Seductive orientalism:English education and modern science in colonial India(2008)


Social Scientist, 36:45-63, 2008

Prof. S.C. Mishra Memorial Lecture , 68th Indian History Congress, Delhi, 28 Dec. 2007


Seductive orientalism:

\English education and modern science in colonial India


Rajesh Kochhar

Professor of Pharmaceutical Heritage, NIPER1 Mohali160062,

Former Director, NISTADS2, New Delhi

1 National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research

2 National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (CSIR)

[email protected]



It is a matter of great honour for me to be delivering the Prof. S.C. Mishra Memorial Lecture here today. I am slightly intimidated by the fact that many eminent professional historians have spoken in the series. My sole claim to basking in their reflected glory is that I have made a small effort to place the history of English education and especially modern science in colonial India in a wider context. I am sure Prof. Mishra would have approved of the exercise.


Inherent in the British rule over India was the slow and increasingly reluctant training of the natives to eventually overthrow that rule. The strategy can be said to have been entirely successful. The British rule over India lasted about two centuries. And when the British left, they did so with tremendous goodwill. (Contrast the British exit from India with, say, that of the French from Algeria.) Indian nationalist struggle was not a resistance movement. It depended on the sense of noblesse oblige of and within the Empire.


It was relatively a simple matter for the East India Company to gain control of the land, but its governance required thought. The British Parliament took first notice of the Indian possessions in 1773 with the grant of a Charter to the Company. The Charter would come up for review and renewal every twenty years, preceded by intense lobbying. The last Charter was issued in 1853. Thus all major initiatives onIndia occurred in the years 1773+20n, where n ranged from zero to four. India was taken over by the Crown in 1858, bringing to an end the most bizarre experiment in governance the world had ever seen. (The Company itself was wound up in 1873.)


India was a nice country to own , but its people could not be wished away. India was already a thickly populated country. Large-scale European settlements were not possible , especially because an industrializing England required its manpower for itself. Also, after the disastrous Portuguese experiment and the bloody Haitian revolution (1790), mixed marriages were ruled out. There was  thus no alternative to training  the natives  to take up lower-level administrative jobs. In addition, there was this desire to civilize them.  In 1793, when a bill for English education for the natives (and missionary activity )  was introduced in the British Parliament, the Court of Directors  opposed it  and got ir defeated. Among the influential persons  consulted by the Company was  the barrister , Randle Jackson, who  brazenly blamed the secession of the American colonies  to the English folly in opening  schools and colleges  there and  warned  the Directors  “to avoid and steer clear of the rock we had split on in America”. (Hampton 1947:15) Twenty years later, the Parliament did pass a resolution saying that “such measures ought to be adopted, as may tend to the introduction among them [natives of India ] of useful knowledge, and of religious and moral improvement” (Ingleby 2000:1). The Parliament further  directed an annual expenditure of “ not less than one lakh of rupees”  on the education of the natives. The Charter also ended the Company’s monopoly of trade with India, which was now open to all.


The Company was in no hurry to comply with the  educational clause. It is only in 1817 when the Mahrattas were crushed  and the British grip on India bevame unassailable that  the Governor-General, Lord Moira, could loftily declare “that the Government of India did not consider it necessary to keep the Natives in a state of ignorance, in order to retain its own power”. The same year,  Calcutta School Book Society and the Hindu College ( school section) were founded”. It is noteworthy that the Book Society was founded “with a view to the promotion of the moral and intellectual improvement of the natives” (Sharp 1920:186), while the Hindu College was established for “the tuition of sons of respectable Hindoos”, respectability being measured in term of the ability of the parents to pay a monthly fee of then princely sum five rupees. (Mittra 1878:127). How high the fee was can be gauged from the following. About the same time,  Iswarchandra Vidyasagar’s father, Thakurdas, who had then hardly reached his teens came to Calcutta and took up a job at a monthly pay of two rupees. “His meritorious service soon earned him a rise in pay to Rs 5 per month. But in those days a rupee would go very far. Thus ended the days of misery of the family”, comprising his mother and five siblings. (Banerjee 1994:170) The benefit of English education was soon extended to poor Hindu boys  through the efforts of David Hare (1775-1842) and others.


It is interesting to note that of the total amount spent on education in the 18 year period 1813-1830, as much as 76% was spend in the Bengal Presidency, 19% in Bombay and 5% in Madras (based on Mahmood 1895:47).  Bengal was the largest province in British India , and Calcutta the seat of the Governor-General. The pre-eminence of Bengal, more specifically Calcutta, as recipient of government educational grant would  continue throughout, and play an important role in initiating basic scientific research here by the  Indians


Although the founding of Madras (1639) and acquisition of Bombay (1668) by the Company  occurred earlier, Calcutta (founded 1690) was more important. BothMadras and Bombay lay outside the Indian mainstream; that is how the Company could own them. With Calcutta, the Company entered the thick of Indian economy and politics. Starting with  the purchase of the petty zamindari of three desolate villages, Sutanati, Govidpur and Kolkata ( distinct from Kalighat), from the Mughal administration, the Company worked its way up ending with owning the country itself. The Company’s own administration began in Bengal where it enjoyed a number of advantages.  First, since the Company was replacing Muslim rulers, Hindus were favourably inclined towards it. (In western India, the British would face the odium of deposing Brahmin rulers.) Secondly, in Calcutta, the British were dealing with a social class that did not exist before. This class owed its wealth , social status and leadership position to its association with the British.  (Everywhere else after Bengal, the British would be coming to terms with pre-existing social elites with their own notions of prestige and self-importance.) Thirdly, the British were able to acquire legitimacy at the very beginning of their rule.


New social class

Thanks to the business opportunities and the security it offered, Calcutta grew rapidly, but in layers and stages. Quite obviously, the first ones into the Company’s orbit were those who were on the margin in the traditional society. We shall examine the phenomenon, keeping in mind the later lead players on the Calcutta scene.


1)     The first newly wealthy natives were drawn from the weaver caste, with surnames such as Basack and Sett, who acted as dadni merchants. In spite of their wealth they did not come to play a major leadership role because of their caste status.


