The nineteenth-century romantics were by no means the first to ‘discover’ India. Already during the eighteenth century we can feel the first breath of a new dawn it frequently comes from the most unexpected sources. And we can see those urbane, highly refined and sophisticated men and women, proud of their growing empires, their discoveries in the field of science and their flourishing arts we can see them looking towards the East, not so much for ‘inspiration’ but for a new contribution to human knowledge . They were a little ashamed of their ignorance with regard to India, and they felt that, however superior their civilization might be, there was still much to be learnt from the inhabitants of a continent who had written books of eternal wisdom at a time when the illiterate ancestors of Dr Johnson and Voltaire. were hunting boars in the jungles of Europe. Yes, they were a little ashamed of their ignorance though they were careful enough not to commit themselves in any way. Dr Johnson, for instance, when writing to Hastings, formulates his own ignorance in the most urbane language : ‘You, Sir, have no need to be told by me, how much may be added by your attention and patronage to experimental know-ledge and natural history. There are arts and manufactures practised in the countries in which you preside , which are yet very imperfectly known here either to artificers or philosophers. Of thee natural productions, animate and inanimate, we yet have so little intelligence that our books are filled, I fear, with conjectures about things which an Indian peasant knows by his senses.’* That ignorance frequently is responsible for political systems, is indeed almost a commonplace. Thus, Dr Johnson, who confesses his ignorance about India in unmistakable language, also has something to say about an ideal government for that country. The crudity of his political ideas need not surprise us: he is only an example of contemporary feeling about India among intelligent men in England. At least, no one can accuse Dr Johnson of hypocrisy when he tells Boswell that ‘all distant power is bad. I am clear that the very best plan for India is a despotick governour; for if he be a good man, it is evidently the best government; and supposing him to be a bad man, it is better to have one plunderer than many. A governour whose power is checked lets others plunder that he himself may be allowed to plunder: but if despotick, he sees that the more he lets others plunder, the less there will be for himself, so he restrains them.’
Dr Johnson’s contemporary in France, Voltaire, never admitted his ignorance in -such explicit terms nor did he have any political system ready for India. He was a man of cyclopaedic knowledge, gathering his in-formation from every available source, accepting indiscriminately both truth and falsehood, and integrating them in his works on history, philosophy, literature, politics; in his novels and plays, and his innumerable letters. That India had a strong exotic appeal for him can be seen from the fact that a fair number of his books are, either wholly or partly devoted to India and that he took the plot for many of his plays from the storehouse of Eastern mythology. There are, for instance, his Fragments on some Revolutions in India and on the death of Count de Lalli (1773); his Essay on the customs and the spirit of the nations (1765) including several long chapters on India ; his History of the Age of Louis XIV which, indeed, is a kind of world history of the seventeenth century embracing the whole of Europe and Asia.
Voltaire was not what we could call today a profound writer. He could hide, with a cleverness which seems to us incredible today, his own ignorance as well as the utter stupidity of the sources from which he gathered his information about India. He was perfectly sure of himself. And his mind, accustomed to historical research and the coordination of facts and data, established a unity where his contemporaries had seen nothing but diversity. And however artificial this unity may appear to us today, it pleased his sophisticated and urbane readers who although on the brink of a revolution which would sweep away many of the artificialities of their lives were still entranced by the beauty of the classical form. And if this purely abstract unity was often meaningless, it was at least intellectually satisfying.
What then were Voltaire’s sources on India? First of all, we hear of the ‘Ezour Vedam’, an alleged translation of the Yajurveda which appeared in French in 1778 and which, according to Dr Winternitz, is a falsification, a pious fraud; the translation was supposed to have been made by the missionary Roberto de ‘Nobili’. Voltaire received it from an official returning from Pondicherry; later on he presented it to the Royal Library in Paris. All through his life Voltaire was wider the impression that this book was an old commentary on the Veda which had been translated by a venerable centenarian Brahmin into French. This was his authority for Indian antiquities. His other source, however, is more contemporary and even more absurd. John Zephania Holwell’s fame today rests on rather obscure political happenings connected” with the ‘Black Hole’ at Calcutta, his temporary governorship of Bengal, his reform of the Zamindar’s court, and his defence of Calcutta as a member of the Council, against Suraj-ud-Dowlah, in 1756. Very vaguely we are also told that he was the first – European who studied ‘Hindoo antiquities’ and published works on ‘Indian politics and mythology’. This very same Holwell whose statue in more recent times had become something of a major political issue, was one of Voltaire’s main sources of information about India. And Voltaire who all through his life had a profound admiration for everything English, especially for constitutional monarchy, had nothing but praise for this same Holwell for whose name we shall, however, vainly search in modern histories of Indian literature. In his Historical Fragments on India, Voltaire is as outspoken as could be desired: ‘This very same Holwell’, he says, ‘had learnt not only the language of the modern Brahmins, but also that of the ancients: _ It is he who has since written such admirable memoirs on India and who has translated the sublime passages from the first books in the sacred language. We _gratefully take this. opportunity of paying back our debt to a man who has travelled only for the sake of learning. He has unveiled for us what had been hid-den for so many centuries. He has done more than the Pythagoras and the Appoloniuses.
