The Quest for the Holy Grail. The mad colonel, once an “outstanding officer,” is not only waging a private war, but is also a solitary student of Religious Studies. He has been overwhelmed by what he sees as the obscenity, the horror of America’s war machine, but is driven to rival it, his chamber containing what seems to be a large wall panel of Kālī. The venturing hero of the film slays this wicked colonel with the sacrificial axe from a buffalo sacrifice just about to take place. The film in its released version ends with the wicked American bombers raining destruction on the wickedness of the mad colonel. There is a bizarre diversion here of the American bombing from its perceived exterior foe to Kurtz, its inner self. Perhaps the most startling contrast between the film and Conrad’s novel is between the massive fire power of the Americans and the impotence of the French gunboat blindly shelling the jungle shoreline – but the Americans were no less impotent in the end. In Coppola’s film we have modernity gone mad, no less mad than the film’s version of eastern religion!

A year before Coppola’s film a book was published that has proved to be an extraordinarily successful counterblast to the imperialism and colonialism implicit in modernity – Edward  Said’s Orientalism. Once the study of “oriental” or near eastern and Asian languages and literatures, orientalism is now taken to mean the western domination and exploitation of the east, the west viewing the east as alien, as “the other.” All study of Hinduism in the west is taken to be an instance of Orientalism in the new sense. It was the literary critic Said, a Palestinian Christian, who brought about this revolution. His first book a study of Joseph Conrad, in Orientalism Said introduced and popularized the ideas of Foucault. Although partly inspired by Raymond Schwab’s La Renaissance Orientale (1950), which makes India the centerpiece of an expected cultural rebirth of Europe through the study of the Orient, Sanskrit performing the role of Greek in the first Renaissance, Said is principally concerned with the Arab world and its treatment by the west. European novels remain his primary area of expertise, and not for a moment does he take on-board Schwab’s thesis that the East has influenced the West. Said makes use of Foucault’s notion of discourse, of a manner of thinking that is adopted willy-nilly by a generation or more of writers, while at the same time having as his preferred procedure the literary analysis of individual works of literature. The two methods sit ill together: “Said denounces with Foucaultian vitriol what he loves with Auerbachian passion” (Ahmad 1992: 168). Nevertheless, following Foucault, Said suggests that the effect of Orientalist discourse is “to formulate the Orient, to give it shape, identity, definition with full recognition of its place in memory, its importance to imperial strategy, and its ‘natural’ role as an appendage to Europe” (Said 1978: 86).

A significant and malign maneuver on Said’s part is to extend the term Orientalist from students of Oriental languages to all those who deal with the Orient, whether or not they use texts in the original languages. His final option for the meaning of Orientalism of course turns it on its head; as taken up by the sociologist Bryan Turner, Orientalism means ignorance of the Orient: “From the seventeenth century onwards, orientalism had constituted a profound sense of otherness with respect to alien cultures”(Turner 1994: 183). This perverse sleight-of-hand magics away into thin air the editions, translations, and dictionaries of the true and original Orientalists who devoted their lives to understanding the meaning of instances of Oriental culture and civilization. In the words of Gyan Prakash, “The towering . . . images of men like William (‘Oriental’) Jones have cracked and come tumbling down” (Prakash 1995: 200). So well established is Said that Joan-Pau Rubies, a young scholar, recently wrote that “ ‘Orientalism’ has traditionally been defined as a western imperialist attitude in which the colonized subjects are perceived according to purely western ideological concerns” (Rubies 2002: 287). Said’s brilliant success has swept away all that preceded it, and his redefinition of Orientalism has become “traditional”! The choice of the term Orientalism is unfortunate on several counts. In the first place, why limit it to the west? As Rubies remarks, “If we define orientalism as a manipulative historical gaze based on a crude separation between us and other, and which denies the representation of this other any intrinsic voice, then there was very little in the Muslim discourse about Hindu India which was less orientalist than what contemporary Europeans perceived and wrote” (Rubies 2002: 286). Then again, within Hinduism, Brahmans might be said to have an Orientalist attitude to the lower castes. Original Orientalism was precisely the attempt to understand the Oriental Other. This attempt was not completely successful, but it was all the attempt at understanding there was. Orientalism can be faulted for undue concentration on classical texts, but this was only mirroring the crucial role of study of ancient Greek and Latin, the Ancients, in the intellectual life of the west.

First and foremost a literary critic, turning again and again in his Orientalism to the modern European novel as his favorite medium and source, Said sweepingly dismisses Orientalists in the strict sense in exactly the same way as he says that the west dismisses the east, as inferior others. Said has not altogether unfairly been dismissed as “a literary critic rummaging through history to find scraps of evidence to support his personal and political purposes” (Kopf 1991: 21) by Kopf, author of a pioneering historical study of British Orientalism in India (Kopf 1969).

Said’s work is continued with reference to India by the anthropologist turned historian-Sanskritist, Ronald Inden, in his Imagining India (1992), a book whose success has been scarcely less than that of Said’s. Indeed, its intellectual basis is perhaps stronger than that of Orientalism; Inden’s thesis is that Orientalists have deprived Indians of “agency” “by imagining an India kept eternally ancient by various Essences attributed to it, most notably that of caste.” Inden contends that Indologists present the texts they study as “distorted portrayals of reality,” as “manifestations of an ‘alien’ mentality” (1992: 1, 39).

