[Published in Economic and Political Weekly, 38: 4611-17]
Colonial Experience of Indian Intellectuals
Opposing factions in the Orientalist-Anglicist controversy in the 19th century shared a common understanding of Indian religion and society. Europeans from diverse ideological and religious backgrounds identified the brahmins as priests and brahmanism as a ‘religion of the priests’. This common understanding derived its consistency from a Christian understanding of religion. Even the writings of Rammohun Roy and Babasaheb Ambedkar, this article suggests, reveal an unconditional acceptance of Europe’s conceptualisation in a debate over religion that continued into the 20th century
Indian Society in the Orientalist-Anglicist Debate
Contemporary research that addresses the important period of the early 19th century in India generally takes the controversy between Anglicists and Orientalists as a useful explanatory framework [Cohn 1988, Kejariwal 1988, Dirks 2001]. Convinced that the Indian society was saturated by heathendom, Anglicists considered India to be corrupt. They believed that its culture was degenerate and its population irrational, retarded, superstitious and morally depraved. The Orientalists, on the other hand, genuinely sought to understand the foreign culture. Surely, they wanted to bring reform. But they were certain that a transformation could only be successful if it resonated with the mores of the natives. Hence, they studied the Indian culture, learned its local languages, collected and preserved what belonged to its cultural inheritance, and discovered a grand past that presented an India excelling in the political, social, religious and intellectual domains.
The differences between the two factions are generally considered significant and important [cf Kopf 1969, 1991, Frykenberg 1979, Jones 1976]. However, we would like to highlight that they turn out to be superficial when it comes to the assessment of the fundamental structure of the Indian society. Unerringly, both identified brahmins as the ‘priests’. They both were convinced that these ‘priests’ had a negative influence on religion and society. Brahmins were held responsible for the creation and sanctification of the caste system, which brought social development to a halt. They accepted as true that this system consisted of a rigid social compartmentalisation and that it was created to preserve religious and social privileges of the brahmin caste. They were convinced that the brahmins used their religious authority to dominate those in civil power which explained why the system of hierarchical castes was not contested by those in power as well, etc.
If there were differences between Orientalists and Anglicists in this regard, they were very shallow. Anglicists found Indian culture and society intrinsically corrupt from the very beginning. Orientalists, however, saw India’s culture as being based on sound principles which steadily degenerated. But the cause of corruption, however, was in both cases the same, i e, ‘brahmanism’.
In this article, we propose that both the idea of religious degeneration and the role played by the priests in this process are derived from deep seated Christian conceptions of religion. On the one hand, the biblical story of a god-given religion that was subsequently corrupted through the course of time was the general framework that structured the history of Christianity and of all the other so-called religions. On the other hand, because Christianity assigned a primary role to the clergy, religion was an affair of the priests only. Consequently, the mechanism of degeneration had to be found in the priesthood: priests became the instruments of the devil and began to transform the original god-given religion. This understanding of religion, we would like to suggest, structured the European quest for the ‘religious’ elsewhere. Brahmins were identified as ‘priests’, who created ‘brahmanism’, which was imposed upon Indian society. One of the main elements of this sacerdotal religion that preserved their privileges was the caste system. This conception, we would further like to emphasise, became more poignant, more structured and more coherent against the background of the reformation and the Protestant critiques of the Roman-Catholic church.
If this suggestion is convincing, the prevalence of Europe’s conceptualisation in the modern Indian intellectual’s reflection on his own society is nothing but remarkable. Even though there existed a long tradition of criticism of brahmins and caste in India itself, Rammohun Roy, for example, while criticising contemporary brahmanism vigorously, merely echoed the assessment of the British. Similarly, Babasaheb Ambedkar did the same a century later when he took up its sacerdotal invention of caste along familiar lines. By doing so, both accepted exactly that which Orientalists and Anglicists shared: they ended up criticising ‘brahmins’ as ‘priests’ and ‘brahmanism’ as a deprived ‘religion of the priests’.
Orientalist Conceptualisation of ‘Sacerdotal Slavery’
John Zephania Holwell was one of the first to clearly formulate the principles that would guide the Orientalist approach to India. His Interesting Historical Events, Relative to the Provinces of Bengal, and the Empire of Indostan, first published in 1765-67, was highly influential both in England as well as across continental Europe. It had a significant impact on the French philosophes and would be praised by German romantics [Franklin 2000].
