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November 7, 2010

Page: 27/37

Home > 2010 Issues > November 07, 2010


An intellectual approach to 200 years of Indian history

By MV Kamath

An Intellectual History For India, edited by Shruti Kapila, Cambridge, Pp 155 (PB), Rs. 495

WHAT intellectual changes took place in India in the last two hundred years? We are familiar with the changes in the political field. We are aware of what happened, say, from the fall of Tipu Sultan at the Battle of Scringapatam in 1798 to the present times. Indeed, the history of colonial India has been written and over-written, none, sadly telling the whole truth. During the British days it did not serve London’s interest in detailing the atrocities committed by the Mughal rulers in Delhi and in subaltern areas like Bhopal, Hyderabad and Mysore under Muslim rule. Indian scholars were not taken very seriously. Even an Indian study of Sanskrit literature was not given as much importance as translated versions of Vedic and other classics by foreigners, especially Germans. How deep was the impact of "modernism" howsoever defined, on India?

It may be remembered that it was Bengal that first came under British dominance and Bengal had the reputation of being high on the intellectual list. Let it be realised that time was when it was accepted that "modernism" originated in Europe. Even granted that, in India, under Islamic rule, as Faisal Devji, one of the contributors to this excellent volume notes, "Muslims were neither able to participate in European discussion about their modernity nor to be acknowledged in them." For years Islam and modernity remained antithetical. Modernism in India began among the Hindus in Bengal that was to lead to the establishment of the Brahmo Samaj. But at the same time, Indian - call them Hindu - scholars had come to question the authenticity of translations of Sanskrit classics by foreigners. Controversies naturally arose. In the chapter on "Contesting Translation" and interpretations of the Vedas, Michael S. Dodson takes note of the conflict between Indian and foreign scholars in the matter of accurate representation of Indian thought.

Dodson notes that "while some Europeans, like Theordor Goldstucker, professor of Sanskrit at University College, London continued to defend the value of Indian commentaries for interpreting the Vedas, others, like John Muir argued in 1866 that no one interpretative strategy could be adequate to solve the problem inherent in understanding the Vedas. One of the most vocal critics of European Orientalism who engaged explicitly in the critique of Erupean representations of Hindu religious doctrine and history was Pramadadas Mittra. As Dodson put it "in any case, Mittra thought that Sanskrit scholarship in Benares was not yet in such a pitiable state as to require the pandits to resort to European Orientalist works in order to gain a correct knowledge of their own religion and philosophy." Mittra thus took particular issue with John Muir’s view of the Vedic God, Rudra, whom Muir had characterised as "originally a demon worshipped by the aborigines as the lord of evil spirits and subsequently introduced into Aryan worship". Mittra argued that Rudra was properly understood as "the immortal and undecaying lord of life and death as well as immortality ...." What this shows is that, though Indians were under colonial domination and often suffered from an enormous inferiority complex, they nevertheless had courage to stand up to misrepresentations of their gods and religion by outside forces.

This book consists of nine chapters, each one written by a knowledgeable ‘outsider’. The subjects covered "range from Rammohan Roy and the Advent of Constitutional Liberalism in India" to "Geographics of Subjectivity" and "Pan-Islam and Muslim Separatism". Chapters of especial interest are ones dealing with "The Spirit and Form of an Ethical Polity", "A Meditation on Aurobindo’s Thought" and "Striking a Just Galance: Maulana Azad as a Theorist of Transnational Jihad". It is particularly fascinating to learn that in the journal that he edited in 1912, Al Hilal, Azad who was then a young man, expounded his view on jihad as "legitimate anti-colonial struggle".

Writes Ayesha Jalal (Tufts University): "Peppered with Quranic quotes, the paper was designed to stir Muslim sympathies for co-religionists fighting imperialist powers in Asia and Africa". Article after article in Al Hilal extolled the gallant Muslim resisting European aggression in the charred and bloodied battlefields of Tripoli and the Balkans. Azad’s message, writes Ayesha Jalal "was evocative and unequivocal".

Among other things that Azad wrote are quotes such as: "When disequilibrium exceeds all limits, the sword has to be brandished. To humiliate those who numiliate is in accordance with God’s mercy and love."

In an afterword, CA Bayly from Cambridge University makes a relevant point. He writes: "The modern intellectual history of India even more than that of China and Japan, complicates and subverts the distinction between the western and the oriental. Modern Indian intellectual history attests to the virtuousity of Indian thinking about modernity. While its thinkers were all afflicted by a melancholy born of their subject status, they displayed an extraordinary receptiveness to outside forms combined with a capacity to authorise their own distinctive contributions to a global debate. The decolonisation of the mind long pre-dated political decolonisation and also transcended its concern with the re-armament of the self and humanity as a whole." A pity that Bayly never read Indian literature in the Indian languages. He would have come to the right conclusion with even more conviction. India, one suspects, has moved into modernism faster than many are aware of but mostly in urgan areas. Still, progress is progress and the point is that it is catching up fast enough even in rural areas.

(Cambridge University Press India Private Limited, Cambridge House, 4381/4, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110 002

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