The theme chosen by this seminar is a very apt one. Having suffered the burden of two centuries of British occupation, India has, since Independence, tried to come to terms with the impact of that exotic presence perhaps diametrically opposed to her own temperament, culture and genius. If anything, this introspection has only intensified in recent years, as Western culture (if it deserves this noble name) aggressively spreads around the globe. But it stands to reason that for an effective “decolonization” to take place—even in order to find out whether and how far it is desirable—we should first take a hard look at the effects of this colonization, what traces it has left on the Indian mind and psyche, and how deep. That is what I have briefly attempted to do in this paper—briefly, because it is a subject as vast and complex as Indian life itself, and also because I am a mere student of India, not a learned scholar like those present among us today.
But first, an aside. I have only referred to the British occupation, not to the Muslim invasions, though they stretched over a much longer span of time and collided violently with Indian civilization. Yet, strangely, in spite of their ruthlessness, their proud and sustained use of violence to coerce or convert, India’s Muslim rulers never attempted to take possession of the Indian mind: in faithful obedience to Koranic injunctions, they simply tried to stamp it out. That they did not succeed is another story.
The British, too, dreamed of stamping it out, but not through sheer brute force. As we know, besides their primary object of plunder, they viewed—or perhaps justified—their presence in India as a “divinely ordained” civilizing mission. They spoke of Britain as “the most enlightened and philanthropic nation in the world” and of “the justifiable pride which the cultivated members of a civilised community feel in the beneficent exercise of dominion and in the performance by their nation of the noble task of spreading the highest kind of civilisation.” Such rhetoric was constantly poured out to the Britons at home so as to give them a good conscience, while the constant atrocities perpetrated on the Indian people were discreetly hidden from sight.
To achieve their aim, the British rulers followed two lines : on the one hand, they encouraged an English and Christianized education in accordance with the well-known Macaulay doctrine, which projected Europe as an enlightened, democratic, progressive heaven, and on the other hand, they pursued a systematic denigration of Indian culture, scriptures, customs, traditions, crafts, cottage industries, social institutions, educational system, taking full advantage of the stagnant and often degenerate character of the Hindu society of the time. There were, of course, notable exceptions among British individuals, from William Jones to Sister Nivedita and Annie Besant—but almost none to be found among the ruling class. Let us recall how, in his famous 1835 Minute, Thomas B. Macaulay asserted that Indian culture was based on “a literature … that inculcates the most serious errors on the most important subjects … hardly reconcilable with reason, with morality … fruitful of monstrous superstitions.” Hindus, he confidently declared, had nothing to show except a “false history, false astronomy, false medicine … in company with a false religion.”
As it happened, Indians were—and still largely are—innocent people who could simply not suspect the degree of cunning with which their colonial masters set about their task. In the middle of the 1857 uprising, the Governor-General Lord Canning wrote to a British official:
As we must rule 150 millions of people by a handful (more or less small) of Englishmen, let us do it in the manner best calculated to leave them divided (as in religion and national feeling they already are) and to inspire them with the greatest possible awe of our power and with the least possible suspicion of our motives.
Even a “liberal” governor such as Elphinstone wrote in 1859, “Divide et impera [‘divide and rule’ in Latin] was the old Roman motto and it should be ours.”
In this clash of two civilizations, the European, younger, dynamic, hungry for space and riches, appeared far better fitted than the Indian, half decrepit, almost completely dormant after long centuries of internal strife and repeated onslaught. The contrast was so huge that no one doubted the outcome—the rapid conquest of the Indian mind and life. That was what Macaulay, again, summarized best when he proudly wrote to his father in 1836:
Our English schools are flourishing wonderfully…. It is my belief that if our plans of education are followed up, there will not be a single idolater among the respectable classes in Bengal thirty years hence.
But if there is one thing that the British could not understand about Indians, it is that they live more in the heart than in the mind. And that heart the rulers could never touch or influence, especially not with their shallow religion or science. As for the mind, they did succeed in creating a fairly large “educated” class, anglicized and partially Christianized, which always looked up to its European model and ideal, and formed the actual foundation of the Empire in India.
Came Independence. If India did achieve political independence—at a terrible cost and by amputating a few limbs of her body—she hardly achieved independence in the field of thought. Nor did she try: the country’s so-called elite, whose mind had been shaped and hypnotized by their colonial masters, always assumed that anything Western was so superior that in order to reach all-round fulfilment, India merely had to follow European thought, science, and political institutions. Swami Vivekananda was the first to give this call : “O ye modern Hindus, de-hypnotise yourselves !”