Early in the book he gives as an example of some remarks on Vedic ritual by Louis Renou (1896–1966), the great French Sanskritist. These remarks are taken from Renou’s masterly survey of the main problems in the study of Indian religion, as he saw them in 1950. Renou says in the quoted passage that Vedic ritual is overburdened with system, that there was “an advancing scholasticism” (1992: 39). Two paragraphs later in Renou’s text, the following sentences are quoted by Inden: “Ritual has a strong attraction for the Indian mind, which tends to see everything in terms of the formulae and methods of procedure, even when such adjuncts no longer seem really necessary for its religious experience” (1992: 39). Inden believes that this is to transform “the thoughts and actions of ancient Indians into a distortion of reality.” Renou might have shown that the Vedic priests “were part of a coherent and rational whole” based on different presuppositions than his own; but Renou, like many Indologists, holds that there is a single external reality to which Western science has privileged access. Implicit in the text of Renou and other Indologists, is the “metaphor of the Other as a dreamer, as a . . . mad man.” Like Freud on dreams, Indologists attribute condensation and displacement to the Indian mind. For Renou, says Inden, “the priestly mind takes up rituals which are not meant to be enacted while the priestly hand performs rituals that have no religious rationale.” “Renou, we have seen [!], attributed the same dreaming irrationality to the Indian mind that Hegel did” (1992: 42).

Inden’s polemic leads him to distort Renou’s statements. When Renou speaks of the Indian mind, he means the Indian mind as expressed in Vedic texts, a continuous and highly specific tradition to which certain general characteristics might fairly be attributed. Renou goes on to say that there is a tendency in the ritual texts to build up complex structures from simpler elements, that they are sometimes intellectual exercises – “we must not regard them as consisting entirely of accounts of actual religious practice” (Renou 1968: 30). Renou’s account of Vedism to my mind is sympathetic and luminous. As Renou says, “Of religious feeling and community life in the Vedic period we can know virtually nothing” (Renou 1968: 44). But he gives us a description of a present-day performance of a Vedic sacrifice, ending with the following comment on ancient times: “In those distant days India had a feeling for liturgy comparable to that of the Roman Church” (Renou 1968: 35). We might also note Renou’s remark that “the prose-style of the Śatapatha [the largest of the sacrificial texts] is a model of skilful articulation, and in its severe purity reminds us of Plato” (Renou 1968: 45). In another essay on Vedic studies Renou notes that “Indian scholars have come relatively late to these studies. It may be that an excess of attachment (very respectable in itself) to the tradition has prevented them from considering the Veda with eyes sufficiently objective, with the same ‘indifference’ with which a naturalist studies a plant” (Renou 1950: 46).

Not only did Renou devote his life to the objective study of Sanskrit and the Veda, more than most Sanskritists he took the large view, giving an accurate account of the whole scope of classical Indian civilization in the two volumes of L’Inde Classique which he edited with Jean Filliozat, writing much of it himself. To say that Renou attributed “dreaming irrationality” to the Indian mind is false. As his pupil Malamoud wrote in the preface to a posthumous collection of Renou’s essays, L’Inde Fondamentale, Renou described an India that was rigorous and cheerful, animated by a powerful ardor for speculation, directed to the intrepid analysis of language rather than to rumination on the ineffable (Malamoud 1978: 1).

Renou had no conceivable imperial designs on India. Nor did Georg Bühler (1837–98), the Sanskritist’s Sanskritist of the second half of the nineteenth century, who worked for the Raj’s Bombay Presidency. This Austrian scholar had the reputation of having read everything extant in Sanskrit; and conceived and edited the Encyclopedia of Indo-Aryan Research, contributed to by Indologists from all over the world. Renou and Bühler are prime examples of the mastery sought by all scholars, the lordship of understanding that is as complete as possible. British Orientalists had the same ambitions, of understanding through firsthand knowledge. Mill and Hegel, on the other hand, claimed universal dominion for their ideas without any firsthand knowledge of India or Indian languages – this is the difference between scholars and philosophers.

On the other hand, it is certainly true that the understanding of many Sanskritists was limited to their particular texts, and that some had little or no sympathy for modern India. Thus for Garbe, who visited India in 1885/6, the worship of the common Hindu was a worthless  fetishism, and he confessed to the anger of a Hebrew prophet, wanting to whip the Hindus, especially the priests, from the stinking lairs that were their temples (Garbe 1925: 56). But it behooves us to remember how far away India was from the west before airplanes – both Garbe and Deussen give a careful account of the ships in which they voyage to India. Very little was known about how Hindus lived and thought. There is nothing to be gained by reduplicating Garbe’s moral indignation and heaping it back on him, for he lived on a different planet; and he had a very good understanding of Samkhyan and other texts.

Said’s reversal of the meaning of the word Orientalism has been so successful because there was a need for a word for western misunderstanding and mistreatment of the East, but his choice was unfortunate. No one has offered any evidence that Indological Orientalist learning, in the strict old sense of linguistic and textual study, served imperial ends. Those concerned with conquest and exploitation, with practical affairs, had no time and little sympathy for such studies.2Warren Hastings was the exception here, but he had a great love of all things Indian. It was he who set Orientalism – in its old and original meaning – in train in India. He found Hinduism scarcely less attractive than Christianity.3 He spoke of himself as well as others when he told the man he was sending to explore Tibet, “there were ‘thousands of men in England’ who would listen to the story of an expedition ‘in search of knowledge’, with ‘ten times’ the interest they would take in ‘victories that slaughtered thousands of the national enemies’ ” (Feiling 1996: 105). Nor does colonial discourse theory make allowance for the kind of love of learning that led Anquetil-Duperron to enlist as a soldier so that he could get to India and study Old Persian and Sanskrit (Anquetil-Duperron [1771] 1997: 75–7). Indeed, Said speaks of “the madness of Anquetil-Duperron’s life” (Said 1984: 252).

