Countering the Idea of India camp: Insights from 19th Century Foreigners

Countering the Idea of India camp: Insights from 19th Century Foreigners

Today, the mainstream dominant discourse on India and Indology revolves around what is known as “the idea of India”. Many books, academic papers and peer-reviewed articles have been written challenging the legitimacy of India as a unified entity and of Indian-ness as a pre-existing construct. Many go so far as to label Hinduism, the world’s third largest religion, as a group of Indian religions. Ramayana and Mahabharata have been transformed into myths and fables, and even a small degree of historicity is automatically denied.

In order to deny the antiquity of Hindu thought and culture, very late dates are proposed for many important historical events, personalities and markers. The narrative has taken a particularly offensive, divisive and demeaning tone in the last 3-4 decades, with the advent of Leftist  academicians at the helm of Indian education system with overt as well as covert support from various groups like Christian Missionaries, NGO’s and foreign Foundations, whose interests are inimical to Indian interests as a self-respecting Nation.

Every social incident in India is painted with a “caste” or a “communal” brush. Women’s rights violations are perceived, when some women are apparently not allowed to enter a few handful temples, however, there is a studied silence when women activists are refused entry to Haji Ali Dargah.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Godhra riots have been dubbed as “Saffron terrorism” and “Hindu Fascism” and an example of extreme Hindu intolerance towards a minority Muslim community. The roots of all these perceived oppressions in India are usually traced to the core tenets of Hinduism. As many scholars and thinkers have written and pointed out, this type of stereotyping of “caste, cow and curry” has become institutionalized both within and outside India, and internalized even in India.

In this article, I would like to explore some of these issues raised by social scientists and subaltern studies specialists today, by going back 200 years or so, and examining how these “evils” were perceived then by the foreigners and understanding how it was dealt with then. Some of the issues I would like to explore are:

  • The Idea of India
  • Position of Women in Hindu Society
  • Inclusiveness of Hinduism
  • Caste System
  • Muslim conquest of India
  • Architectural and Literary Heritage

These social issues of India today, are apparently traced back to the inherent toxicity, oppressiveness and backwardness of Hinduism. Hence it stands to reason that these issues should have been more pronounced 200 years ago than they are today. After all, today, we have “human rights champions” and foreign-funded NGO’s, who are working hard to save the ‘oppressed’; 200 years ago they were not there.

Therefore, I have considered the works of three very different 19th century foreigners belonging to different nationalities and a completely different world-views and through their works I have attempted to reconstruct India and Indian society of 19th century on the above-mentioned parameters. These works are:

  • Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official, by Sir William Sleeman (1844)
  • From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan, by Helena Pretrovna Blavatsky (1880)
  • India’s Problem Krishna or Christ by John P. Jones (1903)

None of these three people can be considered overly sympathetic to India or Hinduism.

Sir William Sleeman was a British administrator, who spent 35 years of his life in early 19th century in India and closely observed the Indian society, but “his sympathetic insight into Indian life had not Orientalized him, nor had it ever for one moment caused him to forget his position and heritage as an Englishman”. (Sleeman, 1844, p. Foreword)

Blavatsky in 1877

Helena Blavatsky

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the co-founder of the Theosophical Society was of Russian-German origin and born in Ukraine. She was allied with the Arya Samaj for a brief time, but she was more aligned with the Buddhist thoughts and converted to Buddhism.

John P. Jones was a Protestant Christian Missionary from the United States, who joined the Madura Mission of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1878, and was among the founding members of the Union Theological Seminary in Pasumalai (which later became the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary in Madurai).

The Idea of India

Jones describes India of the 19th century as a vast land more “a continent than a country” with 1/5th of the world population being Indians. He describes the Indians as follows: “The inhabitants of India are an ancient people. When thirty centuries ago our ancestors were groveling in the lowest depths of primitive savagery, our fellow-Aryans of India were enjoying a civilization of their own, which was, in its way, unique and distinguished. Their philosophy shows testimony to their ancient glory.” (Jones, 1903)

Many foreign travelers and explorers in India in the 19th century were quick to observe that India of the 19th century did “not present a pale shadow of what it was in the pre-Christian era”. Commenting on the ruins spread all across India, Blavatsky observed that “the neighborhood of every town that has been shattered by many a war, and of every ruined hamlet, is covered with round reddish pebbles, as if with so many petrified tears of blood.” (Blavatsky, 1892)

Sleeman, during his stay in India, met a huge number of pilgrims and describes in his memoirs miraculous stories of sick people getting cured after visiting temples. He also expresses amazement and wonder at the huge distances, which average Hindus would travel during the course of their pilgrimage. He says: “Here were four members of a respectable family walking a pilgrimage of between twelve and fourteen hundred miles, going and coming, and carrying burdens on their shoulders for the recovery of the poor sick boy; and millions of families are every year doing the same from all parts of India. The change of air, and exercise, cured the boy, and no doubt did them all a great deal of good; but no physician in the world, but a religious one could have persuaded them to undertake such a journey for the same purpose.” (Sleeman, 1844)

In other words, India was a continent-like land, with an ancient People with a living Hindu tradition, a civilization, which had been repeatedly invaded, and whose citizens went on pilgrimages extending thousands of miles, and definitely not some “nebulous” idea or a creation of British colonialists or figment of imagination of “Hindu Nationalists”.

