Effects of Colonization on Indian Thought – Part 2

This Indian genius has now begun to percolate back to the West, where it inspires new approaches, deeper thoughts, though not yet the transforming Shakti. Perhaps the tide of colonialism will be reversed, after all.

Effects of Colonization on Indian Thought – Part 2

Continued from Part 1

Maladies of the Mind 

The root of the problem is of course that we have ceased to think by ourselves. We are spoon-fed and often force-fed almost every one of our thoughts, or what masquerades as thought. Independent reflection is discouraged at every step, especially at school. Yet it is not my point that English education in India has been an unmitigated evil. It was a necessary, probably an unavoidable evil. India had to be shaken from her lethargy, to open up to the world and face its challenges, and that was the fastest way to compel her to do so. There is also no doubt that this opening to dynamic currents of thought from the West contributed in no small measure to the quest for independence, as has often been pointed out. Sometimes indeed, one poison is needed to cure another. But to continue taking poison after the cure is over is inexcusable.

India’s failure to boldly formulate and implement a truly Indian education after Independence ranks as her most tragic, most ruinous error. The blame for it must be laid at the door of the country’s first education ministers, and even more so its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, himself an undiscriminating product of English education who was always prompt to pour scorn on India’s culture and traditions and to make a cult of modernity. But subjection to Western influence does more than simply impoverish the Indian mind or wean it away from Indian culture. It also introduces serious distortions into its thinking processes. With their clear and bold thought, Western thinkers since the eighteenth century no doubt did much to pull Europe out of the dark ages brought about by Christianity. But they had to take shortcuts in the process: they needed sharp intellectual weapons and had no time to develop the qualities of pluralism, universality, integrality native to the Indian mind and nurtured over thousands of years. Their thought was essentially divisive and exclusive: God was on one side and the creation on another, an abyss separated matter from spirit, one was either a believer or an atheist, either a Christian or a Pagan, either ancient or modern, determinist or indeterminist, empiricist or rationalist, rightist or leftist.

Whether one was an adept of idealism, realism, positivism, existentialism or any of the thousand isms the Western intellect cannot live without, Truth was parcelled out into small, hardened, watertight bits, each no wider than one line of thought or one philosophical system, each neatly labelled and set in contrast or opposition with the other.  The result of this Western obsession with divisiveness has been disastrous in India’s context. Her inhabitants had never called themselves “Aryans” or “Dravidians” in the racial sense, yet they became thus segregated; they had never known they were “Hindus,” yet they had to be happy with this new designation; they had never called their view of the world a “religion” (a word with no equivalent in Sanskrit), but it had to become one, promptly labelled “Hinduism.” Nor was one label sufficient: India always recognized and respected the infinite multiplicity of approaches to the Truth (what is commonly, but incorrectly, called “tolerance”), but under the Western spotlight those approaches became so many “sects” almost rivalling each other (perhaps like Catholics and Protestants!). Hinduism was thus cut up into convenient bits—Vedism, Brahmanism, Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, Tantrism, etc.—of which Indians themselves had been largely unaware, or at any rate not in this rigid, cut-and-dried fashion.

As for Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, which had been regarded in India as simply new paths, they were arbitrarily stuck with a label of “separate religions.” Similarly, thousands of fluid communities were duly catalogued and crystallized by the British rulers as so many permanent and rigid castes.*  Unfortunately, this itemizing and labelling of their heritage became an undisputed truth in the subconscious mind of Indians: they passively accepted being dissected and defined by their colonial masters, and they learned to look at themselves through Western eyes. The Indian mind had become too feeble to take the trouble of assimilating the few positive elements of Western thought and rejecting the many negative ones: it swallowed but could not digest. Even some of the early attempts to lay new foundations—the Brahmo Samaj and many other “reformist” movements in particular—were, despite their usefulness as a ferment, conceived apologetically in response to Europe’s standards and judgement. If, for instance, they were told that Hindus were “polytheistic idolaters,” rather than show the fallacy of such a label, they would bend over backwards to build their new creeds on the monotheism of a Judeo-Christian type.

