Indology and Indologists – Flattering to Deceive — Part I
Picture courtesy: Indology Academy
India has fascinated foreigners since time immemorial. Many travelled to India, spent much time, sought to study and report on our ways, beliefs, attitudes, and achievements, or what they saw were “strange” habits and customs. Thus, Indology, the “modern” academic study of the history, culture, and literature of India, with its home mostly in Europe, and now in the US, has been mostly a non-Indian enterprise. Before flattering ourselves about the interest of these international academics in India, it is important to know that many of these Indologists pursued and pursue their study of India following an agenda – whether it be using certain kinds of theoretical lenses, fashioned in their domestic academic institutions, or by their commitment to a religious or political ideology. Compared to the interest and work of modern Indologist, Greek and Roman descriptions of Indian systems were more straightforward, with little moral judgement.
Indological studies got a major boost when German and English scholars began to discover Indian texts and study them. These scholars were part of their countries’ colonial enterprises, and their study of India therefore had other ulterior purposes. Their initial sense of awe and wonder when they began to study Indian texts rapidly dissipated into a more practical concern about how to fashion their analyses of India and Indians in support of the colonial enterprise — to continue to conquer and retain power over the “heathen” other. Their attempts to study the other was therefore to control and limit the other. In modern terminology, the “deconstruction” of India was not to understand India but to bring India within their “intellectual” control.
The most noxious version of Indology emerged from German universities. Their racist ideas, especially the Aryan theory, spelled doom for India. Though there was determined resistance by a few Indian and western Indologists, the dominant social narrative regarding India was set by the west.
Indological studies have immensely damaged Indians, their sense of self, and their ability to seriously challenge the claims and assertions about their life, culture, and beliefs. Post-independent India accepted the narratives of the colonial era when a left-dominated academia kept these western discourses intact. The loci shifted from Europe to the USA after World War II, where the old, racist, imperialist, Christian-influenced narratives about India continued but with the added doses of Marxist theories and new-fangled continental theories – from deconstruction and postmodernism to feminism and Freudianism. The dense language of contemporary Indologists makes their ideas opaque to most unsuspecting Indians, but they either betray a deep antipathy towards Indian cultural and traditional systems or their chosen lens for studying India and Indians are clouded, cracked, and misshapen.
A snapshot of some of the work by influential Indologists across time follows next:
Greek and Roman Indology of Ancient Times
Grant Parker (The Making of Roman India), in a meticulous detailing of India during the Roman times, says that “Roman India” is a paradox since no Roman commander ever conquered India. Alexander of Macedon (356 BCE–323 BCE), a central point of many Greek and Roman writings on India, could just be a Roman construct, making him “The Great”. After Alexander, India gained a place in later Roman minds as the ultimate exotic land. The earliest descriptions, true or apocryphal, are in the accounts of Apollonius and the Apostle Thomas. Both travel along routes that correspond with networks of commodity exchange. Similar to these two documents is an anonymous document, “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea” (CE 40–70), a sea captain’s manual describing Indian ports.
Parker identifies four broad phases of Indography. The first two phases are in Greek: pre-Alexander and post-Alexander writings. Herodotus and Ctesias (mid- and late-fifth century BCE, respectively) were the pre-Alexander writers. For Ctesias, India was an exotic land of marvel and wonder. Herodotus describes India as one of the twenty satrapies of Darius’ Achaemenid empire, paying the maximum treaty. The post-Alexander Greek writings show greater interaction between Greek and non-Greek people in Asia. Megasthenes (350 BCE–290 BCE), travelling just a few years after Alexander, to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, was important for future writers. His original writings on a rich and beautiful India, and especially Patna, have not survived but persist in the Hellenic (Greek) writings on India. Greek writings did not have elements of judgement. Arrian’s Indica (second century CE) describes ancient India in detail, with references to Alexander even after four and a half centuries.