Holwell himself was very conscious of the significance of his own work and presented it as a break with the available literature on India from the ancients until the present time. Most important, he was especially critical of descriptions of idolatry inspired by the zeal of religious fanaticism. Knowledge of the native languages was essential for the success of any neutral representation. For were the traveller ‘skilled in the language of the people he describes, sufficiently to trace the etymology of their words and phrases, and capable of diving into the mysteries of their theology, he would probably be able to evince to us that such seemingly preposterous worship had the most sublime rational source and foundation’ (1765: 9-10). Despite Holwell’s promise to shed light upon contemporary India, his method to ‘dive into the mysteries of theology’ forced him to make a clear distinction between the present and the past. Confronted by an endless multitude of rituals and ceremonies, this is how he assessed the situation:
… we should touch only on the original principal tenets of these ancient people the Gentoos; for were we to penetrate into, and discuss the whole of their modern ceremonials, and complicated modes of worship; our labour would be without end: these are as diffuse, as the ancient fundamental tenets of bramah are short, pure, simple and uniform…(Holwell, 1776: 1, all emphasis in the original).
Again a so-called typical Orientalist stance was born. The Indians had been rational, in a period long gone. From then onwards the history of India reads like a history of growing corruption and decline. Holwell was very explicit about the cause of this corruption. The pristine, pure and simple religious tenets, promulgated by Bramah were originally conserved in a text called the Chatah Bhade. However, the brahmins, who were supposed to preserve this message, made it increasingly obscure and forced a nation into sacerdotal slavery. More remarkably, Holwell found this process described in the ‘Shastas’ of the brahmins themselves. After a period of 1000 years in which the original religious doctrines were faithfully preserved, the ‘Shastas’ continued thus:
… about the close of this period, some Goseyns (Gentoo bishops) and Battezaaz bramins [expounders of the Shastah]; combining together, wrote a paraphrase on the Chatah Bhade, which they called the Chatah Bhade of bramah, or the six scriptures of the mighty spririt; in this work the original text of bramah’s Chatah Bhade was still preserved …it was now also that they first began to veil in mysteries, the simple doctrines of Bramah. That about five hundred years later … the Goseyns and Battezaaz bramins, published a second exposition, or commentary on the Chatah Bhade; which swelled the Gentoo scriptures to 18 books …the original text of the Chatah Bhade, was in a manner sunk and alluded to only; the histories of their Rajahs and country, were introduced under figures and symbols, and made a part of their religious worship, and a multitude of ceremonials, and exterior modes of worship, were instituted; which the commentators said were implied in Bramah’s Chatah Bhade, although not expressely directed therein, by him; and the whole enveloped in impenetrable obscurity by allegory and fable, beyond the comprehension even of the common tribe of bramins themselves; the laity being thus precluded from the knowledge of their original scriptures had a new system of faith broached unto them, which their ancestors were utterly strangers to [Holwell 1767: 13-14].
The success of these developments was completely due to the brahmin priests. They clearly saw that the power of their class rested on making the laity dependent upon them and diverted the people from the original simple tenets of religion. Holwell continued that,
… the Goseyns and bramins by the first of these Bhades, determined to enlarge, and establish it, by the promulgation of the last; for in this the exterior modes of worship were so multiplied, and such a numerous train of new divinities created,…that those professors of divinity, became of new and great importance, for the daily obligations of religious duties, which were by these new institutes imposed on every Gentoo, from the highest to the lowest rank of the people, were of so intricate, and alarming a nature, as to require a brahmin to be at hand, to explain and officiate, in the performance of them: they had however the address to captivate the minds of the vulgar, by introducing show and parade into all their principal religious feasts, as well as fasts; and by a new single political institution, to wit, the preservation of their caste or tribe, the whole nation was reduced to sacerdotal slavery [Holwell 1767: 16-17].
Although the citations speak for themselves, we would like to emphasise some important elements of the picture that is outlined here. The thrust of the argument is the replacement of the original pure religious tenets with something else: a corpus of complex and elaborated expositions and commentaries. What was not part of religion is made part of it and is falsely worshiped. Exterior modes of worship make religion hollow and bereave it from its content, i e, the essence of religion. What is not expressly directed in the original is made obligatory by sophisticated reasoning. Consequently, the religion is no longer accessible without the help of a specialist, i e, the priest. What keeps these developments going is the thirst for more power after the priests first tasted it. What begins as priestly power soon extends itself to a longing for worldly richness and civil authority. The result is caste: a political institution meant to keep a whole nation under the sway of sacerdotal slavery.
