The history books our children are reading are full of falsehoods about the history of the Indian peoples. The desecration of Indian history in Indian text books have been discussed ad nauseum.
The desecration includes:
1. The Delhi-centric outlook,
2. The lack of focus on Classical Indian Empires,
3. The silence on medieval Hindu states in Odisha, the South and the Northeast,
4. The lack of discussion about the barbarism of the Delhi Sultans and the Mughals, Indian Arts & Sciences, etc.
So today, we will discuss not Indian history, but, instead, the art of studying Indian history or ‘historiography’.
In the past century, a doctrine known as ‘evolution’ has gained notoriety in what passes for ‘intellectual’ or ‘scholastic’ thought within the general society. Correspondingly, we find that this belief — once restricted to biology — has, with rapidity, been extended into diverse fields — among them, history and historiography.
In spirit of such ‘modern’ ideas, it might be refreshing to trace the origin of Indology from the earliest days in the 18th and early 19th century, and thus demonstrate how the current decrepitude that haunts modern Indology and Indian historiography can be traced back to the papier mache-esque origins of the field. When we do, we discover that, contrary to what has been taught to generations of young Indians, the people usually given the credit for creating modern Indian historiography — the British administrators (or oppressors) — were, in most cases, nothing more than savage vandals and barbarians, only too eager to tear down all they found within the sub-continent.
Suppression of traditional knowledge, disdain for local Indian historians, and hatred for Indian learning in general — and not the preservation of Indian history — was the norm in British India.
In fact, contrary to the ‘history books’ of NCERT and other private bodies, Indian historiography comes almost directly from the pens and records of countless nameless sages and Brahmins whose works only found the light of the day owing to the sacrifices of a few much-derided Hinduphile British officers, often acting in direct opposition to their superiors’ orders and government policy.
The first British scholar of Indian history was also, in almost all ways, the greatest. Sir William Jones not only laid the foundation of the Asiatic Society — the first scholastic body meant for the discovery and study of Indological texts — but was also almost unprecedented, and, as it would turn out, unique in his appreciation and treasuring of Indian texts.
One of the foremost intellectuals of the time, Jones was not only one of the pioneering lights of the modern Indian legal system, but also a close friend of titans of historical studies such as the great Edward Gibbon, writer of the ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, and the East Indian Company Major General Charles “Hindoo” Stewart, one of the first voices to decry Christian evangelism in India.
It will be pertinent to note why exactly such figures featured so prominently in the early days of Company Raj in India.
It was clear, despite the sense of White supremacy that was rampant within British society in India at the time, to almost all contemporaries that the Company, and thus the British, were just one of the powers in India — and by no means, the strongest.
The Marathas had humiliated the Portuguese but recently. Indian states often boasted of better weaponry and industries than the Europeans themselves. Despite the devastation of North India by Afghan raiders a few decades ago, the Maratha resurgence meant that Delhi, Mathura, Agra and dozens of cities from Attock to Cuttack were easily multiple times larger than their European counterparts. Indian art and poetry was well-known and appreciated. Old records were common and well-preserved, unlike the shoddy way they are treated in modern India.
Even though the late 18th century was, by no means, the height of Indian civilization, the British were keenly aware that their control over Bengal was merely the result of Lord Robert Clive’s military genius — and nothing more. William Jones would describe Bengal as “thrown into Britain’s lap by fortune”. Clive himself was more scathing; to him, Calcutta was “one of the most wicked places in the Universe” [sic]. In such times, it was not uncommon for British scholars to approach Indian learning with openness and inquisitiveness; the names of Colebrooke, Prinsep, John Marshall, and Coryat figure prominently in this regard.
But as it turned out, the ascendancy of the East India Company and the march of British armies went hand-in-hand with greater and greater vandalism and disdain for Indian history and learning.
No longer did the British feel any relief or surprise at their sudden rise to power in India. No longer were the sacrifices and efforts of scholar-soldiers like Stewart, Clive and the great Alexander Cunningham, father of Indian Archaeology, given any respect. Working alongside Brahmin jurists and sadhus, once so common, was discouraged and derided. Clearly British domination over India was ordained, as Keay would write, “by the Christian God as the Anglicans would have it, or by history as the Utilitarians preferred”.