A hundred years later, at least, we can see how gratuitous those assumptions were. Yet the colonial imprint remains present at many levels. On a very basic one, it is almost amusing to note that Pune is sometimes called “the Oxford of the East,” while Ahmedabad is “the Manchester of India”— and since Coimbatore is often dubbed “the Manchester of South India,” we have at least out-Manchestered England herself! The Nilgiris are flatteringly compared to Scotland (never mind that Kotagiri, where I live, is called “the second Switzerland”), and I understand that tourist guides refer to your own Alappuzha as “the Venice of the East.” Pondicherry, also to attract tourists, calls itself “India’s Little France” or “the French Riviera of the East.” India’s map seems dotted with European places. And “east” of what, incidentally ? This is something like India’s learned “Oriental” institutes—what “orient” do they refer to ? Thailand or Japan, perhaps ?
Things become more troublesome when Kalidasa is called “the Shakespeare of India,” when Bankim Chatterji needs to be compared to Walter Scott or Tagore to Shelley, and Kautilya becomes India’s very own Machiavelli. We begin to see how our compass is set due west. Would the British call Shakespeare “England’s Kalidasa,” let alone Manchester “the Coimbatore of Northwest England” ?
But I think the most alarming signs of the colonization of the Indian mind are found in the field of education. Take the English nursery rhymes taught to many of our little children, as if, before knowing anything about India, they needed to know about Humpty-Dumpty or the sheep that went to London to see the Queen. When they grow older, some of them will be learning Western psychology while remaining totally ignorant of the far deeper psychology offered by Yoga, or they will study medicine or physics or evolution without having the least idea of what ancient India achieved—and often anticipated—in those fields. Which teacher, for example, will tell his or her students that Darwinian evolution was always at the back of the Indian mind, as the sequence of the Dashavatar shows ? Or that the speed of light is clearly given, to an amazing degree of precision, in Sayana’s commentary on the Rig-Veda ?
And can it be a coincidence if a day of Brahma, equal to 4,320,000,000 years, happens to be the age of the earth ? Many such examples could be supplied in other fields, from mathematics and astronomy and quantum physics to linguistics and metallurgy and urbanizatio. If teachers were not so ignorant, as a rule, of their own culture, they would have no difficulty in showing their students that the much vaunted “scientific temper” is nothing new to India. Even in medicine, we know how Ayurveda and Siddha systems of medicine have been neglected under the illusion that modern medicine is the only way to provide “health for all.”
Our educational policies systematically discourage the teaching of Sanskrit, and one wonders again whether that is in deference to Macaulay, who found that great language (though he confessed he knew none of it !) to be “barren of useful knowledge.” In the same vein, the Indian epics, the Veda or the Upanishads stand no chance, and students will almost never hear about them at school. Even Indian languages are subtly or not so subtly given a lower status than English, with the result that many deep scholars or writers who chose to express themselves in their mother-tongues (I have of course N. V. Krishna Warrior in mind) remain totally unknown beyond their States, while textbooks are crowded with second-rate thinkers who happened to write in English.
If you take a look at the teaching of history, the situation is even worse. Almost all Indian history taught today in our schools and universities has been written by Western scholars, or by “native historians who [have] taken over the views of the colonial masters,” in the words of Prof. Klostermaier of Canada’s University of Manitoba. All of India’s historical tradition, all ancient records are simply brushed aside as so much fancy so as to satisfy the Western dictum that “Indians have no sense of history.” Indian tradition never said anything about mysterious Aryans invading the subcontinent from the Northwest, but since nineteenth-century European scholars decided so, our children still today have to learn by rote this invention now rejected by most archaeologists; South Indian tradition said nothing about the Dravidians coming from the North, driven southward by the naughty Aryans, but again that shall be stuffed into young brains.
No Indian scholar or grammar or tradition ever claimed that Sanskrit and Tamil languages were great rivals belonging to wholly separate families, but this shall be taught at school in deference to Western linguists or to our own “Dravidian” activists. The real facts of the destruction wreaked in India by Muslim invaders and also by some Christian missionaries must be kept outside textbooks and curricula, since they contradict the “tolerant” and “liberating” image that Islam and Christianity have been projecting for themselves. Even the freedom movement is not spared : as the great historian R. C. Majumdar and others have shown, no serious, objective criticism of Mahatma Gandhi or the Indian National Congress is allowed, and the role of other important leaders is systematically belittled or erased.