Not only does Inden without a shred of justification accuse Renou of attributing “the same dreaming irrationality to the Indian mind that Hegel did,” he makes the astonishing claim that the writings of James Mill (The History of British India) and Hegel were hegemonic texts for Indology (Inden 1992: 4). As Trautman says, “neither Mill nor Hegel learned an Indian language or set foot in India” and “they used their secondhand knowledge to fashion arguments against the authority of the Orientalists and the enthusiasm for India with which it was associated” (Trautman 1997: 23). Numerous writers today claim that Mill was studied at Haileybury, the East India Company’s college in England, but a rare published account of life there makes no mention of the History of British India. John Beames, an Indian civil servant whose love of learning led him to write a Comparative Grammar of Indo-Aryan languages, describes his time at Haileybury learning languages, but nothing whatever about life in India, not even what Mill has to say.

It was considered “bad form” to talk about India or to allude to the fact that we were all going there soon. Even the study of Oriental languages, which was the chief feature of the place, and in fact the reason for its existence, was carried on as though we had no personal interest in the countries in which those languages were spoken, and no attempt was made to practise talking them or to acquire any practical familiarity with them. If at any time one wanted to know what sort of place India was, or what one’s future life or work there was to be like, it was impossible to find anyone who could give the requisite information. (Beames 1996: 64) The indifference to India on the part of Beames and his fellow students seems to be innocent of any knowledge of the History of James Mill.

Oriental Despotism

Coppola transposes the Horror from the African jungle with its cannibals and fences topped with skulls to the jungle of Cambodia, where the giant heads of the divine kings of Angkor loom out of the vegetation. Angkor, “The City,” from the Sanskrit nagara (“city”), was on the eastern edge of the huge spread of Sanskritic culture. Sanskrit was “the paramount linguistic medium by which ruling elites expressed their power from Purusapura (Peshawar) in Gandhara in the northwest of the subcontinent to as far east as Panduranga in Annam (south Vietnam) and Prambanam in central Java” (Pollock 1996: 198). In describing the formation of what he calls the Sanskrit Cosmopolis, Pollock refers to the “efforts of small groups of traders, adventurers, religious professionals. There is no evidence that large-scale state initiatives were ever at issue, or that anything remotely resembling ‘colonization’ took place” (Pollock 1996: 241).

Yet, however Sanskritic religious culture spread to southeast Asia, the huge temple-palaces in Cambodia are patent manifestation of royalty’s will to power. An important early instance of Said’s version of Orientalism is the European notion of Oriental Despotism, a category that allows the west to dismiss eastern political concerns as inherently inferior. The notion goes back to Aristotle: “Asians are more servile by nature . . . hence they endure despotic rule without protest” (Aristotle, Politics III, ix, 3 cited in Anderson 1974: 463). Francois Bernier (1620–88), philosophe and traveler, is here a key figure, for his account of the despotism of the Mughals was taken up by Montesquieu and Marx, to name only two. In fact, as Murr suggests, Bernier’s account of India under Aurangzib and his predecessors reflects his fear that the absolutism of Louis XIV might degenerate into tyranny. He studiously resists using the term despot, and presents Aurangzib as by no means a barbarian, but as a great king worthy of comparison with European kings (Murr 1991). The Mughal emperors differed from European kings in that the most powerful son rather than the first-born became the successor; and in parallel with this lack of regularly rewarded primogeniture there was no landed aristocracy as independent counterweight to the sovereign, since nobles were salaried and liable to dismissal if their performance was not satisfactory. Oriental Despotism becomes a key concept in pro-imperialist interpretations of ancient Indian politics and society. Anquetil- Duperron was the first European to argue against the notion that there was no ownership of land in India, though his motive was primarily antipathy to the British. It is interesting to note a lack of such anti-British animus in the most important Enlightenment work on colonialism, Raynal’s Philosophical and Political History of the Two Indies (first published 1760), no less a contributory factor to the French Revolution than Rousseau, now scarcely known. For Raynal England is one among four powers in contemporary south India, no more out of place than the Marathas, Tipu Sultan, and the Nizam of Hyderbad (Raynal 1820, vol 3: 187). All four powers were conquering outside their own territories. But the notion of Oriental Despotism is an instance where Said’s critique is fully justified. So too the notion of the unchanging Indian village, dealt with by Inden. But in these, and many other cases, the mistaken interpretation arises from ignorance, from lack of sources of information.

