Europe Looks At India – The Problem Of Response

The study of cultural relations, far from being a merely intellectual subject-matter to be treated academically, involves the scholar in an analysis of what might be called cultural dynamics, a study of parallel developments, influences, and cross-currents, in the civilization of countries or continents, and the way they affect human beings, both as individuals and as members- of a social group in a given historical and social context.

The civilization of Europe, however, is not a homogeneous whole. And yet, scholars who have dealt with the problem of response, and in particular the response of Europeans to India, always started with the assumption that the civilization of a country or a continent, is something static, easily definable, and limited to the intellectual make-up of a few writers, poets and philosophers. But civilization is always a process; not a being, but a becoming. It is reflected not only in the mind of man, but far more clearly in behaviour-patterns, moral standards and valuations. A human being who responds to an alien civilization, does so within the context of his social group, its thought and behaviour patterns that have infused into him a particular set of moral standards and values. The problem of response is very largely identical with the problem of how one form of cultural evolution adjusts itself or fails to adjust itself to different, and frequently diametrically opposed forms of cultural dynamics, and it is no good assuming that there exists a mysterious mechanism of response shaping and re-shaping enough, is hardly concerned at all with the response of one continent to another, but rather with a purely mental adjustment which, in his opinion, is required to ‘stabilize’ once again the Western mind. Whether that is at all possible without a revaluation of the very attitudes that underlie all human behaviour, including of course, thought patterns, does not seem to concern Maeterlinck here. He has given us his formula. It is for us to apply it to living reality. No wonder that most intellectuals failed in their attempt. Nothing, indeed, is more signicant in an analysis of the problem of response between East and West than the frustration that periodically overcomes the intellectuals and scholars in Europe who, genuinely in search of a deeper understanding, are confronted again and again by meaningless formulas, abstractions, and concepts. Their greatest disappointment is when their cherished formula cannot be applied and proves to be unsuitable to actually existing conditions of reality. Their desire to understand turns into bitterness and deliberate misinterpretation, the open hatred of the frustrated scholar when confronted by something he cannot grasp ‘intellectually’.

It is out of such an attitude that arise those amazing schemes, built up with all the pedantry of European scholarship, concerning the racial superiority of the ‘Aryans’, as in Gobineau, the superiority of the ‘Teutons’, as in H. S. Chamberlain, the ‘senility’ of Indian civilization, as in Hegel, or of Buddhism, as in Spengler. And with an enviable, though enervating, thoroughness they will put forth argument after argument, footnote after footnote, quotation after quotation, to prove their main thesis. Once their thesis established, all they had to do was to apply it, point by point, to what they considered to be ‘reality’. Their ignorance which at times was appalling, could always be hidden behind a veil of cynical condescension masquerading as scholarship. And there was nothing to prevent them from being frankly contemptuous whenever the ‘paralysed Eastern lobe’ interfered too much with their well-ordered plans and intellectual hypotheses.

What happened in Europe during the last hundred and fifty years has frequently been compared to that period in Western civilization known by the name of Renaissance. This expansion of the mind, in the opinion of traditional scholarship, was entirely due to a re-awakening of that same ‘paralysed’ Eastern lobe of which Maeterlinck had woken during the last war. Ac-cording to Sir S. Radhakrishnan, just as the consciousness of Europe ‘was enlarged in the period of the Renaissance by the revelation of the classical culture of Greece and Rome, there is a sudden growth of the spirit today effected by the new inheritance of Asia, with which India is linked up ‘ * Such a statement, however justified in a general manner of speaking, requires some qualifications. What exactly is meant by the ‘growth of the spirit today’ ? Does this growth comprise the whole of Europe or only some privileged countries ? Does it include all the population groups of a country regardless of its social or economic structure, or does it apply only to a minority group, an elite of intellectuals, scholars, and poets ? Has this growth of the spirit during the last hundred and fifty years in any fundamental way affected the thought or behaviour patterns of the people of Europe (as the Renaissance undoubtedly did) ? What precisely constituted this ‘new inheritance of Asia’ ? Do we find it reflected to the same extent in works of art, literature, or philosophy, as the culture of ancient Greece and Rome was reflected in the works of the Renaissance ?

Some of these questions, we hope, will be answered in this book. A few preliminary remarks, however, will be necessary. Cultural relations are not established by some vague entity called the human spirit, but by men and women living within the particular historical context of their age, and responding, due to a large variety of motives, to an alien civilization. It is indeed the problem of motivation that concerns us here most. The fact that human beings respond to something that is foreign to their outlook on life is in itself hardly of any significance at all, unless we can also determine the reason, often hidden behind intellectual arguments and ratiocination, that made them look in another continent, be it for inspiration or knowledge or a new way of life. For the motives that make men respond in one way or another to an alien civilization are often elusive, and only by a study of the historical context itself can they be properly understood.