Just recently we had a revealing echo of such an attitude when our own President, on a visit to Kerala in 1999, felt obliged to speculate that Adi Shankaracharya’s Monism must have been influenced by Islam’s monotheism. This is intellectual bankruptcy at its highest pitch. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once put it:

The mistake of the West is that it measures other civilizations by the degree to which they approximate to Western civilization. If they do not approximate it, they are hopeless, dumb, reactionary.[1] 

Educated Indians virtually admitted they were “hopeless, dumb, reactionary,” and could only stop being so by receiving salvation from Europe: they pinned their hopes on its democracy and secularism, ignoring all warnings that those European concepts would wreak havoc once mechanically transposed to India. Worse, they rivalled with one another in denigrating their heritage. If even today a Western journalist or professor utters the words of “caste” or “sati” or “Hindu fundamentalism” (and I would like to ask him what the “fundamentals” of Hinduism are), you will hear a number of Indian intellectuals beating their chests in unison—even as they keep their eyes tightly shut to the most fatal aberrations of Western society. Some ninety years ago already, Sri Aurobindo observed:

They will not allow things or ideas contrary to European notions to be anything but superstitious, barbarous, harmful and benighted, they will not suffer what is praised and practised in Europe to be anything but rational and enlightened…[2] 

As a result, many “modern” Indians (I have had myself occasion to hear some of them), and even a number of Swamis, especially those with the Western following, will proudly assert that they are “not Hindus.” (That fashion was probably started last century by Keshab Chandra Sen.) What they usually mean by that is that they are “tolerant” of everything and anything (especially of Western anythings), and therefore far too broad-minded to be Hindus. They forget that Hinduism in its true form, Sanatana dharma, is as wide as the universe and can include any path—provided that path is, like itself, and unlike Semitic religions, respectful of other paths, because it knows it is only one small parcel of the whole Truth beyond all paths. Ram Swarup, a profound Indian thinker, was not afraid of swimming against this self-deprecating tide nurtured by our intelligentsia and media:

A permanent stigma seems to have stuck to the terms Hindu and Hinduism. These have now become terms of abuse in the mouth of the very elite which the Hindu millions have raised to the pinnacle of power and prestige with their blood, sweat and tears.[3] 

Such is the painful but logical outcome of two centuries of colonization of the Indian mind. The deeper meaning of this transitory dark phase has been expressed thus by Sri Aurobindo

The spirit and ideals of India had come to be confined in a mould which, however beautiful, was too narrow and slender to bear the mighty burden of our future. When that happens, the mould has to be broken and even the ideal lost for a while, in order to be recovered free of constraint and limitation.[4] 

There is no doubt that India’s old mould is being broken. The question is what is going to take its place. There are increasing and hopeful signs of an aspiration to a reawakening and a liberation from this intellectual and cultural degeneration. But for this aspiration to be fulfilled, I am convinced that we shall have to go deeper than the intellect, and tap anew the inexhaustible source of strength that has sustained India over the ages. Take care of India’s soul and the rest will take care of itself, as Swami Vivekananda said

Only then will we recover our native suppleness and independence of mind, and learn to question West and India alike, past and present alike. Only then will we regain our discernment, viveka, our only possible beacon in the growing gloom.[5] 

Permit me to quote Sri Aurobindo once more: 

We must begin by accepting nothing on trust from any source whatsoever, by questioning everything and forming our own conclusions. We need not fear that we shall by that process cease to be Indians or fall into the danger of abandoning Hinduism. India can never cease to be India or Hinduism to be Hinduism, if we really think for ourselves. It is only if we allow Europe to think for us that India is in danger of becoming an ill-executed and foolish copy of Europe.[6] 

To recover her true genius in a new body is the task now facing India. She needs it not only for herself but for the world, as the West is fast being sucked into its own emptiness, except for a few lucid thinkers desperately searching for a deeper meaning to our human madness. “Europe is destructive, suicidal,”[7] said André Malraux to Nehru in 1936, whom he would meet several times until the 1960s, trying in vain to persuade him of the relevance of India’s spirituality in today’s world. Malraux also reflected:

 … To the West, whether Christian or atheist, the fundamental obvious fact is death, whatever meaning it gives to it, whereas India’s fundamental obvious fact is the infinity of life in the infinity of time: “Who could kill immortality ?”[8]

