By A.L. Basham
From the days of Ram Mohan Roy young Indians, at first very few but soon in greater numbers, began to come to England for education. The little band of Hindus educated on Western lines, first in Bengal and then in other parts of India, tended to go further in the rejection of their own culture than did their descendants; they were fully conscious of the degeneracy which beset their land, and many seem to have been rather ashamed of their Hindu background. The Sepoy Revolt, which was fundamentally reactionary, found no support among this tiny Westernised intelligentsia. The universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, founded in 1857, the year of the Revolt, at first paid scant attention to the ancient culture of India and taught a predominantly Western curriculum through Western staff.
By the end of the 19th century, however, the situation had changed. A new generation began to realise that Hindu culture had much of permanent value, and that the slavish imitation of the West could not solve India´s problems. New organisations gave expression to this outlook. The Arya Samaj claimed to reform Hinduism by purging it of all later degenerate features by a return to the Vedas, very liberally interpreted, and had considerable success. The Indian National Congress, founded in 1885, became the mouthpiece of Indian public opinion. Newspapers in English and the vernaculars multiplied.
Not only was Hindu culture largely rehabilitated in the eyes of intelligent Hindus, but it even began to make counter-propaganda. A few learned Europeans and Americans had long recognised the nobility of much ancient Indian religious thought. Now, through the Theosophical Society (which, despite its claim to represent the quintessence of all religions, propagates a modernised Hinduism) and the Ramakrishna Mission, the voice of Hinduism was heard in the West. Swami Vivekananda (1862-1902), a splendid speaker of great spiritual power and personal magnetism, preached Hinduism to large audiences in Europe and America and found willing hearers. Here and there Indians abjured the West, root and branch, and fanatically defended even those aspects of Hinduism which had completely outlived their usefulness; but, despite these reactionaries, the new Hinduism was very different from the old.
Ram Mohan Roy had sounded the theme with his passionate advocacy of social reform; Vivekananda repeated it with a more nationalist timbre, when he declared that the highest form of service of the great Mother was social service. Other great Indians, chief of whom was Mahatma Gandhi, developed the theme of social service as a religious duty, and the development continues under Gandhi´s successors.
Mahatma Gandhi was looked on by many, both Indian and European, as the epitome of Hindu tradition, but this is a false judgement for he was much influenced by Western ideas. Gandhi believed in the fundamentals of his ancient culture, but his passionate love of the underdog and his antipathy to caste, though not unprecedented in ancient India, were unorthodox in the extreme, and owed more to European 19th-century liberalism than to anything Indian. His faith in non-violence was, as we have seen, by no means typical of Hinduism?his predecessor in revolt, the able Maratha brahman B.G. Tilak, and Gandhi´s impatient lieutenant Subhas Chandra Bose were far more orthodox in this respect. For Gandhi´s pacifism we must look mainly to the sermon on the Mount and to Tolstoy. His championing of women´s rights is also the result of Western influence. In his social context he was always rather an innovator than a conservative. Though some of his colleagues thought his programme of social reform too slow, he succeeded in shifting the whole emphasis of Hindu thought towards a popular and equalitarian social order, in place of the hierarchy of class and caste. Following up the work of many less well-known 19th-century reformers, Gandhi and his followers gave a new orientation and new life to Hindu culture, after centuries of stagnation.
Today there are few Indians, whatever their creed, who do not look back with pride on their ancient culture, and there are few intelligent Indians who are not willing to sacrifice some of its effete elements that India may develop and progress. Politically and economically India faces many problems of great difficulty, and no one can forecast her future with any certainty. But it is to be hoped that, whatever that future may be, the Indians of coming generations will not be unconvincing and self-conscious copies of Europeans, but will be men rooted in their own traditions, and aware of the continuity of their culture. Already the extremes of national self-denigration and fanatical cultural chauvinism are disappearing. In the past Hindu civilisation has received, adapted and digested elements of many different cultures?Indo-European, Mesopotamian, Iranian, Greek, Roman, Scythian, Turkish, Persian and Arab. With each new influence it has somewhat changed. Now it is well on the way to assimilating the culture of the West.
Hindu civilisation will, we believe, retain its continuity. The Bhagavad Gita will not cease to inspire men of action, and the Upanisads, men of thought. The charm and graciousness of the Indian way of life will continue, however much affected it may be by the labour-saving devices of the West. People will still love the tales of the heroes of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and of the loves of Dusyanta and Sakuntala and Pururavas and Urvasi. The quiet and gentle happiness which has at all times pervaded Indian life where oppression, disease and poverty have not overclouded it will surely not vanish before the more hectic ways of the West.
Much that was useless in ancient Indian culture has already perished. The extravagant and barbarous hecatombs of the Vedic age have long since been forgotten, though animal sacrifice continues in some sects. Widows have long ceased to be burnt on their husbands´ pyres. Girls may not by law be married in childhood. In buses and trains all over India, brahmans rub shoulders with the lower castes without consciousness of grave pollution, and the temples are open to all by law. Caste is vanishing; the process began long ago, but its pace is now so rapid that the more objectionable features of caste may have disappeared within a generation or so. The old family system is adapting itself to present-day conditions. In fact the whole face of India is altering, but the cultural tradition continues, and it will never be lost.
(To be concluded)
(Extracted from The Wonder that was India, by A.L. Basham, first published in 1954 by Rupa & Co, Delhi.)