Europe Looks At India – The Moral Challenge

The English response to India before and during the French Revolution was the result of criticism levelled by Englishmen against the British administration of India. Even Johnson who, as we have seen, knew very little about India suggested improvements in the government. England, throughout the second half of the eighteenth century, was obsessed by the ostentation of the ‘Nabobs’ of whom Clive was. probably the most outstanding. On the one hand, they found deeds of epic greatness, on the other, the ‘orientalized’, if not ‘sultanized’, Englishman in all his money-making vulgarity, his unscrupulousness, and his obvious lack of ‘good manners’ when away from home. The English conflict with regard to India could not be ‘spiritual’, because what England imported from India was not ‘spirit’, but gold. But a conflict, nevertheless, it was. The ‘appeal of the East’ was probably as strong among Englishmen as among Continentals; but while appearances were all that mattered in Germany, England was again and again confronted by a reality to which they found it very difficult to adjust themselves. Thus it happened that their first response was directed to-wards, or rather, against their own representatives in India, the political and economic upstarts in the service of the East India Company.

The end of the eighteenth century, indeed, witnessed the rise of a strong humanitarian movement in all the countries of Europe. just as pre-revolutionary France and Goethe in Germany strongly protested against the caste system as unjust and contrary to the ‘natural’ equality among men, so also Englishmen revolted against the callousness of their on compatriots who made their for-tunes out of the devastation of Indian provinces. Before Burke’s great indictment of the English Nabob, the pro-test took mostly the form of satire. Mackenzie, for instance, satirizes the class in The Lounger (1787) where he describes the return from India of Mr. Mushroom and his wife. They arrive with a fortune of a hundred thou-sand pounds, dressed in Indian muslin, and many episodes of dancing girls, maharajas, and elephants: ‘The Sunday after those two newcomers’ arrival they appeared in church, where their pew was all carpeted and cushioned over for their reception, so bedizened there were flowered muslins and gold muslins, white shawls and red shawls, white feathers and red feathers and every now and then the young Mushroom girls pulled out little bottles that sent such a perfume around them nay, my old friend, their father, like a fool he was, had such a mixture of black satin and pink satin about him, and was so stiff and awkward in his finery, that he looked for all the world like the King of Clubs, and seemed, poor man ! to have little to say for himself.’ In another paper Mackenzie introduces another ‘hero’, Jack Truman, who in twelve years’ practice as a physician in India, had accumulated a fortune of L25,000. ‘Various, Sir,’ he says, ‘are the methods of acquiring wealth in India.’ And at the end of his paper, Mackenzie adds the following note:

‘Had Mr. Truman returned from India with the enormous fortune of some other Asiatic adventurers, he would probably have been much less happy than he is, even without considering the means by which it is possible such a fortune may have been acquired. In the possession of such overgrown wealth, however attained, there is gene-rally more ostentation than pleasure, more pride than enjoyment : I can but guess at the feelings which accompany it, when reaped from devastated provinces, when covered with the blood of slaughtered myriads.’

That this subject matter was extremely popular is shown in a large number of books published at the time and dealing with English administration in India. A contemporary of Samuel Foote whose play The Nabob (1772) had been a great popular success in London, gives an interesting comment on his play: ‘About this time a general outcry had been raised against several members of the East India Company who, from small beginnings and obscure origins, had raised immense fortunes in a very short period. What made this more disgusting to the public, and particularly to the higher orders of the English, was that these new men from the extent of their purses, and the extravagance of their tempers, not only ousted many of the old families from their seats in Parliament, but erected palaces about the country, and blazed . forth in a style of magnificent living that eclipsed the steadier but less brilliant lights of the hereditary gentry.’T As regards the hero of this play, Sir Matthew Mite, he is shown to be a sinister fool and. a parvenu. ‘Will he listen’, exclaims one of the characters in this play, ‘to a private complaint who has been deaf to the cries of a people ? or drop a tear for particular distress who owes his rise to the ruin of thousands?’ Contemporary poets were no less outspoken. A number of passages in Cowper, for instance, indicate the place that India occupied in the mind of England at that time. It is evident that even the response of poets was very considerably influenced by the impression made by the pictures of the Company’s servants before the time of Hastings :

` The Brahmin kindles on his own bare head The Sacred fire, self-torturing his trade! His voluntary pains, severe and long Would give a barbarous air to British song; No grand inquisitor could worse invent Than he contrives to suffer, well content The villas with which London stands begirt Like a swarth Indian with his belt of beads.’