2)     The next to gravitate to the new city were the social riff-raff from the hinterland. The Tagore progenitor Panchanan came to Govindpur

 in the closing years of the 17th century and made himself useful to the English merchants. Back home in Jessore, he was a degraded  Pirali Brahmin, but for the fishermen among whom he  now lived he was a  high caste, worthy of being addressed as Thakur (lord), later anglicised to Tagore. (Kripalani 1980:12-13) Uckrur [Akrur] Dutt (1722-1809)  was  a restless  Kayastha young man  in the Hughli district who ran away from home on being reprimanded by his  poor family for his waywardness. En route to Calcutta, it is said, he cleverly saved the life a rich zamindar’s widow during a raid   by the lawless “Maratha Bargis”. The grateful widow in turn presented him with “a Five-faced conch-shell, a number of guineas of Emperor Akbar’s period, seven golden bricks and the Salgram Shila of Lord Raj-Rajeswar”. The last-named “is still being worshipped with devotion as the presiding deity in the old ancestral house of the Dutt family”. (Dutt 1915:2-4) He began his career inCalcutta by supplying “odd articles like bamboos and ropes to the foreign ship-owners”, and rose to found the Wellington Square Dutt family. (Dutt 1995:5)


3)     Then their were the lucky ones who had the good fortune of attaching themselves to the Company officials before they struck gold.  Nubkissen was the steward to Robert Clive and was with him when the Nawab’s treasury was raided after the Plassey victory. Overnight he was transformed from Moonshee to Maharaja. (His grandson, Raja Sir Radhakanta Deb Bahadur (1784-1867) ,was a great Sanskrit scholar and a conservative community leader.) Nubkissen’s rise into fabulous wealth and community leadership stands in sharp contrast to the career graph of a fellow Moonshee, a Muslim by the name Sheikh Itesamuddin,  who the first documented   educated Indian to visit Britain  in 1766/67 . He has left behind a valuable memoir, imperfectly translated in 1827, but largely ignoredZZZZ(Give summary of two pts Clive and Wm Jones).  Towards the end of his career, he complained bitterly : “I spent the prime of my life in the service of Englishmen; and now , in my old age, I am subjected to every kind of trouble, which is my misfortune”. (Alexander 1827:4)  While the British  were engaging their Hindu Moonshees  in discussions on money to mutual advantage, their hapless Muslim counterparts were being  engaged in provocative disputation on  their “faith and religion”. (Alexander1827:114-120.)


       Krishna Kanta Nandi alias Canto Baboo (or Kanta Babu) was a petty trader in Kasim Bazar (Cossimbazar) near Murshidabad, where he made acquaintance with the Company’s commercial resident, Warren Hastings. Nandi saved Hastings’ life in the pre-Plassey turmoil and was more than amply rewarded when Hastings became the Governor-General. Favour to Nandi was in fact an unsuccessful charge against Hastings in his impeachment. (Calcutta Review 1873:93) Canto Baboo was with Hastings when the latter raided Raja Chait Singh of Benaras. When Hastings’ men threatened to invade the Ranis’ privacy, Canto Baboo successfully interceded with Hastings on their behalf. “Grateful for this act, the Ranis took off jewels from their persons, and presented Kanta Babu with the same. He also obtained from the Ranis, Lakshmi-Narayan, Sila, Ekmukh, Rudrashi, Dakshinabratta, Sankha, and other idols. These objects of Hindu worship may still be seen at the Kasimbazar Rajbari.” (Calcutta Review 1873:93).The transfer of Hindu idols from the old landed class to the likes of Uckroor Dutt and Canto Baboo in a way sums up the formation of the new leadership class.


4)     The next stage of accrual onto the mid 18th century Calcutta is represented by   those who made a successful transition from the old administration to the new, that is from Persian to English. This class includes Kayasthas like Dr Rajendralala Mitra’s ancestors who had served the Nawab of Murshidabad; and Kayasthized Brahmins like Rammohun Roy whose family had moved from a revenue job to petty zamindari.


5)     The transition from Sanskrit to English, that is the entry of the higher-caste Brahmins into the British fold, was a later phenomenon. They included zamindars like Joykissen Mukherjee of Uttarpara (1808-1888) who along with his father served a Company regiment in its military expansion phase. Both got their share of the booty from the 1826 capture of the Bharatpur fort. i Mukherjee 1975: 32) Kulin Brahmins from the Shastric background (Iswarchandra Vidyasagar) were the last to enter.


The Company connection produced social churning. Nubkissen scrumptiously moved up the caste ladder. He was born a Subarna Banik (with the caste surname Kundu) but became a Kayastha! (S.N. Mukherjee 1977:98) Canto Baboo moved up his caste segment from the lowly Teli (oil-presser) to the middling Tilli (trader) by spending lavishly on funerals, building temples and persuading the Pandits to grant a higher ritual status as a prerequisite for a higher social status. The Pandits obliged him by indulging in clever word-play involving the Sanskrit words tula (trader’s weighing balance) and tel (oil). “It is said that in the time of Kanta Babu the nat [nath] or nose-ring was used by only Brahmans and Kayasthas, but he introduced it amongst the female members of his own caste.” (Calcutta Review 1873 : 95)


Rajendra Lala Mitra moved from the hereditary business of Persian book-keeping to personal Sanskrit scholarship via the English.  Apart from Canto Baboo, another native who participated in the raid on Raja Chait Singh of Benaras was Mitra’s great-grandfather, Pitambar, who took charge of Chait Singh’s vast collection of Sanskrit manuscripts. This inheritance became the “prime spring” for Mitra. (Mitra 1978:ii)


