British Raj And The Defaming of India Since The 1800s (II)
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series of articles summarizing Dharampal’s work on the British origins of demonizing and undermining India and Hindus. The first part can be read here.
How did those who ruled and managed India for Britain till 1947 develop views and opinions about India? One book which became essential reading for civil and military officers of the British Raj in India was the ‘History of British India’, first published in three volumes in 1817 (1). The author of this monumental work was James Mill, a Scotland-born writer and political philosopher. Mill is mainly remembered as a major propagator of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, which famously held that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain were the twin aims of all human action, and that the aim of legislation was to promote “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. Mill had a long political and philosophical alliance with Jeremy Bentham (2). He also finds mention as the father of John Stuart Mill, an influential thinker in the history of classical liberalism.
Mill began writing on the history of British East India Company in India, in 1806. The work, after its publication in 1817, was an immediate success (3). In 1819, Mill was appointed as an assistant examiner of correspondence at the British East India Company. Later in 1830, he became head of the examiner’s office. He passed away in 1836 (4).
The fifth edition, in ten volumes, was published in 1858. It was edited by Horace Hayman Wilson (first Boden professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University) (5). This edition comprised of numerous additional footnotes and an account of up to 1835, by Wilson. It was thereafter reprinted time and again (6).
The first six volumes contain six books and cover the period from 1527 to 1805. Book one deals with the voyage to India by the merchant Robert Thorne in 1527 to the state of the East India Company in the early 1700s. Book two deals with ancient India and Hindu civilization. Book three covers the period of Islamic invasions and concludes with the Mughal Empire. This book ends with a chapter titled “A Comparison of the State of Civilization among the Mohamedan Conquerors of India with the State of Civilization among the Hindus”. Books four, five, and six cover the expansion and consolidation of the rule of the East India Company (3). Volumes six to nine were penned by Wilson, and they cover the period from 1805 to 1835. The concluding volume is an index volume, split into two, with the first one indexing volumes one to six (the Mill volumes) and the second one indexing volumes six to nine (the Wilson volumes) (6).
In the preface to his massive work, Mill acknowledged that he had never travelled to India and that he knew none of the Indian languages. He declared that his objective was to gather, read, and evaluate the vast amount of written documentation about India that existed in Europe (3). Perhaps pre-empting criticism, he asserted that as soon as things of importance were expressed in writing, a duly qualified man could obtain more knowledge of India in one year in England, than he could obtain during a lifetime in India (6). He stated his desire to produce a comprehensive “critical history” of India (3).
Today, Mill’s “critical history” is widely acknowledged to be harsh in its judgment on Hindu culture and civilization. Historian Thomas Trautmann says, “James Mill’s highly influential History of British India (1817) – most particularly the long essay ‘Of the Hindus’ comprising ten chapters – is the single most important source of British Indophobia and hostility to Orientalism” (7).
Within a decade of the publication of Mill’s work, Encyclopaedia Britannica revised its long article on India, in line with the views expressed in the 1813 British House of Commons debate and in Mill’s work (8). The public denunciation of India had become more effective.
Further, he had divided Indian history into three periods — Hindu, Muslim, and British. This demarcation soon came to be widely accepted (9).
Dharampal, in his book “Despoilation and Defaming of India”, has reproduced Chapter Ten of Book II from the “History of British India”. Book II, “Of the Hindus”, consists of ten chapters. The last is titled ‘General Reflections’. This essay is a summary of the chapter in Dharampal’s book.
Mill starts by saying that as Great Britain is charged with governing Hindus, it is a matter of high practical importance to ascertain the true state of Hindus in the scale of civilization. A government must adapt to the state of the people for whose use it is intended. The British Government would be committing a mistake if it conceives Hindus to be a people of high civilization. Even in ancient Europe, there were reports of high states of civilization in the East. But the acquaintance of Greeks and Romans with the nations of Asia, except the Persians, was imperfect. Hence no confidence can be reposed in any of their accounts (about India).
Mill states that it is unfortunate that a person of reputation devoted to Oriental learning, like William Jones, accepted the hypothesis of a high state of civilization in the principal countries of Asia. He expressed regret that Jones, like many others, applied the word “civilized” to nations in different stages of social advancement. Mill postulates that Jones was motivated by the design of exalting Hindus in the eyes of their European masters and ameliorating the temper of the (British) Government towards Hindus.