A novel such as Hartly House (1789) could only strengthen such an impression. For this journal written by a woman for her friends in England is a narrative of the personal experiences of a young and empty-headed girl who had escaped from the constricted opportunities of middle-class life in England to the princely scale which Calcutta magnates sought to compensate themselves for their lack of European culture, on the one side, and on the other, an exhausting climate and the danger of disease.

Written in the style of Richardson; the author of the diary compares her life filled with ‘all the transports of animation and magnificence’ with that of her poor middle-class friend in England which seems to her, as seen from her Chowringhee palace, ‘one dull track from infancy to age’.

Before even her literature and philosophy were known to Englishmen, India loomed large on their intellectual horizon. But let us remember that it was the horizon of middle-class people, puritanical, narrow-minded, and essentially respectable. As regards their attitude towards Indians they, as in the case of Johnson for instance, confessed their ignorance; but they had very definite opinions regarding the exploitation of India by their own countrymen. There is a good deal of righteous indignation in their writings on the British administration and we wonder whether indeed they realized that much of their own prosperity and culture, their `good manners’ and respectability, would disappear with the cessation of that exploitation of their colonies which they so strongly condemned. We would like to assume that they were still unconscious of the relationship between civilization and economic prosperity, and that their indignation, just as Goethe when confronted by the caste system, was genuine. And when a few years later the first English scholars, inspired and encouraged by Warren Hastings, published their first translations from Indian literature, the people of England realized the relativity of all standards of civilization. It was indeed Hastings himself who opened the eyes of Englishmen to the fact that there is something called Indian civilization which calls for a positive response from the West. Hastings’ position was peculiar inasmuch as he had to. stress both the cultural and the political aspect of the problem of response. On the one hand, therefore, he takes up a similar attitude as Goethe a few years after him, namely, that a knowledge of Indian life and literature will broaden and enliven the rend of the West, on the other, however, he also’ points out the fresh obligation arising from that newly acquired wisdom with regard to statesmanship and administration. For him, indeed, the question of cultural relations implies first of all a new way of looking at and of governing the subjects of the East India Company: ‘It is not very long,’ he writes in his Preface to Sir Charles Wilkins’ translation of the Bhagvadgita, ‘since the inhabitants of India were considered by many as creatures scarce elevated above the degree of savage life; nor, I fear, is that prejudice yet wholly eradicated, though surely abated. Every instance which brings their real character home to observation will impress us with a more generous sense of feeling for their writings, and these will survive when the British dominion in India shall have long ceased to exist, and when the forces which it once wielded of wealth and power are lost to remembrance.’ And commenting on the Gita he points out the c differences between the Western way of thinking and that of the East, but generously admits the religious and moral- values of the book : ‘Many passages will be found obscure and many will seem redundant, others will be found clothed with ornaments of fancy unsuited to our taste, and some elevated to a tract of sublimity into which our habits of judgement will find it difficult to pursue them; but few will shock either our religious faith or moral sentiments.’ Neither Wilkins, however, nor Halhed, whose Sanskrit Grammar was published in 1778, were the first pioneers of Sanskrit learning. The first scholar or writer to have printed in Europe a real dissertation in Sanskrit learning was Alexander Dow who also wrote an essay on Hinduism, entitled ‘A Dissertation concerning the Customs, Manners, Language, Religion and Philosophy of the Hindus published in 1768. He was also the first to point out that ‘there are many hundred volumes in prose in the Shanskrita language, which treat of the ancient Indians and he also has a great reason to believe that the Hindoos carry their authentic history further back into antiquity than any other nation now existing.’ And he is frank enough to assert that ‘literary enquiries are by no means a capital object to many of our adventurers in Asia.’