Nothing illustrates the bankruptcy of our education better than the manner in which, just a year ago, State education ministers raised an uproar at an attempt to discuss the introduction of the merest smattering of Indian culture into the syllabus, and at the singing of the Saraswati Vandana. The message they actually conveyed was that no Indian element was tolerable in education, while they are perfectly satisfied with an education that, at the start of the century, Sri Aurobindo called “soulless and mercenary, and which has now degenerated further into a stultifying, mechanical routine that kills our children’s natural intelligence and talent. They find nothing wrong with maiming young brains and hearts, but will be up in arms if we speak of teaching India’s heritage.
Ananda Coomaraswamy, the famous art critic, gave the following warning early this century:
It is hard to realize how completely the continuity of Indian life has been severed. A single generation of English education suffices to break the threads of tradition and to create a nondescript and superficial being deprived of all roots—a sort of intellectual pariah who does not belong to the East or the West, the past or the future. The greatest danger for India is the loss of her spiritual integrity. Of all Indian problems the educational is the most difficult and most tragic.
Swami Vivekananda had earlier said much the same thing in his own forthright style :
The child is taken to school, and the first thing he learns is that his father is a fool, the second thing that his grandfather is a lunatic, the third thing that all his teachers are hypocrites, the fourth, that all the sacred books are lies ! By the time he is sixteen he is a mass of negation, lifeless and boneless. And the result is that fifty years of such education has not produced one original man in the three presidencies…. We have learnt only weakness.
The child becomes a recording machine stuffed with a jarring assortment of meaningless bits and snippets. The only product of this denationalizing education has been the creation of a modern, Westernized “elite” with little or no contact with the deeper sources of Indian culture, and with nothing of India’s ancient view of the world except a few platitudes to be flaunted at cocktail parties. Browsing through any English-language daily or magazine is enough to see how Indian intellectuals revel in the sonorous clang of hollow clichés which, the world over, have taken the place of any real thinking. If Western intellectuals come up with some new “ism,” you are sure to find it echoed all over the Indian press in a matter of weeks; it was amusing to see how, some two years ago, the visit to India of a French philosopher and champion of “deconstructionism” sent the cream of our intellectuals raving wild for weeks, while they remained crassly ignorant of far deeper thinkers next door. Or if Western painters or sculptors come up with some new-fangled cult of ugliness, their Indian counterparts will not lag far behind. If Western countries plan grand celebrations for the “millennium” (not a third millennium of darkness, one hopes), we in India follow suit—though we appear to have forgotten to celebrate the fifty-second century of our Kali era earlier this year. And let “politically correct” Western nations make a new religion of “human rights” (with intensive bombing campaigns to enforce them if necessary), and you will hear a number of Indians clamouring for them parrotlike. The list is endless, in every field of life, and if India had been living in her mind alone, one would have to conclude that India has ceased to exist—or will do so after one or two more generations of this senseless de-Indianizing. In Sri Aurobindo’s words :
… Ancient India’s culture, attacked by European modernism, overpowered in the material field, betrayed by the indifference of her children, may perish for ever along with the soul of the nation that holds it in its keeping.
Maladies of the Mind
The root of the problem is of course that we have ceased to think by ourselves. We are spoon-fed and often force-fed almost every one of our thoughts, or what masquerades as thought. Independent reflection is discouraged at every step, especially at school.
Yet it is not my point that English education in India has been an unmitigated evil. It was a necessary, probably an unavoidable evil. India had to be shaken from her lethargy, to open up to the world and face its challenges, and that was the fastest way to compel her to do so. There is also no doubt that this opening to dynamic currents of thought from the West contributed in no small measure to the quest for independence, as has often been pointed out. Sometimes indeed, one poison is needed to cure another. But to continue taking poison after the cure is over is inexcusable. India’s failure to boldly formulate and implement a truly Indian education after Independence ranks as her most tragic, most ruinous error. The blame for it must be laid at the door of the country’s first education ministers, and even more so its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, himself an undiscriminating product of English education who was always prompt to pour scorn on India’s culture and traditions and to make a cult of modernity.