Joykissen could combine the advantage of the English – period riches with his traditional Kulin Brahmin status to claim social leadership. In other cases old taints were removed or diluted.  Rammohun Roy in his letters to the Europeans described himself as a Kulin Brahmin, even though his mother was a bhagna (tainted) Kulin whom his father’s brothers one by one had refused to marry. One wonders how Rammohun and his siblings would have been matrimonially treated by Kulin Brahmins in the pre-British milieu. (The decision of Rammohun’s grandfather to marry off Rammohun’s father beneath the caste was later sought to be explained away by saying that he had unwittingly given his word for the (mis)alliance. And yet  Joykissen Mukherjee enjoyed high  Brahmin status  precisely because his ancestors had chosen to flee their village rather than marry   a girl from  a powerful yet tainted Brahmin family, namely  Maharaja Krishna Chandra Ray of Nadia(  Mukheerjee 1975:2)


For the Pirali Brahmins, the Tagores, the taint was too strong to be removed; it could only be diluted. (It may be relevant that Pirali figures as one of the four groups among the Ajlaf, that is lowly, Muslims Lahiri 1991:18,n.15).) In spite of the Tagore wealth and position, the more rigid Brahmins would not eat with them. In a letter written to the Governor-General Lord Bentinck in 1834, the wealthy merchant- zamindar  Dwarkanath Tagore (1794-1846) attributed the Tagores’ extraordinary energy and  ambition to a “ sense of injury” resulting from the “ separation…between my family and the more bigoted classes of my countrymen. ( Kling 1976:13) In 1852, when “the nephew of a leading Kulin Brahmin married the grand-daughter of Dwarkanath, the boy was expelled from his family”. (Kling1976:11)  A leading Tagore of the day, Sourindro Mohun Tagore, published in 1884 a small pamphlet “ The Caste System of the Hindus”. In it, he added a foot note claiming  that the “ Tagore family has sprung from Bhatta-narayan” ( Tagore 1884:16). Bhattanarayana of the Shandilya gotra was  one of the five  Kanyakubja Brahmins  invited intoBengal in  the reign of King Adisura. Such a claim however  was only for the  writer’s own satisfaction  It is said that the Tagores unsuccessfully “ tried to bribe the Maharaja of Krishnagar and the Nawadwip  Samaj with a lac [a hundred thousand] of rupees, so that they could be received as a high Kulin Brahmin” .Both Krishnagar and Nawadwip were located in the Nadia district  well known as an ancient centre of learning. The Nawadwip Samaj (social group) comprising Vaidic Brahmins of the Bharadvaja gotra was considered to be an authority on matters of ritual hierarchy (S. N.Mukherjee1977 :66;75)


The British – induced rise in stature and status of the Vaidya and Kayastha castes was sought to be rationalised through the scriptures. In the closing years of the 19th century, Pramatha Nath Bose (1855-1934), the London –trained geologist and himself a Kayastha wrote a well-regarded three – volume History of the Hindu Civilization during British Rule. The first volume was “gratefully” dedicated to the German-born Oxford Professor Friedrich Max Muller (1823-1900),” who has nobly devoted his life to the elucidation of the ancient literature and history of my country and has awakened in my countrymen a living interest in their past”.


The    work was reviewed in 1895 by the author’s better – known father – in – law, Romesh Chunder Dutt (1848-1909), a brilliant ICS officer who later worked as a history lecturer in London and presided over the 1899 session of the Indian National Congress. Dutt wrote among othersCivilization in Ancient India, and a two-volume definitive Economic History of India. Bose discusses at length the question of the origin of the caste, making use of the rather mischievous 1891 census classification of caste groups into “The Aryan”; “Doubtfully Vaisya, or Sudra. or Mixed”; and “Non-Aryan or Sudra”.  In his review essay, Dutt talks of “the pardonable pride” with which a “Hindu student” looks back “to the bright annals of thirty centuries of progress and Hindu civilization which preceded the rise of Muslim power in India”. He then goes on to summarize for wider dissemination his son-in-law’s treatment of “the Socio-Religious condition of the Hindus”. “A rational and impartial enquiry into the history of the caste-system leads him [Bose] to the conclusions which are generally admitted at the present day, viz :-


(1)     That during the Rig Vedic period there were two great ethnic castes, the fair Arya and the dark-skinned Dasa.

(2)     That, in a subsequent age, the two great functional castes, the Brahman and the Kshatriya, were differentiated out of the Aryan caste, while the body of the Aryan people formed the Vaisya caste; the aborigines formed the Sudra caste.

(3)     That, since then the Sudra caste has increased and multiplied by fresh accession of aborginal tribes and by the degeneracy of the Vaisyas.

(4)     And, lastly, That the disintegration of the great Vaisya and Kshatriya castes has formed the respectable functional castes of modern times, like the Kayasthas and the Vaidyas”. (Dutt 1895:125)


Zamindari-related litigation acted as a great social leveller. When Jadulal Mullick won an election for the vice presidentship of the British Indian Association, in spite of the opposition of   Raja Peary Mohan Mukherjee, the latter asked tauntingly: “Shall we be guided by a Banik class?”. Jadulal’s reply was biting: “Is this the word of a son of a convict?” ( Mukherjee 1975:524, n.82) The reference was to the fact that Mukherjee’s father Joykissen had been to jail on a criminal charge.


Rev. Krishna Mohan  Banerjee (1813-1885) whose 1832 conversion to Christianity  had caused a great commotion, “made it a point not to marry his daughters except to Brahmin converts, or to English Revered gentlemen who are the Brahmins of their community”.(Sanyal 1894:13) At a social gathering, he was reluctant to pass on his hookah to Rev. Lall Behari Dey, exclaiming that “a sonarbania should not smoke the hookah of a Brahmin”. (Sanyal 1894:17) That the old caste

hierarchical rigidities were  replaced by public banter, light-hearted or not, was a significant social development.