Orientalism and Empire

Today the British Empire is widely seen as a blot on the history of the world. Assessment of British rule in India is difficult. Postcolonialism has produced a vast amount of literary criticism predicated on the cruelty and injustice of the Raj; Vinay Lal declares that getting to grips with the products of this industry leaves no time for old-fashioned history – even “the quest for objectivity” in assessing the British Empire is “morally dubious.” A balanced judgment relevant in the present context is that of Nirad C. Chaudhuri, even if Lal dismisses him as “an indefatigable Anglophile” (Lal 1997: 100). Describing the 1920s, Chaudhuri’s empathy with Englishness – though he disliked the few Englishmen he met while under the Raj – does come out in his not unfavorable summary of early British imperialism as “a mixture of humanitarianism, Evangelism, Utilitarianism, and Liberalism.” But Chaudhuri continues:

That old imperialism had been replaced by the end of the nineteenth century by a wholly shoddy theory, which was nothing better than boastful verbiage. By 1920, even that had been discredited, and the Empire in India survived only as a practical reality supported by vested interests. (Chaudhuri 1988: 775)

Tapan Raychaudhuri in his important assessment of British rule in India remarks that “In post-independence India, serious thinkers and historians who see anything good in the imperial record can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand” (Raychaudhuri 1996: 358); nor is he one of their number.

There can be no doubt that the British, with a few exceptions, had no sympathy for Indian culture or religion, least of all sympathy for Hindus and Hinduism. But that is all the more reason to give due allowance to the exceptions. Kejariwal shows commendable boldness in blaming Indian nationalism for not giving credit to the early British Orientalists: “Indian historians were more than eager to accept the glory of India’s past as revealed by British historians, but the historians themselves were rejected as biased and motivated” (Kejariwal 1988: 233).

The British Empire should not be considered in isolation from other empires. Not only is the British Raj to be set beside the Turkish, Persian, Roman, and other Empires, we must also note Chaudhuri’s assertion of Hindu imperialism:

I had better confess that all Hindus are traditionally imperialists, and they condemned imperialism only in so far as British imperialism made them subjects to an empire instead of its masters. This is due to the fact that the strongest political passion of the ancient Hindus was directed towards conquest and domination. All Sanskrit literature and all the historical inscriptions are full of glorification of both. This aspiration to conquer and dominate was suppressed during Muslim and British rule, but today, even if not given practical expression, it conditions the attitude of the present Hindu ruling class towards the neighbours of India. (Chaudhuri 1988: 774)

Har Bilas Sarda’s Hindu Superiority (1906) invents an account of Hindu colonization of the world (Jaffrelot 1997: 331). R. C. Majumdar’s history of India, widely used in schools and colleges in India, sees the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism in southeast Asia as the result of colonization by the Indian master race. Pollock claims that the source of such thinking is European (Pollock 1996: 233). True, but the goal of the traditional Hindu king was universal empire. Pollock concedes that domination did not enter India with European colonialism and that “gross asymmetries of power . . . appear to have characterized India in particular times and places over the last three millennia and have formed the background against which ideological power, intellectual and spiritual resistance, and many forms of physical and psychological violence crystallized” (Pollock 1993: 115) “Sanskrit was the principal discursive instrument of domination in premodern India and . . . it has been continuously reappropriated in modern India by many of the most reactionary and communalist sectors of the population” (Pollock 1993: 116). Inden’s Imagining India seeks to refute the “Orientalist” account (in Said’s sense) of India which Inden says deprives Hindus of agency by defining Hinduism in terms of essence, caste, and spirituality. Yet his refutation of the supposed colonialism and imperialism of his predecessors in the field of Indology proceeds by setting against them the medieval imperialism of Hinduism – universal empire was always the theoretical goal of Hindu kings.

Orientalism and Racial Theories

Various views on the origin and types of mankind were current in seventeenthcentury Europe, including the theory of Pre-adamite man, but “racial theory has as its official birthdate 24 April 1664” (Toth 1988: 23), when Bernier published in the Journal des Scavans a new division of the earth according to the different races that occupy it. He did not sign his paper because of intense theological opposition to the theory of Pre-adamite man published by his friend La Peyrère nine years earlier. Bernier’s conception was biological and based on heredity. Bernier distinguishes four or five “species”; we need only note that he considered Europeans and a good part of Asia (including the States of the Great Mogol, the Kingdom of Golconda, and that of Bijapur) to be of the same race. He made no other mention of India. Amongst the peoples with whom he is well acquainted, Bernier makes no hierarchical distinction.

The worst and most dangerous aspect of the British empire was its racism. As Veer notes, “Racial difference between the British and the colonized and among the colonized themselves became the explanation and legitimation of colonial rule” (Veer 2001: 49). The British thought that they proved their superiority to Indians by conquering and holding India with a remarkably small number of men. They achieved this by convincing themselves of their invincibility and persuading many Indians that they were inferior to the British in respect of ability to rule and wage war; though bribery was often more useful than bravery. The matchless self-confidence of the British produced the inverse effect on those who beheld it. The British rulers kidded themselves and kidded the Indians, but it might well be argued that the confidence trick took its inspiration from India, from the caste system. It was Brahmans who did the trick first, claiming to be the mouth of God, Gods among men, the twice born. The British civil servants took over for themselves the very term “twice born.” Brahmans did not eat with non-Brahmans; the British rulers would not eat, drink, or mix with Indians. The Brahmans were essentially different from the other castes, for all castes were essentially different from each other. Well and good, the British rulers would be essentially different from the Indians, just as they were from their own lower classes back in England.

The British caste maintained its mindset all the better by having nothing to do with Hinduism. Their rejigging of the Hindu legal system and their censuses sharpened up notions of caste, but they hid from themselves the caste nature of the imagined essential inner power that enabled them to rule successfully, and they hid this from themselves by having as little as possible to do with Hinduism. In some sense it was their ignorance of Hinduism that enabled the British to rule for so long. When Nietzsche’s friend, Paul Deussen, the German Vedanta scholar, traveling by train in India in 1893 rejoiced in friendly relations with Hindus, the cold and unfriendly Englishman in the same compartment remarked, “We have to rule these people” (Deussen [1904] 1995).