It is no doubt true that this growth of the European mind took place at a time when spiritually Europe had become saturated with its own past and when intellectuals longed for a wider and larger view of life than the one’ that confined them to classical antiquity and Christianity, the two forces that had shaped European civilization during the last 2000 years. Western scholars, long before Maeterlinck, looked upon the ‘paralysed Eastern Iobe’ as the only hope for the spiritual rejuvenation of Europe. Michelet, for instance, speaking about the Ramadan, wrote in 1864: ‘Whoever has done or will too much, let him drink from this deep cup a long draught of life and youth. Everything is narrow in the West Greece is small and I stifle; Judaea is dry and I pant. Let me look a little towards loft Asia, the profound East ‘ Nor indeed was Michelet the first to express in words that new awareness of spiritual expansion. Since the time of Voltaire, that is since shortly before the French Revolution, writers and scholars, philosophers and poets, have voiced similar opinions, and all of them seem to agree that Europe has become too ‘narrow’ for them, that a rejuvenation can only come from the East. Most of them stressed the need for a moral and intellectual re-awakening, only very few mentioned the political and economic interests involved.

The fact that pre-occupations of a very material kind were involved throughout these hundred and fifty years, however, admits of no doubt. The coincidence of spiritual and material expansion is far too striking to be merely accidental. And if, as some say, cultural progress reflects, in more than one way, material progress, then we have here an admirable instance to the point. Historically speaking, the re-awakened interest in Indian civilization coincided with the economic and colonial expansion of those countries in Europe which required new markets for the products of their factories and work-shops. The English were the first to begin a systematic study of Sanskrit and Indian civilization because they had very definite material interests in the East and were quite naturally led to an investigation into the language and philosophy of those people who had become, both politically and economically, their subjects. The first Sanskrit scholars and Indologists were either Government officials or missionaries. The reason why France lagged behind is to be found in the fact that her interests were at that time already more confined to the Near East than to India. The country, therefore, in which the Industrial Revolution first originated, accelerating thereby the rise of the middle classes, was also the first to investigate the civilization of India. For, on the one hand, the Industrial Revolution had opened up a new market in the East and, on the other, the middle classes were thirsty for a vaster and less limited kind of knowledge. They indeed revolted against the aristocratic culture of Greece and Rome, and demanded fresh spiritual food. The middle classes stood for expansion of the empire as well as for the expansion of their mind. And France which remained an agricultural country for a much longer period of time than England, was less successful in expanding either her trade or her ‘spirit’.

It is no accident either that Indology received a truly amazing impetus in Germany during the Napoleonic wars. Here also it was a rejuvenated middle class that looked towards the East for a new inspiration and a new ‘renaissance’. Not being able to expand economically or to establish colonies, Germany compensated her political inferiority (as it undoubtedly existed at that time) by some kind of spiritual superiority, brought about, if not by anything else, by the ever-increasing interest of middle class scholars and poets in things Indian. And while the English, at the beginning, developed Indology as a science to be systematically studied, the Germans began by idealizing India and transforming the East into a romantic fairyland of their own imagination. It was only very much later that Germans with their proverbial thoroughness took -up Indology as a science for its own sake, while, on the other hand, the repressed desire of the Germans for a colonial empire made them expound their far-fetched racial theories regarding an Indo-Aryan or Indo-German or even Indo-Teutonic race.

India was to the rising middle classes of Europe, apart from being one of the main sources of their economic prosperity, an escape from their own spiritual narrowness, a protest against the limitation of a purely classical culture, the romantic dream of a timeless and conflictless existence come true. From the very beginning the response of European intellectuals to India was coloured by their middle-class origin, the wish-fulfilment of the Philistine or the inability of the nineteenth-century rationalist to grasp anything that did not fit in with his pre-arranged schemes and plans. Indeed, both the romantic and rationalist attitude to-wards India spring from the sane source. For the nineteenth century produced both the utopian dream of the infinite and the positivism of the scientific rationalist, both of them responded to India according to their own beliefs and attitudes. For the dreamer India became an escape from the scientific ugliness and hypocrisy of his age, a restatement of spiritual and moral values, a symbol of the re-discovered human soul. For the rationalist India was a ‘backward’ country stimulating him for social reform or political emancipation, racial theories or humanitarian enterprises. It might not always be possible to distinguish the two types clearly. Their response to India was at times coloured by their desire to escape from a civilization that had exhausted itself and in which they played the part of rather superfluous appendages ,to an industrial ‘progress’ which in its very essence was opposed to their most cherished longings; and at times they turned into social reformers and utopian humanitarians, protesting against the inequality prevailing among men, the injustice of the caste system, and, paradoxically enough, against the gradual ‘modernization’ of India. In their attitudes both were equally ‘romantic’: India, whether real or imaginary, always 4 remained a wish-fulfilment. And even those who most strongly protested against the interference of the ‘Eastern lobe’ were guided by a similar wish-fulfilment: for they deceived themselves into believing in the ‘senility’ of Indian civilization only in order to compensate their own realization of failure and gradual decay in the West.