The Brahmins who had largely kept aloof from the Muslim rule happily availed of the new opportunities the British dispensation offered. Brahmin boys had no difficulty in studying modern medicine which involved touching a dead body. They declared that they were not bound by the “medical shastras” which “are in the keeping of Vaidya caste”.( Bose 1894  II:31)


In matters of social reform, the Brahmins were more progressive than the non-Brahmins. Half – hearted attempts have been made to correlate this difference to occupational divide (trade versus land), but this cannot stand closer scrutiny. (Ahmad 1965: 27-31, quoted in. Mukherjee1977:2,n.2) The explanation may well simply lie in the caste psychology. The Brahmins considered themselves the living repositories of tradition which they had a right to preserve, interpret and modify if need be. For the non-Brahmins tradition was a fossil that had come their way and which needed to be preserved as it was. In 1910, the perceptive British civil servant James Kennedy, who lectured on India at the University College London,  noted , unaware of  the term Sanskritization,   that  “the present tendency among the lower castes is to rise in the social scale by a strict    observance of the rules of purity”. (Kennedy 1910:310) Not only did the British create a new social class, they also invented a new India (the indologist’s India) for it to dwell in and dwell on.



 In earlier times, capture of power had been its own justification, but   the colonial powers had to justify their foreign conquests to the natives as well as to their own people. As the colonial power increased so did the arrogance. As authors of the powerful knowledge system of modern science, the Europeans came to claim cultural and racial superiority over the rest of the world and therefore the right to rule. The extended exercises in ideological justifications have since been named Orientalism.


Edward Said has discussed this question in his seminal and influential work (Said 1978). His work however is area-specific; it only applies to what is now commonly known by the Middle East, the term itself being an Orientalist construct.. Furthermore, he overstates his case as well as back-dates it. I would like to give a formal definition of (imperialist) Orientalism, which is based on  Edward Said thesis, but is more general (Kochhar 1997): Orientalism is an operational and ideological framework consciously created by the West to describe and define the East in such a manner as to facilitate and legitimize the West’s control of and domination over the East.


All knowledge generated by the West about the East is not orientalist by definition. Allowance must be made for natural curiosity and genuine scholarship. The imperialist West has selectively made use of extant knowledge; commissioned new knowledge for its use; and encouraged independent generation of usable knowledge. We thus use the term orientalism as an abbreviation for imperialist orientalism.


Orientalism was not a monolith. It took different forms in different parts of the East depending on the local characteristics, and nature of past encounters with Europe. Orientalism would become confrontational in the Muslim world, but in India, from where it all began, it was seductive, persuasive and collaborative. In India, Orientalism took the form of Indo-Europeanism.


Fortunately for the British, at the very beginning of their rule over India there came the discovery of Indo-European linguistic commonality, then interpreted in purely racial terms. It was famously enunciated in 1786 by the founder president of the Asiatick Society (old spellings advisedly used), Sir William Jones (1746-1794). Jones declared that Sanskrit, Greek and Latin “sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists”. He went on to assert that “there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit”.


Indo-Europeanism “placed in the hands of the British Government a powerful instrument of connexion and conciliation” with the (upper-caste) Hindus. The thesis went like this. Both the Europeans and the upper-caste Hindus belonged to the Aryan race, while the Muslims were the other. The British rule set up by defeating the Muslims was therefore a restoration. The Hindus had had their period of glory in the ancient past when the Europeans were still barbarians; now it was the turn of their European brethren to rule.


Implicit in this thesis was the assumption that the Muslims forfeited their ethnic identity by virtue of being Muslim. The basic premise of the thesis could not have withstood closer scrutiny.All evidence to the contrary was ignored or misrepresented. Most Indian Muslims, including some upper-class ones, were local converts. The celebrated Muslim general, commonly known as Saladin, who fought against the European Christian crusaders, was a Kurd and thus an Aryan. This fact was not mentioned. In his 1786 address, Jones stated that “the Old Persian might be added to the same family”, but added a qualifier, “if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia”. Old Persian was defunct; its connectivity to Sanskrit was not very important. But Pushto was a living Indo-Iranian language. It was declared to have Chaldean affinity by Jones in 1790. A 100 years later, the error was lightly dismissed as “unfortunate but excusable” .It was only in 1860 that the “the Aryan Affinity of the Pushto” was clearly shown , by the Rev.Isidore Loewenthal (Hoernle 1885:174-175)   One wonders what course Indo-Europeanism would have taken if it were known at the outset that the Muslim Pakhtuns (Pathans), residing in the contiguous areas of Afghanistan and India, were also Aryan.


The Aryan race theory  gave legitimacy  not only to European domination over Indiabut also to the upper-caste domination within India. For later reference we may note that just as the English-knowing class raised itself in the social scale within India with British help, it next wanted British help in raising India in the scale of nations under its own leadership.


The Europeans were very conscious about their civilizing role. Whenever an Indian made a good impression on the Europeans, his ethnicity and the civilizing influence of the West were credited. In 1824, Bishop Heber, referring to the  famous letter written by Rajah Rammohun Roy to the Governor-General, drew attention to “its good English, good sense, and forcible arguments”, and went on to declare it “a real curiosity, as coming form an Asiatic”. Max Muller paid a tribute to Rajendralala Mitra by declaring him to be “a scholar and critic in our sense of the word”, who “has proved himself above the prejudices of his class”. In the closing years of the 19thcentury when the Indian physicist  Jagadis Chunder  Bose won acclaim  in Europe for his pioneering work in radio science, he was described in the London press as “a Bengalee of the purist descent” and therefore by implication one of “us”! Such patronizing remarks may appear jarring to sensitive ears today but in their time they were lapped up by the natives who quoted them approvingly.


                               Backlash in England          

The late 18th century enthusiasm about ancient India the Indologists (then known as Orientalists) sought to create in Britain was effectively curbed by Charles Grant (1746-1823), Company’s servant and later its chairman, and a member of the Clapham sect. Grant came to Bengal in 1767 and remained there till 1790, with a short break, mostly in the interior rather than in Calcutta. In his early days, “he led a life of extravagance and folly of which he was afterwards ashamed”. Death of his younger brother who had come to India for employment and his own two little daughters in a short span of time he regarded as “divine punishment for his past ungodly life”. “Henceforth he lived as a sincere and devout Christian”, who made evangelization of India as his life’s mission. (Hampton 1947:1-27)


Two years after his return from India, in 1782, he wrote a policy tract, awkwardly titled “Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain, particularly with respect to Morals; and the Means of Improving It. The privately circulated tract was timed to influence the 1793 Charter. In 1797, when Grant was a Director, the tract with some extra material, was taken on the Company records. It was reprinted as a House of Commons document in 1813 and then again 20 years later. The tract remained a very influential document Grant refused to concede any greatness to India at any time in the past. He warned that those Europeans who “exalted the natives of the East, and of other pagan regions, into models of goodness and innocence” were out “to subvert, together with revealed religion, all ideas of the moral government of the Deity, and of man’s responsibility to him”. While in India Grant had joined the newly formed Asiatick Society, but was not a very regular attendee, nor did he read any paper. He did not think much of William Jones who is assigned to the footnotes, here and there. Grant did credit Jones with having “proved” the “identity” between “the idolatory of the Hindus” and “the “superstitions” of “ancient Pagan Europe”, implying that the Hindoo improvement could come only through conversions.