The Roman phase, the third phase, of writings on India appealed to their earlier predecessors. During the period of Augustus (63 BCE–14 CE), India marked the easternmost point of the Roman empire. Strabo (63 BCE–24 CE), a Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian, described the unwarlike, simple, and honest Indian people. Diodorus mentions warring soldiers leaving agricultural workers unharmed during wars and the clear absence of slavery in Indian society. Pliny’s Natural History, Strabo’s Geography, and Ptolemy’s Geography reveal topographic and geographic knowledge, the last being the most technical and scientific, including knowledge of the Bay of Bengal. In a Rome-centred perspective, India was a source of commodities, including spices, fabrics, and precious stones; the end point of empire; and a source of special wisdom (the “naked philosophers,” or Gymnosophistae). The last also featured in the accounts of pre-Socratics like Apollonius and Pythagoras.
Curtius Rufus, in the first century CE, describes the geographical orientation of India, the rivers, the flora, and the fauna. From land to people, he describes Indian customs and manners, and there is a slow transition to a moral language while describing the decadent lifestyles of kings. India’s profound strangeness becomes vogue with several explicit comparisons with the Nile of Egypt, the animals of Africa, Persian hunting, and so on. There is suspicion that much of the description emanated from the rhetorical traditions of Rome, as Curtius does not offer any references in support of his claims.
The Christian phase, or the fourth phase of Indography rests heavily on the Augustan discourse about empire. The early fifth-century world history by Orosius starts mentioning the Christian mission. The Macedonian’s plea, “Come and help us,” in Paul’s dream had obvious implications for India, not only for its remoteness but also for the tenacity of its religious traditions centred on Brahmans and Gymnosophists. This needed more urgent missionary activity. By the fifth and sixth centuries CE, India’s place at the far eastern edge was already in the mental matrix represented in the world maps of Orosius and Isidore.
Al-Biruni and Ibn Battuta
Al-Biruni (973 CE–1050 CE), an Iranian polymath with the reputation of being one of the greatest scholars in the mediaeval Islamic era, accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni on his invasions. His major contribution was the translation of the works of Aryabhata and Patanjali into Arabic. He was reasonably neutral in his assessments of India, as scholars say. Al-Baruni’s fame as an Indologist rests also on a work called Tārīkh al-Hind, which describes nearly every aspect of Indian life. He makes a connection between Greek and Indian thoughts and analyses the antipathy between Hindus and Muslims. Some claim that his translations of Indian mathematics, science, medicine, astronomy, and other arts into Arabic became a source for the sciences of later European Enlightenment.
Ibn Battuta describes India and Tughluk’s ruthless rule (with some glee) in his Rihla. Some of his narratives look fantastic, but his descriptions of India were from an Islamic perspective. He enters India through Afghanistan in 1332 CE, during the time of Mohammed Bin Tughlak, and becomes a judge. He describes the Hindu-Kush mountains as “Hindu-slayers,” because most of the slaves brought from India died of intense cold while crossing the Hindu Kush. His adventures fill the pages of Rihla as he describes his Indian travels to places like Malabar and Calicut on his way to the Maldives and then China.
“Crafty Brahmins and the Caste System” — Descriptions in Early Muslim Writings: The Role of Al-Biruni
Dunkin Jalki (2022) has described how the present central role of the “crafty and ostentatious” Brahmins in the caste system originated from early Muslim writings (8th to 11th centuries). The earliest Muslim and Jewish scholars spoke about an enigmatic Indian group of intellectuals called al-Barahima, and scholarly consensus identifies them as the Brahmins of India.
Al-Barahima, first appearing in the works of late-eighth-century Muslim scholars, are scholarly people from India, but by the mid-ninth century, they came to be represented as a group of people overtly antithetical to Islamic ideals. In a world categorized into four groups (Muslims, believers of a holy book mentioned in the Quran, believers of a holy book not approved by the Quran, and infidels), a Muslim theologian finally placed al-Barahima in the last category as an “idol worshipper”. The late-ninth and early-tenth centuries saw the development of an Islamic universal history, says Jalki. Hind and Barahima became prominent in their writings. By the 11th century, “Hindu” had become synonymous with highway robbers, thieves, moneylenders, and finally “slaves”.
In the late 10th century, Al-Biruni consolidated the popular discourse. Using Indian scriptures, historical precedents, and the sociological facts of India around him, Al-Biruni linked Barahima and Brahmana to build a hybrid entity: flesh-and-blood human beings (real and imaginary), a conceptual idea of the wise person (Brahmana as a way of referring to a jnani), a sociological idea of a social class (Kshatriya or Brahmana varna), and so on. After Al-Biruni, Muslim scholars began to write about them as boastful, ignorant, crafty, and even cruel people, much like the immoral and corrupt Brahmin priests that Indologists would describe a millennium later.