Holwell himself had a very high opinion of his knowledge of Indian life and thought. Voltaire in a footnote quotes him as saying, ‘I have studied everything that has been written about Indians since Arrian’, and Voltaire, in his Age of Louis XI V, adds that it was Holwell who has destroyed once and for all ‘this vain collection of errors with which all the histories of India are filled’ and that ‘the learned and untiring Englishman has copied, in 1759, their first written Law, called the Shasta, which precedes the Vedas by fifteen-hundred years.’ What Voltaire or, for the matter of that, Holwell, meant by the Shasta is not quite clear. And though it all remained rather vague, it was, to say the least, impressive, and Voltaire who probably knew as little about the Shasta as his own readers, must have enjoyed the little trick he played on them. For how-ever ignorant he might have been with regard to things Eastern, he was a man endowed with a truly amazing sense of humour.
A few words on Holwell’s contribution to the study of Indian civilization may not be out of place here. His magnum opus on India bears the rather formidable title : ‘Interesting Historical Events Relative to the Province of Bengal, and the Empire of Industan. With a Seasonable Hint and Persuasive To the Honourable The Court of Directors of the East India Company. As also The Mythology and Cosmogony, Fasts and Festivals of the Gentoo’s, followers of the Shastah. And a Dissertation on the Metempsychosis, commonly, though erroneously, called the Pythagorean Doctrine. By J. Z. Holwell, Esq., etc.’ His concern with India was not, however, altogether disinterested. For Holwell had his own axe to grind. Even a cursory glance at books on India before his time had taught him that most of the writers were Roman-Catholic missionaries; his book, therefore, is, in more than one sense, a reply to the ‘popish authors’. And Holwell, who is more convincing as a politician than as a scholar, quite rightly assumed that such a book anti-Catholic and, therefore, also in a way anti-French would be well received at home. We know of a number of reports written by French missionaries about India in the eighteenth century; there are the letters of Pere Calmette in 1733 and of Pere Pous in 1740, for instance. Holwell, very successfully, plays the part of the enlightened and benevolent administrator. ‘ The motive, however, for his rather unexpected defence of the Hindu religion can be found in his loyalty to the Anglican Church and his hatred of Roman-Catholicism : ‘All the modern writers represent the Hindoos as a race of stupid and gross Idolaters . The modern authors who have wrote on the principles and worship of the Hindoos, are chiefly of the Romish communion, therefore we need wonder the less than they (from a superstitious zeal inseparable from that communion) should depreciate and traduce the mythology of the venerable ancients Brahmins, on so slender a foundation as a few insignificant literal translations of the Viedam. From such weak grounds and evidence as this, and by the help of a few exhibitions of the seemingly monstrous idols of the Hindoos the Popish authors hesitate not to stigmatize those most venerable sages the Brahmins, as having instituted doctrines and worship which if believed, would reduce them below the level of the brute creation .. though strictly speaking, their own tenets were more idolatrous than the system they travelled so far to stigmatize’.
It is interesting to find that Voltaire readily believed the uncommon and out-of-the-way; but sometimes when actually correct facts had been transmitted to him, his commonsense reasserted itself. There is, for in-stance the matriarchal system in Malabar. This seems to him incredible, and several times he refers to it with grave misgivings, as to the sanity of his informants. ‘It is true,’ he says, ‘one ought to read almost all the narratives that come to us from that distant land with a sceptical mind. One is more concerned with sending us from the shores of Koromandel and Malabar commodities than truth. A particular case is often taken to be a general usage. One tells us that at Cochin it is not the king’s son who inherits him, but his sister’s son. Such an arrangement contradicts nature too much there does not exist a man who wishes to exclude his son from his heritage. . . ‘ Voltaire’s historical mind could grasp anything that went according to the ‘laws of nature’; he could not imagine, however, that nature is not everywhere the same, and that differences in latitude and longitude also imply different systems of values among human beings. Even his cyclopaedic mind had its ‘natural’ limitations.
His main argument in all these innumerable chapters on India, however, is that India was once the cradle of civilization : ‘Everything came to us from the Ganges,’ he writes to his friend M. Bailly, ‘astronomy, astrology, metempsychosis, etc; ; that today (that is in the eighteenth century) this past greatness is slowly crumbling into dust is partly due to inherent germs of decay, partly also to the commercial invasion from the West. ‘All the greatness and misery of the human mind are displayed in the ancient Brahmins, and in their successors. On the one hand, there is persevering virtue, supported by rigorous abstinence; a sublime philosophy, though fantastical and veiled by ingenious allegories; a horror at shedding blood, constant charity towards human beings and animals. On the other hand, there is the most despicable superstition. This fanaticism, although of a calm kind, has led them for innumerable centuries to encourage the suicide of so many young. widows who have thrown themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands. This horrible excess in religion and in greatness of soul maintains itself side by side with the famous profession of faith of the Brahmins that God wants from us only charity and good deeds. The whole world is dominated by contradictions.’