The Hindu leadership partially accepted that the Hinduism being practiced was defective, but  rejected the suggestion that Christianity was the cure. Rammohun Roy (1774-1833) conceded the role of climate and vegetarianism in making Bengalees weak, although Grant had considered these to be superficial reasons. The natives agreed that they needed to be improved, but insisted that improvement should come from within and not through conversion. Charles Grant’s argument that romanticization of ancient India would weaken Christianity and make governance of colonies difficult was widely accepted. That is how   in the 1813 Charter “the door to missionary activity in India was set ajar”. (Ingleby 2000:1)


Indology was still useful for India. Lt-Col. Joseph Boden (d. 1811), a former eBombay army  officer, left a large sum of money to found a Sanskrit professorship atOxford. His aim was to promote the translation of the [Christian] Scriptures into Sanskrit to “enable his countrymen to proceed to the conversion of the natives ofIndia to the Christian religion”. The first Boden professor  Dr Horace Hayman Wilson (1786-1860),  was appointed in 1832.  While proposing himself for the Chair, Wilsonlaid stress on what he had done for “rendering of Scripture Terms into the Sanskrit language”. On Wilson’s suggestion, Monier Monier – Williams compiled an English-Sanskrit dictionary, which was published in 1851 by the East India Company. His Sanskrit-English dictionary was published with support from Secretary of State forIndia. (Monier- Williams 1899: Introduction) On Wilson’s death in 1860, the appointment was offered by vote of convocation to Monier –  Williams, and not to Max Muller, for whom “The thesis of the Aryan brotherhood of Britons and Indians was far more than a proposition of science: it was also an ethic”. (Trautman1997:178)  He was consoled with a newly created professorship of comparative philology. Thus Max Muller never taught Sanskrit at Oxford. Max Muller’s endeavours at Oxford were funded by the East India Company and later by QueenVictoria’s privy purse, thanks to Prince Albert’s German connnection. Oxfordprofessors may have had their own reasons for their assessment of him, but the Company and the natives both found him very relevant.


It is significant that there are probably no major British-born Britain-based Indologists. The first crop of Indologists comprised the British officials who were seduced by India (Jones, Colebrooke, H.H.Wilson). After this initial phase, Indology was outsourced especially to Germany, which had no colonial stake. It seems thatGermany’s long-standing quest for an identity came to a close with the discovery of ancient India.



Indo-Europeanism had two important facets. The British projected themselves as patrons of ancient India and introduced the natives to archivalism The British believed that great advantage would be derivable “to the British name and nation in its tendency towards endearing our Government to the native Hindus; by our exceeding in our attention towards them and their systems, the care shewn even by their own native princes”. (Sharp 1920:10) A Hindu prince from any time in the past would have baulked at  the vengeance with which the British went out to discover and invent Hindu sensitivities and nurture them. The students at the Sanskrit College founded in 1792 at  Benaras (“centre of their faith, and the common resort of all their tribes”) were to be examined in the presence of the British Resident but “only in all such parts of knowledge as are not held too sacred to be discussed in the presence of any but Brahmins.” Also “The Brahmin teachers to have a preference over strangers in succeeding to the headship and the students in succeeding to professorships, if they shall on examination be found qualified” (Sharp 1920:12) This was in 1792.  In 1821 the prize giving ceremony was organized as a public occasion to which distinguished natives were invited. Rajas of Benaras, Vizianagaram and others attended these ceremonies. (Dalmia 2007:34-35)


In 1825 when a Sanskrit College was opened at Calcutta,  the admission “was restricted exclusively to the highest castes of the Hindus, namely, Brahmins and Vaidyas” Also, it “used to remain  closed on the first and the eighth day of the full and the new moon in conformity with the convention obtaining in indigenous educational institutions.” It was left to a kulin  Shastric Brahmin, Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, as the Principal to make admission open to all Hindus and to  declare Sunday as a fixed weekly holiday, as elsewhere . Interestingly, when this caste relaxation was opposed by eminent Sanskrit scholars, including  his own former teachers and present colleagues, Vidyasagar was able to  “ silence the opposition”  . “ He argued ,if the sudras were really to be  debarred from learning the sacred language, then why did  they not prevent Radha Kanta Dev from studying and culturing it. And , why, again, did they themselves, from motives of monetary gain, teach the subject to Europeans, who were mlechchhas?” ( Poddar 1970:175-176) No one except a man of Vidyasagar’s credentials could have admonished the British for emphasizing the teaching of Vedanta and Sankhya by declaring that their being “false systems of philosophy is no more a matter of dispute.” (Poddar 1970:177)


It was understandable that the foreign rulers should insist that if any social reform was to be introduced through legislation the move must have wide-spread community support. But it was ordained that the move should also have support from the scriptures. Now, the Hindu scriptures are rarely if ever unanimous on any point, and for good reason. They represent diverse        and theoretical interpretative points of view of independent schools of thought spread over a period of time. (That is why there are so many scriptures.) When it was difficult to oppose an initiative by convincingly quoting from the scriptures , one could always  give the more forceful arguments that it would break caste. In 1831, the management committee of the Hindu College Calcutta decided to dismiss the firebrand young teacher Henry  Louis Vivian  Derozio (1809-1831), on the ground that he was “tending to unsettle the belief of the boys in the great principles of the national religion” ( Mittra1878:17) And yet the charge sheet against him is more social than religious; non-belief in God  and encouraging children to be disrespectful and disobedient to their parents. The third charge was that   Derozio considered marriage between brothers and sisters as “innocent and  allowable” ( Mittra 1878:25). This  charge is obviously preposterous. Derozio could not  possibly have approved of or preached incest. It  would  appear that the charge was falsely made knowing that it would be made to stick unlike any charge involving Hindu theology or practice, on which the community  would never speak with one voice.