We note here that Sir William Jones (1746-1794) is credited for founding the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784, to encourage Oriental studies. This is said to have laid the foundation for the field of Indology. He is known for propagating the observation about relationships between Indo-European languages. His 1786 address at the Asiatic Society wherein he suggested that Sanskrit, Greek and Latin had a common root and that they may all be further related to Gothic and Celtic languages, as well as to Persian, is often cited as the beginning of comparative linguistics and Indo-European studies (10). He also prepared digests of Hindu and Muslim laws, Institutes of Hindu Law, or the Ordinances of Manu (1794); Mohammedan Law of Succession to Property of Intestates (1792), and his Mohammedan Law of Inheritance (1792). These digests went on to influence British jurisprudence in India, in the years to come (11).
Mill claims that nations of Europe became acquainted with America and Hindustan at the same time. Hindus were compared with the “savages” of America, and conclusions too favourable towards Hindus (that they corresponded with the most cultivated nations) were drawn. The progress of knowledge and careful observation suggests that the Hindus are a half-civilized nation. A hypothesis has been proposed that Hindus are now in a state of degradation. They were formerly in a state of high civilization, from which they had fallen through the miseries of foreign conquest. Mill objects to this on the grounds that this theory is an assumption and not an inference from what it already known. This theory is adapted to the pretensions of the Brahmans, who spoke of a past when the sovereigns of Hindustan were masters of great power and magnificence.
He says that as Hindus do not have any records of historical events, there is no immediate proof of their state of civilization. The only ground of inference is a study of the Hindu laws and institutions, manners, and the arts and sciences. If these are at variance with the existing (degraded) state of society and adapted to one more advanced, one can probably infer that the society was in an improved condition in the past. Hindu laws and institutions seem entirely inconsistent with a perfect state of society. These could only exist under a rude and weak human mind. As the manners, and the arts and sciences correspond to the state of laws and institutions, everything that is known of the ancient state of Hindustan suggests that it was rude.
If Hindus were ever in this pretended (high) state of civilization, there is no known calamity, which was sufficient to reduce them to a state of ignorance and calamity. The Mahomedan conquest of Hindustan was not extraordinarily destructive. It substituted sovereigns of one race to sovereigns of another and mixed with the old inhabitants, a small proportion of the new. The whole administration, with the exception of the army, and a few of the more prominent institutions, remained in the hands of the native officers. The occasions of persecution on the score of religion were too short and partial to produce any considerable effects.
He wrote that the particulars of the pretended reigns of the mighty kings of India, under whom civilization rose to the greatest height, are nothing but wild inconsistent fables. From these, no rational conclusion can be drawn, except that it is the production of a rude and irrational age. Bharat is said to have been the first sovereign of India, from which the name Bharat Varsha is derived. In this, as usual, Hindu accounts contradict themselves. Bharat is also represented as preceding Rama, who, according to Sir William Jones, might have established the first popular government in India. Yudishter is another universal sovereign, but even his origin is allegorical. The son of Dharma, God of justice, he is said to have reigned for 27,000 years.
Mill then refers to Vikramaditya, with whose reign he says the sovereignty of India and the glory of art and science were combined. He quotes Captain Wilford (a fellow member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal who collaborated on several articles for its journal, Asiatic Researches) as saying that the (Indian) learned produced eight or nine accounts of the personage of Vikramaditya. Mill adds that the history of these eight or nine worthies when considered as single individual, is a crude mass of heterogeneous legends from several sources. These include apocryphal gospels of the infancy of Christ, tales of the Rabbis and Talmudists concerning Solomon, with some particulars about Mohammed. The whole is jumbled together with some of the principal features of the history of the Persian kings of the Sassanian dynasty. On this flimsy historical foundation is built the fabric of the great universal monarchy of Vikramaditya. Wonderful deeds of all of the world were appropriated to gratify the barbarous vanity of the people, to whom the story of Vikramaditya was addressed. Such legends are not proof of universal monarchy or of thousands of years of one reign.
Mill again quotes Captain Wilford as saying that the lists of successive monarchs in the books of the Hindus were the creation of the fancies of the writers, formed without any reference to facts. It was not uncommon for ancient writers to pass from a remote ancestor to a remote descendant, or from a remote predecessor to a remote successor, by leaving out the intermediate successions, and sometimes ascribe the years of their reigns to a remote successor or predecessor. He (Wilford) had met a chronicler at Benares who candidly acknowledged shortening or lengthening the reigns of kings at pleasure. The predecessors of this chronicler had taken the same liberties. Such is the mode, through which authors of the Puranas had supplied themselves with a convenient quantity of ordinary kings.
Mill adds that Captain Wilford provides satisfactory information regarding the manner in which Hindus supplied themselves with extraordinary kings. Wilford asserted that Hindus had the well-known propensity to appropriate everything to themselves. They even tried to insist that Akbar was a Hindu in a former generation. Vikramaditya, whom the legend makes sovereign of the world, was in reality a King of Persia, borrowed by the Brahmans, from their propensity to appropriate everything remarkable which they heard of in the world.
