Europe Looks At India – The Reaction

Just as the political history of a continent is very largely the result of the continuous struggle of opposing forces in conflict, cultural evolution also is determined by similar antithetical currents and movements. Al-though it may not be always possible to foresee such an evolution in detail we can observe similar principles at work which permit to arrive at certain general conclusions regarding the way in which, either in politics or in culture, currents and cross-currents are created. An age of prosperity, economic and political expansion, and cultural stability is usually followed by a period of intense unrest, social transition and intellectual re-valuation. These are times of intense artistic creation caused by the intellectual’s search for certainty and his attempts to enlarge the frontiers of his mind. The transition from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century was such a time. It also witnessed the most creative kind of response of Europeans towards India. The response was coloured by the intense desire of the middle classes of Europe for emotional identification, social justice, and a rejuvenated religion.

The ‘return to reason’ which the nineteenth century witnessed, also brought about a reaction in the Western response towards India. India that so long had been identified in the mind of European intellectuals with nature, innocence, and simplicity, had been ‘humanized’ by the Indologists, by Burke, by innumerable accounts of travels in the East. Out of the dream and the vision there arose a new image of India, no longer an isolated continent, but a land with a civilization of its own to which from now European intellectuals could apply the same test as to that of any other country. The standards by which they would judge that civilization would, of course, be western. Indeed, they did not know that every civilization develops its own standards by which alone it can be tested. By applying western standards and values to India, they defeated their own purpose. Instead of judging India, they judged themselves: for so indeed it must seem to any intelligent Indian reader. The fact that some very outstanding philosophers and scholars took part in this attempt at testing Indian civilization by applying western standards of comparison, only indicates the self-centredness of nineteenth-century scholarship. The most eminent of them, Hegel, deserves a few paragraphs to himself alone. In his Philosophy of World History (1822-23), published while Goethe was still alive, he devotes a whole chapter to India. His frame of reference is historical from the very beginning, his method comparative, and his conclusions exceedingly depressing.

He begins with an attack against the romantics: ‘A beautiful aroma,’ he says, ‘has pervaded the name of India. In more recent times this aroma has evaporated, and our judgment finds something quite different from what fancy had imagined this land to be like.’ We know very little about the India of ancient times, he says; we have to judge this civilization by its present appearance. And the element that is most conspicuous is its old age, its declining power, in short, its senility. It almost seems as though Hegel considers India to be the prototype of a civilization condemned to death by its own inability to create something new out of the ruins of antiquity. His argument is of great psychological significance. For he implicitly takes for granted that India is a civilization on the decline, while the West is still struggling hard towards fulfilment : ‘Death’, he says, ‘exhausts the body; but spiritual bliss illumines tie face. just in such a manner does the earthly element die in the Indian character and a deeply spiritual being breaks through. But such a beauty, even in its most lovely form, remains the beauty of nervous debility in which all that is uneven, rigid, and contradictory, is dissolved and which makes the soul appear as experiencing deeply; but it is a soul in which we can perceive the death of the free and firm intellect. The Indian susceptibility to flowers seems to us indeed most lovely. But quite a different thing are the work, the labour, the deed of a mind conscious of its own self, of freedom and of justice. We are bound to suspect that this beauty of infirmity is unable to show itself at its best and by the force of intellect in the great events of life and statehood; on the contrary, life experienced in such a way will fall headlong into most disgraceful slavery and degradation.’

Instead of morality and rational thinking, India is, according to Hegel, a prey to superstitious beliefs and magic practices. Indeed, he insists so much on this sup-posed lack of morality in contemporary India, that we shall not be far from wrong if we assume that- Hegel was influenced not only by the writings of English administrators in India, but also by the Abbe Dubois’ book on the customs and manners of the Indians. For many parallel passages could be quoted where Hegel seems to rely for his information entirely on the Abbe: ‘Morals, reason, individuality,’ he says, ‘are rejected, and a wild imagination, steeped in sensual enjoyment, on the one hand, and lost in an utter abstraction of the inner life, on the other, are the two extremes between which the Indian is thrown hither and thither…. Everything that exists in the pre-sent, escapes with the Indians into colourful dreams. With them perception is determined by an irritation of the nerves which prevents them from accepting things as they are and transforms them into feverish dreams. In addition to this, they are incapable of knowing that they lie; for they completely lack the awareness of falsehood. One cannot rely either on their writings or their tales .. . One may say that in dreams the profoundest truth of the soul is expressed, although on the other hand, they are also foolish. Just in such a way we find in the Indians the consciousness of the highest idea mixed with the most arbitrary fancifulness,’

Only towards the end of his chapter on India, does Hegel give his sources away. There he mentions, first of all, ‘the Governor-General of the East Indies’ who reported to Parliament ‘on the moral conduct of the Indians’. Hegel probably alludes here to a book by Grant who returned from India in 1790, and who published his Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain two years later. In 1797 it was laid. before the Court of Directors, and in 1813 before the House of Commons who ordered it to be printed. Furthermore, Hegel also mentions the reports of missionaries, especially the Abbe Dubois, and those of English officers. ‘They all agree in one point that there can be nothing more devoid of moral sentiments than the Indian nation.’ Hegel’s remarks on the Brahmins do not bear scrutiny. ‘They only eat and sleep, it is reported to Englishmen. If something is not prohibited for them 135 their customs, they are entirely guided by their instincts; whenever they take part in public life, they show themselves avaricious, deceiving, and voluptous; they treat those with humility of whom they have reason to be afraid, and make their inferiors pay for it. An honest man among them, reports the Englishman, is unknown to me.’