The Hindus were introduced to what we may call archivalism. Even when a measure was considered to be the need of the hour, its justification must come from the times gone by.Interestingly, both the conservative and the progressive elements in the native society concurred on western education, the differences came on questions of the ritual. Before a medical college student could “plunge the scalpel into the dead body” as part of his studies, society leaders were asked to find an appropriate “text in your shaster [shastras]”. (Mittra 1878:116) In his campaign to get the practice of widow burning banned, Rammohan Roy had to selectively enlist the support of ancient authorities like Manu and Yajnavalkya as against Angira, Gotama and others. When Iswarchandra Vidyasagar drafted a multiply-signed petition to the Government for permitting widow remarriage, he made it a point to mention the important fact that “this custom is not in accordance with the Shastras , or with true interpretation of Hindu Law”.( Banerjee 1994:44) Note the use of the qualifier true. “ Vidyasagar also took the additional precaution of asking Jaykrishna [Joykissen] Mukherji, a zamindar, to be the first signatory, “whose own status as a high-caste Brahmin was unassailable.” He was preferred over, for example, Debendranath Tagore who “was a universally respected personality, but his caste status as Brahmin was not flawless” or Hiralal Sil and Durga Charan Law who “were much wealthier than Jaykrishna but they were not high-caste Hindus…” (Mukherjee 1973:143)


“As was anticipated by Vidyasagar, once the fact that widow remarriage was approved in the Shastras was brought home to the members of the ruling community, the representation met with a very sympathetic reception.”  Indeed, while introducing the bill in the legislature, the Honourable J.P. Grant made it a point to mention that the bill “will interfere with the tenets of no human being”. (Banerjee 1994:44).


Significantly, Vidyasagar’s earlier mass petition against polygamy had not been successful, even though it was supported by as many as 21000 signatures”. (Banerjee 1994:30). The petition was referred to a Committee which comprised, apart from the official members, non-official ones drawn from the “Calcutta Hindu Society”. The native members “opposed the project almost unanimously”, which effectively killed the petition. (Sanyal 1894: 27)


Native use of the race theory 

The more perceptive of the British officers in India could foresee the consequences of introduction of English education in India. Mountstuart Elphinstone (1779-1859), who annexed the Peshva territory and was the Governor of the Bombay Presidency during 1819-1827, had “a pile of printed Mahratta books” in his tent. When asked about them, he said that they were “To educate the natives”, adding that, “but it is our high road back to Europe”. When asked why he then insisted on the native education, Elphinstone’s reply was that “We are bound, under all circumstances,  to do our duty to them”.


The same point was placed in a broader context by Sir Charles Edwards Trevelyan (1807-1886) in his 1838 “On the Education of the People of India”. Trevelyan noticed two “sets of ideas” prevailing among the natives. In parts of India, “where, owing to the comparative novelty of our rule and in the absence of any attempt to alter the current of native feeling”, people wanted “the sudden and absolute expulsion of the British”. In  contrast , in Bengal  “Instead of thinking of cutting the throats of the English, they were aspiring to sit with them on the grand jury, or on the bench of the Magistrates”,  “all of them being fully sensible that these plans of improvement could only be worked out with the aid and protection of the British Government by the gradual improvement of their countrymen in knowledge and morality”, requiring “a long continuation of our administration, and the gradual withdrawal of it as people became fit to govern themselves”.  ( Mahmoos 1895 : 236) In the 1820s the British set out to improve the natives. In two generations’ time the natives were sufficiently improved. But the British were seemingly not happy with the success of their mission.


Indo-Europeanism had provided the British with legitimacy for their rule. It would also provide the natives with mild courage to challenge the one-sidedness of the rule. The lead came in the 1870s from Dr. Mahendralal Sircar, a Calcutta University MD-turned homeopath. A member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science since 1864, he was the first Indian to acquaint himself with the scientific developments taking place in Europe.


In a pamphlet issued in December 1869 Sircar argued that the Hindu mind had lost “much of its original Aryan vigor” because of the Muslim rule and “a most de-energizing religion”. “The best method… the only method… by which the Hindu mind can be developed to its full proportion is… by the cultivation of the Physical Sciences”. The British had “a duty to perform towards us”, that is their “brethren, now fallen and degraded”. The true glory of England “should consist not in simply holding under subjection the people of India, but in elevating them in the scale of nations, in taking them by hand and reconciling them to their long alienated brethren, her own children (i.e., the English people themselves).


The phrase Aryan brethren, coined by Max Muller, profoundly influenced the thinking of Indian leadership throughout the nineteenth century. The charismatic Brahmo Samaj leader, Keshub Chunder Sen (1838-1884) declared at a public meeting in Calcutta in 1877: “Gentlemen, in the advent of British nation in India we see a reunion of parted cousins, the descendents of two different families of the ancient Aryan race” (quoted in Kochhar 2000:10). In far-off South Africa, Mohandas Gandhi addressed an open letter (1894) to the members of the legislature protesting against the ill-treatment of the Indians, and circulated it among the Europeans in Natal. In it Gandhi pointed out “that both the English and the Indians sprang from a common stock, called the Indo-aryan [should be Aryan]” (Kochhar 2000:228, n. 29). In fact, Mohandas Gandhi becomes Mahatma Gandhi only when he jettisons this historiography. But that came later. 