The Position of Women

From her travels, Blavatsky (Blavatsky, 1892) learned that Hindu women were always held in very high esteem and were in fact composers of many Hindu religious works. However “with the invasion of the Persians, in the seventh century, and later on, of the fanatical, all-destroying Mussulmans, all this changed. Woman became enslaved”.

Jones describes the women in India in glowing terms and characterizes Indian women as “the ideal home-keeper and housekeeper”. He goes on to say that “she is devoted to her husband, a passionate lover of her children, the conserver of society, the true devotee in religion”.  Yet the impact of sustained foreign invasions had taken a huge toll on the position of women in Indian society. Jones says: “Since the time of the Mohammedan conquest… the higher class of women have mostly led a life of seclusion. This is preeminently true of the northern parts of the country, where Mohammedan influence was strongest and the Hindu had carefully to protect his wife and daughters from the coarse Mussulman.”  (Jones, 1903)

This description of the position of women in Indian Hindu society of the 19th century is at odds with what social scientists and historians would have us believe about historical Hindu society. If anything, women were held in very high esteem by Hindus, but primarily because of external factors, the chief being the Islamic rule of India, women were forced to go into seclusion.

Inclusiveness of Hinduism

Sleeman remarks that Hindus were essentially inclusive, as opposed to the exclusivism inherent in Christianity and Islam. Talking to Mir Salamat, the District Collector, he states that religious inclusiveness was something that the Abrahamic faiths should learn from Hinduism. He says:

“The Hindoo believes that Christians and Musalmans may be as good men in all relations of life as himself, and in as fair a way to heaven as he is; for he believes that my Bible and your Koran are as much revelations framed by the Deity for our guidance, as the Shastras are for his. He doubts not that our Christ was the Son of God, nor that Muhammad was the prophet of God; and all that he asks from us is to allow him freely to believe in his own gods, and to worship in his own way.” (Sleeman, 1844)

Even a staunch Jesuit like Jones had to admit that a “marked feature of the religion of Jesus is its exclusiveness” while he refers to Hinduism as “tolerance incarnate.” He says: “It does not go out of its way to attack other faiths. On the contrary, it generally reaches forward the flag of truce and peace to them.” (Jones, 1903)

It seems strange and incongruous that today Abrahamic religions, which are “intolerance incarnate” and Marxist ideologues who despise alternate views, should accuse Hindus of being intolerant. Those who do not practice either tolerance or plurality, are the one’s pointing fingers at Hindus and Indians.

Caste System

Even in the early 19th century, the so-called “rigid” caste system of India was practically non-existent and instead there was a very fluid social system of castes, wherein people were, in the words of Sleeman, “fiercely proud of their castes and even the very lowest members of society among these Hindoos still feel the pride of caste, and dread exclusion from their own, however low.” In the eyes of the Hindus there was no caste-hierarchy, and no caste believed in the supremacy/ inferiority of each other and complemented each other with their strengths. Sleeman clearly states, based on his extensive 35 years administrative experience on ground across entire India: “Nor does one caste or sect of Hindoos ever believe itself to be alone in the right way, or detest any other for not following in the same path, as they have as much of toleration for each other as they have for us.” (Sleeman, 1844)

However, by late 19th century, especially after the first comprehensive caste-based census by the British Administration, the caste system had transformed from an amorphous loosely-structured dynamic jati – varna dual-construct to a formal rigid one dimensional system. Incidentally, Hindoos of the past were now known as Hindus and Hindostan of the past was now officially India.

Writing about the formal caste system Jones says: “Man is its abject slave—cannot swerve one inch from its dictates; and these reach down to the smallest detail of his life…Thus, every man within the pale of this religion has his social, as his religious, status fixed, unchangeably for him before his birth; and woe be to him who tries to shake off this bondage, or even in a small degree to kick against the pricks.

No better system than this has been devised under heaven to rob man of his birthright of independence and self-respect.” Obviously the only solution as per him was Christianity and he says: “The religion of Jesus fosters progress. Not only do we behold Christian nations the most progressive, we also find that as this faith obtains in its purity, so do its votaries enjoy the large spirit and results of progress, both in religion, science, the arts and in civilization.” (Jones, 1903)

The belief that Christianity was the solution to all evils was propagated then as it is now. And once again it was the American Missionaries who were at the forefront of “organized conversion” and professionalization of the proselytizing industry.

