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The Orientalist Discourse

NewsThe Orientalist Discourse

The Orientalist project primitivized the Hindus, even if they did not appear primitive in some respects. The need to portray Hindus as primitive, savage, uncivilized, or vicious arose from the urgency of the colonizers to present themselves as civil and enlightened.

Chicago: Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) has inspired an army of thinkers, scholars, and activists in the East. Said’s ground-breaking work challenges the Western representation of the ‘Orient,’ both in the academy and popular culture. The publication of Orientalism had, over time, wide-ranging ramifications. This paradigm shift saw Oriental Studies, the once respectable academic powerhouse, reduced to rubble and disrepute.
Orientalism as a practice, according to Said, is a “systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively, during the post Enlightenment period.” This discipline, Said would contend, actually invented the Orient out of the power dynamics that existed during the time.
Orientalism created a binary of discourse between the Orient and the Occident. In that discourse, the Orientalists presented the East as the Other. Orientalism’s initial curiosity in cultural aspects of the Orient would, later on, result in political power, domination, racism, and widespread colonization.
In short, the entire Orientalist enterprise, according to Said, is exploitative.

James Mill

While Said’s work focused mainly on the Orientalist perception of the Arab-Islamic world, Arvind Sharma’s book The Rulers Gaze: A Study of British Rule Over India From Saidian Perspective (Harper Collins, 2017) extends the Saidian thesis on India and Hinduism.
Sharma is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. After his short stint in the Indian bureaucracy (the Indian Administrative Service), Sharma also taught at Harvard University in the US. He is a prolific writer and a foremost scholar in comparative religion, Hinduism, and Indology. His recent works include Hinduism and Its Sense of History and Decolonizing Indian Studies.
The power relationship is an integral part of the Saidian thesis on Orientalism. Western Orientalist scholarship (knowledge), according to Said, is part of the West’s power. As such, Orientalist scholarship is exploitative.
Both the Muslims and the British exercised the same power structure over India at different times in history. Both were outsiders, and they both ruled over India for an extended period. “Thus, the Muslims and the British,” Sharma hypothesizes, “would tend to depict India in similar ways.” In other words, “if both Muslims and the British ruled over the Hindus and had parallel power relation to the Hindus, then their knowledge for the Hindus, as depicted in their description of the Hindus, would also follow parallel and comparable courses.”
A significant portion of Sharma’s book is devoted to investigating the British occupation of India. However, to no one’s surprise, Sharma finds many similarities in how both Muslims and the British perceived and talked about the Hindus, Hindu religion, Sanskrit, Hindu social relations, and even Hindu sexual habits. Both ruling powers took extraordinary efforts not only to contrast their socio-religious beliefs with that of the Hindus, but they also did it to show their superiority over them. “There is a manifest temptation on the part of the ruling power,” writes Sharma, to emphasize the “inferiority of the other.”
This zeal to establish the superiority of their respective religions is a byproduct of the change in the power equation in the Indian subcontinent. Islam and Christianity both had deep contacts with India (read Hindus) even before they had invaded and colonized the subcontinent. However, as the power equation changed, so did their views “of the Hindus’ caliber—moral or martial.” Hindus were condemned as “degenerate” and as “slaves.” Thomas Babington Macaulay, for example, finds Indians a “debased” race and “decomposed society,” comparable to 5th century Europe (after the Roman Empire’s collapse). The Hindus zimmis progressively became kafirs in the Arab traveller’s accounts. By the time Mahmud of Ghazani died in 1030 CE, his exploits of India were recorded as “wonderful” by Albiruni, who accompanied Mahmud on his Indian invasion.
This condemnation of the Hindus, not surprisingly, had an added expectation of conversion to Islam and Christianity.
Most Indians are aware of Macaulay’s “dispatch” and his contributions in uprooting the traditional Indian education system and subsequently establishing the English education system. India, almost overnight, became an illiterate society from being one of the most educated knowledge societies, thanks to Macaulay. As Sharma writes: “An even more serious example of the regress of Indian society under the colonial rule is provided by the dismantling of the native educational system in order to replace it with the British, with the result that Indians were made illiterate by destroying it to justify the need to educate them.”
This destruction of the native Indian education system at the hands of the imperialists was deliberate, conscious, and malicious. Karl Marx wrote in 1853 that England “had to fulfil a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating—the annihilation of the old Asiatic society, and the laying of a material foundation of Western society in India.”
As Sharma points out, Macaulay is an “important” rather than an “outstanding” character in the context of India. Many of us may not know that Macaulay, at the age of eight, wrote “a convincing essay on the desirability of converting heathens to Christianity.” Upon his arrival in India, “Macaulay travelled from Madras [Chennai] to Ooty to meet Governor-General Bentic—a distance of 400 miles—on the shoulders of Indian men, and then back: Twelve bearers—six at a time—carried his palanquin down to Madras, as he reclined and read Theodor Hook’s Love and Pride.”
As the British imperialists consolidated their power over India, their disinformation and contempt towards Hindus gained a foothold, both in scholarly circles and popular imagination. James Mill’s The History of British India (1817), described as “a philippic against Hinduism,” rose to the level of a prerequisite textbook for the British administrators about to set sail to India. Mill’s The History was instrumental in “linking Hinduism with backwardness and even primitiveness.”
It is crucial to bear in mind that James Mill had never been to India. Nor did he know any Indian languages, a fact he was, to an extent, quite boastful. In his preliminary remarks in The History, he claimed that his knowledge of European languages made him even better equipped for the study of India.
Coincidentally, the other Indologist of excellent reputation to have never set foot in India was Max Müller.
The Orientalist project primitivized the Hindus, even if they did not appear primitive in some respects. The need to portray Hindus as primitive, savage, uncivilized, or vicious arose from the urgency of the colonizers to present themselves as civil and enlightened. As a result, what we end up getting is a “situation in which a people were made more primitive than they were, or presented as more primitive than they were, or perceived as more primitive than they were, either deliberately or out of ignorance.”
This primitivizing of the Hindus morphed into overt racial bias post-1857, the First War of Independence. They portrayed Hindu society riddled with malaise, especially when it came to women. At the same time, they also claimed erroneously that the so-called “social evils,” such as suttee and dowry, female infanticide, slavery, caste discrimination, etc., always have been part of the Hindu society.
The rise of Indo-Europeanism in Europe, which argued that European languages were essentially superior in character and access to scientific knowledge, was instrumental in the spread of colonialism and racism worldwide. As for in India, “the Raj, race, and faith went hand in hand. India had to be accepted and ruled, as it was.” Nothing explains this dichotomy better than in Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden (1899), where Kipling talks about serving the “captives’ need.”
Much of the Orientalist discourse about India, as Sharma points out, was in the guise of “objectivity,” just as much of the Indology was in the guise of “critical and scientific” (The Nay Science: A History of German Indology by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee). In the Orientalist power structure of “us vs. them” and “ruler vs. ruled,” the claim of “objectivity” is the presentation of exaggerated intellectual power. “For to claim to be objective,” Sharma writes, “is to mark oneself as above human frailties and emotions and to possess superhuman (or even inhuman) powers of detachment.”
Avatans Kumar writes frequently on the topics of Indic Knowledge Tradition, language, culture, and current affairs. Avatans is a JNU and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus. He tweets @avatans

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