Aryans and British India  

by: Thomas R. Trautmann

Publisher: Vistaar Publications, New Delhi, 1997 , Price:Rs.350 , Pages:260

Reviewed by: Professor D.N.Jha
Department of History, University of Delhi


Thomas R. Trautmann began his research career under his mentor A. L. Basham and did a pioneering work on Kautilyas Arthasastra of which he made a computer analysis and suggested a methodology for identifying different chronological strata in classical Indian texts which unfortunately has not been pursued by other scholars. From the examination of an ancient Sanskrit text he moved on to the study of kinship patterns in south India and produced a book on Dravidian kinship which has by now become a standard work on the subject. His present study, Aryans and British India, being an analysis of the concept of the Aryan, bears testimony to his interest in the history of ideas. From an Indologist who first attempted an analysis of an ancient Sanskrit text to an anthropologist to the historian of ideas, he has had an interesting academic trajectory. Trautmann, not surprisingly, is a familiar name among scholars interested in Indian studies.

Opening with Romila Thapars foreword, the book, divided into eight chapters, seeks to trace the origin and development of the idea of the Aryan from about 1793 when Sir William Jones arrived in India to 1910 when H.H. Risley departed from here. Trautmann is not a believer in the theory of Aryan race, as no rational scholar would indeed be. He assures the reader that he is interested only in examining the relevant evidence to show how the idea of the Aryan race evolved and how it took hold over the minds of the people. The racial theory of Indian civilisation has become the crabgrass of Indian history which, he promises to uproot (p.4). His survey of the evidence is certainly competent but the extent to which he succeeds in uprooting the crabgrass would remain a matter of opinion. Like other scholars, Trautmann traces the origin of the idea of the Aryan to the late eighteenth century when philologists, especially William Jones, pointed out that the structure of Sanskrit was basically the same as that of Latin, Greek and several other European languages. He goes on to tell us that this was the basis of the idea of a common homeland of the speakers of the Indo-European/ Indo-Aryan languages which in turn was embedded in Jones project of what he calls Mosaic ethnology (chapter 2) implying the descent of all civilised peoples of antiquity from Noah. Accordingly Indians and Britons were looked upon as long lost- kin who originally belonged to the Aryan family. Viewed from this perspective the colonial encounter between Britain and India would appear to be a family reunion and the Aryan idea was one of the "the ways in which Indians may be bound to British rule by some form of love, whether of solidarity, of firm attachment, loyalty, or friendship" (p.16) as indicated, according to Trautmann, by the use of the word Arya to include the British and Indians by Monier-Williams in his Sanskrit verse inscribed on the Old Indian Institute Building at Oxford in 1883. The author emphasises that the Aryan idea was initially a unifying idea and he seems to have a point; some Indians also (e.g., Keshub Chandra Sen) did believe that the British and the Indians were brethren. The common Aryan ancestry may have, to a certain extent, fostered British fondness for the study of Indian society and culture described as Indomania(chapter 3) which is seen in the British writings throughout the nineteenth century and even later. But the phenomenon of Indomania can best be understood against the background of the colonial encounter of the British with India. It can also be seen as a source of the idea of the whitemans burden to civilise the Indians. The nave or false understanding or the unbounded admiration of India seen in the writings of the early Orientalists then becomes part of the governance strategies of the British. After all Jones himself began to learn Sanskrit because he did not wish to be at the "mercy of our Pundits who deal out Hindu law as they please" and wrote a digest of Indian laws with the firm belief that he would "never perhaps be led astray by Pandits or Maulavis". This does not minimise the importance of the scholarly contributions of the early Orientalists but shows unambiguously that the Indomania was rooted, to a significant extent, in the British desire to devise mechanisms to exercise effective control over their Indian colony. There is therefore not much substance in the belief that the Aryan idea was formulated by the comparative philologists to unify the British and Indians. In a point of fact, a necessary corollary of the idea was the creation of an Aryan / Dravidian dichotomy in Indian society which suited the British imperial masters. Against this background Edward Saids concept of Orientalism as "a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having an authority over it (Orient)" seems to have much force and his view that "describing" is "dominating" has much substance. Saidian construct has come in for much criticism but Trautmanns wholesale disapproval of it (pp.19-22) seems to be very close to defending the British imperialism, despite what he calls "his perspectival approach". The Indomania Trautmann speaks of, was, on his own admission, "entertained by a very few well educated Britons" and was challenged from the very beginning. This challenge came from the British rulers themselves; for Cornwallis, a contemporary of William Jones, made his famous and bold announcement in the initial phase of Indomania: "Every native of Hindostan, I verily believe, is corrupt." This can be treated as a response to the enthusiasm for India a response which Trautmann calls Indophobia(chapter 4) and which tended to be pronouncedly strong from the end of the eighteenth century onwards. Charles Grant, who exercised a tremendous influence in the Evangelical circles, published his Observations as early as 1797 in which he attacked almost every aspect of Indian society and religion, determined the "true place" of Indians "in the moral scale" by describing them as morally depraved, "lacking in truth, honesty and good faith"(p.103) and "in every way different" from the British, enriched the ideological armoury of the Christian missionaries, and provided a justification as well as an agenda for the British rule. A secularized version of Grants assessment of Indian civilisation is found in the three-volume History of British India (1818) by James Mill , who served the East India Company for seventeen years rising to the highest position in its hierarchy, and shaped the British imperialist perception of the Indian past for many generations. Much has been written on Mills understanding of Indian civilisation and, as the author rightly points out, "nothing would be gained from reciting dismal details of Mills assessment" of it. But it needs to be emphasized that like Charles Grant, Mill also ignored the idea of "the similarity of Sanskrit, Latin and Greek"(p.121). One cannot, however, make too much of their reticence over the Jonesean doctrine as Trautmann seems to be doing(p.121); for, Mill was basically in agreement with Jones when he asserted that the Hindu society had been stationary for so long that "in beholding the Hindus of the present day, we are beholding the Hindus of many ages past". The author, in fact, goes so far as to admit that "neither Jones nor any of the British Orientalists had any doubt as to the present superiority of European civilisation to that of India".