And Voltaire has no doubt that this ‘misery of the mind’ is entirely due to the ‘Brahmins’ themselves, their deliberate attempt to misguide the people. He, by the way, makes a rather subtle distinction between what he calls the ‘Brachmanes’, meaning thereby the priests of ancient times, and the ‘Brames’ who are their successors today. All his criticism is levelled against the contemporary leaders of Indian religion. ‘Most of them,’ he says, ‘live in a soft apathy. Their great maxim, drawn from their ancient books, is that it is better to sit than to walk, to lie down than to sit, to sleep than to be awake, to die than to live.’ And he mentions a few pages later on the Cormo-Veidam which is full of prognostications for the future and rules of conduct for every hour of the day. ‘There is nothing surprising in that,’ he exclaims, ‘not two hundred years ago the same foolishness could be found among our princes and the charlatanism was taken up by our astronomers.’ The modern Brahmins, he continues, must be very wise indeed: ‘ … they say that the people must needs be deceived and be ignorant: It is the child of the Enlightenment who, speaks the philosopher who could see beyond the appearance of things, and whose over-critical mind perceived the sordidness below the glittering surface. Indeed some of his conclusions on the decline of true spirituality in India are surprisingly relevant. For he immediately relates this spiritual decay to the historical fact of the loss of political independence. According to him ‘it seems that men have become weak and cowardly in India in proportion to the extent of their subjugation. To judge by appearances the superstitions and penance of the vanquished people have increased twice as much with every new conquest.’
No argument could be more natural to Voltaire, the atheist and philosopher. Religion, of whatever kind, is liable to dope the people, to make them quarrelsome and ignorant. There. is little to choose between Christianity and what he considers to be Hinduism. And when with every new conquest, missionaries of the various Christian sects invaded India, Voltaire does not miss the opportunity of flinging a little insult at those whom he detested more than anything else. The modern ‘Brahmins’ and the missionaries from Europe were indeed birds of the same feather, the only difference being that the spiritual influx from the West demoralized the native greatness of the spirit of India. For among the missionaries ‘the Catholic fights against the Anglican who fights against the Lutheran who, in his turn, fights the Calvinist. Thus, all against all, everyone of them wanting to announce truth, and accusing the others of falsehood, they surprise a simple and peaceful people who see coming to them, from the Western extremities of the earth, men eager to tear each other to pieces on the shores of the Ganges.’* Whatever may be our attitude to such a statement, there is no doubt that Voltaire was one of the first in Europe to realize that not everything beyond the borders of Europe is ‘barbarous’, savage, and ‘uncivilized’. Such a misconception, he thinks, is due to the fabrications of ‘ignorant and foolhardy priests of the Middle-ages’ (evidently a reference to Holwell’s ‘Popish authors’) who taught the people to admire and worship nothing but what could be found within the confines of Europe. And Voltaire, just like Michelet and Renan long after him, found the intellectual Europe, stretching from the river Jordan to the river Thames, a rather small place to live in. Many a European, both before and after him, revolted against the ‘provincialism’ of Europe which they considered to be a rather insignificant appendage to Asia.
In this connexion it will be interesting to inquire what exactly Voltaire thought of those European powers who seemed to have settled in India, for good. It is quite in the nature of things that he gives free vent to his satire and wit when he speaks about them. But his satire is always delightfully inconsistent: for though he abhors the economic exploitation of the weaker nations by the stronger, he cannot help feeling that such a state of affairs could not have been brought about, but because of some inherent superiority of the latter over the former. On the one hand, he finds all the ugliness of profit-making at the cost of innocence and wisdom, on the other, he remembers the age of Louis XIV, the dynamic and expansive urge for power of a refined civilization. And in the true spirit of historical research, he first states the facts. and then lets the reader read between the lines. His sense of humour which at times breaks out in the most unexpected places, always saves him from taking sides. He says neither yes nor no: history is beyond affirmation or negation. It simply happens. Our opinions, at best, can serve only one useful purpose : they enliven the narrative and establish a link between the cold facts and datas of existence and our own intellectual make-up. And Voltaire is careful enough not to offend the English. He always says ‘We’, meaning thereby Europe as a whole. ‘These successors of the Brahmins, the inventors of so many arts, these amateurs and arbiters of peace, have become our servants, our commercial mercenaries. We have devastated their land, we have made it fat with our blood. We have shown them how much we surpass them in courage and wickedness, and how inferior we are to them in wisdom. Out nations have mutually destroyed each other on that very same soil where we went to collect nothing but money, and where the first Greeks travelled for nothing but knowledge.’