Heydays of Orientalism
Despite huge intellectual efforts, future generations of Orientalist scholars never fundamentally challenged the structure of Indian society outlined by Holwell: as far as its religion and its ‘priests’ were concerned, even sympathetic voices did not change the picture. In the fifth edition of James Mill’s The History of British India, Horace Hayman Wilson agreed that India was far behind the stage that Europe had reached. Interestingly, he explained the difference by ‘the advantages we possess in a purer system of religious belief’, as against the character of the Indian religion and institutions (1858: 164 ff. 1).
What an absence of pure religion could do, had already become clear in two lengthy essays on religious sects, published in subsequent volumes of the Asiatic Researches (1828, 1832). While the first discussed the so-called Vaishnavas, the second work provided a detailed account of Shaivas and miscellaneous sects. The discussion of the Vaishnava movement started with an outline of religious degradation. The second essay ended similarly. What distinguished these movements from the ‘purer system of belief’ was bhakti or devotion to the deity. Bhakti was an invention, Wilson said, ‘and apparently a modern one … intended like that of the mystical holiness of the Guru, to extend their own authority’ (1832: 312).
On the issue of caste Wilson tried to temper the condemnation Europeans had expressed. His lectures at Oxford demonstrated that even within the lowest classes caste was nothing but a subject of pride and privilege. As a matter of fact, those occupying the highest echelons didn’t seem to be attached to it: ‘in proportion as the scale of society descends, so are the people more tenacious of their caste’ (1840: 107). Nevertheless, ‘[t]he principle of the distinction’ was still ‘indefensible…’ (1840: 107). A similar ambiguous attitude characterised his description of brahmins. A brahmin of learning would never approve of the modern ritual and idolatry his less enlightened colleagues advocated. But still, Wilson stressed that a learned brahmin had temporal interests of his own: ‘he derives no small share of emolument and consideration from his connexion with religion, as the interpreter of the works in which it is taught’ (1840: 81). Therefore, he wouldn’t oppose any innovation whatsoever as long as new doctrines and views did not ‘meddle … with existing institutions… or trespass upon the privileges, of the brahmans.’ (1840: 86)
Degradation also characterised The History of India by Mountstuart Elphinstone. Elaborating on Wilson’s essays referred to above, Elphinstone argued that monastic orders started to supplant the original purity of religion: theism as advocated by the Vedas was ‘supplanted by a system of gross polytheism and idolatry…’ (1842: 86). The followers of the Vedas, i e, the brahmins, didn’t try to stop this: they permitted this worship of too many gods and never erected a temple for the One and Only – all for ‘the authority of custom and the interest of a priesthood.’ (1842: 86) The new orders could not but recognise the divinity of brahmin laws and hence, ‘could not withhold their acknowledgement of the high station to which the class had raised itself by the authority of these writings’ (1842: 61). Indeed, Elphinstone had already emphasised that at the time of Manu even the monarch was subjected to ‘the laws promulgated in the name of the divinity; and the influence of the brahmins … would afford a strong support to the injunctions of the code’ (1842: 19). After Manu’s codification of the social structure the movement of decline accelerated further: as far as caste was concerned, the lowest classes had started to display ‘a large division of castes within themselves’ (1842: 55).
Finally, in a series of lectures given at Cambridge in 1882, Max Müller presented ‘India such as it was a thousand, two thousand, it may be three thousand years ago’ and invited his students to look at its ‘religion … if only purified from the dust of 19 centuries…’ (1883: 7-12). What we could learn from this course would be the manner in which ‘the human mind arrives by a perfectly rational process at all its later irrationalities.’ (1883: 195) His preface to The Sacred Books of the East had already explained the manner in which the human mind arrived at that stage: ‘The priestly influence was at work, even before there were priests by profession, and when the priesthood had once become professional, its influence may account for much that would otherwise seem inexplicable in the sacred codes of the ancient world’ (1879: 15).