How ignorant Hegel, and for the matter of that, his contemporaries were with regard to things eastern can best be shown in that short paragraph in his book in which Hegel attempts a definition of Buddhism. ‘There is a great dispute going on,’ he says, ‘which of the two religions (Buddhism and Hinduism) is older and simpler; for both there are reasons, but one cannot discern it clearly. The Buddhistic religion is simpler; but this may be due either to the fact that it is older or that it is the result of a Reformation. Probably, however, Buddhism is the older of the two.’

However disconcerting such statements may be to a student of cultural relationships, it must be kept in mind that Hegel, throughout this chapter on India, was out to prove his thesis, namely that a nation can come into being only if the individuals themselves have reached a high level of moral and intellectual consciousness. Indeed, ac-cording to him, India is no nation at all, but what he calls a ‘tyranny'; at best it is only a ‘people'; the very lowest and most primitive form of social organization. A ‘state’ alone incarnates the ‘mind’ of the people; its history is the history of that all-pervading, universal mind. A people that, for one reason or another, has lost its `statehood’, has no history of its own. For history is a continual protest, an antithesis to all the static forms of society. The absence of this protest in India, the passive acceptance of the inevitable, condemns India to the status of a people without history.

At first sight, Goethe’s ‘fear’ of the formless in Indian art and philosophy, on the one hand, and Hegel’s thesis, on the other, have apparently very little in common. And yet both of them withdrew from India for very similar motives : what Goethe calls the ‘formlessness’ of Indian culture is transformed in Hegel into a lack of self-consciousness and moral awareness. Both of them alike applied western standards when judging India; for both Hegel’s conception of history and Goethe’s conception of what is beautiful and true, are the result of a cultural tradition inherently western. We might smile today at Goethe’s fear and Hegel’s rather gratuitous attack. But their attitude symbolizes the most fundamental obstacle put in the way of an intelligent understanding of the East by the West. Nobody would accuse either Goethe or Hegel of prejudice of racial bigotry. They were indeed singularly free of any preconceived bias. The same, however, cannot be said with regard to the next nineteenth century scholar to whom some more paragraphs will be devoted here.

It is difficult to deny the influence of Count Gobineau on .the intellectual life of modem Europe. His book. The Inequality of the Human Races (1853) had a far-reaching effect on all the subsequent racial theories which, especially in more recent times, have flooded the continent of Europe. His ‘thesis’ is that the ‘white’ race is superior to all the other races on earth and his conclusion as regards the `history’ of India bears a very dose resemblance. to that of Hegel. Indeed all through his long chapter on India, he will follow Hegel’s arguments, especially those referring to the lack of ‘reason’ and ‘morality’ among the present-day Indians.

Gone are the humanitarianism and philanthropy of Goethe and the Romantics with regard to the caste system; Gobineau is the first among the great nineteenth-century scholars in Europe who sees in the caste system the superiority of the ancient social organization in India over the present one. For was not this caste system determined by the `race’ of those who first established it, and whom Gobineau calls the Aryans ? ‘The problem had found its ideal solution,’ he writes, ‘and nobody can refuse his approval to a social body ruled by reason and served by intelligence. The great difficulty is to put an abstract scheme of this kind into practice. All the theoricians of the West have failed in it: the purohits thought of having found the time method of success. Taking for their starting point the observation, established for them on irrefutable facts, that all superiority was on the side of the Aryans, all weakness and inability on the side of the black races, they admitted, therefore, that the intrinsic value of all human beings stood in direct proportion to the purity of blood, and they founded their categories on this principle. They called these principles Varna, which means colour, and which since then has taken the meaning of caste.’

So far-for the past. But since the time that the original Aryans had established their caste system, many changes have occurred. And it is with these changes that Gobineau is concerned in his book. According to him; it is due to the mixture between the ‘pure’ blood of the Aryan Brahmins and the blood of the ‘black’ and ‘yellow’ races that the Brahmins have lost their former hold over the people. His theory is indeed subtle and not without surprises to the layman uninitiated in the racial doctrines of Gobineau. He proceeds in the best scholarly tradition of the nineteenth century on a purely experimental basis. And experiments, he says, have amply proved that a slight mixture between the Aryan blood and that of black races produces artistic imagination in the Aryans; but at the same time it also ‘disarms reason, diminishes the intensity of the practical faculties,’ and takes away from them both ‘the capacity and the right’ to compete with the ‘pure’ Aryans in ‘patience, character, and intelligence’. And he concludes that ‘the Brahmins, having mixed their blood, before the formation of castes, with some melanasian races, were ready for defeat on the day when they would have to fight with races that had remained more white: Again and again Gobineau insists upon the fact that the predominance of ‘imagination’ (due to racial impurity) was the true cause of the decline of the Brahmins; and just as Goethe and Hegel had done before him, he points towards reason and order as opposed to the instinctual urges of the black races which alone could have saved the original caste system, that is, the superiority of the white race over the black and the yellow. ‘The black type and yellow principle’, he says in this remarkable chapter on India, ‘have penetrated this elite, and in many regards it is difficult, even impossible, to distinguish the Brahmins from individuals belonging to low castes.’ It goes without saying, he continues, that ‘never will the perverted nature of this degenerated race be able to maintain itself against the superior power of the white nations that had come from the west of Europe.’ India will never become civilized, at least not in the European sense of the term.