But subjection to Western influence does more than simply impoverish the Indian mind or wean it away from Indian culture. It also introduces serious distortions into its thinking processes. With their clear and bold thought, Western thinkers since the eighteenth century no doubt did much to pull Europe out of the dark ages brought about by Christianity. But they had to take shortcuts in the process : they needed sharp intellectual weapons and had no time to develop the qualities of pluralism, universality, integrality native to the Indian mind and nurtured over thousands of years. Their thought was essentially divisive and exclusive : God was on one side and the creation on another, an abyss separated matter from spirit, one was either a believer or an atheist, either a Christian or a Pagan, either ancient or modern, determinist or indeterminist, empiricist or rationalist, rightist or leftist. Whether one was an adept of idealism, realism, positivism, existentialism or any of the thousand isms the Western intellect cannot live without, Truth was parcelled out into small, hardened, watertight bits, each no wider than one line of thought or one philosophical system, each neatly labelled and set in contrast or opposition with the other.
The result of this Western obsession with divisiveness has been disastrous in India’s context. Her inhabitants had never called themselves “Aryans” or “Dravidians” in the racial sense, yet they became thus segregated; they had never known they were “Hindus,” yet they had to be happy with this new designation; they had never called their view of the world a “religion” (a word with no equivalent in Sanskrit), but it had to become one, promptly labelled “Hinduism.” Nor was one label sufficient: India always recognized and respected the infinite multiplicity of approaches to the Truth (what is commonly, but incorrectly, called “tolerance”), but under the Western spotlight those approaches became so many “sects” almost rivaling each other (perhaps like Catholics and Protestants !). Hinduism was thus cut up into convenient bits—Vedism, Brahmanism, Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, Tantrism, etc.—of which Indians themselves had been largely unaware, or at any rate not in this rigid, cut-and-dried fashion. As for Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, which had been regarded in India as simply new paths, they were arbitrarily stuck with a label of “separate religions.” Similarly, thousands of fluid communities were duly catalogued and crystallized by the British rulers as so many permanent and rigid castes.
Unfortunately, this itemizing and labelling of their heritage became a undisputed truth in the subconscious mind of Indians: they passively accepted being dissected and defined by their colonial masters, and they learned to look at themselves through Western eyes. The Indian mind had become too feeble to take the trouble of assimilating the few positive elements of Western thought and rejecting the many negative ones: it swallowed but could not digest. Even some of the early attempts to lay new foundations—the Brahmo Samaj and many other “reformist” movements in particular—were, despite their usefulness as a ferment, conceived apologetically in response to Europe’s standards and judgement. If, for instance, they were told that Hindus were “polytheistic idolaters,” rather than show the fallacy of such a label, they would bend over backward to build their new creeds on monotheism of a Judeo-Christian type. Just recently we had a revealing echo of such an attitude when our own President, on a recent visit to your State, felt obliged to speculate that Adi Shankaracharya’s Monism must have been influenced by Islam’s monotheism. This is intellectual bankruptcy at its highest pitch.
As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once put it:
The mistake of the West is that it measures other civilizations by the degree to which they approximate to Western civilization. If they do not approximate it, they are hopeless, dumb, reactionary.
Educated Indians virtually admitted they were “hopeless, dumb, reactionary,” and could only stop being so by receiving salvation from Europe : they pinned their hopes on its democracy and secularism, ignoring all warnings that those European concepts would wreak havoc once mechanically transposed to India. Worse, they rivalled with one another in denigrating their heritage. If even today a Western journalist or professor utters the words of “caste” or “sati” or “Hindu fundamentalism” (and I would like to ask him what the “fundamentals” of Hinduism are), you will hear a number of Indian intellectuals beating their chests in unison—even as they keep their eyes tightly shut to the most fatal aberrations of Western society. Some ninety years ago already, Sri Aurobindo observed:
They will not allow things or ideas contrary to European notions to be anything but superstitious, barbarous, harmful and benighted, they will not suffer what is praised and practised in Europe to be anything but rational and enlightened…
As a result, many “modern” Indians (I have had myself occasion to hear some of them), and even a number of Swamis, especially those with Western following, will proudly assert that they are “not Hindus.” (That fashion was probably started last century by Keshab Chandra Sen.) What they usually mean by that is that they are “tolerant” of everything and anything (especially of Western anythings), and therefore far too broad-minded to be Hindus. They forget that Hinduism in its true form, Sanatana dharma, is as wide as the universe and can include any path—provided that path is, like itself, and unlike Semitic religions, respectful of other paths, because it knows it is only one small parcel of the whole Truth beyond all paths.