Priestly Despotism Taken for Granted
Orientalist scholars might have presented their case in the garbs of rationality and open-mindedness. However, when it came to the identification of the brahmin ‘priests’ as the cause for the degeneration of religion, the enslavement of the minds of the people, and the preservation of their own caste, their resemblance to the story told by Protestant zealots is remarkable.
Charles Grant was one of the earliest and most influential representatives of the Evangelical movement. His greatest concern was the moral deprivation of the Indian population. To make this ‘wretched’ state of affairs intelligible so that the East India Company could be more efficient in its amelioration, he had to identify the causes that had led to the present situation. The results of his search can be read in his famous Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain, Particularly with Respect to Morals; and the Means of Improving It. Though originally written to support Wilberforce’s first attempt in 1793 to change the charter of the company in favour of missionary activities, it would only become widely acknowledged when it was published in the parliamentary papers of 1813.
In Grant’s view the brahmin tribe could be held responsible for almost everything he noticed in contemporary India. For their own benefit they had made the ignorant masses believe in a false religion. The rays of light that still shone through the Bhagavad-Gita had been ‘conceived from the vulgar’ to support, together with the ceremonies of the Vedas, ‘the consequence, and the very existence of the brahminical order’ (1792: 48). As Holwell wrote before, Grant argued that the brahmins ‘have made themselves indispensably necessary.’ They had ‘formed the religion, they are the sole exclusive depositaries of its ordinances … It is thus that abject slavery, and unparalleled depravity, have become distinguishing characteristics of the Hindoos’ (1792: 58).
Again, the running thread throughout Grant’s account was one of sacerdotal despotism. Where Holwell mentioned a ‘new political institution’, Grant claimed that the priests had deceived the ignorant masses and installed their superiority in a system of social gradation. This diverges from the genuine principles of equity, truth, and honesty that had truly influenced the spirit and the manners of the people. To demonstrate these principles Grant made more than generous use of William Jones’ translation of the Manu Dharma Shastra (1794). The law, Grant said, ‘stands upon the same authority as the Hindoo religion; both are parts of one system, which they believe to have been divinely revealed.’ (1792: 34). Nothing was clearer than that ‘this whole fabric is the work of a crafty and imperious priesthood, who feigned a divine revelation and appointment, to invest their own order, in perpetuity, with the most absolute empire over the civil state of the Hindoos, as well as over their minds’ (1792: 35).
Continuity of Discourse
The late 18th and 19th century works discussed above suggest a constancy and internal coherence in European accounts of Indian society across religious and ideological boundaries. Evangelicals and secular Orientalists transcended the Orientalist-Anglicist debate: both agreed that brahmanism was a religion created by priests who had used their religious authority to invent a system of social stratification. This conceptualisation would become the stock-in-trade of European knowledge about India and would become standard in the more general writings consumed by the European public at large. One of the most influential works in this genre was James Mill’s The History of British India.
To provide the British with the necessary knowledge to establish local government, Mill wanted to identify the stage India had reached on a scale of civilisations. For this purpose, Grant’s evaluation and explanation of Indian society was not difficult for Mill to accept: priestly despotism was, once again, the main evil that held sway over the subcontinent. After all, secular thinkers had already adopted the religious idea that ‘[t]he priesthood is generally found to usurp the greatest authority, in the lowest state of society [and] artfully clothe themselves with the terrors of religion’ (1817: 48).
Mill argued that ‘just and rational views of God can be obtained from two sources alone: from revelation; or where that is wanting, from sound reflection upon the frame and government of the universe.’ (1817: 186). Because the One and Only hadn’t been so benevolent as to reveal Himself to India and thus, because the Hindus lacked both, they ‘produced that heterogeneous and monstrous compound which has formed the religious creed of so great a portion of the human race; but composes a more stupendous mass in Hindustan than in any other country…’ (1817: 191). Still, brahmins showed the tendency to corrupt things: with the insertion of flattery and the worship of heroes they had made it even worse than it ever was and anywhere had been, because ‘in Hindustan a greater and more powerful section of the people…have…been solely occupied in adding to its volume and augmenting its influence’ (1817: 191). Having remixed and annotated the work others had done before him, Mill arrived at the same conclusion as his informants: ‘Never among any other people did the ceremonial part of religion prevail over the moral to a greater, probably to an equal extent…’ (1817: 193). This religion was based on the prejudices of despotic brahmins. They alone were responsible for India’s decadence.