Muslim Conquest of India

Jones describes how Islam came to India in 711 CE “at the point of sword” and that “its establishment and success for centuries was owing to the same method”. However he also observes that the adherents of Islam possessed “a great deal of religious bigotry, which is entrenched behind their dense ignorance”. (Jones, 1903) Sleeman says that after the establishment of Muslim rule in India almost all cities under them “within the wide range of their conquest, became deserted as the necessary consequence, as the military establishments were all destroyed or disbanded, and the religions establishments scattered, their lands confiscated, their idols broken, and their temples either reduced to ruins in the first ebullition of fanatical zeal.”

During Aurangzeb and his successor’s reigns “Hindoo’s presence was hardly tolerated” and they used to be “hunted down like a mad dog”. Muslims would often, when they felt slighted, “throw the flesh or the blood of the cow into the first Hindoo temple at hand”. (Sleeman, 1844) However, unlike today’s secular Hindus of Nehruvian mold and non-violent Hindus of the Gandhian mold, the Hindu’s of the historical period would respond to Islamic aggression in the same way, using similar means as the aggressors.

Architectural and Literary Heritage

Blavatsky observed that the Hindus had historically been a race, who valued and preserved their heritage, even when “those memorials were Buddhist, or belonged to some other unpopular sect” and that Hindus were not given to “senseless vandalism”. This was in stark contrast to “either Mussulmans, or the Portuguese under the guidance of the Jesuits”, whom she dubbed as “fanatics” and whose “ruinous vengeance” led to the large scale destruction and desecration of Hindu monuments and temples. (Blavatsky, 1892)

The British records admit that “Aurangzeb, though possibly credited with more destruction than he accomplished, did really destroy many hundreds of Hindoo temples. A historian mentions the demolition of 262 at three places in Rajputana in a single year (A.D. 1679-80)”. The Qutub mosque in Delhi “was constructed from the materials of twenty seven Hindoo temples. The colonnades retain much of their Hindoo character.”

Unlike today’s English educated Indian populace, the Hindus in the early 1800’s believed in the antiquity and historicity behind Ramayana and Mahabharata events and firmly believed that they were “written either by the hand or by the inspiration of the god himself”. However the British administrators and Christian missionaries were convinced that all the Hindu itihas texts were “of comparatively recent date that the great poem of the Mahabharata could not have been written before the year 786 of the Christian era, and was probably written so late as A.D. 1157”. They doubted the historicity of Krishna and believed that Krishna was mythical and that he “was most likely a mere creation of the imagination to serve the purpose of the Brahmans of Ujjain, in whom the fiction originated,” so that they could “check the progress of Christianity in that part of the world.” (Sleeman, 1844)


Some of the key takeaways regarding 19th Century India in the eyes of foreigners are as follows:

  1. India is not and never was an idea, but rather a huge continent-like landmass, with population crisscrossing its geographies on long-distance pilgrimages. It was an ancient land with an ancient people, who had suffered horrendous and savage conquests, but were still managing to exist and flourish.
  2. The so-called codified rigid caste system was practically non-existent till 1850’s and caste mobility was quite common. People were also fiercely proud of their own castes, including people from the so called lower castes.
  3. Women were always held in very high regards in Hindu society. But repeated foreign invasions and attacks on women, had forced Hindu women to move into seclusion and give up any aspiration for education and other social privileges.
  4. Hinduism was (and still is) an extremely inclusive religion, preaching and practicing plurality. The Abrahamic religions, as per their own followers were exclusivist and spread by violence and organized missionary work.
  5. The denigration of Hindu texts and the peculiar tendency to give very late dates to all Hindu personages and events was directly linked to Christian missionary activities. To counter the strong influence of the Brahmin Pandits on the Hindu population and their ability to prevent the spread of Christianity, a sustained effort was made to denigrate and demonize the Brahmins and their institutions.
  6. Hindus had a very deep reverence for their monuments and buildings. Over centuries, the invading hordes and Jesuits had razed whatever they could get their hands on, yet Hindus continued to preserve and maintain whatever was left untouched or less damaged.

In conclusion, many of the so-called social evils that are present in Hindu society today are a peculiar reaction and in some cases direct result of one thousand years of savage invasions, genocides, slaughter, rape of women by invading hordes, looting, human rights violations and finally the curtailment of the Hindu sense of freedom and way of life by alien exclusivist cultures.


Blavatsky, H. P. (1892). From the caves and jungles of Hindostan. London: Theosophical Publishing Society.

Jones, J. P. (1903). India’s Problem Krishna or Christ. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company.

Sleeman, W. (1844). Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official. London: Hatchard.

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.


Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay

Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay is from a data science background and his research interest includes history, religion and philosophy. He is the author of "The Complete Hindu’s Guide to Islam" and "Ashoka the Ungreat".