Many of the statistics of British imperial presence in India are striking, as for instance that “In one district of Lower Bengal, 20 Britons lived among 2.5 million natives. As late as 1939, about 28 million Punjabis – people not renowned for their docility – were governed by 60 British civil servants.” However, the size of the army – “65,000 white soldiers in an area populated by 300 million people that now includes not only India but Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burma” (Gilmour 1997: 35) – was not puny, given modern weapons and transport. For the civil and military officer cadres English public schools produced “a courage caste with its ambitions turned from gain or learning towards an ideal of rule” (Geddes 1962: 95). The British civil servant, incredible as it seems now, believed that he was infallible and invulnerable in dealing with Indians. The army was there in the background, but many Indians had never seen British soldiers. As Walter Lawrence put it in the 1920s, British power in India was based on “mutual make-believe”: “They, the millions, made us believe we had a divine mission. We made them believe that they were right” (Lawrence 1928: 42–3). It rested on mutual collusion, on illusion.

But this dominance came to be explained by race. Risley (1851–1911), Commissioner for the 1901 Census of India, tried to show that caste had its origins in the interactions of the Aryan and Dravidian races: the caste system had its basis in community of race rather than community of function. He takes as starting point in his People of India (1915) a carved panel from the Buddhist stupa at Sanchi (100 bc to 100ad) which shows a monkey offering honey to the Buddha.4 Tutelary spirits, yakṣas, look on. The Buddha was not shown in person in this early phase of Buddhist art – his presence is signified by the empty dais beneath a sala tree. Risley bizarrely misreads this compassionate representation of spiritual community as an “expression of the race sentiment of the Aryans towards the Dravidians,” showing us “the higher race on friendly terms with the lower, but keenly conscious of the essential difference of type and taking no active part in the ceremony at which they appear as sympathetic but patronizing spectators” (Risley 1915: 5). Through ignorance of the basic conventions of Buddhist art, Risley sees only a primitive ritual devoid of point carried out by a subhuman no better than a monkey. He sees the demi-god yakṣas as Aryans, and the monkey as a Dravidian!

In trying to understand caste as race, imperial officials were not setting India aside as a separate ethnographic park, as the Other that is the unavoidable trope of colonial discourse analysis. Such racial analysis was to be applied everywhere. As Susan Bayly has pointed out, their work for them was pathbreaking science (S. Bayly 1997: 167). It was neither oldstyle Orientalism nor new Orientalism. It was for them an application and instance of universal reason, even though today it seems false and absurd.

Cannadine argues that the British Empire was not really concerned with the creation of “otherness”: society on the imperial periphery was the same or even superior to society in the imperial metropolis; “for the British, their overseas realms were at least as much about sameness as they were about difference” (Cannadine 2001: 4). British colonialism exacerbated caste, made it a system, but British interest in caste was by no means merely knowledge as power over its object, for it arose from a sense of similarity, of fellow feeling. For many Britons, says Cannadine, “the social arrangements in South Asia seemed easily recognizable and comfortingly familiar” (2001: 16). The rigid hierarchy of the British in British India has often been remarked on. “British India was as much infected by caste as Indian India” (Mason 1978: 80).

Cannadine’s revisionism, salutary as it is, must not prevent us from examining the role of racial theory in understanding western and eastern confrontation. The supposition of racial characteristics and stereotypes, beyond the natural tendency of all peoples to believe themselves and their ways the best, has one supremely bad quality. This is ranking, forming a hierarchy, asserting superiority and inferiority. Without going into the question of what is race and what is caste, the clearest model of such ranking of peoples is the caste system, where birth determines value and status. It is striking how the notion of caste comes to permeate English discourse in the nineteenth century, to the point that Marx, for example, worries about his daughters losing caste through not being able to return hospitality (letter to Engels 1867 in Wheen 2000: 298). Doubtless the notion of caste resonated with aspects of the class system in Britain, but the implacable and powerful presence of caste in India, it may be argued, had a profound effect on the British. This effect was much greater once Muslim power was crushed, and the British had ever more consequential dealings with Hindus, whose quite different patterns of hospitality became increasingly significant. It is surely likely  hat British exclusivity mirrored the pre-existing caste exclusivity of the Brahmans. Cannadine finds similarity between British and Indian society, but the radical change from Georgian to Victorian society marches in parallel with the British discovery of caste. The separation of human levels in the Victorian country house, for instance, where “it was considered undesirable for children, servants and parents to see, smell or hear each other except at certain recognized times and places” (Girouard 1979: 28) parallels the newly discovered social distinctions of the caste system in India.