From now on books and translations follow each other in quick succession. The importance of Sir William Jones’ contribution to Indology need hardly be stressed in this connexion. Their work only strengthened the moral challenge of those writers who saw in the British occupation of India a sacred trust and obligation. We can observe a change in the attitude of mind after Hastings, brought about undoubtedly by the new awareness that the inhabitants of India are human beings deserving respect and admiration. India, in the eyes of the average Englishman, ceased to be a merely geographical unit constituting a definite economic asset, but a country inhabited by people who had evolved their own civilization, their own standards of conduct, their own wisdom. It was this ‘human’ an ale of vision that most appealed to Burke when he defended the case of India during Hastings’ impeachment: ‘I assert their morality to be equal to ours,’ he exclaims, in whatever regards the duties of fathers, governors and superiors, and I challenge the world to show, in any modern European book, more true morality and wisdom than’ is to be found in the writing of Asiatic men in high trust, and who have been counsellors to princes.’ The feelings that inspired Burke were undoubtedly genuine; and by vindicating justice for India he also vindicated the claims of India to nationalist, or at least, human rights. Lord Morley in his book on Burke, sums up his attitude as follows: ‘From beginning to end of the fourteen years in which Burke pursued his campaign against Hastings, we see in ever: page that the India which ever glowed before his vision was not the home of picturesque usages and melodramatic costume, but rather in his words the land of princes once of great dignity, authority and opulence; of an ancient and venerable priesthood, the guides of the people while living and their consol al ion in death; of a nobility, and antiquity and renown; of millions of ingenious mechanics, and millions of diligent tillers of the earth and finally, the land where might be found almost all the religions professed by men, the Brahminical, the Mussulman, the Eastern and the Western Christian.’ Burke’s attitude towards India no longer remains satisfied with a satirical presentation of the Nabobs. He took up the moral challenge from his predecessors and made India a matter of moral and political responsibility for Englishmen – and secondly, he saw in India a country of something more than wealth, barbarity, and gorgeousness indeed it was a country of human beings endowed with intellect, religion, and imagination.

It is within this context of moral and political awareness that the revival of Indian learning in England has to be understood. Throughout and after the Romantic movement it was this consideration of moral responsibility towards India that counted most among English writers. Nowhere shall we find in England that same spiritual fervour which inspired their German contemporaries. India was at best only a side-issue : for to many of the greatest poets of English Romanticism, India is hardly as vet a dream, and by no means a reality. Neither Coleridge nor Wordsworth, Keats or Byron, found in India any lasting source of inspiration. Attempts have been made to show the influence of Hindu mysticism on Blake’s poetry, and although affinities have undoubtedly been found they do not indicate that Blake ever made any detailed study of Hinduism. We also know that Coleridge read the English translation of the Abbe Dubois’ book on India from a manuscript note in Coleridge’s handwriting in the copy preserved in the British Museum. But however much he was attracted to medieval supernaturalism, India is conspicuously absent from his poetry. It was left to two second-rate poets to incorporate the Indian background into English Romantic poetry: Southey and Moore. And neither of the two could integrate their very superficial knowledge of oriental life.

Southey, in his poem The Curse of Kehama, succeeded to a certain extent in giving us the mythological texture of Hinduism without any deeper insight, how-ever, into the meaning and significance of the Hindu religion. The atmosphere and imagery of the poem are thoroughly western. And if we add to all this that he was by no means in sympathy with his subject-matter, we shall understand why his ambitious attempt was bound to fail. His first poem Thalaba dealt with Islam, written with evident relish. This may again be due to the fact that Europeans at all times responded more easily to Islam than to Hinduism. Goethe had already been a representative instance to the point. The reason why at all Southey chose oriental subjects for his poetry can be found in an experience of his childhood, the reading of Picart’s Religious Ceremonies : ‘The book impressed my imagination strongly, and before I left school I had formed the intention of exhibiting all the more prominent and poetical forms of mythology which have at any time maintained among mankind, and making each the ground-work of an heroic poem.’* However strong the impression might have been, it did not provide Southey with that sympathetic attitude of mind which alone would justify the writing of such a poem. He has, indeed, very strong opinions as regards the moral and religious value of Hinduism. According to him it is ‘of all false religions, the most monstrous in its fables and the most fatal in its effects ‘ And apologizing for the fantastic character of his poem, he says: ‘However startling the fictions may appear, they might almost be called credible when compared with the genuine tales of Hindu mythology. No figures can be imagined more anti-picturesque and less poetical than the mythological personages of the Brahmins their hundred hands are but a clumsy personification of power, their numerous heads only a gross image of divinity; whose countenance, as the Bhagavat Geeta express it “is turned on every side” ‘ Significant Iv enough, Southey’s teacher was Sir William Jones, and in a way, Southey’s poem served the purpose of enlightening English public opinion regarding India and Hinduism. But the impression it actually made is comparable only to that made by the Abbe Dubois, or, for the matter of that, by Sir William Jones himself. It aroused little sympathy for India and much repugnance, and its only tangible result was a great new effort of the missionaries in India and the appointment of an Anglican Bishop to Calcutta. One instance, culled at random from the poem istelf, will make the point quite clear. He describes the frantic votaries falling prone before the chariot of the God and laying their ‘self devoted’ bodies to ‘pave the chariot way’ of the Deity and ‘… On jaga-Naut they call,

The ponderous Car rolls on, and crushes all. Through flesh and bones it ploughs its dreadful path.