Al-Biruni offered the four-fold division of Indian society with some outcaste groups. He described the spiritual and social hierarchy as a prominent aspect of Indian society, as per divine sanction and as he understood from his readings of the Bhagavad Gita. The Barahima thus get transformed into failed elites-cum-priests. Muslim scholars post-thirteenth century, when the Delhi Sultanate emerged, concerned themselves with the fate of Muslim communities in the sub-continent rather than the nature of Indian religions. Yet, as Dunkin Jalki says, in the Muslim writings of the thirteenth century, Brahmins were neither the informed rationalists nor the “perverse and wicked a set as can anywhere be found,” as Saint Francis Xavier called them about three centuries later. Jalki suggests more research to find out if the Muslim image of Brahmins had any bearing on the later Christian one.
Jalki’s research into Shaiva texts (5th to 11th century CE) or the Kannada Lingayat texts (post-11th century) neither portrays a Brahmin nor speaks about “caste” the way Muslim scholars like Al-Biruni do. Thus, he contends that irrespective of what was happening in India, the Brahmin figure that Al-Biruni writes about is absent in Indian literature, and we must look elsewhere for its origin and development. Strikingly, the contemporary story of the caste system does not seem to diverge much from its Muslim version.
William Jones: Serious Indology Begins
William Jones (1746–1794) has acquired the hoary status of being the first Orientalist to popularize the study of India (Indology) and its languages (Philology). He connected European languages and Sanskrit to propose the Indo-European family of languages. In 1784, he founded the Asiatic Society in Calcutta (Kolkata) and started the journal Asiatick Researches. The membership was open to only the British. Swagato Ganguly (Idolatry and the Colonial Idea of India) says William Jones, who composed “A Hymn to Lacshmi,” an invocation to Goddess Lakshmi to deliver Hindus from the evil priests to the British empire, inscribed the Orientalist view of the imperial civilizing mission.
Jones immersed himself in searching for a primaeval text in Hindu scriptures that could link to the original Christian revelation to a single people who dispersed to various parts of the world. Unlike most other Indologists, old and new, Jones learned Sanskrit, but the reasons were not amiable or well-disposed. He said, “The villainy of the Brahmen lawyers makes it necessary for me to learn Sanscrit, which is as difficult as Greek.” Jones managed to translate and interpret the Gayatri mantra too as a non-idolatrous monotheistic form, which was an act of epistemic violence, says Ganguly. Jones identified poetry, fables, and metaphors as corrupted versions of the original accounts of biblical history.
British scholars following him conveniently connected the heterogeneity of Indian texts to idolatry — an endless proliferation of images and meanings. Idolatry implied fracture of subjectivity and truth. The link between forgery, idolatry, and spiritual fraud emerges as a crucial site for the exercise of colonial power. Jones describes Europe as a sovereign princess and Asia as her handmaid. Lord Hastings was a quicker draw when he wrote on October 2, 1813, the day he arrived in India as Governor General, that “The Hindoo appears a being nearly limited to mere animal functions… with no higher intellect than a dog or an elephant or a monkey….”
James Mill (1773-1836) and Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859): The Polemical Attacks
Mill’s polemical “The History of British India” was a necessary manual for British officers posted to and traveling to India. Surprisingly, James Mill thought it unnecessary to set foot on Indian soil before writing its history. “Western metaphysics” ran through his history, giving more privilege to philosophizing than observing and to ideas than images. Mill claimed his “history” offered a “knowledge of India, approaching completeness.”
Based on his “utilitarian” normative standards, India ranked low among civilizations where liberty would be incompatible with the maximization of utility. For Mill, idolatry and the imaginative Hindu faculty explained the Hindu inability to form a nation-state. Hindu gods represented irrationality and social pathology, and society needed reformation through external invasion and conquest. “Of the Hindus,” comprising ten chapters, is the single most important source of British Indophobia, according to scholars. Mill’s description of Hindus included words like deceit, perfidy, insincerity, mendacity, indifference, prostitution, venality, penurious, eunuch-like, slave-like, dissembling, treacherous, uncultivated, prone to excessive exaggeration, cowardly, unfeeling, conceited, contemptuous, and disgustingly physically unclean. No wonder the colonials thought poorly of Indians and Hindus.