A term used tirelessly from the appearance of Orientalism is “the Other.” Its origins go back to Hegel, and Jacques Lacan made much of it. In the context of the Orient, it has been grossly overworked. MacKenzie makes the important point that in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Britain’s principal “other” was France; and in the century and a half that followed, France, Russia, Germany and the Soviet Union (MacKenzie 1994: 16). Risley’s misinterpretation of the monkey in the Sanchi sculpture referred to above is perhaps less obnoxious when we remember the story that during the Napoleonic wars Hartlepool fishermen hanged a shipwrecked monkey because they took it for a Frenchman. The rudimentary logic of self and other has today led to an exaggerated idea of the importance of the East for nineteenth-century Europe. Bayly points out that “Indological debates were almost always occidental debates as well; Orientalism was as much a representation of the Contested Self as it was of the Other.” Many of the offensive characterizations of Hindus made by Englishmen “are indistinguishable from what contemporaries were saying about those addicted to the Demon Drink, the working class, the Irish, Roman Catholics in general, or indeed about women” (C. A. Bayly 1990: 1313).

Orientalism and the Female

It is fascinating to note how the contemporary decline of philology, of the study of foreign literatures in their original languages, has been accompanied by the use of philological terms such as grammar, syntax, and poetics in sociological discourse. Vinay Lal declares that “the trope of effeminacy, the first element of an Orientalist grammar of India, had a particular place in colonial discourse.” Lal refers to Robert Orme’s essay on “The Effeminacy of the Inhabitants of Hindustan” (1782), summed up in the confident assertion that “very few of the inhabitants” of India were “endowed with the nervous strength, or athletic size, of the robustest nations of Europe” (Lal 1996).

Most frequently cited on this subject are Macaulay’s words:

The physical organisation of the Bengalee is feeble even to effeminacy. He lives in a constant vapour bath. His pursuits are sedentary, his limbs delicate, his movements languid. During many ages he has been trampled upon by men of bolder and more hardy breeds. Courage, independence, veracity, are qualities to which his constitution and his situation are equally unfavourable. (Macaulay [1841] 1895: 611)

Few bother with the context, his characterization of Warren Hastings’ implacable foe, the Maharajah Nand Kumar, whose composure and serenity in death Macaulay honors. Nand Kumar “prepared himself to die with that quiet fortitude with which the Bengalee, so effeminately timid in personal conflict, often encounters calamities for which there is no remedy.” Of the Bengali in general Macaulay adds,

Nor does he lack a certain kind of courage which is often wanting to his masters. To inevitable evils he is sometimes found to oppose a passive fortitude, such as the Stoics attributed to their ideal sage.

This is not slight praise from a devoted classicist. But otherwise Macaulay was merely expressing with his incomparable trenchancy the general view of European travelers. For instance, Bernier’s compatriot, the jewel merchant Tavernier, noting that for one Muslim there are five or six Hindus, finds it astonishing “to see how this enormous multitude of men has allowed itself to be subjected by so small a number, and has readily submitted to the yoke of the Musalman Princes,” but “the Idolators were effeminate people unable to make much resistance.” Tavernier finds further explanation for their defeat in their superstition which “has introduced so strange a diversity of opinions and customs that they never agree with one another.” He also notes that the second caste is that of warriors and soliders: “These are the only idolators who are brave, and distinguish themselves in the profession of arms” (Tavernier [1676] 1925, vol. 2: 141, 137).

Insofar as there was caste specialization, it is perhaps only reasonable that there should be specialization in bravery. McClintock claims that “imperialism cannot be understood without a theory of gender power . . . gender dynamics were, from the outset, fundamental to the securing and maintenance of the imperial enterprise” (McClintock 1995: 6–7). This is to say that imperialism necessitates feminizing the subjugated, that being colonized makes men effe-minate. Kanhayalal Gauba’s 1930 study of native princes refers to Bismarck’s distinction of male and female European nations. For Bismarck, the Germans and various other peoples including the English and the Turks were essentially male; all Slavonic and Celtic peoples were “female races”. Female races were charming but inefficient. Bismarck’s view is relevant here in that it shows that the sweeping attribution of femininity to males is not necessarily tied in with prejudices of conquest and colonization. Gauba, not resenting the Raj, credited British India with the “virility of youth,” and saw in the India ruled by princes “all the attractiveness of fine clothes, fine living, love and the extravagance associated with the elegant and sensuous female” (Gauba 1930: 13). If one accepted Gauba’s analysis, one could well argue that the India of the Princes as he describes it represents a higher level of civilization. Of course, all such talk is really about style and presentation rather than substance.

The British after the Mutiny/War of Independence revised their view of what they saw as the regional differentions between Indians, and General Roberts promulgated a doctrine of martial races. In this doctrine the general problem of the possible unmanning of conquered peoples took on for many Indians, especially Bengalis, a particularly insulting tone. The hypermasculine colonialist claimed to find Indians relatively effeminate. There are many complex issues here, including a degree of homoeroticism in the English public school and in the relationship between British officers and Indian troops, but my concern is to show that this attribution of effeminacy to Hinduism was absent from the work of Orientalists. By and large the British had remarkably little understanding of Hindus and Hinduism. What is at issue is the attitude of those Britons and Europeans who were deeply interested in India and Hinduism, Orientalists in the pre-Saidian sense.

