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Updated: December 6, 2011 17:01 IST

A critical analysis of Indian civilisation

Vinay Kumar Srivastava
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Gandhiji never substituted ‘Indian civilisation' by ‘Hindu civilisation'

Culture is universal; civilisation is not. Measured in terms of the presence of phonetic symbols, technical and material progress, and sophisticated philosophical systems and lifestyles, ‘civilisation' is often defined as ‘high culture', which emerged in some parts of the world, whilst the others were benefited by its diffusion. The creators of civilisation have proudly spoken about their inventions, often ethnocentrically.

In this slim book, Bhattacharya, an eminent historian from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, critically analyses what the Indian nationalist thinkers have said about their civilisation, something the British either conveniently ignored or criticised caustically, heaping vitriol on the native customs and practices. For instance, an English historian, James Mill, compared the Hindus with the “savages of America”; the Indian architectural and sculptural creations were termed “arts of the barbarian”; and India was, in these writings, a “half-civilised nation”.

Civilising mission

The colonial scholars also considered the Indian way of life abominable and believed that it needed to be metamorphosed and given a western orientation. This perception was behind the “civilising mission” the British had embarked upon — it involved opening of hospitals, schools, and colleges, and banning shifting cultivation.

For almost a century, the British continued with their own line of Indian history, writing whatever they deemed ‘proper', and all this was for European readership. The natives were a muted lot, because they either did not understand it or thought it unnecessary and futile to counter British prejudices, which in any case were unlikely to change.

From the beginning of the 20th century, which saw the level of literacy in English increase and the public awareness of the colonial assumptions spread widely, they “began to talk back” — hence the title of the book under review.

Although there were substantial differences among nationalist scholars, they were agreed that the pre-colonial era was neither “dark” nor “bereft of glory”, as made out by colonial historians. In their analyses, they compared the pre-British formations in their land to Europe of that time. Running concomitantly was the theme of Indian unity. Alongside the ‘nationhood' discourse, there developed a “parallel discourse on civilisation”, which in turn strengthened Indian thinking on nationhood.

However, ‘civilisational discourse' did not get the same measure of attention as ‘nationhood' did. One reason is that the writers on Indian civilisation were not professional historians but nationalist leaders in public life. Their objective was to establish, through historical data, that India's civilisation had no equal and to repudiate its disparagement by alien scholars. In their narrations, sometimes, the ‘Indian civilisation' became ‘Hindu civilisation', with the word ‘Hindu' seen as providing the unifying element. But, largely, it remained a secular construct.

The idea of civilisation figured in its embryonic form in the nationalist writings of R.G. Bhandarkar and Bankimchandra Chatterjee. It evolved in Mahatma Gandhi's Hind Swaraj (1909) and Rabindranath Tagore's essays (published from 1902 to 1907), and reached the pinnacle in Jawaharlal Nehru's The Discovery of India (1946). There were many others who wrote on Indian civilisation and unity, either influenced by the works of these stalwarts or impelled by their own thinking. Each had his or her own line of argument but all of them shared what Battacharya calls the ‘storyline'.

Nationalist discourse

Gandhiji's Hind Swaraj marked the beginning of a “truly nationalist discourse” of civilisation, which in fact “subordinated the political agenda to the civilisational agenda.” He furthered the idea of the assimilative nature of Indian civilisation, thereby suggesting that the objective of the freedom movement need not be to expel the British from India; for they could get assimilated as the thousands of other migrants to this land had been. The main issue was the vast difference between the European and the ancient Indian civilisation. Gandhiji recognised that India was a land of diversity and so he never substituted ‘Indian civilisation' by ‘Hindu culture' or ‘Hindu civilisation'.

Later, the nationalist perspective came to be based on Tagore's view that Indian civilisation was ‘syncretic' in nature. It was able to create unity amidst diversity, without obliterating the uniqueness of the elements that composed it. In direct opposition to this was the aggressiveness of the western civilisation, which tried to forcibly homogenise different cultures — a feature Tagore vehemently opposed. This, however, did not mean that the West was intellectually nascent. Its technological sophistication played a regenerative role in many traditional civilisations. Nehru's position represented a fine blend of Gandhiji's and Tagore's.

Bhattacharya does not stop with a critical analysis of the writings of the nationalists. In the concluding chapter, he moves on to the contemporary international discussion on civilisation, and its link with the nationalist discourse.

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