The infamous Macaulay landed in Calcutta to serve in the “Supreme Council of India”. His “Minute on Indian Education” said it all about what the colonials thought about India: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions we govern; a class of persons Indian in blood and colour but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”
A letter to his father is a summary of the colonial intentions: “No Hindoo who has received an English education ever continues to be sincerely attached to his religion…. The Hindoo religion is so extravagantly absurd that it is impossible to teach a boy astronomy, geography, or natural history without completely destroying the hold that religion has on his mind.… If our plan of education is followed up, there will not be a single idolater among respectable classes in Bengal thirty years hence. And this will be effected without any efforts to proselytise, without the smallest interference with religious liberty…. I heartily rejoice in this prospect.”
The Orientalism of Friedrich Max Müller: Love for India?
Max Müller, a German-born Orientalist, lived in Britain for most of his life. He was one of the founders of the western academic field of Indian studies. The “Sacred Books of the East,” a 50-volume set, was his major work. He is largely responsible for the popularization of the Aryan theory. Unfortunately, his ideas still embed themselves in modern day narratives of Dravidian and Indian politics. Using the letters written to his mother, his autobiography, and the biography written by his English wife, Prodosh Aich (“Lies with Long Legs” and “Truths“) deconstructs Max Müller. An academic failure, he did not have degrees with him from any university. He was on the payroll of the East India Company, especially chosen by Macaulay, to challenge if not undermine Hindu scriptures. He never set foot on Indian soil.
What is evident is his theological bias in translating the Vedas and Indian scriptures, and his attempts to arguing for the supremacy of Christianity. He believed in an original, pure, and sensible Vedic Hinduism devoid of idolatry, peaking at the time of the Upanishads. He was enthusiastic in his support of the Brahmo Samaj’s efforts to cleanse Hinduism of its idolatrous elements and elevate it to a pristine and monotheistic Hinduism. Swagato Ganguly informs us that Müller’s biographer, Nirad C. Chaudhari, says that towards the end of his life, Müller tried to persuade the adherents of the Brahmo Samaj to declare themselves Christians. He separated the “metaphysical” India from the “physical” one — the superior past from the degraded present — so much so that Müller thought it fit to censor an references to sex and sexual material from Eastern religious texts because he found them to signify the animalistic character of the ancient peoples.
Swagato Ganguly says that Müller accepted Hegel’s idea that “Hindu political existence presents us with a people but no state”. However, according to Ganguly, Müller revalorizes it to make India the home of a transcendental spirituality. This has paradoxical effects: on the one hand, it implies that India’s political rule is best under the British, but on the other, it enables a nationalism premised on the fulfilment of a transcendental spirituality as India’s unique world-historical destiny. Müller concludes, “The religion is still professed by at least 110,000,000 human souls… and yet I do not shrink from saying that their religion is dying or dead”.
German Indology presents the most noxious versions of Indians, Hindus, and Hinduism. As scholar Ed Butler says, it was a systematic effort over 150 years to delegitimize India’s indigenous intellectual traditions to secure control over the interpretation of India’s sacred texts in the interest of a thinly veiled theological agenda. Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee (The Nay Science) show the dubious and motivated nature of German Indology.
Historicizing scriptures like the Mahabharata was crucial to colonizing India intellectually. The German method for reading the manuscripts was a historical-critical approach, a reading of the Mahabharata and the Gita through the prism of time and history. From a historical perspective, Indologists could use the texts to construct a history of ancient India and how it was related to the mythical Aryan race. According to them, Aryans of Germany and Europe came to India, fought the dark Dravidian warriors, and drove them south. This was a popular theme among Indologists. As Adluri and Bagchi demonstrate, German Indological research on the Mahabharata, Gita, and other Sanskrit textss was essentially anti-Semitic and anti-Brahminic to serve a Protestant theology.