In his chapter on Hinduism in Imagining India, Inden tries to show that the west’s understanding of Hinduism opposed its own claimed masculine reason to the imputed feminine imagination of India. Inden begins by quoting Spear’s likening of Hinduism to a sponge because it absorbs all that enters it. Implicit here, says Inden, is the idea that Hinduism is “a female presence who is able, through her very amorphousness and absorptive powers, to baffle and perhaps even threaten Western rationality.” He then quotes Sir Charles Eliot – “Hinduism has often and justly been compared to a jungle” (Inden 1992: 86). Inden quotes several other sentences from Eliot expanding on this, ending, “The average Hindu who cannot live permanently in the altitudes of pantheistic thought, regards his gods as great natural forces akin to mighty rivers which he also worships, irresistible and often beneficent but also capricious and destructive.” Inden immediately comments, “There is thus little doubt here that this jungle with its soul, is, like Spear’s sponge, also a female, one that can be managed by its male masters and known so long as they don’t become entwined in its embraces” (1992: 87). Neither Spear nor Eliot said a word about femininity, nor about managing the forest, though Eliot spoke of Brahmans as “not gardeners but forest officers”. Inden unfairly finds a colonial implication in the Brahmans being seen as this way, but Eliot’s point is that Hinduism cannot be controlled like a garden.

Far from the jungle of Hinduism being seen as feminine, Eliot in the passage cited by Inden explicitly says that “men and women of all classes . . . and all stages of civilization have contributed to it.”

A page later Inden again says that for Western writers, “If Hinduism has a positive essence, it consists of its feminine imaginativeness, its ability to absorb and include, to move from one extreme to the other, and to tolerate inconsistencies” (1992: 88). Again, the femininity is entirely his own addition. It is also interesting that in the final part of his book, an account of what he calls “the imperial formation” in medieval India, Inden happily refers to the traditional idiom wherein the conquered peoples of the universal emperor, the king of kings, are referred to as his wives (1992: 234).

In Inden’s next section on Hinduism, “Psychic Origins,” we get a long discussion of Mill’s History of British India (1858), followed by Hegel’s India as the sleeper dreaming before he awakes. “What were more or less disconnected examples of Hindu irrationality and superstition for Mill, the empiricist, were, for the German idealists, including Hegel, instances of the core metaphysics of that religion, of its double displacement of the ideal and material, the subjective and objective and of the predominance in it of creative imagination or fantasy over true thought or reason. That becomes the positive inner essence of the female India that a masculine Europe with its inner essence of reason was coming to dominate.” . . . “We would not have those later British depictions of India as a feminine sponge or jungle animated by a feminine imagination had the Romantics and Hegel not done their work” (1992: 96).

“When we turn to the historical narratives of this religion, we behold a degenerative psychohistory masterminded by Hegel,” says Inden. “Instead of witnessing the triumph of man, reason, and spirit, however, we see the triumph of the effeminate, the sensuous and the parochial . . .” (1992: 129). But no one says this; certainly no one whom Inden cites. Hinduism is indeed a sponge, is a forest, precisely because like Topsy it just growed. There was no overall authority, no Inquisition, no Synod to rule and regulate what men thought; practice was regulated, behavior was governed by caste councils. Social life was, relatively speaking, orderly and stable; intellectual life was a free for all. Inden refers, without any further reference, to the “schizophrenic religion of Shiva and Vishnu” (1992: 129), implying that that attribution of schizophrenia was the view of some or all Indologists. It need hardly be added that a résumé of the history of religion in Europe, careful to note all schisms and sects, would be no less confused and probably more schizophrenic than that of India.

Inden proceeds to expose the Orientalist as claiming a “shift of essences, from a masculine Aryan mentality that had been tropicalized, to a feminine Dravidian or aboriginal mind that had been Aryanized, . . . The change from depicting an Indian mind that was the same in its racial origin as that of the Self to one that was fundamentally different was significant. . . . the imperial jungle officers that took charge after the Mutiny . . . came to imagine themselves as presiding over an India comprised of Dravidian plants that could only be managed” (1992: 120).

Then come the tribals. Inden says it is on to the tribals that the Jungians – Inden’s term for scholars interested in Indian mythology and art in themselves, rather than as instrumental in social scientific understanding – “offload the savagery, animal sacrifice, and general fetishism and animism formerly attributed to the Dravidian.”

Campbellconjures up this essence: “For the calmly ruthless power of the jungle . . . has supplied the drone base of whatever song has ever been sung in India of man, his destiny and escape from destiny” (122).

Inden performs his customary trick of equating jungle with woman:

This defining essence consists of nothing more than the female side of the mind, that which threatens to overcome man’s consciousness and reason. There has to be sure, been a beneficent side to this femininity: [Inden quotes Campbell again:] “New civilizations, races, philosophies, and great mythologies have poured into Indiaand have been not only assimilated but greatly developed, enriched, and [made?] sophisticated.”

[Inden:] But the goddess, Kali, condensation of this jungle essence, is always there: [Campbell:] “Yet, in the end (and in fact, even secretly throughout), the enduring power in that land has always been the same old dark goddess of the long red dark tongue who turns everything into her own everlasting, awesome, yet finally somewhat tedious, self.” (1992: 123).

Inden comments, “Thus have the Jungians pushed the romantic idea of Hinduism as an ambivalent feminine entity to its extreme.”

The reader gets from Inden no indication that India contains a great variety of cultures, that there is a real difference in many ways between North India and the Dravidian language speakers of the South, and that the great forests of Central India still contain millions of tribal peoples, who only in the last hundred years or so have given up widescale human sacrifice. These are not figments of the Orientalist imagination but facts. As Felix Padel remarks in his sensitive study of the Konds of Orissa, “tribal India is as different from mainstream India, as that is from Britain, or more so” (1995: 11). The jungle dwelling primitive has been an important factor in Hinduism; Śiva and Pārvatī often dress as tribals. Hinduism, Hindu authors, delight throughout history in running the gamut from the grandeur of metropolitan monarchs to warriors to forest dwelling ascetics to forest dwelling tribals. All part of life’s natural hierarchy, just like the caste system.