What would follow is one of the most devastating, most comprehensive periods of vandalism and loot in world history; a spate of cultural genocide rarely equalled in extent and completeness anywhere.
British understanding of Indian scholarship was always an iffy matter; Jones himself was but the second Englishman to have ever learnt Sanskrit, and it was common for spurious translations and grandiose falsehoods by Western ‘scholars’ to feature in publications, much like the case even now with the persons Shourie described as “eminent historians”. Gatekeepers like Jones and James Prinsep stemmed the tide as much as they could. But for every hero of Indian scholarship and man of integrity the British Raj produced, there were a hundred liars and a thousand plain-faced dacoits.
In 1835, Thomas Macaulay won acclaim by withholding financial assistance from all institutions that used languages other than English.
The period was also marked by the career of Lord Charles Metcalfe, acting Governor-General of India. With a career that marked the Second Anglo-Maratha War among its high-points, Metcalfe was a dedicated enemy of all that was Indian and Hindu, and it was no surprise that Sanskrit, once the lingua franca of the educated classes of India, was virtually outlawed from educated discourse. This sentiment lasts to this day — the urban youth of modern India today till hold Sanskrit in low regard. While Europeans delight in the rediscovery of Latin and Greek records, the mere mention of Classical Indian learning is enough to draw mockery from the educated classes of India.
All this would’ve been damning enough in itself, but the early 19th century was marked by worse.
In the 1850s, after the first excavations at Sarnath, Cunningham wrote, “The remaining statues, upwards of forty in number, together with most of the carved stones… were carted away… and thrown into the Barna River under the bridge…”
This was Cunningham’s first brush with iconoclasts, but by no means his last. Nor was the only “British Brahmin”, as Indologists had come to be mocked by British society, to undergo such travails.
The Stupa of Bharhut was in pieces within a year of discovery, until Cunningham restored it in the 1870s. The Girnar inscription was in ruins, and Prinsep was so terrified of censure from the ‘educated’ British circles, chiefly comprised of Anglican Christians, that he didn’t even ask Lord Auckland for a copy.
No wonder the destruction of temples and the building of Churches over them was a common event in the western coast which picked up in pace after the decline of the Marathas. The Hindu pieces the Church didn’t call for destroying, the more secular British administrators vandalized on their own; a certain Mr Broadley, in Cunningham’s works, delighted in carting off local antiquaries and defacing those he couldn’t with his own graffiti.
Discriminatory laws such as the Arms Act led to the ruin of not only Indian military might, but also Indian military industries, metallurgy, as well as Indian military science and martial arts. In one horrific instance, a Mauryan pillar was used as a road roller. When he visited the Sas-Bahu temple (Sahastra Bahu Temple) at Gwalior, Cunningham observed in shock, “I found the Sanctum empty and the floor of the ante-chamber dug out to a depth of fifteen feet in search of treasure.”
The desecration of Hindu structures didn’t abate even after the war of 1857; indeed the genocide of multiple Indian states, for example, the scouring of the city of Jhansi where the British killed every man, woman, and child within the walls, was accompanied with massive cultural genocide, including looting and destruction of ancient palaces and temples. The French explorer Louis Rousselet savaged British ‘historians’ in an extensive travelogue during the 1860s: “The English are busily employed reducing the need for archaeology… of Indian history. Already all buildings… are reduced to rubble and the same fate is reserved for the rest, even the Jain statues. When I returned in December 1867, the trees had been cut down, the statues shattered by workmen’s picks, and the ravine filled with rubble of the palaces of the Tomars, Chandelas, idols of the Buddhists and Jains.”
More careful criticism was made by the great James Fergusson — the pre-eminent doyen of Indian architecture. While he did lack a proper education — and thus was noted by more educated men like Cunningham for his sub-par scholarship — it is to Fergusson to whom we owe the preservation of what little remains of Classical Hindu structures. He painstakingly noted down the details of the Hindu structures which had avoided Islamic and British desecration. He lobbied incessantly to stop the ongoing devastation of Indian history by uncaring British administrators and governors. He called again and again for the preservation of Indian history and the creation of Societies to work in this regard.
For we must mark that even nearly a century after Jones there was simply no proper organization meant to preserve and champion the cause of Indian history.