And Death and agony

Are trodden under foot by yon mad throng Who follow close, and thrust the deadly wheels along.’

Shelley read these Iines and was deeply impressed. In his Queen Mab he describes a very similar scene. For having read Southey he could not forget those hosts of votaries who

‘Stain His death-blushing chariot-wheels, as on

Triumphantly they roll, whilst Brahmins raise

A sacred hymn to mingle with the groans ‘

Shelley is indeed the only one among the major English poets of this period who seems to have taken a more active and intense interest in India. As early as 1809. his favourite poet was Southey. He read Thalaba ’till he knew it almost by heart’. The Curse of Kehama was his ‘most favourite poem’, he says in a letter to Eliz. Kitchener, on June 11, 1811. As early as December 24, 1812, he requested Clio Rickmann, the bookseller, to send him copies of Robertson’s Historical Disquisition on India and Sir William Jones’ works. Shelley undoubtedly learnt a good deal from Southey’s poems. They indeed opened his eyes to the absurdity of any orthodox faith, be it Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism. Thus Southey’s poem which indirectly led to the appointment of an Anglican Bishop at Calcutta, on the other hand, strengthened Shelley’s atheistic. convictions. From now on Shelley, al-though he knew indeed very little of Hinduism, could not resist the temptation of referring to the followers of ‘Brahmah’ along with other ‘religionists’. In some of his poems he introduces an Indian background which re-minds us of the visionary descriptions and dreams of contemporary German poets. The poet in Alastor, for instance, was stretching ‘his languid limbs.

India never became in England, as it did in Germany, an intrinsic part of a poetic revival. If we leave aside Shelley’s occasional references to India, the response of English poets and writers was from the very outset determined, not so much by ‘spiritual’ elements, but by England’s moral and political ‘responsibility towards India. That also explains why throughout the Victorian age, poets and novelists in England were concerned with India as part of their moral consciousness. From the point of view of literary creation or philosophy, India’s influence was indeed negligible. Some of the works, however, deserve mention here, not so much because of any literary merit, but in order to establish parallels with the Continental response to India.

Victorian England was, perhaps, more definite in condemning the unscrupulousness of English rule in India than ever before. India plays a very important part in one of Scott’s latest novels The Surgeon’s Daughter, published in 1827. The way in which a young man of that period looks upon India is very well expressed in the following- exclamation of a youthful lover who envies his friend who is going to join the service of the Company : ‘To India, happy dog, to India ! Oh, Delhi ! Golconda ! have your names no power .. India, where gold is won by steel, where a brave man cannot pitch his desire of fame. and wealth too high, but that he may realize it if he have fortune for his friend!’ Another young man who had left England five years previously for India, comes swaggering back to-the village, paying even his debts and giving a glowing account of what India has to offer: ‘Not stream did-he mention but flowed over sands of gold, and riot a palace that was inferior to those of the celebrated Fata Morgana. His descriptions seemed steeped in odours, and his every phrase perfumed in attar of roses.’ But the novelist also gives us a more sinister portraiture of the actual conduct of responsible Englishmen in India. With probably Sir Thomas Rumbold in his mind, he describes the ‘president of the Council’ at Madras as ‘an able and active but unconscientious man who, neither in his own affairs, nor in those of the Company, was sup-posed to embarrass himself much about the means which he used to attain his object.’ Apart from the obvious moral challenge, Scott in this novel displays his extraordinarily accurate knowledge of Indian scenes and Indian life. His painting is as vivid, his details as exact as when he is describing his own beloved Scotland. He was intensely interested both in local customs and the romantic scene, and as he says in his Preface, ‘India is the true place for a Scot to thrive in.’ What effect this novel had on English public opinion at that time, is not difficult to guess. He spread the impressions first made by Burke; he pointed out afresh the moral challenge, inherent in any sensitive response of an Englishman towards India; he pictured the blazing promises by which India had fascinated the brains of young Britishers. And lastly he is the first English novelist to have drawn on India for ‘romantic’ material.