The original laws demonstrated that the Indian kings were merely instruments in the hands of brahmins; the classification of the people showed that ‘through a system of priestcraft, built upon the most tormenting superstition that ever harassed and degraded any portion of mankind, their minds were more enslaved than their bodies…’ (1817: 472). Like Charles Grant before him, Mill made copious use of Jones’ Institutes of Hindu Law (1794) to establish this claim: brahmins appeared as the sole guardians of the so-called sacred books, using their religion and sacerdotal caste-rules to exercise power over the civil sphere of kings and empires.
Mill’s account might have appeared as the secular counterpart of so-called evangelical interpretations. However, he was neither an ardent anglicist, nor was he an orientalist. He nevertheless accepted as self-evident the story which was shared by all of them about religious degeneration, the depraving influence of the brahmins and their creation of caste. When a story transcends all ideological and theoretical boundaries, there must be a more fundamental common framework from which its consistency is derived. We will suggest that this coherence could only be obtained from a christian conception of religion, and more precisely, from its Protestant variety.
Liberty of Protestantism vs the Tyranny of Priesthood
The notion of degeneration of religion, as well as the concepts of ‘priests’ and ‘priesthood’, were very familiar to the Europeans. Both had been essential to Christianity because they structured its understanding of religion. As the Old Testament told us, god had given mankind true religion upon creation. The same book continued that, ever since, this divine gift had been corrupted due to the efforts of the devil. When god revealed Himself and had chosen the people of Israel to make his first covenant, even the Jews, so the Christians told, were led astray by the multiple laws and the empty regulations which departed from the true religion. Thanks to the coming of Jesus, god restored His original bond with mankind by means of a ‘New Covenant’. However, even this was not safe from corruption. Fifteen hundred years after god uniquely revealed Himself in the figure of Christ, Protestants told us that Christianity had gone through a period of degeneration once again. Again a connection with the true religion had to be restored by means of direct access to the word of god, i e, the Bible.
During the first centuries this biblical theme not only structured the relationship of Christianity with Judaism, it also structured its relationship with the so-called pagan Roman traditions that were transformed into a corruption of the original ‘purer system of beliefs’. As Balagangadhara summarised this kind of history writing:
There was once a religion, the true and universal one, which was the divine gift to all humankind. A sense or spark of divinity is installed in all races (and individuals) of humanity by the creator god himself. During the course of human history, this sense did not quite erode as it got corrupted. Idolatry, worship of the Devil (i e, of the false god and his minions) was to be the lot of humankind until god spoke to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and led their tribe back onto the true path [Balagangadhara 1994: 59].
The priests had been essential to Christianity in the sense that religion was an affair of the priests only: the flock of believers was merely supposed to do what the priests told it to do. The latter, therefore, was part of religion too. Thus, as the Christians saw it, religion was exactly that which the priests entertained. Protestantism would not alter this conception. On the contrary, Protestant critiques against the institutionalised church strengthened its hold, albeit in a rather peculiar manner. In defiance of the Catholic church, which preserved priesthood exclusively to the selected few, Protestants argued that all believers could be priests. They condemned the institutionalised church as the necessary mediator between man and god: the church had corrupted the true religion and hence, was nothing but an institute of the devil. As no shepherd could lead us to god, each one of us was ‘responsible’ for his own salvation.
Thanks to this Christian understanding of religion, the mechanisms of corruption were clearly brought to the fore as well. If religion was a priest-centred activity, it were also the priests that were responsible for its degeneration. However, with the Protestant Reformation and its assessment of the Catholic church, critique of the priesthood as an instrument of the devil was not only of paramount importance, it had also further gained theoretical depth and consistency.
To protect the Christian public from the machinations of the devil, it was said, the priests had to preserve the word of god. However, while interpreting the Bible, they had made into religion what formerly was not part of it. Therefore, religion not only meant preserving god’s word: what the priests imposed upon the laity was part of religion as well. The tools these priests had used were many. Instead of preserving the purity of Revelation as it was written in the Bible, new creeds were added. Instead of keeping to the pure faith of the Bible, new prescriptions were made and new modes of worship promulgated. The cults of the saints and martyrs made human into the divine and multiplied religious feasts and festivals. Therefore, the story that the Protestants told about the history of the western church was a history of corruption and decline as well: the priesthood of the Catholic church had given in to the Antichrist and had used the true word of god to turn Christianity into heathendom. From now on, ‘Catholic Christianity was merely ‘Christian paganism” [Balagangadhara 1994: 85].