In such a situation, Mill opines that the only materials from which a rational inference can be drawn are the manners and institutions of the Hindus. It is quite common in people who have passed through several civilizational stages to be united extensively under one government, for a great length of time. The empire of China and the Ottoman empire are examples of this. However, among uncivilized nations, a perpetual succession of revolutions is most common. Sometimes though an individual with uncommon talents arises and builds a large empire. This gradually dissolves after his death. Everything the Europeans have seen in Hindustan proves that such is India’s history. The Mahratta (Maratha) empire affords a striking example. An aspiring individual (Shivaji) built an extensive empire, comprising of separate disjointed communities, who occupied the mountain districts in the western and central parts of Hindustan. Soon this empire broke into several governments, owners of which did not even nominally pay homage to Sevagee (Shivaji). Even the empire of the Moghuls, soon after Aurangzeb, began to fall into pieces.
Mill claims that every ancient writing which bears any reference to history and historical poems like the Puranas describe a state of society where there was injustice, wars, and bloodshed. He cites inscriptions as proof, where princes are all represented as victorious warriors who triumphed over their enemies. As per Mill, the frequently imposed penalty of banishment from one kingdom to another proved the vicinity of different kingdoms. He then refers to the Code of Manu, in which there are rules prescribed for behavior with neighbouring princes, as sufficiently proving that Hindustan was in that state of subdivision, which rendered these rules pertinent and useful.
In reviewing the Hindu form of government, Mill says that despotism was established and confirmed in Hindustan by laws of Divine authority. Through the division of people into castes, a degrading system of subordination was established among Hindus. By a system of priestcraft, built on the most enormous superstition, their minds were enchained more intolerably than their bodies. With despotism and priestcraft taken together, Hindus, in mind and body, were the most enslaved of the human race.
There were a number of satisfactory proofs which demonstrate that Hindu despotism was not mild, Mill says, quoting an observer saying that where the government is administered by Gentoos (Hindus), the people are subject to more and severe oppressions than when ruled by the Moors (Muslims).
Mill next challenges the view that petty princes in Hindustan were subordinate parts of one great monarchy, whose mandates they obeyed. He states that there are two modes in which subordination of petty princes may take place. The inferior states may exist as conquered enslaved countries. Alternatively, the inferior states could be connected by confederacy, with an acknowledged common head for the sake of unity, and the right to deliberate on common concerns. One can confidently say that neither mode was compatible with the state of civilization in Hindustan.
To retain considerable number of countries in subjection is arduous. That it is possible in a country where Hindu laws and institutions prevailed is far-fetched. The phenomenon of conquering a kingdom without seizing it (towards forming a confederacy) is rare even in the most civilized times. To suppose that it is universal in India is to make a supposition which would be in contradiction to the known laws of human affairs. Whenever an Indian sovereign is able to take possession, he hastens to take it. If a neighbouring prince is too weak to prevent these campaigns, he endeavours to purchase an exemption. Mahrattas (Marathas) have been almost the only people in modern times in India who have been able to extract such a levy. It is called “Chout” and is one-fourth of the revenues of the district liable to be over-run. But such subordination could never extend far. That a confederation of princes can be produced in India is not borne by experience. When the British were at war with Scindia, they were at peace with the Peshwa and Holkar. When they were at war with Holkar, they were at peace with the rest.
Mill says that there is no evidence to support the view that Hindus were highly civilized prior to their subjugation by foreigners. In fact, where the Hindus were free from the dominion of foreigners, they were in a state of civilization inferior to those who have long been Mohamedan subjects.
Hindu codes of law have so many regulations dealing with calamities. These must be very frequent. Whether from famine or war, the frequency of these calamities does not indicate the existence of a good government and high civilization.
Particular attention needs to be paid to the pretension that enormous riches were found in India by the first Mahomedan conquerors. These accounts exceed all reasonable bounds and provide decisive evidence of Eastern exaggeration, which in matters of history, is not guided by facts. One can infer from the circumstances that a state of poverty, similar to what has been witnessed by Europeans, must have prevailed in India in the preceding times.
In all civilized nations, one of the first major foci is to improve military art. Hindus have, at no period, demonstrated awareness of the advantage of discipline, upon which skilled warfare depends. There have been many books by Brahmans on astrology, exploits of the gods, and other worthless subjects. But in medicine and surgery, understanding of Hindus is at par with the most uncultivated tribes. Surgery is unknown among Hindus.