But economic exploitation is not the only sin committed by Western nations on Indian soil. They also brought with them the vices of a sophisticated civilization-corrupting and demoralizing the innocent people on the shores of the Ganges. Voltaire never tells us what vices exactly he means. But he does tell us the story of Vishnapur or Bishnupor, a small townlet in Bengal, near Bankura. He had read about Bishnupor in a book by the same unfortunate Holwell who had. supplied him with information about good many other things in India: ‘What is most astonishing,’ he exclaims, cis that this Bishnupor cannot be found on any of our maps. The reader, however, will be pleasantly surprised to know that this place is inhabited by the mildest of men, the most just, the most hospitable and the most generous ever found on the face of the earth, ‘Freedom and property here are inviolable. One never hears people speak of theft either private or public… ” All the Englishmen admit that when the Brahmins of Calcutta, Madras, Masulipatam, Pondicherry were bound by common interest to the foreigners, they have taken from them all the vices; those who have lived in seclusion have preserved all their virtues.’ t Here is the original passage from Holwell’s book to which Voltaire obviously refers : ‘To the West of Burdwan, something Northerly, lie the lands belonging to the family of Rajah Gopaul Singh, of the Raazpoot Brahmin tribe but from the happiness of his situation, he is perhaps the most independent Rajah of Industan; having it always in his power to overflow his country, and drown any enemy that comes against him. But in truth it would be almost cruelty to molest these happy people; for in this district, are the only vestiges of the beauty, purity, piety, regularity, equity, and strictness of the ancient Industan Government. Here the property, as well as the liberty of the people are inviolate.
Here, no robbing are heard of, either private or public. In this form, the traveller is passed through the country; and if he only passes, he is not suffered to be at any expense for food, accommodation, So far for Bishnupor and its virtuous inhabitants. We do not know where Holwell got his information from, but it certainly provided Voltaire with an opportunity of expressing his admiration for the ‘noble savages’ in terms of actual reality. For however great the wisdom and virtue of the ‘Brahmins’, they did not build Versailles, they did not write tragedies in blank verse, they were not interested in scientific or social progress. And if the influence of the West on India was vicious and corrupting, at least Europe could be conscious of centuries of ‘progress’ which had been denied to the East. And the following comparison between England and Greece is most illuminating : ‘But this England which dominates today the whole of Bengal, whose possessions in. America extend from the fourteenth degree to the polar circle, which has produced Locke and Newton, and which, finally, has preserved the advantages of freedom. with those of monarchy, is despite all her abuses as superior to the people of India as Greece at the time of Miltiades, Aristides, and Alexander, was superior to Persia.’
But Voltaire is too intelligent a man and too perspicacious a scholar to leave it at that. Did he not live in that period of intellectual evolution in the West, when for the first time the relative value of all systems political, moral, religious, and so forth had been realized ? Was he not one of those who by destroying old values wanted to build up new ones on the basis of reason and common-sense ? We know today that he was wrong. We know today that neither the French Revolution nor its child, Napoleon, established the reign of reason in Europe. But from the point of view of historical awareness, this relativity of all concepts and systems, was of the utmost significance. For it helped the intellectual elite of Europe to look at historical events in their true perspective. In that sense Voltaire paved the way for the Eastern revival in Europe, a revival which, significantly enough, coincided with the Napoleonic wars and the yearning of the poets of Europe for the wisdom born of innocence, and the simplicity born of a mature mind.
It is strange, thinks Voltaire, that it is always the West that goes to India in search of truth. Never did Indians feel this craving either to subjugate the West or to learn from Europe how to live. Perhaps the strangest thing is, he reflects, that despite our superiority, it is we who invade, never we who are invaded : ‘The occidental peoples,’ he says, have in all discoveries shown a great superiority of mind and courage over the oriental nations. We have established ourselves among them, and very often despite their resistance. We have learned their languages, we have taught them some of our arts. But nature had given them one advantage over us which outweighs all ours: namely that they had no need whatsoever of us, while we were in need of them.’
Yes, Voltaire is ashamed. He is ashamed of his ignorance and the wickedness and cruelties of Europeans in the East. He is also a little bit ashamed of his own civilization, the decline of which he is the most qualified man to foresee. But everything, his shame and his fear and his growing sense of frustration, is hidden beneath a veil of cynicism and satire. There is nothing much to choose between the superstitious ignorance of the priests at home and the ‘Brahmins’ of India, the poverty of the agricultural labourer in France and the Indian peasant, the political system of one country and that of another. It all leads to the same abyss from which there is no escape. And we shall not be far from wrong if we assume that this excursion, this intellectual adventure, on the shores of the Ganges, was to Voltaire more than a purely mental exercise. It was the first feeble attempt of a great European, in modern times, to escape from the futility of progress and action for their own sake, a momentary awareness that Europe, with all her self-consciousness and condescension, was only part of a greater continent. And while noblemen and ladies were still exchanging involved courtesies in the gardens of Versailles, Voltaire could hear from far away the rumbling of the storm.