Thus even if it is granted that for Jones and other Indomaniacs (derived from the authors coinage of Indomania) the Aryan idea was a unifying idea in the initial phase of British expansion it ceased to be so later when the British stranglehold on India tended to be strong and the emphasis on affinities between Britons and Indians would more hinder than facilitate the consolidation of the British power in India. The heart of the matter, therefore, remains that British imperialism spoke in different voices at different times, though its goal was always the same, i.e., to devise new mechanisms of control and administration of the Indian colony in consonance with the policies of the home government.

The British imperialism was multivocal and its ideologues were not always consistent. Max Mueller was an exception to the general trend of thinking about India. A German national educated on the Continent where the Aryan concept had already taken a hold as is evident from the writings of Schlegel, Hegel, and Christian Lassen, Max Mueller was perhaps the most enthusiastic exponent of the Aryan brotherhood idea; for he asserted that in ancient times "the first ancestors of the Indiansand the Germans were living together within the same enclosures, nay under the same roof" (1859). For a time this may have given considerable weight to the opinion that the Aryan meant a biological race as well as a linguistic entity but his views were soon vehemently challenged. Sanskrit being the basis of the theory of the common Aryan homeland, Sanskritists, especially Max Mueller, came under severe attack from two ethnologists, Robert Latham and John Crawfurd, though both of them had come to ethnology via philology. In their view "the claims of race overruled the claims of language"(179). In 1861 Crawfurd went to the extent of saying : "I am not prepared to admit the claim of a common descent between Hindu, Greek, and Teuton, for that would amount to allowing that there was no difference in the faculties of the people that produced Homer and Shakespeare and those that have produced nothing better than the authors of the Mahabharat and Ramayana; no difference between the home-keeping Hindus who never made a foreign conquest of any kind, and the nations who discovered, conquered, and peopled a new world"(p.181). His contempt for Indians and their civilisation was accompanied by his belief in "the dangers of intermarriage between races widely apart on the scale of civilization"(p.181). For him, Trautmann points out, "philology is bad for racial hygiene"(p.181).

The concept of race sans language was forcefully articulated from about the mid-nineteenth century leading to the "retreat of the Sanskritists" and laid the foundation of "race science" and "the racial theory of Indian civilization" to the discussion of which Trautmann devotes much attention (chapters 6-7). With the shift of focus on ethnology some very interesting questions of lasting relevance to Indian society arose. Were the philologists right in asserting that the Indians and the Europeans belonged to one and the same stock ? If they had a common pedigree why did they differ in habits, customs and manners, and in physical appearance ? Questions like these assumed central importance for the ethnological mapping of India culminating in the numerous multivolume publications on the Indian tribes and castes, their customs, manners, means of livelihood, etc. The impressive number of ethnological projects undertaken during the nineteenth century revealed the bewildering variety of physical types within the country and exposed the hollowness of the argument that all Indians were of the Aryans racial stock. Despite all this some scholars in contemporary India have tried to whip up the Aryanness of the Hindus as against the followers of Islam. The degree of their success is difficult to assess but one thing is quite clear: the champions of the idea of the Aryan as a race in the biological sense today have much in common with our erstwhile imperial masters. This is the point which needs to be stressed and Trautmann, of course, says: " evidence that has been brought forward has been subjected to a consistent overreading in favour of a racializing interpretation"(p.208). One cannot perhaps expect more from him, for his real sympathies for the British are quite evident. He comes out in his true colours when he says of Charles Grant that his "purpose is neither condemnation nor to assert the permanent inferiority of another race" (p.103). Similarly he comforts us by (mis)informing us that both the Evangelicals and the Utilitarians "were committed to a belief in the possibility of ameliorating the Indian condition" (p.181). Statements such as these take the wraps off the real sympathies of Trautmann. One is therefore tempted to imagine that he found it necessary to elicit ( or shall I say extort!) a foreword from one of our finest historians Romila Thapar, so as to cover up or legitimise his neo-colonialist predilections.


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