Vasudha Dalmia is a Professor of Hindi and Chair of the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of California at Berkeley. She has researched and published widely on Hinduism, colonial and post-colonial Hindi literature, medieval Indian religiosity, and modern Indian theatre. Her book, The Nationalization of Hindu Traditions: Bhartendu Harischandra and Nineteenth Century Banaras, examines the life and writings of a major Hindi writer of the nineteenth century as the focal point for an examination of the intricate links between politics, language, culture, religion and nationality.
These essays were written in the late 1980's and early 1990's, while I was embarking on my larger research project, which focused on the life and work of an early nationalist, Harishchandra of Banaras (1850-1885). My interest thereby was less in the personal details of his life, fascinating though they were, more on the many center-stage roles he played in his short life. He was a leading figure in the Hindi language movement of the 1860's, which first established a stable base for the print language as it came to be. He was instrumental insetting up a new literary canon for and in Hindi, virtually bringing it about by offering a forum in his literary journals for new writing and himself contributing massively to the cause. But equally, he was an integral and important part of the multifarious moves, which brought into being modern Hinduism. There were many issues which encircled these concerns and many questions, which needed to be faced even if the answers could only be partial. However, whether language, culture, relgion or history, 'tradition' played a vital role in all attempts to reconstruct. And in all matters of authenticity, of what actually constituted Indian tradition, be the late nineteenth century, it was clear that western and more specially German Indology enjoyed immense authority, as against the monopoly once held by Sanskrit pandits. At the time of writing these essays, I was based in a German university and myself deeply embroiled in German Indology. There was much that I learnt there, but having spent my own childhood learning at the feet of pandits of the old school, it was clear that the frames within which 'India' was being constructed here had driving forces other than those I had known.
Max Mueller specially attracted my attention. Though Indology remembers Friedrich Max Mueller (1823-1900) for his painstaking edition of the Rigveda with the commentary of Shayana (1849 to 1873) as also of the 49 volumes of the series he titled Sacred Books of the East, he is primarily remembered in India today for the role that he played in rehabilitating the value of Indian culture, as he understood it, in an increasingly imperialist and imperious Britain. He was a product of late German romanticism; of its poetic vocabulary and vision and its enthusiasm for the East, particularly India. His scholarship was deeply embedded in comparative philology, in philosophy and comparative mythology, a discipline he helped to found. His authority in colonial India had no doubt also to do with his location in Oxford; he arrived there is 1848 and held professorial positions from 1854 onwards. His set of seven lectures entitled 'India: What can it teach us?' was delivered in 1882 at the University of Cambridge to candidates of the Indian Civil Service at the invitation of the Board of Historical studies. Later issued as a book, the lectures came, ironically, to mean more to Indian Nationalists than to those who set out to govern India. But in many ways it is a deeply disturbing book. It focuses on the earliest phase of Sanskrit literature, on the Vedas, as the only period of true creativity. He identifies the people who produced and maintained the tradition of the Vedic hymns as 'Aryans'. He sees this initial creativity deriving from their invigorating Caucasian homeland, decaying all the while on Indian soil, as coming to a final end when the Muslims entered the Indian subcontinent in the eleventh century. For the period before that, he selectively constructs a historical-philological tradition, which claims invincibility. He interprets an India of his own creation. He never visited India; he politely disclaimed all interest in doing so. In what tradition and in what interests was Max Mueller operating? The first essay in this book is an attempt to answer this question. Today, when new kinds of orientalism wreak havoc on the Indian political scene, it may be more than an academic exercise to analyse how belief and bias influence scholarship.
The second essay has to do with the relatively long and protracted process which brought about this shift in authority. How did Pandits of the old school lose their primacy in the field? While trying to understand the special importance of Banaras through the ages, as a holy city. As the seat of learning, I was intrigued by the British colonial decision to found a Sanskrit College in the city and this too as early as 1791, when they had barely gained a foothold in this part of the subcontinent. The British orientalist scholars and state officials were themselves hard at work collecting, editing, translating manuscripts and writing learned treatises in the late eighteenth century, the Asiatic Society of Bengal had already come into existence in 1984. At the same time and at this stage entirely uninfluenced by these manouvres, traditional scholarship continued to flourish in Banaras. Why then the move to set up a British institution to manage traditional knowledge? The idea was obviously not so much to learn from them, they had already set up Fort William College in Calcutta to train their own civil and military personnel in the knowledge of India; it was much more to harness the pandits' knowledge and to lay claim to its authority, as its controller and patron.
Within a century, this knowledge would itself come to be regarded more as a raw mass of data which needed European management in order to be useful than as of any intrinsic value in its unprocessed state. How did those 'native' scholars who were trained in the Benares Sanskrit College respond to these changes? If they had been trained at least partially in European methodologies, how did they reconcile what they learnt with what was handed down in a more traditional mode? Did they see the one as legitimately replacing the authority once generated by the other? The essay ends with an account of the spirited exchange in the late nineteenth century on modes of knowledge formation between one such Banaras scholar, an Assistant Professor of Sanskrit in the College and the German professor then in charge.
Did this wrangling on how to interpret tradition have any bearing on critical social and religious issues? Much has been written in the last decades on the practice of 'sati'. Was it a religious rite? Who had the right to practice it? The British colonial officials turned initially to pandits of the old school for the answers, the most intense dialogues taking place in the first half of the nineteenth century. There were endless questions to be answered, issues to be resolved. What agency could the 'satis' have in the decisions they took? Were they misled, coerced? And if so, who was responsible for so deluding them? Could there be a 'correct' way to perform sati? When the final decisions were taken in 1829 and the practice legally banned, it was once again the question of who was orienting India, who was interpreting it and giving it direction? The final essay in the volume discusses the terms of these debates.
In presenting these essays once more, I have slightly revised them, altering a phrase here and deleting another. If they arouse the interest and curiosity of readers who would otherwise not have engaged with these issues, I will consider that they have served their purpose. There is much further work to turn to for more answers, there is much further work to be done.
About the Book:
These three essays, by Vasudha Dalmia, explore the ways in which Europeans - British colonialists and German philosophers and scholars - appropriated Indian history, religious scholarship, and ritual practice to assert their own relationship to India and Indians, and even more so, their relationship to their own past and sense of present duty, right, and mission. In these European attempts to orient India to their own designs, justifications, and senses of moral worth, or 'enlightened thinking', Dalmia reveals the complex negations between Indian and British forms of knowledge and practice. In her study of the German thinkers, we see how cultural knowledge is not static but becomes a transaction between philosophers whose ideas of India form the basis of their own cultural values. In her evaluation of the British colonial project in India we see how the transactions between the British and high-caste Indians create new forms of power and realign social structures in the process.
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