Voltaire, the philosopher, the sceptic, and the atheist, looked at India with the eyes of the disillusioned European who hardly expected to find in India anything more than an intellectual stimulus and an argument in favour of the relativity of all human concepts. Indeed, his main thesis seems to have been to prove the non-existence of all absolute standards by which one could measure the level of any given civilization, its religion, social structure, or moral values. The India of which he speaks is indeed the India of the Enlightenment, of scepticism and a cynical disbelief in all those forms of progress that contradict ‘nature’. On the other hand, his various historical essays on India imply a growing political interest in the Far East and a shrewd recognition that the struggle between France and England which was being fought ouf on Indian soil was motivated by other than merely intellectual or cultural reasons.
Not many years after the publication of Voltaire’s books another Frenchman set foot on the shores of India, driven there by causes of a more obviously political nature. Indeed the Abbe Dubois went to India because he had to leave France as a ‘political refugee’ and partly because he felt within him that strong urge, so representative, of many Europeans both before and after him, to civilize the heathens, and bring them back to the true way of life. His attitude towards India was undoubtedly that of a well-wisher. No surprise, therefore, that after a stay of 31 years in the South of India, he should have be-come a declared enemy of the Hindus. For frequently the intensity of deliberate misunderstandings increases, both quantitatively and qualitatively, in proportion to the length of the stay in the country. And the Abbe who had come out to India with very strong convictions as to what is right and wrong in human conduct, was confronted by a civilization which had its own standards of good and evil, of the beautiful and the ugly, of progress and human endeavours. And having found that the two civilizations (or what he considered to be such) were unreconcilable, he escaped into wishful thinking and frustration (as so many Europeans after him) ; Dubois is indeed the least ‘enlightened’ among Western thinkers; that is why he deserves a place in this book. For we must not forget that his hatred was equally distributed between European enlightenment and scepticism, on the one hand, and Indian polytheism, on the other. He could never forget his own suffering during the French Revolution. And by that peculiar psycho-logical process known by the name of compensation, he developed that ‘superior’ attitude of righteousness so common among opinionated people who have failed to convince their opponents and begin to doubt their own infallibility. And from religious righteousness to wholesale moral condemnation the step is very short in-deed.
We know very little. of the Abbe’s contact with French political life. One of his contemporaries, Major Mark Wilks, historian of Mysore and British resident in that Province, remarks : ‘Of the history and character of the author, I only know that he escaped from one of the fusillades of the French Revolution, and has since lived among the Hindus as one of themselves.’ The Abbe’s own comment to this is : ‘It is quite true that I fled from the horrors of the Revolution, and had I remained I should in all probability have fallen a victim, as did so many of my friends who held the same religious and political opinions as myself; but-the truth is, I embarked for India some two years before the fusillades referred to took place.’* The political background to the Abbe’s studies of Hindu manners, customs and ceremonies provides a useful clue to the psychological motivation that drove Dubois to write his book : to compare the paganism of the Hindus with the scepticism of the European Enlightenment, and thereby to point out the utter wickedness of . both. His standard of comparison was Christianity, or rather the Roman-Catholic Church. There is no doubt, therefore, that his book was meant to be a warning to the West. He, by the way, makes his pint quite clear in his own Preface : ‘There is one motive which above all others has influenced my determination. It struck me that a faithful picture of the wickedness and incongruity of Polytheism and idolatry would by its very ugliness help greatly to set off the beauties and perfections of Christianity: It is at times difficult enough to determine which of the two, polytheism or atheism, he despised most. Having left a ‘godless’ Europe he found himself now surrounded by godfearing Hindus, and the result was a peculiar conflict of loyalties which it took Dubois many hundred pages of his book to solve. Con-fronted by this alternative he takes sides with the Hindus.
We must give Dubois credit for his consistence, although we cannot help being slightly amused by his reference to Voltaire. It almost seems as though the Abbe and the Freethinker find a common platform in their condemnation of the West. ‘It is quite true, therefore, that a religion, however bad and absurd it may be, is still preferable to the absence of any religion at all. Unquestionably, in my opinion, the worshipper of the Trimurti is much less contemptible than the freethinker who presumes to deny the existence of God. A Hindu who professes the doctrine of metempsychosis proves that he has infinitely more commonsense than those vain philosophers who utilize all their logic in proving that they are Merely brute beasts, and that “death is merely an “eternal sleep” for the reasoning man as well as for the animal which cannot reason … And I may fitly terminate these remarks by drawing attention to the testimony of Voltaire, a man Whom nobody can accuse of too much partiality in the matter of religion.’