And with righteous indignation, Gobineau refers the reader to two forms of national and religious degeneration. First comes Buddhism. Where exactly Gobineau, gathered his information about Buddhism from, is indeed a riddle of nineteenth-century academic scholarship. He frequently refers to Burnouf’s Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism. But in vain shall we look there for corroborating statements for Gobineau’s extraordinary evaluation of Buddhism. According to him, Buddhism is nothing but a degenerated kind of Hinduism, the best proof, he says, of what happens to a rational theory when it becomes popularized and undertakes moral and social responsibility for the guidance of the people. Only the lowest castes have taken to Buddhism and while ‘Brahmanism represented in India the true supremacy of the white principle . the Buddhists tried, on the contrary, a reformation of the inferior castes.’ When it comes to art Gobineau is not less outspoken. Brought up as all his contemporaries on the principles of reason and order which they thought they had found in Greek art, he violently repudiated the fanciful and imaginative mythological art of India. Only he was not ‘afraid’ of it, as Goethe had been. He ruthlessly destroyed all the illusions and dreams of the romantics. His frame of reference is the western world and Christianity; his conclusions, as usual, are based on his own racial ‘discoveries': ‘Hellenism and the Catholic Church’, he exclaims, ‘could very well dispense with ugliness when they depicted subjects which yet were not less metaphysical than the more complicated dogmas of the Hindus, the Assyrians, the Egyptians.’ Not the ideas or subject-matters are different, but the eyes, the mind, the imagination. Only the ‘pure’ Aryan can appreciate beauty : ‘The black and the yellow could not comprehend anything else but ugliness; it is for them that ugliness was invented and will always remain necessary.’

Some impatient readers may consider such statements puerile gibberish or at best the result of unlimited conceit and fatuity. Actually Gobineau, just as Hegel before him, draws very definite political and historical theories from his investigations into the decline of Brahmanism. For Gobineau’s obvious thesis all through his book on the inequality of the human races is to prove the superiority of the ‘white principle’, i.e. the Aryan race, over all the other races on earth. Historically speaking, such an argument would imply the complete absence of any history worth mentioning among the black and yellow people. And all his arguments go to prove that this is so. Apart from his rather curious assumption that the new Anglo-Indian race is destined to a great future in Indian political life, he concludes his chapter on India with a number of paragraphs dealing with the racial problem from the historical angle which again closely reminds us of Hegel: ‘The West has always been the centre of the world,’ he says. ‘Even from a purely moral point of view it is correct to maintain that, apart from all patriotic pre-occupation, the centre of gravity of political life has always oscillated between occidental countries without ever leaving them,. having, according to the age, two extreme poles, Babylon and London, from East to West. Stockholm and Thebes in Egypt, from North to South; beyond there is isolation, limited personality, inability to evoke general sympathy, and lastly barbarism in all its forms: We may note in passing that, although Gobineau was a Frenchman, he has included London as the westernmost point of occidental civilization, and not Paris; and though the contributions of Stockholm to western civilization may seem very slight indeed, he had to include it as it was the northernmost point on his Aryan map of Europe. And Aryan it certainly was.

It is in the West, therefore, with its dynamic political and religious movements, its constant urge for action and progress, that human history has its being. The reason why the other parts of the world had no history of their own was due to the fact that there the struggle took place between the Aryan element, on the one hand, and the ‘black and yellow principle’, on the other. And Gobineau continues: ‘There is no need to observe that, where the black races fought among themselves only, or where the yellow races were concerned with their own circle of existence, or lastly where black or yellow mixtures are at grips with each other, no history at all is possible… History springs forth only from contact with the white races.’ It is, perhaps, strange to find that Hegel and Gobineau, starting as they do from such different points of view, should reach such similar conclusions. But the nineteenth century, which saw the rise of democracy, also witnessed the formation of the forces of reaction; and if we speak of cultural conflicts we indeed mean by it the -reflection of deeply rooted social and political conflicts in the consciousness of man. Gobineau’s insistence on the caste system and the ‘white principle’ is symbolical of a generation of writers and scholars who had been disillusioned by the failures of the French Revolution and who tried to substitute the principle of a master-caste or race or nation, for the humanitarian idealism of the eighteenth century.