The Mahabharata unsettles notions of authorship, as Vyasa is both the author and a character in the story. For these Indologists, the Mahabharata was a “monstrous and chaotic” epic. Their thesis and scholarship revolved around the strong idea of a basic “core” Kaurava-Pandava Kurukshetra war. Added layers over time corrupted this core, they claim, and they took on the task of revealing the original core, originally connected with the brave Aryans of the German past, later morphing into the Kshatriyas. The Kurukshetra war was between the White Aryans and the Black Dravidians, they claimed. They perceive all kinds of racial and religious elements in the texts. And who, according to them, corrupted a primary, pure narrative with toxic philosophical and theological chemicals? The Brahmins, of course, who systematically neglected, obscured, and falsified history. German Indology, trapped in its own problems of Catholicism, Protestantism, priestly hegemony, and religious frictions, interpreted our scriptures through its own prisms and lenses.
Other interpretations and retellings included the Pandavas as a primitive tribe and not truly Aryans; Krishna as a mean politician who never fights but instigates; the Kauravas as the original heroes; and so on. The roots of this text were, of course, in some ancient, untraceable German lore, requiring an intensive (and unending) search. The corrupt Brahmin class removed the Kshatriyas from their primary place, and the retelling of the story (redaction) developed Krishna as a god, the Pandavas as heroes, and the Kauravas as villains.
Similarly, the Bhagwad Gita, they argue, was originally a short piece of poetry in which the original hero Duryodhana addresses the Kauravas at the start of the war. It transformed into a huge poem of eighteen chapters, in which Lord Krishna now addresses Arjuna. German scholars mercilessly discarded verses and chapters: one reduced the Gita to only 26 verses, and another called chapter two the end of the book. The original Gita of Indian studies was seriously questioned by a closed circle of German Indologists. The theological-philosophical implications had to be interpolations of the ubiquitous and uncontested corrupt Brahmanical villains, a reflection of their biases against the Catholic priests.
Adluri and Bagchee amply show the fallacy in the historical-critical approach to analyzing the Sanskrit texts. The Germans did not understand the theological-philosophical perspectives of the Mahabharata and the Gita transcending time and place. The reading of scripture/sacred texts needs a grounding in language, grammar, logic, and metre, along with faith and humility, which the Indologists were obviously deficient in. The source for deciphering the texts became an earlier German scholar, and the whole scholarship was based on a close circle of like-minded German Indologists creating and supporting their own interpretations.
The Mahabharata and the Gita are timeless classics, helping to pull humans out of their daily grind. However, the German Indologists set up chairs in their universities and indulged in back patting and internal criticisms propagating the field, producing papers, and ignoring the Indian traditional-commentarial view of scholars like Shankara or Madhva.
A rich tradition of philosophical commentary on the text has existed since at least the tenth century. One Indologist addresses this criticism by saying, “Men so poor in philological training and so rich in melanin could not have a commentarial tradition in the first place”. The most curious fact is that none of these Indologists travelled to India, as chairs were set up in universities to give credibility to their views and opinions. They thought the travel to India and consultations with local scholars was unnecessary, even as they depended on their English and French colleagues to procure manuscripts and texts.
Empiricism, positivism, and historicism became their core methodologies to establish the “scientific” nature of philology (the study of languages) in the Indological enterprise. Adluri shows that these supports for making philology comparable to the natural sciences were deeply flawed. Methods and final conclusions that cannot give rise to any sort of prediction for the future are bad science. Indology also fails in the biggest test of being scientific — “falsifiability”.
The attacks of German Indologists on India were cultural in contrast to the physical ones made by their European neighbors. They are irrelevant today, but they set up racist narratives that have lasted till now, and which in fact is gaining new strength. German Indology was truly a “Nay Science” because it had no positive motivation, such as the upholding of ethical values, say Adluri and Bagchee.
Continued in Part 2
In the next part, we shall see how Indological research moved from Germany to the United States gradually after World War II. Contemporary narratives about India, Indians, Hindus, and Hinduism mostly originate in American universities, but what is peculiar is that the scholarship carries the same continental/colonial/European ideas regarding India. The narratives about Aryan invasion, an exploitative Brahmanical caste system, and a greatly fissured society with no unity have stayed intact in these new American forays. This is despite a phenomenal accumulation of evidence challenging the older theories. Unfortunately, India’s dominant left-Marxist scholars, regional politicians, and sundry activists and bureaucrats, including in the judiciary and mainstream media have imbibed this scholarship during their education and continue to strengthen the narratives stacked against India.
A reference section is also included in Part 2