Dubois’-various remarks on the Hindu religion cannot bear scrutiny at all. In all probability he understood very little of the main principles underlying Hinduism. His frame of reference always remained Christianity and the West; his angle of vision was, therefore, quite naturally distorted and his treatment of religion, in spite of his attempts at objectivity, always coloured by his own preconceptions and prejudices. A few of his remarks are, however, worth mentioning. He, just as Voltaire before him, also maintains that the ‘primitive creed of the ancient Brahmins seems to have been utterly corrupted by their successors. As regards that ‘primitive creed’ Dubois, like all his contemporaries, has very hazy notions about its significance. But by insisting on the superiority of the ancient religion of India, howsoever vague and indefinite his own conception of it might have been, he paved the way for the romantic glorification of India and the Indians which became, as. it were, the battle-cry of the next generation of poets and writers in Europe. Voltaire already had pointed out the decadence of the modern ‘Brahmins’ and the simplicity and greatness of that primitive creed of ancient times. The romantic poets of the next century responded only too readily to that dreamlike conception of God and the Universe, and to what seemed to them the complete absence of dogmatic religion in the India of pre-historic times.
Dubois has also something to say on caste. And we are not surprised when we hear him praising the caste system as one of the greatest achievements of ancient Indian civilization. Violently opposed as he must have been to all -democratic reforms in society such as the one attempted by the French Revolution) he probably saw in the gradual loosening of the caste system in India one of the causes of the spiritual decay of the people. It goes without saying that this attitude towards caste became rather unpopular after the French Revolution when new humanitarian ideals pervaded Europe and the caste system was considered to be the very incarnation of evil and injustice on earth. On the other hand, however, Europeans always spoke in favour of the caste system whenever they were exposed to reactionary influences in politics and social organization, as in the nineteenth century and in more recent times as part of the nationalistic revival in post-war Europe.
Humanitarianism of any kind has never been very popular among ‘practical politicians’, and Dubois, although a missionary and guided by apparently the most altruistic emotions, sides with the reaction. His escape from France at a crucial moment of her history only provides the psychological background to his praise of the caste system. As most of the writers after him, Dubois also stresses the ‘spiritual’ advantages of caste. The social point of view is rejected as irrelevant: ‘I believe caste division to be in many respects the chef d’oeuvre, the happiest effort, of Hindu legislation. I am persuaded that it is simply and solely due to the distribution of the people into castes that India did not lapse into a state of barbarism, and that she preserved and perfected the arts and sciences of civilization, whilst most other nations of the earth remained in a state of barbarism. After much careful thought I can discover no other reason except caste which accounts for the Hindus not having fallen into the same state of barbarism as their neighbours and as almost all nations inhabiting the torrid zone. From the point of view of morality the caste system seemed to him to guaranty a certain minimum of decency and honesty in dealing with one’s fellow beings. In his own characteristic way Dubois sums up his digression on caste: ‘A caste Hindu is often a thief and a bad character, but a Hindu without caste is almost always a rogue.’
It is almost impossible to say whether Dubois ever came in contact with genuine devotees of Hinduism.
His remarks on Yoga and Asceticism in general seem to indicate a very superficial knowledge of religious Dubois’ account of Buddhism probably constitutes the most incredible part of his book. We do not know where from he derived his information. Very few Europeans before him had written on Buddhism and whatever little was known consisted in popular stories and tales transmitted orally from generation to generation.
The best known among these books was the Book of Barlaam and Joasaph according to Dr. Winternitz, there can be no doubt at all that this book was written by some Christian monk during the middle-ages who knew the Buddha legend from some Indian source, probably from the Lalitavistara. This Christian novel is indeed nothing else but a summary of the Buddha legend, including even some of the parables well known in Indian literature. Dr Winternitz surmises that this work was first composed in the Pehlevi language in the sixth or eighth century, afterwards translated into Arabic and Syrian, from which both the Greek and Latin versions derived. From the Latin ultimately came the numerous translations into the various European languages. Both Barlaam and Joasaph were very well-known figures among Christian people, so much so that they were finally included in the catalogue of Christian saints by the Roman Catholic Church. Dubois probably knew nothing of the Buddhist origin of this book and his account of Buddhism is indeed first-hand, and, therefore, of the greatest interest : ‘There is another sect called Bouddha Mata, which has no Brahmin adherents at all, its followers being chiefly Buddhists, whose number at present is very small in Southern India. Their doctrine is pure materialism. Spinoza and his disciples endeavoured to palm it off as an invention of their own; but the atheists of India recognized this doctrine many centuries before them and drew from it pretty much the same deductions which have been propagated in modern times with such deplorable success. According to this doctrine there is no other god but Matter. They hold that there can be neither vice nor virtue during life; neither heaven nor hell after death. The truly wise man, according to them, is he who enjoys every kind of sensual pleasure, who believes in nothing that is not capable of being felt, and who looks upon everything else as chimerical. It is not, therefore, to be wondered at that human monsters who professed doctrines so detestable and so opposed to all considerations of social well-being became objects of general execration, and that they were almost exterminated in India, where, it appears, they were once so powerful.