 This deeper view of the universe, and of ourselves as an integral part of it, this bridge between matter and spirit is what the world needs today. And that is not philosophy, it is a practical question: India alone could show, as she did in her ancient history from the Indus Valley civilization to the Maurya times and after, how material and spiritual developments can be harmonized—and indeed need each other if society is to last. Because the West ultimately believes only in death, it is destroying man as well as the earth; because India ultimately sought only the secret of life, it could restore the divinity of the earth and of all creatures, man included. Last century already, the French historian Michelet marvelled:  

Whereas, in our Occident, the most dry and sterile minds brag in front of Nature, the Indian genius, the most rich and fecund of all, knows neither small nor big and has generously embraced universal fraternity, even the identity of all souls! [9] 

This Indian genius has now begun to percolate back to the West, where it inspires new approaches, deeper thoughts, though not yet the transforming shakti. Perhaps the tide of colonialism will be reversed, after all. And without bloodshed. Perhaps Rabindranath Tagore’s hope of April 1941, three months before his death, will be fulfilled: 

The spirit of violence which perhaps lay dormant in the psychology of the West, has at last roused itself and desecrates the Spirit of Man….I had at one time believed that the springs of civilization would issue out of the heart of Europe. But today when I am about to quit the world that faith has gone bankrupt altogether….Today I live in the hope that the Saviour is coming—that he will be born in our midst in this poverty-shamed hovel which is India. I shall wait to hear the divine message of civilization which he will bring with him…. Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the East where the sun rises.[10]

  References: * In the words of Tavleen Singh (by no means a “Hindutva” journalist): “A country which has education ministers who jeer at a hymn which says of learning (as Saraswati) that she is the goddess before whom even Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh bow probably deserves to be illiterate.” (India Today, November 9, 1998) * Dr. Meenakshi Jain, a respected sociologist, wrote: “It is not generally known that the India of rigid social stratification and hierarchical ranking was largely a British creation…. [The British] destroyed the flexibility that was so vital for the proper functioning of the system. The census operations raised caste consciousness to a feverish pitch, incited caste animosities and led to an all-round hardening of the system…. Britishers of all pursuits, missionaries, administrators and orientalists, were quick to grasp the pivotal role [of the Brahmins] in the Indian social arrangement [, in which] Brahmins were the principal integrating force. This made them the natural target of those seeking to fragment, indeed atomise, Indian society. This was as true of the British conquerors as it was of Muslim rulers in the preceding centuries…. Clearly it is time to sit up and see reality as it is before we complete the task the British began — the atomisation of Indian society and the annihilation of Indian civilisation.” (Indian Express, 18 & 26 September 1990). 


 [1] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, interviewed in Time of 24 July 1989. 

[2] Sri Aurobindo, India’s Rebirth, p. 90. 

[3] Ram Swarup, quoted in Hinduism Today, October 1998, p. 16. 

[4] Sri Aurobindo, India’s Rebirth, p. 61. 

[5] Adapted from Swami Vivekananda, in Ram Swarup, “His Vision and Mission,” The Observer, 28 August 1993. 

[6] Sri Aurobindo, India’s Rebirth, p. 88.

 [7] In Malraux & India (New Delhi : Embassy of France in India, 1996), p. 46 

[8] André Malraux, Antimémoires, (Paris : Gallimard, 1967), p. 339. 

[9] Michelet, La Bible de l’Humanité in Œuvres (Paris : Larousse, 1930), vol. 5, p. 119. 

[10] Tagore, Crisis in Civilization (Calcutta : Visva-Bharati, 1988), p. 22-23. 

About Author: Michel Danino

Born in 1956 at Honfleur (France) into a Jewish family recently emigrated from Morocco, from the age of fifteen Michel Danino was drawn to India, some of her great yogis, and soon to Sri Aurobindo and Mother and their view of evolution which gives a new meaning to our existence on this earth. In 1977, dissatisfied after four years of higher scientific studies, he left France for India, where he has since been living. A writer of numerous books including the bestseller, The Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati, he is currently a member of ICHR and a visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar. The Government of India awarded him the Padmashri (India's fourth highest civilian award) for his contribution towards Literature & Education.

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