Sircar wanted his institution to be like the Royal Institution and the British Association. But the type of support he had envisaged was not forthcoming. It is easy to see why. Sircar’s project was not driven by any historical necessity. It did not fulfill any felt need. There were neither improving landlords nor men of science in India. There were no counterpart in India of the strains caused in Europe by the industrial and the French revolutions. Since the wealthy in India owed nothing to science, there was no reason for them to support science.


And yet, Sircar was able to muster support to survive if not flourish. There were two reasons for this. Sircar was a highly successful physician. His rich patients would indulge him. More importantly, his project enjoyed support from the high officials, including the Viceroys. The relationship between the colonial government and the native leadership had already become quite complex. The government was wary of opposing a cause that seemed to command native support. Native support in turn was forthcoming if the government seemed to be positively inclined.


From the start of the campaign till 1874 end, Sircar’s proposal met with tepid response from the community. His fortunes changed when early 1875, the Bengal Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Richard Temple, called him for a meeting. Sircar declared that he had Temple’s support. This was true only to the extent that Temple did not reject the proposal outright. He did try to subvert the proposal. It may appear ironical, but it would have better for India if the colonial Lieutenant-Governor’s subversion plans against a nationalist campaign had succeeded.


On the one hand, half century of English education produced a band of bright, articulate professionals who wanted a greater share in administration of their own country and could accuse the English of un-English conduct. On the other there emerged a horde of unemployed and unemployable educated youth. It is the quasi-disloyal discontent of the latter that worried the British. Temple had a solution to the problem which he spelt out quite explicitly in a letter to the Viceroy on 18 February 1875.


 “No doubt the alumni of our schools and colleges do become as a class discontented. But this arises from our higher education being too much in the direction of law, public administration, and prose literature, where they may possibly imagine… that they may approach to competition with us. But we shall do more and more to direct their thought towards practical science, where they must inevitably feel their utter inferiority to us.”


In 1875 an act was passed providing for a partially elective corporation for Calcutta. The self-made professional class now saw a bigger role for itself. Only it was not quite clear within its own ranks as to what was to be done with the past baggage as represented by the landed class. One section wanted a clear break with the past elitist leadership. It was led by Sisir Kumar Ghose of Amrita Bazar Patrika, who had moved to Calcutta in 1871, and Shambhu Chandra Mookerjee, editor of the Mookerjee Magazine. It came to be known by the name of the organization, Indian League founded on 25 September 1875. On the other hand, the other section, which had old family and social ties with the old guard, was more accommodative. (It included Anand Mohan Bose, Surendra Nath Banerjee and others.) It is this latter section which was by the side of Sircar. It eventually prevailed politically with the founding of the more representative Indian Association, on 26 July 1876.


Since the Indian Association leadership was supporting Sircar’s proposal for an Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Temple decided to enlist the support of the rival Indian League to further his polytechnic plan. The conflict between the Indian League and the Indian Association leadership was a factional fight, untainted by any economic ideology. Indian League leaders may have been upstarts compared to those of the Indian Association (Furedi 1979), but the former’s support for Temple’s polytechnic was certainly not driven by any commitment to the cause of the artisans. India League was supporting the Lieutenant-Governor, not technical education. It was opposing the people behind Indian Association; it was not supporting the polytechnic.


Temple tried to convince the native leadership about the advisability of setting up of a polytechnic; “Science also may be made to add immeasurably to the national wealth and so to afford lucrative employment to numberless persons according to their qualifications and acquirements… Moreover by these means not only will many new industries be introduced into Bengal, but almost every one of the old established arts and manufacturers of the country may be rendered more useful and remunerative than at present.”


If the Indians drawn from artisan castes had been consulted, they would not have minded their utter inferiority to the foreign rulers for one or two generations as a price for upgradation of their traditional skills. But the native leadership was in the hands of upper castes well known for their disdain of manual work. It had taken them two generations of study of western law and literature to claim equality with the rulers. They wanted science to be cultivated at the same level. Interestingly Christian missionaries, like the Jesuit professor Father Eugene Lafont, acted as a bridge between the colonial government and the upper class native interests. “In 1886,there was a suggestion afoot from Mr. Tawney of the Calcutta University, backed by the Government that technical education should be introduced at the school level and the institutions which would not technical education would cease to receive Government aid. Father H. Neut, the Rector and other Jesuit teachers, of the St. Xavier’s College opposed this imposition”. (Biswas 1969:60-61)


Sircar and his supporters remained unconvinced of Temple’s arguments in favour of technical education. They wanted science speculation not science application. The editorial comment in the influential Hindoo Patriot on the technical schools was on predictable lines: “This will of course improve the condition of the masses, but will not affect the educated classes”.

 Bowing to the wishes of the educated classes, the government agreed to support the formation of the Science Association (29 July 1876) and provided premises for it to operate from in return for overseeing by the government. Interestingly, Sircar bought the building to prevent any control or inspection by the government and ran it like a private club.

Science Association succeeded in getting science introduced into the higher education system and motivating better-quality students for a career in science rather than in law or government service. It however failed in its avowed goal to create an intrinsic interest in scientific topics in public at large. Nor could it initiate scientific research under purely Indian auspices. It would be UK-trained professors employed in a government college (Presidency College, Calcutta), Jagadis Chunder Bose (1858 – 1937) and Prafulla Chandra Ray (1861 – 1944), who would place India on the world science map twenty years later.


Sircar remained at the helm of affairs for almost three decades till his death in 1904. He bitterly complained about the failure of the native community to shell out enough funds for instituting professorships. The upper classes were ready to financially support Sircar in his pursuits because he was one of them. But they were not ready to give money for creating employment for others. It is curious that Sircar did not become a researcher himself. He was eminently qualified to do so. His Association was well equipped with the state-of-art instruments from Europe. He could easily have become a discoverer. But he preferred to be a high-profile demonstrator.  For the high colonial functionaries he was their window to scientific developments inEurope. The high point of Sircar’s social life was an invitation to display the spectacle of the newly invented Crooke’s tube. (Ghose 1935:253) Father Lafont assisted by a Tagore boy took the X-ray image of the Viceroy’s hand decorated with a ring and won a photography prize for the effort. (Biswas 200:296)


India may have begun its flirtation with et modern science in the last quarter of the 19th century itself, it was not yet ready for a serious affair. The empire was still in full glory .Invitation to the Viceroy’s residence ranked higher than that to a scientific conference.