There are still two more writers to be considered, Thackeray and Ruskin. Thackeray’s case is probably representative of the Victorian attitude to India in’ general. For though, on the one hand, he is a remoulder of the sinister impression made on England by the Nabobs which has never been entirely forgotten, he also takes the opportunity in his novel The Newcomes, to satirize the inhabitants in India in the person of Rummum Loll, the fraudulent Bank Director, who offers the guileless Colonel an investment which will creble his capital in a year. The condescending attitude of Thackeray towards India and the Indians is, psychologically speaking, a kind of self-defence against the unquiet moral conscience of the aver-age Englishman at that time. He does not, by any means, justify unscrupulousness. He simply ignores it. ‘The nabob of books and traditions’, he even says, ‘is no longer to be found among us. He is neither as wealthy nor as wicked as the jaundiced monster of romances and comedies, who purchased the estates of broken-down Englishmen with rupees tortured out of bleeding rajahs, who smokes a hookah in public, and in private carries about a guilty conscience, diamonds of untold value, and a diseased liver; who has a vulgar wife with a retinue of black servants whom he maltreats, and a gentle son and daughter with good impulses and an imperfect education, desirous to amend their own and their servants’ lives, and thoroughly ashamed of the follies of the old people.’ Thackeray’s interest was more in persons and customs than in natural scenery. The Arabian Night atmosphere was there all the time, but diluted by close observation and description of familiar Indian scenes: ‘Though I would like to go into an Indian Brahmin’s house and see the punkahs and the purdahs and the tattys, and the pretty brown maidens with. great. eyes, and. great .noe.. rings, and- painted foreheads, and slim w. aists cased in Cashmere shawls, Kincob scarves, curly slippers, gilt trousers, precious anklets and bangles; and have the mystery of Eastern existence revealed to me (as who would not who has read the Arabian Nights in his youth ?) yet I would not choose the moment when the Brahmin of the house was dead, his women howling, his priests doctoring the child of a widow, now frightening her with sermons, now drugging her with bang so as to push her on his funeral pile at last, and into the arms of that carcase, stupefied, but obedient and decorous.

It may, perhaps, not be very fair to include Ruskin in the present survey ; for his mind was clouded over by the effects of the Indian mutiny, and prejudiced as he then was, he could hardly be expected to judge either Indian art or philosophy dispassionately. According to him, the Indians were ‘childish, or restricted in intellect, and similarly childish or restricted in their philosophies or faiths:* The dark terrifying spectre of ferocity haunted all his interpretations of the Hindu genius, and he ignores the Muslim when he speaks of India. The following quotation, however painful to the modern reader, reflects public opinion in England at that time Tennyson’s Defence of Lucknow speaks the same language under the guise of poetic convention : ‘Since the race of man began its course on this earth nothing has ever been done by it so significative of all bestial, and lower than bestial, degradation, as the acts of the Indian race in the year that has just passed by. Cruelty as fierce may in-deed have been wrecked, and brutality as abominable been practised before, but never under like circumstances: rage of prolonged war, and resentment of prolonged oppression have made men as cruel before now, and gradual decline into barbarism, where no examples of decency or civilization existed around ‘ them, has sunk, before now, isolated populations to the lowest level of possible humanity. But cruelty stretched to its fiercest against the gentle and unoffending, and corruption festering to its loathsomest in the midst of the witnessing presence of a disciplined civilization, these we could not have known to be within the practical compass of human guilt, but for the acts of the Indian mutineers. Out of (India’s) ivory palaces comes cruelty and treachery, cowardice, idolatry and bestiality; comes all that is fruitful in the work of Hell.’

Here undoubtedly we have reached the lowest level in the history of England’s response to India. Determined as this response has been throughout by historical and social forces, we are not unduly surprised at the manner in which the ‘moral challenge’ of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century has been transformed into open hatred, as in Ruskin, or, at best, into benevolent, though supercilious, condescension as in Thackeray. From the middle of the nineteenth century onwards we find ourselves confronted by a reaction against the preceding age of humanitarianism and romantic glamour. Scepticism and disillusionment take the place of that early genuine enthusiasm for the East. The Mutiny will for many years to come determine the response of Englishmen towards India.

And at the same time as England began to deny her moral obligations, we find on the continent of Europe a number of outstanding scholars, who refused to acknowledge the spiritual message of the East and who strongly reacted against the romantic and visionary conception of India,