Those who benefited from all this were the priests only. In order to conceal their fraud, they kept the Bible secret behind the dark curtain of the Latin language. Instead of directing their attention to spiritual matters, they were interested in earthly wealth and honour. As the issue of indulgences clearly proved, the priesthood was said to exploit the people’s wealth for their own well-being; and so on and so forth… The power of kings depended on the Pope’s consent. With the Pope as the vicar of Christ and his universal jurisdiction, spiritual authority was more important than any temporal power. The papacy was accused of usurping princely power by claiming to be the highest authority on earth and by installing social hierarchies both within and outside the church.
When Europe confronted the ‘pagan world’ a second time, the Judeo-Christian theme of an original true religion and its subsequent degeneration still structured Europe’s conception of the history of the religious. The non-Christian religions had, at the most, fragments of insights derived from the true pristine religion which was implanted by god in all of us. Lacking revelation, however, they became false religions. Over a period of time they were corrupted even more, because the devil freely reigned over these religions through the medium of the pagan priests. As must be clear, this is exactly what the western authors were arguing for. The brahmins who performed and directed the rituals, who maintained temple complexes, etc, could only have been the priests of the Indians, be it of a false religion. What they imposed upon society as part of their religion must have been the work of the devil as well. The moulding of multiple traditions into brahmanism as a grand religion created by heathen priests was now inevitable.
The search for the carefully hidden ‘religious texts’ became one of Europe’s obsessions. Differences between the ‘pure original’ as embodied in those texts and that which the priests imposed upon the laity confirmed that priesthood was a similar phenomenon all over the world. The Catholic church knew of pilgrimages and indulgences; brahmanism displayed ‘ceremonial and pecuniary atonements.’ As the Catholic clergy imposed a system of false prescriptions in its quest for worldly power, brahmins imposed a system of rules and prescription to preserve their own temporal interests. They had their own secret language too, i e, Sanskrit, and eagerly tried to conceal their fraud.
As Catholic priesthood was confined to the selected few, brahmins dominated Indian society through the institution of caste. As the priests of the church of Rome were the only rightful administers of the sacraments, Hinduism turned out to be a religion ‘of which the brahmins are the exclusive depositories of its ordinances’. The ‘brahmin church’ had imposed social hierarchies due to its priestly despotism. Therefore, the most salient feature of this religion became the caste system, imposed upon society to preserve brahmin privileges. ‘Absolute empire over the civil state of the Hindus as over their minds’ was exactly what priesthood and its craft had given birth to in Europe as well.
Indian Intellectuals and Mantras of Anti-Brahmanism
The Judeo-Christian theme of religious degeneration and the Christian theological interpretation of religion as a religion of the priest did not only structure Europe’s identification of the brahmin priests and brahmanism. More remarkably, it even structured the conceptualisation of religion provided by Indian intellectuals in modern times. When Rammohun Roy published the first of his English works he ‘appealed to the sacred books…as bearing witness against the idolatry of the priest-ridden masses’ (Müller cited in Mookerjee 1970: 32) Echoing European descriptions, Roy exclaimed that the brahmins had emphasised ‘to the utmost of their power, that part … which, treating of rites and festivals, is justly considered as the source of their worldly advantages and support of their alleged divinity’ (1817: 88). The Hindus didn’t know that the Vedanta prohibited that which brahmins entertained because the brahmins permitted ‘themselves alone to interpret, or even to touch any book of the kind.’ They had kept the ‘brahmin bible’ secret ‘within the dark curtain of the Sanskrit language.’ As a result ‘the practice of few Hindoos indeed bears the least accordance with its precepts.’ (1816: 59) About the source of his inspiration, Roy is very explicit. In a letter to Alexander Duff, he declared that he had read about
the rise and progress of Christianity in apostolic times, and its corruption in succeeding ages, and then of the Christian Reformation which shook off these corruptions… (and) that something similar might have taken place in India, and similar results might follow from a reformation of the popular idolatry (Cited in Collett 1913: 280).