The ASI was a toothless body, undermanned, underfunded, and little used; the chief figure of ire in the works of Cunningham, Fergusson, and Havel. The Asiatic Society itself primarily survived owing to the attentions of rich Frenchmen and Germans, primarily owing to the fame of its august founder Sir William Jones. The same names — Prinsep, Cunningham, Coryat — feature again and again in a study of Indology, for there were simply so few people studying Indian history at any point of time!
The sorry state of Indian historiography in those early days also has led to inconsistencies of the general understanding of India history — to a degree that affects Indology to this day.
Neither Stewart nor Cunningham nor Jones nor Fergusson had the time or energy to study Peninsular Indian history, and so left the field open to the very Anglican evangelists they so detested — owing to which absurdities like the Dravidian theory sprang up, a horror that threatens to destroy India even now.
Cunningham — because of his primary field of work being the Stupas at Sarnath and Bharhut — and in order to take advantage of the Continental interest in the Buddha’s teachings — focussed primarily on similar relics to the detriment of Classical remains; and as a result Indian text books, to this day, maintain a suspicious silence on post-Ashoka history. Fergusson was a Romanophile — and criticized by Cunningham, as described earlier — who believed that Indian art, sculpture, architecture, literature, etc, was all owing to the ‘Alexander invasion’. And, therefore, even now the average Indian youth is incapable of imagining that Indians can be capable of creating something by themselves even though Fergusson’s theories were disproved by Edward Havel years ago.
The objective behind this essay is not to criticize the British scholars who laid the foundation of Indology — often in opposition to their own government, the mockery of their countrymen, as well as their own often sorry personal lives.
Prinsep died insane and alone after his struggles to rediscover the Mauryan Empire. For 30 years, Cunningham wandered the length and breadth of India alone even though his position of Major General could’ve assured him a life of utmost luxury and depravity. Ernest Binfield Havell went against not only the dictates of his own superiors, but also conventional Indology, when he fought for an Indian origin for Indian arts.
Proponents of ‘Evolution’ often claim that it is the fate of all to move forward, to progress, to grow, and yet we find that these modern minds — contrary to what they champion — have not only failed to progress the cause of Indology, as laid down by these illustrious men, but actively worked against all they once stood for.
The Indian ‘sense of history’ is as absent as is the Indian ‘sense of purpose’.
Indian youth do not gaze in wonder at the Ajanta frescoes — as Major Robert Gill once did — and wonder how the art forms arose, how the techniques might’ve developed, and where the earlier iterations might be found. Indian youth do not see the Ajanta frescoes as part of a greater living tradition of Indian art, but as a flash in the pan made by nameless proles for nameless reasons to pass the time before the great communist revolution comes to liberate them — probably the way Stalin liberated 30 million Soviets of their very lives.
Indian youth do not marvel at the achievements of Sanskrit drama the way even Company subalterns once did two centuries ago. No, why should they, when Mao and Marx so valiantly call upon them to spit upon their ancestors and take up arms against their own people?
John Le Marchant was inspired by the Talwar to create the 1796 pattern cavalry sword to protect his beloved Britain. Our ‘youth’ (read Naxals) are inspired to use Chinese knockoffs of the Soviet AK47 to gun down Indian policemen.
Colin Mackenzie and Francis Buchanan once praised the love the people of Kerala and Tamil Nadu bore for all animals, especially cattle, and their practice of vegetarianism. Now Indian youth have made the slaughter of cows and the hankering after beef their stock-in-trade.
James Prinsep made the rediscovery of lost Indian tongues his goal — and gave his very life for the task. Today’s youth spit upon Sanskrit and make the very texts and mantras Prinsep so loved the target of their foul jokes.
For over a century, Indian history has not only failed to progress, it has actively and continually regressed. And modern Indian youth have the gall to mindlessly parrot odes to ‘modernism’ and the theories of their god Darwin? Men who can’t name their grandfathers will now teach us the joys of knowledge? Ignorance, mediocrity, and futility are the byword for Indian youth, more British than the vandals of the East Indian Company itself. Disdain the Mleccha, as Kamandaki once warned the Bharatas. But now Bharata is long gone and so are the Guptas who once defended the lands of Bharatavarsha. Who will succour the temples of our ancestors and the teachings of the Vedas now?