Ram Swarup, a profound Indian thinker who passed away recently, was not afraid of swimming against this self-deprecating tide nurtured by our intelligentsia and media:
A permanent stigma seems to have stuck to the terms Hindu and Hinduism. These have now become terms of abuse in the mouth of the very elite which the Hindu millions have raised to the pinnacle of power and prestige with their blood, sweat and tears.
Such is the painful but logical outcome of two centuries of colonization of the Indian mind.
The deeper meaning of this transitory dark phase has been expressed thus by Sri Aurobindo:
The spirit and ideals of India had come to be confined in a mould which, however beautiful, was too narrow and slender to bear the mighty burden of our future. When that happens, the mould has to be broken and even the ideal lost for a while, in order to be recovered free of constraint and limitation.
There is no doubt that India’s old mould is being broken. The question is what is going to take its place. There are increasing and hopeful signs of an aspiration to a reawakening and a liberation from this intellectual and cultural degeneration. But for this aspiration to be fulfilled, I am convinced that we shall have to go deeper than the intellect, and tap anew the inexhaustible source of strength that has sustained India over ages. Take care of India’s soul and the rest will take care of itself, as Swami Vivekananda said. Only then will we recover our native suppleness and independence of mind, and learn to question West and India alike, past and present alike. Only then will we regain our discernment, viveka, our only possible beacon in the growing gloom.
Permit me to quote Sri Aurobindo once more:
We must begin by accepting nothing on trust from any source whatsoever, by questioning everything and forming our own conclusions. We need not fear that we shall by that process cease to be Indians or fall into the danger of abandoning Hinduism. India can never cease to be India or Hinduism to be Hinduism, if we really think for ourselves. It is only if we allow Europe to think for us that India is in danger of becoming an ill-executed and foolish copy of Europe.
To recover her true genius in a new body is the task now facing India. She needs it not only for herself but for the world, as the West is fast being sucked into its own emptiness, except for a few lucid thinkers desperately searching for a deeper meaning to our human madness. “Europe is destructive, suicidal,” said André Malraux to Nehru in 1936, whom he would meet several times until the 1960s, trying in vain to persuade him of the relevance of India’s spirituality in today’s world. Malraux also reflected:
... To the West, whether Christian or atheist, the fundamental obvious fact is death, whatever meaning it gives to it, whereas India’s fundamental obvious fact is the infinity of life in the infinity of time: “Who could kill immortality ?”
This deeper view of the universe, and of ourselves as an integral part of it, this bridge between matter and spirit is what the world needs today. And that is not philosophy, it is a practical question : India alone could show, as she did in her ancient history from the Indus Valley civilization to the Maurya times and after, how material and spiritual developments can be harmonized—and indeed need each other if society is to last. Because the West ultimately believes only in death, it is destroying man as well as the earth ; because India ultimately sought only the secret of life, it could restore the divinity of the earth and of all creatures, man included. Last century already, the French historian Michelet marvelled:
Whereas, in our Occident, the most dry and sterile minds brag in front of Nature, the Indian genius, the most rich and fecund of all, knows neither small nor big and has generously embraced universal fraternity, even the identity of all souls!
This Indian genius has now begun to percolate back to the West, where it inspires new approaches, deeper thoughts, though not yet the transforming shakti. Perhaps the tide of colonialism will be reversed, after all. And without bloodshed.
Perhaps Rabindranath Tagore’s hope of April 1941, three months before his death, will be fulfilled :
The spirit of violence which perhaps lay dormant in the psychology of the West, has at last roused itself and desecrates the Spirit of Man….
I had at one time believed that the springs of civilization would issue out of the heart of Europe. But today when I am about to quit the world that faith has gone bankrupt altogether….
Today I live in the hope that the Saviour is coming—that he will be born in our midst in this poverty-shamed hovel which is India. I shall wait to hear the divine message of civilization which he will bring with him…. Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the East where the sun rises.
~ Michel Danino, Author. This paper was presented at a seminar on “Decolonization and its Cultural Problems” organized by N. V. Krishna Warrior Smaraka Trust at Tripunithura (Kerala) on 9-10 October 1999.