Therefore, in the preface to his translations of the Upanishads, he formulated his goal of demonstrating that the originals proved that the Indians were also familiar with the true conceptions of the One and Only. However, the brahmins had not only emphasised that which served their own interests; the texts were also written in an obscure language of allegory. His reading had to allow the Europeans to make their own judgement instead of deriving it from ‘the superstitious rites and habits daily encouraged and fostered by their self-interested leaders’ (1819: 23). As his public already knew by then, this was a system ‘which destroys, to the utmost degree, the natural texture of society’ – all by and for their self-interested leaders (1819: 23).
More than a century later Babasaheb Ambedkar whole-heartedly attacked those practices that Roy – according to his more critical readers – had overlooked, i e, caste practices. His views were well summarised in his exposé of the origin of the shudras. Referring to brahmin laws and a literary system of varnas, Ambedkar argued for the religious basis of caste. Its practices were laid down in books and explained that which the Europeans also saw: a corrupted society. Disregarding his opponents, he would continue ‘the exposure of the sacred books so that the Hindus may know that it is the doctrines contained in their sacred books which are responsible for the decline and fall of their country and their society…’ (1947: 15).
That all this was the fault of a religion of priests was again clear from the start. The books were ‘almost entirely the creation of the brahmins … to sustain the superiority and privileges of the brahmins as against the non-brahmins’ (1947: 16). Yet Ambedkar didn’t seem to wonder how brahmins managed to realise this supremacy when they kept the books devised for this purpose secret from the general public.
Be this as it may, the brahmins were the forces behind transforming the Vedic concept of class system into the contemporary system of castes (cf Ambedkar 1917). Why did the brahmins do this? As he answered in his Annihilation of Caste, the caste system, ‘is a social system which embodies the arrogance and selfishness of a perverse section of the Hindus who were superior enough in social status to set it in fashion and who had the authority to force it on their inferiors’ (1936: 50). Hence, the priestly brahmins had done this for the obvious reasons that they were arrogant, mercenary, and perverted. They were the ones who originated the exclusivity of class and the other classes merely imitated them.
That he merely accepted European authority and adopted polemical slogans might well be reflected in his belief in the remarkable explanatory power of this social system, based on that grand religion of priests. Caste explained the anti-social and selfish spirit of the Hindus and their unwillingness to forgive. It accounted for the timidity and cowardice that distinguished the Hindu from the Muslim and the Sikh – even though they are also said to be organised into a system of social hierarchy – and all this resulted in the Hindu’s low ways of treachery and cunning. Caste impeded public spirit, public charity, and public opinion (1936: 51-6). In other words: caste as deus ex machina explained the degradation prevalent in Indian society. Taking into account the many horror stories he provides us with, we might well conclude that caste is the embodiment of moral corruption, based on prejudices and sacred books, instilled by a perfidious section of the Indian population. The legislative measures he proposed to abolish this system should ‘help to kill brahminism and will help to kill caste which is nothing but brahminism incarnate.’ (1936: 77).
Both reformers are divided by a century of changing socio-political circumstances. Each had its own political and/or religious agenda as well. Yet it is clear that the difference between orientalists and anglicists or Evangelicals others find so important in the context of modern Indian intellectual movement is of no relevance when it comes to an understanding of Indian religion and society among Indian intellectuals.
Indian Intellectuals and the European Experience
If theological concepts structured the experience of the Europeans, how well could they capture the experience of the natives? Wilson suggested that a resistant attachment to caste corresponded with the lower classes. Elphinstone agreed and noticed that the lowest classes started to display a large division of castes among themselves. Indeed, from an empirical point of view, most will agree that a multitude of sub-castes can be identified in the so-called lowest social strata. To argue that priests imposed such an organisation upon society requires, minimally, the identification of an overarching organisation of priests. However, neither in the long haul of Indian history, nor in its present context has such a structure, necessary to impose upon society any social organisation whatsoever, been identified.
