Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The nature of scholarship in Indology

"To (William) Jones and to the many other European scholars, India owes a deep debt of gratitude for the rediscovery of her past literature... At last he (William Jones) had seemingly discovered the key to just colonial government in the Orient, for which the Indian people people should forever love and be grateful to Europe."

That was the first Prime Minister of independent modern India, Jawaharlal Nehru, in his book "The Discovery of India" paying tribute to British colonizers who wrote on Indian literature. Nehru, of course, was the product of British education and had famously declared, on more than one occasion, he was more an Englishman than an Indian. Macaulay would have applauded at that for Nehru is a prime example of his success in engineering a class of Indian people who would be completely detached from India (see this post for more on that).

To understand the nature of this scholarship, let us go back in time and try to trace it. Some of the earliest foreign records on India can be found in writings of early Greek ambassadors to India. Writings of Megasthenes (350 – 290 BC) are a rich source of such records from the Hellenistic period. His writings recorded India in great detail during the Maurayan period (see previous post on this). The general nature of writings on India began to change during the 1400-1500s AD. This was the time when Europeans began coming to India. On hearing of the rich trade possibilities, European ships began making way to India. By then Christianity had come to Europe and was in full force. Men on these ships to India were not immune to Christianity. This in evident from the writings of the time.

One of the earliest such Europeans was Filippo Sasetti, a Jesuit missionary from Italy. Upon landing in India he saw people different from his own. Indian culture and way of life too was very different for Sasetti. His letters back to his Church are some of the earliest records of that time. He first noticed some similarities between some Indian words to European words. He also writes of it taking 6-7 years for Indian people to learn the dead language (Sanskrit).

Then came Roberto de Nobili, another Italian Jesuit missionary. He took the duty to spread Christianity seriously. So seriously in fact that he was not above using unscrupulous tactics. He realized the heathens of India were not easy to convert. He struck up a plan to disguise himself as a Bramhan, calling himself "Sanyasi from Rome" to spread the word of his one true lord. He even forged a book called "Azur veda" and tried to sell it as the lost veda to Indians. Thus continued the Jesuit campaign in India with forgery and writing about India despite of lack of proper training in local culture or the language which captured ancient Indian knowledge, Sanskrit.

The European Jesuit missionary began colonizing India from Goa and some south Indian sea ports. The Britishers too took to it. They established East India Company and soon began consolidating their hold over India. Some of the earliest British colonizers too tried to learn ancient Indian languages. The trouble for all these European colonizers was that Sanskrit was no longer spoken. It was only alive in the oral recitations of the Bramhans handed down to successive generations through verbal training. Try as they might they did not have much luck in gaining access to this Indian knowledge. That did not deter them from trying to come up with a dictionary of Sanskrit words. In the absence of proper training and expert guidance, the quality of such dictionaries can only be doubtful. With the help of such imperfect tools, British colonizers tried to copy any ancient Indian knowledge they could. These hand written manuscripts began landing in Europe which gave birth to a lucrative new industry of Oriental studies.

One such student of Oriental studies was William Jones. He came from a humble background and wanted to improve his situation. After much effort managed to get employed by East India Company. In Kolkatta he founded "Asiatic Society" to publish ancient Indian literature. But he never managed to get any native Indian with authority in Sanskrit or ancient Indian knowledge. He simply recruited lower rung from the East India Company and directed them to send dispatches from ground of what they saw, heard from the locals. These dispatches found their way into annual publications of the "Asiatic Society".

Then came Friedrich Max Muller. Like William Jones, he too came from a humble background in Germany. He got employed by the East India Company in London and like Jones, he too took to the lucrative industry of translating Sanskrit manuscripts copied by hand and brought to England by British colonizers. Muller was employed by Thomas Babington Macaulay and would later invent the "Aryan Invasion Theory".

Translating Sanskrit was lucrative because East India Company would print them and pay only those papers that would be published. There was no one of authority to verify these publications. All other ancient languages were already worked upon by earlier scholars. Sanskrit was yet unexplored and each of these Jesuit scholars sensed an opportunity to be the first to do so. Their lack of training, knowledge of the languages they worked on, unfamiliarity of the culture they wrote of, indeed with no one to question, critique them, did not deter them from positioning themselves as foremost scholars in Indology and enjoying all benefits accruing from it. They established an entire industry by writing favourably about each other thus forming an exclusive club of Indologists.

Later scholars, historians eulogised them in writing their biographies, books on them. Through the years quite a few inventions slipped in. And with the passage of time became established truths. The unquestioning adoption of poor scholarship of early European Jesuits on India is evident when modern day scholars, historians rely on their work without scrutiny. This is surprising especially since they insist on "scientific study of history". The Indian History Congress - the largest professional body of it's kind in South Asia consisting of over 9000 members - says it's objective is "promotion and encouragement of the scientific study of Indian history". Some of it's past General Presidents include Romila Thapar and K N Panikkar who insist on "scientific temperament in history scholarship". How then fabrications like "Aryan Invasion Theory" have slipped past this scientific analysis is a mystery. As are curious explanations for Mughal excesses on Indians. Or how can William Jones, Max Muller attain scholarship in Sanskrit when in fact they did not even understand the language? How could they have attained scholarship in Sanskrit when it took Indians 6-7 years of training in the language no longer spoken in India? Why does Romila Thapar's self admitted lack of knowledge in Sanskrit not stop her from perpetuating dubious history? Why does K N Pannikar devise innovative explanations for Mughal excesses? Simply because that is the established norm in Indology. Their sources, the people they greatly admire have themselves devised such questionable ways of scholarship. Their history is based on such questionable construct. And of course there is an even bigger reason for this dubious scholarship. Nehru himself established this practice as seen in the beginning.

(With references from Lies With Long Legs by Prodosh Aich)