Analysis of the European Orient Perception of Indian Society

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Edward Said, whose ideas are fundamental to discourse pertaining to Orientalism, argues that the Orient, itself, is a man-made construct that does not simply ‘exist. Rather, it is a Western (essentially British and French) cultural enterprise. “As much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery and vocabulary that has given it reality and presence in and for the West” (Said 5).

It must also be noted that Said defines Orientalism as a “corporate institution” for dealing with the Orient— “Orientalism as the Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Said 3). J.J. Clarke describes Orientalism as “the range of attitudes that have been evinced in the West towards the traditional religious and philosophical ideas and systems of South and East Asia” (7).

The Orient has been categorically either romanticised, or demonised. The polarisation is as follows: the Orient is perceived as either wise, feminine, exotic, philosophical, a source of inspiration, an agency for self-reflection, or idyllic in nature, afflicted with stagnancy, plagued by despotism, cruel, cunning and wanting in the modernising impact of the West. These stereotypes, for all practical purposes, compartmentalised the East as either the West’s complement or opposite. The active, powerful, articulate and dynamic West was contrasted with the passive, weak, defeated and stagnant East.

We must establish that the Early Orientalists of British India believed that Ancient India was essentially a-historical in nature. Here, we explicitly refer to disciplinary history. This was because Indian time was cyclic in nature—which entailed the continual repetition of all events in each cycle—as opposed to the Western notion of time, which was perceived as a linear concept. However, it is peculiar to note that Ancient India, despite being considered devoid of history, was used by the Orientalists to reinterpret their own history (for instance, by the means of floodology.)

It is important for the sake of context to understand the beginnings of European interpretations of Indian Civilisation before we progress to focusing on Orientalist interpretations. When the British East India Company transitioned from being a trading organisation to an administrative body, it became imperative that the officials develop an understanding of the native religious and social norms to wield effective power. Administration required knowledge of the population that was being controlled (Rangnathan 30).

Unless the coloniser gained familiarity with the vernacular, interpretation of traditional Indian texts and legal codes (such as the Dharmaśāstras) would remain the monopoly of local religious figures like Maulvis and Pandits (Brahamanas were consulted on matters of religion and law). These interpretations could (and would, in all probability) incorporate their personal biases and consequently lead to inconsistencies and unreliabilities in legal processes. In the late eighteenth century, officers of the East India Company thus indulged in the systematic study of Indian languages. “Intensive research on the Muslim and Hindu laws of inheritance undertaken by Jones and his British contemporaries may be seen as an attempt to break the Indian monopoly of legal knowledge and to assert British judicial power” (Jha 16). Obsession with codification began; William Jones- a connoisseur of the languages-spearheaded this process with a view to author what he repeatedly referred to as a ‘digest’ of Indian laws.

Jones— the Undisputed Founder of Orientalism, in the words of A.J. Arberry— established the Asiatic Society of Bengal on 15th February, 1784, one year after coming to Calcutta as a judge of the Supreme Court of Bengal. The Bombay Asiatic Society and the Asiatic Society of Great Britain followed suit in 1804 and 1823 respectively. Collectively, this served as stimulus to Indological studies, and they ceased to remain exclusive to the British East India Company.

Jones is also credited for the growth of interest in Indology outside England in lieu of his proposition that Sanskrit and some European languages shared roots. This had been a popular theme in Germany; and European visitors to India had noticed similarities between Sanskrit and a few European languages. Relations between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin were confirmed and this led to the discipline of comparative philology. Jones speculated from this that the European and Indian races had common ancestors. “Some upper class Indians like Keshub Chandra Sen took this literally and identified themselves with the British people” (Jha 16). Sanskrit studies were promoted as the Sanskrit language— which acquired the status of scientific knowledge due to Jones’s efforts—was now considered fundamental to understanding the common Indo-European languages. The discovery of this common ancestory led to the Aryan-Dravidian dichotomy wherein virtues were associated with the former.

Jones sought to condense all of India to laws and figures. While early Orientalists of British India—these included (apart from Jones) Charles Wilkins (first to translate the Bhagvada Gita into English), Henry Colebrooke, H.H Wilson and Nathaniel Halhead—believed that India was devoid of history in the sense of historical writings, it was Jones who first opined that some texts, like the Purānas, contained fragments of Indian history.

Said argues that majority of the English Orientalists in India were either indulged in legal scholarship, or involved in the medical profession. They honed vehement missionary beliefs. Their intent, besides the obvious colonial objective, was to study in great depth the language, art and culture of India and emulate teachings from the investigation to the arts back home, to enable advancements in the aforementioned fields. In this sense, the Orient was perceived as an agency of self-betterment/self-reflection.