Inden accuses Campbell of conjuring up an essence, but Inden himself is performing a conjuring trick, conjuring up an ascription of femininity where it does not exist – the Orientalist is the Other over which he seeks hegemony. But the Goddess does play a vital, indeed an essential role, in Hinduism. In his zeal to put words into the mouths of Orientalists, Inden overlooks the realities of Indian texts. The flesh-eating goddess deep in the jungle was a standard theme of Sanskrit and Tamil heroic texts. Inden several times refers to the Emperor Harṣa. Bāṇa, the great prose poet of Harṣa’s reign, in his unfinished prose poem  Kādambarī, gives a well known portrayal of a Durgā shrine in the depths of the Vindhya forest, manned by a Dravidian priest. The poem begins with a tribal princess bringing a parrot as present from her father to the King. Her feet marked with leaf patterns in lac resemble Durgā’s feet reddened by the buffalo’s blood. The leader of the tribal hunters who captured the parrot had his shoulders scarred with making blood offerings to Durgā, his body like Durgā’s marked with blood of buffaloes, all this foreshadows the final remaining part of the original, when the prince, having met and fallen in love with the beautiful Kādambarī, is ordered home by his father, and deep in the jungle comes across a shrine of Durgā, described by Bān.a in great detail; no less detailed is the account of the Dravidian priest who attends this goddess. Quarrelsome, irritable, ill-educated, he is a figure of fun. He is an exponent of all the New Age fads of the day. One eye was destroyed by a fake ointment to make him all-seeing; to the other eye he applied collyrium three times a day; his singing sounded like the buzzing of flies. On and on goes the scornful account of impossible goals – alchemy, levitation, invisibility, and more. The prince laughs aloud when he sees this strange figure, but is then polite to him, restrains his followers from tormenting him, and gives him money when he leaves. The elegant prince, tormented by love in separation, here views an almost complete panorama of southern Hinduism exemplified in the priest, with a distant reserve reminiscent of a colonial administrator.

In fact Bān.a was playfully referring to what was certainly later a well establishedtheme in Indian literature, namely that of kings visiting a goddess of destruction in the jungle prior to going to battle (as in the Gauḍavaho and the Kaliṇkattupparaṇi). Goddesses were indeed to be found in jungles, not just in the Orientalist imagination. Bayly remarks on Inden’s swingeing critique, “Few authorities escape his blade. If at times he appears in the guise of the many armed goddess Kali strutting through the scholarly carnage sporting a necklace of academic skulls, his goal is still Regeneration” (C. Bayly 1990: 1313). This jeud’esprit by the most authoritative of British historians of India credits Inden with a power he does not in fact achieve; as well as likening him to a Goddess he chooses to ignore. Furthermore the analogy of Inden to Kālī shows a power of imagination that Inden would not approve of, for imagination is the second object of Inden’s witch hunt. Imagination unquestionably played a major part in Hinduism, just as it does in every culture.

Britain exploited India and exerted power over India in many ways, but Orientalist Indologists, inevitably contaminated to some extent by the prejudicesof their age – how could they not be? – were not “making a career of the East.” They sought mastery of a body of knowledge in a way somewhat parallel to a Sanskrit pandit’s quest for mastery of a body of knowledge. The procedures were different, but the goal of both was purely intellectual: Orientalists and traditional Indian scholars sought the power and glory of the intellect. The analysis offered by Said and Inden at first had a seductive thrill, an overturning of idols, the laying bare of the dialectic of self and other, seemed to throw a powerful searchlight on the underside of the study of the East. But what this attempted and apparently successful deconstruction overlooks is what is in fact blindingly obvious. In Orientalism in its original meaning was not oppression of the East, but the colonization of the western mind by the East. It is the strength of Indian ideas and Indian texts that overpowers the western scholar, that forces him to spend his life in willing servitude to them.


  1. Salutary is Jamison’s acknowledgment of the Vedic scholarship of A. B. Keith, “undervalued, presumably because of the superficial contempt he affects for the texts. (But could he have spent so much care and intelligence without some respect for the texts? And can those who evince more respect for the texts claim as large a contribution to our understanding of them? I cannot.)” (Jamison 1991: xiv).
  2. Kejariwal’s work establishes that “the world of scholarship and the world of administration . . . were worlds apart” during the period he studies, 1784–1838 (Kejariwal 1988: 226). Trautman notes, “So far from there being a thick institutionalized connection between Orientalism and empire, as readers of Said might be led to imagine, one could say, roughly, that the study of Sanskrit varied inversely with imperialism . . . It is as if the British had been persuaded by James Mill’s preposterous argument that ignorance of Indian languages was a positive aid to the formation of unclouded views on imperial policy” (Trautman 1997: 189).
  3. Hastings quoted the Bhagavadgītā in his letters to his wife, finding it a source of inspiration. In his private notebook he asked himself “Is the incarnation of Christ more intelligible than . . . those of Vishnu?” The current European superiority owed nothing to Christianity, but was due to “a free government, cold climate and printing and navigation” (quoted by Trautman 1997: 72).
  4. Inner second panel of west pillar of north gate, the Great Stupa, Sanchi. The monkey’s story is given in the Dhammapadatthakattha; see Sivaramamurti 1977: 190.


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