Even during the feudal ages, notwithstanding the defects of the feudal system, Europeans were superior to the Hindus in the institutions of government they built and the laws they passed. In poetry too, Europeans were superior to the Hindus. While in war, Hindus were always inferior to the warlike nations of Europe, they did surpass the rude Europeans in delicate manufactures like spinning, weaving, and dyeing. The manliness and courage of the ancestors of the Europeans placed them in an elevated rank, compared to the slavish spirit of the Hindus. While ancestors of the Europeans were certainly rough, they were sincere. In contrast, under the glossy exterior of the Hindus, lay a general disposition to deceit. As soon as the Gothic nations settled, they began to exhibit marks of a superior character and civilization, compared to those of the Hindus. The manners and institutions of Hindus have been stationary, for many ages.
Mill contends that Hindus currently were in the same stage as Persians and Egyptians were at the time of Alexander. In the systems of Zoroaster and Brahmans, one can find the same absurdity in notions respecting creation and the same absurd and infinite rituals. Deformities of the Hindu system are however the greatest. Mill quotes Barrow as having said that both the Chinese and the Hindus are good at imitation but defective in invention. Both are tainted with vices of insincerity and treachery, which surpasses even the usual measure of uncultivated society. Both are cowardly, conceited, and full of contempt for others. Both are, in the physical sense, disgustingly unclean.
Mill states that the inhabitants of the great peninsula to the east of the Ganges display the uniform marks of a similar state of society and manners. The people on the western side of the peninsula, whether known by the name of Birmans or Assamese or Siamese, exhibit only a variation of the religion, laws, institutions, and manners which prevail on the other side of the Ganges. The key difference is that they have retained the primitive faith of Buddha and rejected the distinctions of castes. He quotes from “A Description of Assam by Mohammed Cazim”, translated from the Persian by Henry Vansittart (12). He says that we are told that silks in Assam are excellent and resemble those of China. The Assamese have not paid tribute or submitted to powerful monarchs. They have checked the conquests of the most victorious princes of Hindustan. Several armies from Bengal, which had been sent to conquer them (during Mughal times), have been cut-off.
The admiration which Greeks expressed of Egyptians quite resembles the admiration which has long prevailed among Europeans, with regard to Hindus. With the force of modern intellect, the Egyptian civilization is now known in its true colors. He quotes President Gouget as saying that Egyptians were a superstitious people addicted to judicial astrology and besotted with a monstrous theology. All the science, wisdom, and philosophy boasted of in the Egyptian priests was nothing else but imposture and juggling.
Mill concludes with a remark by Scottish philosopher and economist, Adam Smith. He is often called the father of capitalism. Smith says that it seems that law and order were established in the great monarchies of Asia and Egypt before they had any footing in Greece. Yet after all that has been said concerning the learning in those nations, whether there was in those nations anything which deserved the name of science, or whether that despotism which prevailed all over the East prevented the growth of philosophy, cannot be determined with any degree of precision. Mill adds that the materials handed down to the British, compared with the circumstances of other nations, afford materials for a satisfactory determination of this claim. Adam Smith’s disbelief of the ancient civilization of Asia is indeed very profound. Despotism (as in Asia and Egypt) is more averse to the progress of the human mind than anarchy itself.
One of the best responses to Mill’s denigration of India is the collection of essays that comprise “The Renaissance in India and other essays on Indian Culture,” penned by Sri Aurobindo (13). These essays were first published in the journal Arya, between 1918 and 1921. The third part of the book is titled, “Is India civilized?”. It contains three essays, which were in many ways a rebuttal to the English writer William Archer’s book “India and the Future”, first published in 1917 (14). Archer (like Mill), expressing the view common among Europeans at the time, had concluded that Indian culture and civilization was essentially a mass of unspeakable barbarism. Sri Aurobindo counters this harsh criticism by highlighting the unique spiritual character of India’s civilization and her many past achievements.
The final essay in this series will focus on Thomas Babington Macaulay’s infamous Minute on Indian Education (1835) and a speech he delivered in the House of Commons (1843).
Sincere thanks to Dr. Gita Dharampal for granting permission to publish summaries of the various chapters from Shri Dharampal’s “Despoilation and Defaming of India”.
1. Despoilation and Defaming of India, page 147
2. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. James Mill
3. Library of Congress. History of British India
4. Britannica. James Mill
5. Wikipedia. Horace Hayman Wilson
6. Wikipedia. History of British India
7. ‘Aryans and British India’ by Thomas R. Trautmann, 1997, page 117
8. Despoilation and Defaming of India, page 33
10. Wikipedia. William Jones
11. New world Encyclopedia. William Jones
12. Brahmaputra studies database. Description of Assam, Mohammed Cazim