Things changed as the 19th century was coming to a close. Pursuit of science became an extension of the nationalist movement, even though British recognition was still sought and flaunted Since the Indians  knew Shakespeare as well as if not better than the English themselves,  they believed that their edifice of science should be supported by and an extension of the British effort. Because of the class composition of the   dominant Indian classes, the wealth-generation aspects of science have never really been appreciated.


I would like to close with a contemporary comment.Like an uncured illness, seductive orientalism seems to be making a come-back. Currently a large number of bright young Indians are working beneath their intellect and training in the software-driven sector in India. To encourage them to continue doing so and in increasing numbers, it has been said that Indians have a natural flair for crunching numbers.


India’s share in the world IT sector is 2-3%. As against this India has a whopping 30% share in the business of breaking ships and dismantling electronic waste.  India taken as a whole appears to have  a far greater flair for handling obsolete computers than the state-of –art ones.//



(In case of old texts, the year of original publication is given to help place the workin context. The pagination is from a reprint edition (at times a facsimile  edition), details of which are given. Names have often been spelt variously in published sources). 

Alexander, James Edward (tr.) (1827) Shigruf Namah-I-Velayat. of Itesmaddin (London: Parbury, Allen & Co.).Translation of Hijri dates into the Gregorian is defective. See  Syed A.S.M. Taifoor, (1935) Sheikh Itesamuddin of Nadia. Bengal Past and Present 40:117-129, based on a different copy of  the Shigruf manuscript. 

Banerjee, Hiranmay (1994) Iswarchandra Vidyasagar (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi)

Biswas, Arun Kumar (1969) Science in India (Calcutta: Firma KL Mukhopadhyay) 

Biswas, Arun Kumar (2000) Gleanings of the Past and the Science Movement (Calcutta: Asiatic Society) 

Bose, P.N.  ( 1894-1896)A History of Hindu Civilization, 3 volumes. ( Reprint,  New Delhi : Asian Publication Service).

Calcutta Review (1873) The territorial aristocracy of Bengal: The Kasimbazar (Cossimbazar) Raj, 88-100. 

Dalmia, Vasudha (2007) Orienting India (Gurgaon: Three Essays Collective) 

Dutt, Haradan (1995) Dutt Family of Wellington Square (Calcutta: Haradhan Dutt) 

Dutt, R.C. (1895) Modern Progress in India (Review of History of Hindu Civilization during British Rule by Pramatha Nath Bose, Calcutta Review, Nos. 199-200: 121-131. 

Furedi, C. (1979) “New men” political clubs in Calcutta in the 1870’s and 1880’s : A colonial mix of self-interest and ideology. Indian Journal of Politics, 13: 63-73. 

Ghose, Sarat Chandra (1935) Life of Dr. Mahendra Lal Sircar (Calcutta: Hahnemann Publishing) 

Hampton, H.V. (1947) Biographical Studies in Modern Indian Education (Claredon: Oxford University Press). 

Hoernle, A.F.R. (1885) In: Centenary Review of the Asiatic Society 1784 – 1884 (Repring Calcutta: Asiatic Society, 1986). 

Ingleby, J.C. (2000) Missionaries, Education and India (Delhi: ISPCK) 

Kennedy, James (1910) English education and Indian ethics. Asian Quarterly Review, 30: 290-313. 

Kling, Blair B. (1976) Partner in Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press) 

Kochhar, Rajesh (1997) History of Science in India, 1993-1996: A Status Report. (New Delhi: Indian NationalScience Academy) 

Kochhar, Rajesh (2000) The Vedic People (New Delhi: Orient Longman) 

Kripalani, Krishna (1980) Dwarkanath Tagore (New Delhi: National Book Trust) 

Lahiri, Pradip Kumar (1991) Bengali Muslim Thought 1818-1947 ( Calcutta: K.P. Bagchi) 

Mahmood, Syed (1895) A History of English Education in India ( Reprint Delhi: Idarah-I Adbiyat-I Delli, 1981) 

Mehta, P.M. (1868) The educational system in the Presidency of Bombay. Journal of East India Association, 2:103-127. 

Mitra, Dilip Kumar (1978) In: Rajendralala Mitra (Calcutta: Asiatic Society) 

Mittra, Peary Chand (1878) A Biographical Sketch of David Hare (Reprint Calcutta: Jijnasa, 1979)


Monier-Williams, Monier (1899) A Sanskrit – English Dictionary (Reprint Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 2005) 

Mukherjee, Nilmani (1975)A Bengal Zamindar:Jaykrisna Mukherjee of Uttarpara 1808-1888. (Calcutta: Firma KL Mukhopadhyay) 

Mukherjee, S.N. (1977) Calcutta: Myths and History (Calcutta: Subarnarekha) 

Poddar, Arabind (1970) Renaissance in Bengal: Quests and Confrontations 1800-1860 ( Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study) 

Nandy, Somendra Chandra (1978) Life and Times of Cantoo Baboo (Calcutta: Allied Publishers) 

Natesan, G.A. (1929) Indian Scientists (Madras: G.A. Natesan ) 

Ray, Prafulla Chandra (1918) Essays and Discourses (Madras: G.A. Natesan) 

Ray, Prafulla Chandra (!932) Life and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist      ( Reprint, Calcutta: Asiatic Society 1996) 

Said, Edward W. (1978) Orientalism (Reprint: Penguin Books, 1995) 

Schwab, Raymond (1984) The Oriental Renaissance ( New York : Columbia University Press) 

Sharp, H. (1920) Selections from Education Records Part I: 1781-1839 (Calcutta: Government Press) 

Tagore, Sourindro Mohun (1884) The Caste System of the Hindus (Calcutta: Catholic Orphan Press) ( Reprint, Varanasi: Indological Book House,1963) 

Trautman, Thomas R. (1997) Aryans and British India (New Delhi: Vistaar Publications)//












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