The attitude of Western thinkers and poets to-wards India was indeed to a very considerable extent that of escape and wish-fulfilment. Only those who were conscious of the failure of their own age to create new forms of life, took to such an attitude. That limits the response of the West towards India to the few, the intellectuals and scholars, who had achieved that level of awareness which made them want to escape from the horrors of industrialization and, more often than not, from the horrors of what they considered to be the coming social and economic revolution. It is in-deed a minority group within a new mass-civilization that was at all ready to respond to India, her tion and philosophy. Those countries in which spiritual crisis, partly brought about by the Industrial Revolution, was most strongly felt, developed such minority groups earlier than relatively self-contented agricultural countries. Such a minority group can hardly be called a ‘movement’ or a ‘renaissance’. The man-in-the-street, the people at large, were hardly affected at all. Their belief in progress and the infinite possibilities of the human mind remained unshaken throughout these hundred and fifty years. Neither culture nor behaviour patterns in the West were in any significant way changed by that minority group. India remained, and still is today, for most Europeans a vague geographical or political entity, the land of the Tai Mahal, of Maharajas and Mahatmas. The mass-civilization of Europe, with its material progress and its periodical wars and cataclysms, its literature and art, its religion and moral standards, its varying forms of governments, its jazz and Hollywood pictures and newspaper trusts, remains unaffected by the dream and wish-fulfilment of the minority of intellectuals. Only from time to time a voice is heard in the wilderness, Emerson or Tolstoy or Romain Rolland, and people go and buy their books for the sake of etiquette or good breeding, and for a few days or weeks Buddha or Vivekananda become the main subject-matter of conversation in the fashionable drawing-rooms of Paris or London or New York. At best their books will be a literary success and might establish a new literary tradition. They will not lead to a new way of life or the creation of new patterns of thought, except in individual cases. The `growth of the spirit today’ is the result of individual protest against the existing modes of life. The Renaissance brought about by the ‘inheritance’ of Asia is still in its childhood. Indeed, we wonder whether it will ever grow to maturity.

In this book we shall limit ourselves to the response of Europeans to India during the last hundred and fifty years only. A more complete account could be given if we would also include the response of Indians to Europe daring the same period of time. Such a study would reveal similar historical and social forces at work as in the West. For in India also it was the educated higher middle class, those who were dissatisfied with the limitations of ancient learning and culture and who desired a broadening of their consciousness who most readily responded to the influence of the West. Here as in Europe it was a time of spiritual re-awakening and material progress, of a new search for truth and the application of new values. And just as in the West, the ‘Renaissance’ in India was also limited to an elite of poets, writers, and intellectuals of middle-class origin. The people remained, to a very considerable extent, unaffected. The main difference, however, between the response of the West to India, and India’s response to Europe consists in the fact that the former were ‘free’ to respond and did so out of an urgent inner need, while the latter were, first of all; and almost certainly against their will driven to acknowledge the superiority of a culture whose only claim to superiority, so at least it seemed to them, consisted in material efficiency and the large-scale manufacture of arms. It is indeed significant that, while many a great European considered the Upanishads and the teachings of Buddha to be the very climax of human perfection in the realm of the spirit, only a small select group of Indians looked upon the Bible or Christianity with an equal enthusiasm. But then, we must remember that neither the Upanishads nor Buddhism entered Europe in the wake of invading armies or colonial subjection. Indeed, European scholars and poets were ‘free’ to admire where admiration was due.

The admiration of the Indian intellectual, whenever it was ungrudgingly given, was due to an inherent generosity of heart and a willingness to understand despite the loss of political or economic freedom. Such an intellectual freedom is, quite naturally, limited to the very few only, a Vivekananda, a Rabindranath, a Mahatma Gandhi. The psychology of cultural response in India was, therefore, determined by different forces than in the West. And a comparative study of the two might again lead to those misleading generalizations and abstractions which we want to avoid. By limiting ourselves to the West only we shall at least be able to point out those currents and cross-currents that made the response of Europeans to India during the last hundred and fifty years one of the most significant cultural events in the history of the human mind.