The Asiatic Society was seminal to Orientalist studies in India. Formal scholarly research pertaining to the art, culture and language of India was conducted, and ‘rediscovery’ of India’s ancient past can be credited to the Asiatic Society. However, it holds certain problematic aspects to its name. “It remains true that the British wrote on early Indian History with a view to providing historical justification for the Raj and its exploitation of Indian resources. This quite often led to gross distortion of historical evidence” (Jha 19).

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As Balaji Rangnathan suggests, the Society served as a legitimate platform for the British to rewrite Indian History as suited. It provided access to the native population, and while that is not inherently problematic, it must be noted that only certain aspects of Indian history could be conveniently highlighted. Not only did the inferences drawn from academic research enable the Colonialists to exercise better authority over Indians, but also they furthered the growing impact of Orientalism (37).

Perhaps what triggered the undertaking of serious Orientalist studies was the yawning contrast between the Coloniser and the Colonised. Hinduism was alien to the British; a stark opposite to the religions the British had known and followed. “It was not monotheistic, there was no historical founder, or single sacred text, or dogma or ecclesiastical organisation- and it was closely tied to caste” (Thapar 3).

The need to draw parallels with a known religion was felt: to the westerner, the Oriental was compulsorily similar to some aspect of the West. “To some of the German Romantics, for example, Indian religion was essentially an Oriental version of Germano-Christian pantheism” (Said 67). According to scholars, present-day Hinduism differs greatly from its original form. This is attributed to the reformulation of Hinduism undertaken by the British to make it more accessible.

European preconceptions and prejudices marred interpretations of the Indian past. Systematic exclusionary efforts by the colonisers precluded Indian perception in scholarly orientalist research. For instance, membership of the Asiatic Society of Bengal was closed to Indians for many years. However, this does not mean that orientalist research was devoid of Indian involvement altogether, for Indian scholars served as the means to study Indian texts and languages.

They essentially provided first-hand knowledge of the Indian way of life, which was later subject to second-hand interpretations by the Europeans. Scarcely any effort was made to comprehend and incorporate native Indian understandings of native Indian culture. It is noteworthy that their contemporaries, like the Pandits, aided the Orientalists in understanding ancient texts, and the Indian perception was incorporated in their interpretations of the past only when the prejudices of these Pandits became part of Orientalist interpretation.

We must also take into account that the Orientalists are criticised for not analysing their sources critically enough. Moreover, their sources reflected the views of a small segment of the demographic. The European Orientalist was afflicted with a saviour-complex of sorts, being obsessed with rescuing a lost, glorious past. Orientalist readings are, in essence, a European deconstruction, reconstruction and retelling of what is rightfully supposed to be an Indian narrative. Eventually, these colonial retellings percolated to the self-perception of Indians. The Coloniser thus, colonised not just the society but also the mind.

There was rampant disillusionment with the prevailing ideas and beliefs in Europe. The Enlightenment, with its strictly anti-religion stance, was met with despair. Increasing materialism induced discomfort. Perhaps the rapid changes caused in Europe by the industrialisation led the Orientalists to seek a metaphysical refuge in India. India was increasingly seen as the realm of the spirit.

The spirituality of India was often contrasted with the materialism of the West. Max Mueller— another major Orientalist, who had never visited India— made tall talks about the “unchanging Indian village communities” (Jha 17) and depicted the Indian Society as free from social unrest. So fascinated was Max Mueller that he culturally appropriated India and adopted the Sanskritic name Moksha Mula. His Romantic mind appealed to his idea of India’s metaphysical inclinations.

That the Indians were so given to spirituality that they were unfit to govern themselves was the British misinterpretation of Mueller’s idea of India. His romanticisation of India, now called ‘Indomania’, was criticised in ninteenth century England, where Christian Missionaries, led by Charles Grant, claimed influence. A motivating force behind the activities of Christian missionaries was the belief in Europe’s God-given right to ‘civilise’ people. The Missionary and Utilitarian hostility to India is now termed ‘Indophobia.’

Hinduism, with its polytheism, extravagant rituals, mythology and clash of chronologies with the Biblical time, failed to command respect despite flaunting a pedigree much older than that of Judaeo-Christianity. “The people of India, according to Charles Grant, lived in a ‘degenerate’ condition because of Hinduism, the source of dishonesty, perjury, selfishness, social divisions, debasement of women, sexual vice” (Jha 17).

He endorsed the English Language as a ‘civilising force’, and while he was not a missionary himself, Grant honed a strong missionary bias that led him to plead for the conversion of Indians to Christianity. He supported the dissemination of Christian values among the Indian population, which, in his opinion, was heathen and intrinsically criminal and could attain salvation only through Christianity.

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