Dubois’ first concern on arrival in India was to convert and then to civilize the Hindus. After thirty years’ stay in the country, however, he had lost many of his illusions and, we may assume, much of his former zeal and enthusiasm. His disillusionment was undoubtedly due to two causes: one was the obstinacy of the Hindus themselves, the contempt with which they treated missionaries and their obvious hesitation to become either converted or civilized; the second reason was the unfitness of most Europeans in India to inspire Indians with confidence and goodwill. We must give Dubois credit for having admitted that at least. For to judge by his book, he felt equally lost among the heathen Hindus Dubois suggests a truly amazing scheme for the conversion of the Hindus. According to him ‘one would have to begin by undermining the very foundations of their civilization, religion, and polity.’ The effect of such an upheaval would be to turn them into ‘atheists and barbarians’. Having plunged the whole country into primeval chaos and Dubois seriously suggests such a course he and his like will ‘offer ourselves to them as law-givers and religious teachers’. But this is by no means the end of his ‘reform’. For after dragging the Hindus or rather, no longer Hindus ‘out of the depths of barbarism, anarchy, and atheism into which we have plunged them’ and after giving them laws, a new constitution, and a new religion, the real difficulty would only begin then: ‘We would still have to give them new natures and different inclinations?* For there is no guaranty that the newly converted and civilized heathens may not one day relapse into their former state, unless their ‘natures’ are also changed. Dubois’ method of civilizing the Hindus strikes us as rather violent; compared to it the French Revolution was child’s play. Fortunately Dubois never attempted to put his scheme into practice. Perhaps we are not wrong in assuming that he would have been the first to pay with his life for the ‘barbarism, anarchy, and atheism,’ into which he wanted to plunge India.
The second reason for Dubois’ loss of enthusiasm, we said, was the Europeans themselves. Dubois is as outspoken as could be desired. We do not know whether Dubois had any personal grievances against Europeans living in India; but he accuses them of almost all the crimes on earth. It is true that just as Voltaire, he also has nothing but praise for the British Government in India. The ‘colossal’ domination which they have succeeded in establishing in India ‘has filled the people of India with admiration’ and has convinced the ‘powers of Asia’ of the superiority of the West over the East ‘and more especially in the art of subjugating and governing nations.’ Dubois is less generous towards Missionaries.
In his Letter on the State of Christianity of India Dudois raises a very relevant point indeed : to an Indian a Missionary is a natural. appendage to political subjection and, therefore, all missionary efforts are bound to fail. Here again Voltaire and Dubois meet on a common platform; for what Voltaire discovered by means of scepticism and critical thinking, it took Dubois thirty years of painful missionary experience : ‘The Hindus soon found that those missionaries whom their colour, their talents, and other qualities had induced them to regard as such extraordinary beings, as men coming from another world, were in fact nothing else but disguised Feringhis (Europeans), and their country, their religion, and original education were the same as those of the evil, the contemptible Feringhis who had of late invaded their country. This event proved the last blow to the interests of the Christian religion … and Christianity became more and more an object of contempt and aversion in proportion as European manners became better known to the Hindus.’ As regard those ‘European manners’ Dubois, in a later chapter of his book, is of opinion that ‘Europeans should indeed blush and take shame to themselves when they see to what depths of degradation and abasement the religion of their fathers has sunk in this country through the misconduct and bad example of their fellows.’ T Dubois knew and perhaps also understood the average Indian’s attitude towards Europeans. Indeed, some paragraphs in his book reveal a strangely sympathetic feeling towards Indians and a frank contempt for the West.
For it is natural for a Hindu to consider Europeans below the level of beasts’ and their everyday manners and customs ‘coarse and degraded. And Dubois is almost ready to take sides with the Hindus. His dilemma, we remember, was also that of Voltaire. Voltaire had the golden age of French civilization to lean upon Louis XIV, Racine, Descartes, Pascal, Versailles and its parks, painting and music and architecture. And though he felt more than anyone else the gradual decay of his civilization, it was still ‘Greece’ to him, while India was subjugated and invaded Persia’. Dubois was less attached to these civilizing factors of human existence. There was always Christianity to lean upon although here too the germs of decay were at work. But while ultimately Voltaire refused to take the Hindus seriously because they were too religious, Dubois was desperately convinced of their lack of religion; Dubois denied all civilization to the Hindus because of the absence of any true religion whatsoever. Perhaps it may not be out of place to enquire what exactly were the standards by means of which Dubois judged Indian culture.