Secondly, regarding their secret books, Grant claimed that ‘[w]ith respect to the real tenets of the Hindus…they are to be taken from their ancient books…’ (cited in Mill 1817: 410 ff). However, when Rammohun Roy later translated the Upanishads a contemporary pundit charged him with having fabricated them himself (Hay 1963: 46 ff). Moreover, on the subject of Bengal, Fitzedward Hall wrote in 1868 that ‘[u]ntil very recently, the learned Bengali has long been satisfied, substantially, to do without the Veda’ (cited in Kejariwal 1988: 3). A strange state of affairs, suggesting that brahmins didn’t really know what Europeans were talking about when they enquired about their sacred books. Even more, those who did seem to know about the texts didn’t seem to understand them. Regarding their secret language, Abbé Dubois, for example, had the following observation to make:
It is true…that those who devote themselves to the study of these books (the Vedas) cannot hope to extract any instruction from them, for they are written in ancient Sanskrit, which has become almost wholly unintelligible; and such numberless mistakes have been introduced by copyists, either through carelessness or ignorance, that the most learned find themselves quite unable to interpret the original text. Out of 20,000 brahmins I do not believe that one could be found who even partially understood the real Vedas [Dubois 1816: 173-74].
What Dubois saw was not the exception but the rule. When talking of the prayers in the Vedas, Horace Hayman Wilson discovered that they were hardly studied at all. Besides, ‘when they are studied it is merely for the sake of repeating the words; the sense is regarded as a matter of no importance, and is not understood even by the Brahman who recites or chants the expressions’ (1840: 49).
There were other elements as well that did not fit the picture of a class of priests that controlled the laity through the corruption of original beliefs. Wilson, for example, felt it necessary to nuance Jones’ views as based on Manu’s text, stating that brahmins were not ‘in great measure the ghostly advisers of the people…This office is now filled by various persons…Many of these are brahmans, but they are not necessarily so, and it is not as brahmans that they receive the veneration of their lay followers…’ (1832: 311).
However, when Indian intellectuals began to write their own story, they did not start from those experiences. Neither did they try to make them intelligible: India, as they saw it, had its own religion of priests and the hierarchy of caste system was due to priestly despotism. The implication of this account is the unconditional acceptance of Christianity’s theological conception of religion by Indian intellectuals.
Conclusion and Coda
The Orientalist-Anglicist distinction is said to have had a decisive influence on the outset of Indian reform movements. Mainly in Bengal, Indian intellectuals began to discover what orientalists had shown them: a golden age in a history of decline. It is said that exclusively due to orientalists, Indians became aware of original scripts and pure religions, of morality and virtue in a long distant past. It is also said that orientalists and anglicists differed in their assessment of Indian society. However, we have tried to show that despite these differences, the opposite camps shared the same conceptions of brahmins in India tout court: the Christian-theological themes that structured christianity’s own understanding of the religious and nurtured the attacks against the priesthood in Europe during the reformation, re-emerged in the explanation of contemporary Indian society. Therefore, if what we have suggested in this article is true, it follows that whenever Roy, Ambedkar or the people who are inspired by them accept Europe’s conceptualisations, they are not criticising their cultural inheritance at all. They are just repeating christianity’s critique against the pagan ‘priests’. It is also clear that the so-called differences between anglicist and orientalists are themselves dependent upon the same Judeo-Christian conception of religion and are, therefore, distinctions which make sense within a theological framework only. From this perspective the anglicist was correct in saying that corruption was there from the very beginning – after all, it was a pagan worship inspired by the devil. But the orientalists – working within the same theological background – were correct too when they stressed that compared to the original books, in which sound conceptions of the divine could still be found, these insights were lost due to a mounting corruption of the priests ever since.
When contemporary scholars take this divide as a valuable structuring framework for describing the history of modern India they end up being theologians in a secular guise (see Balagangadhara 1994 for an amplification of this theme). That this framework makes sense after all could be explained by de-christianised Christianity being part of the history of the west, and, hence, being constitutive of the west’s cultural and religious experience. However, when Indian intellectuals take the same story for granted, they end up repeating a protestant Christian theme without Christianity being fundamental to the construction of the Indian culture. What they say must, therefore, be vacuous to a double extent. That they keep repeating the west in endless mantras of anti-brahmanism is not only puzzling, it is tragic as well. They do not only stop thinking, they are bereft of their own experience. The world of the west will never be theirs while the world of their own is no longer accessible due to the western mantras which prevent them from seeing and reflecting upon their own experience. Therefore, if a novel and innovating step towards a different approach of Indian culture is desirable and sought after, it is high time that the Indian intellectuals start taking their colonial experience seriously.
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- Secularism, Colonialism and Indian Intellectuals
- The Question of Conversion in India