Dubois begins with an analysis of the mental faculties of the Hindus. According to him, they ‘appear to be as feeble as their physique’. Nowhere in the world, he says, are there as many ‘idiots and imbeciles’; and although he admits that among the Hindus there are some ‘who possess marked abilities and talents’ he is constrained to add that ‘during the three hundred years or so that Europeans have been established in the country, no Hindu, so far as I know, has ever been found to possess really transcendent genius’. Considering their feeble intellectual propensities, learning could only be of little avail. Actually, according to Dubois, the Hindus have made no progress at all in learning and while ‘many barbarous races have emerged from the darkness of ignorance the Hindus have been perfectly stationary.’ He does not find among them any sign of moral or mental improvement, with the result that ‘they are now very far behind the peoples who inscribed their names long after them on the roll of civilized nations. Mental faculties and learning among the Hindus having been dismissed in this rather casual manner, Dubois now enters into a more detailed discussion on poetry and music. There is no doubt that Dubois read the Ramayana and the Bhagavata; his approach is again that of the sophisticated European for whom Corneille and Racine are the last word in poetry. Accordingly, Dubois finds the meaning of Hindu poetry often so obscure that ‘it is impossible to understand it properly unless one makes a special study of the subject’. He adds, however, that Hindu poetry might one day become the fashion in Europe, Perhaps Europeans will discover then that they ‘have borrowed from it the romantic style of our day which some find so beautiful and others so silly’. This is an astonishingly relevant remark considering the literary dispute that took place just then between the ancients and the moderns, the classics and the romantics, and in which India and its literature played a not unimportant part. Dubois, however, is all with the Ancients. For he, rather ingeniously, refers the Ramayana and Bhagavata to Aristotle’s Poetics. ‘It may easily be understood,’ he says, ‘that the “unities” prescribed by Aristotle have not been observed in these epics,’ For the Bhagavata takes up its hero ‘before his birch, and does not quit him till after he is dead’. During Dubois’ time a violation of Aristotle’s three unities was tantamount to literary sacrilege. And did not Voltaire himself write his tragedies in accordance with Aristotle’s precepts? Indeed, Voltaire was the first to attack those ‘Moderns’ who thought they could do without Aristotle; in his old age he even accused Shakespeare of having violated not only Aristotle’s unities but also human decency and sanity. – We wonder what Voltaire would have said, had he seen the Ramayana or Kalidasa’s immortal poem. The next generation hailed Indian poetry as the final liberation from Greek and Latin classicism, from Aristotle’s misunderstood laws, from the rule of the Ancients. Dubois, a child of pre-revolutionary France, still found Romanticism ‘silly’. His contemporary, Goethe, found it beautiful.
Very few Europeans have ever cared to listen attentively to Indian music; even fewer have written intelligently about it. Dubois must have heard a great deal of genuine Indian music during his stay in South. India.
That his response is entirely negative need not surprise us. But it is worth while to reproduce the whole paragraph dealing with his impressions of music in India as it constitutes a representative example of an average European’s attitude towards a musical system that is not his’ own. Similar statements can be found in many books during the hundred and fifty years from Dubois to our own time. It almost seems as though music is the most difficult obstacle which both Indians and Europeans have to overcome in order to understand one another better.
Despite all his attempts to remain impartial and detached, his account of Indian music is very largely the result of his application of wrong standards. Indeed, it is only in very recent times and in consequence of modern research in the structure and technique of classical Indian music that Europeans have begun to appreciate what to them had been alien for such a long time. According we must go back two or three thousand years and imagins ourselves in those ancient times when the Druids and other priests used in their civil and religious ceremonies no other music but dismal cries and noisy sounds, produced by striking two metal plates together, by beating tightly-stretched skins or by blowing horns of different kinds.’
There is little left that can profitably be said about the Abbe’s book. As a complement to Voltaire’s studies on India, on the one hand, and to the coming revival of Eastern learning in Europe, on the other, it is of invaluable interest to any student of the cultural relations between East and West. His prolonged stay in India was undoubtedly an initial disadvantage. Voltaire who never set foot on Indian soil, wrote lucidly and intelligently on a country which he could hardly visualize at all, while Dubois imbibed in India all the prejudices and preconceptions that Europeans are liable to develop when living in a foreign country without actively participating in the life of the people. His political past and his religious pre-occupations condemned his attempts to ‘civilize’ the Hindus from the very beginning to failure. When he thinks he is most sincere, he is also most absurd. And while hating the European Enlightenment just as much as the polytheism of the Hindus, he placed himself beyond the main intellectual and social currents of his time. Dubois who pleads for the Roman Catholic Church is fundamentally an uprooted. His escape to India was more than symbolical. Having failed to convince the newly arisen middle classes of France he tried his hand at converting those who still lived in the primitive purity and integrity of faith. His failure was also the failure of the West to respond with kindness and understanding, instead of condescension and brutality, to a civilization so essentially human and unpretentious.