Updated: May 11, 2010 16:26 IST

Study on orientalism

Rajan Gurukkal
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In this book, Michael Dodson examines the historical ontology of orientalism, empire, and nationalism — the three major obsessions of the last generation — in the light of rarely used sources in Sanskrit, Hindi, and English, and with fresh insights into the making of modern India. It explores the varied scholarly manifestations in literature, history, and linguistics, related to the period 1770-1880, projecting the image of ‘Indian Civilisation.'


The book draws on three principal themes: the East India Company's use of orientalist knowledge and the Sanskrit pundits for strengthening state power in Bengal in the late 18th century; the uses of orientalist methodologies in education for the civilising mission in the 19th century; and, the adaptation, by Indian Sanskrit scholars, of some of orientalism's discursive constructs in the production of newly inflected Hindu identities.

The core argument is that orientalism in India is best understood not as a static modus operandi but as a shifting set of policy positions and localised practices, which were constantly adapted to changing circumstances in the colonial context as well as in respect of evolutions in metropolitan British thought.

Dodson uses the term ‘orientalism' in a broad sense, intended to invoke a range of scholarly practices devoted to the explication of Indian history, cultural forms, and social structures, principally through the medium of Indian languages and texts, and through an association with the pundits. He subscribes to the view that imperial histories of South Asia make sense today as a symbol of European superiority and Asian difference, thanks to the insights of Michel Foucault and Edward Said, which show how orientalist scholarship provided Europeans with a vocabulary and imagery to justify a dictatorial rule over the colonised.


The author takes off from the knowledgeable readership's perception of colonial historiography of the 18th and 19th centuries as the redemptive means to uplift and transform the colonial people into a semblance of modernity. Reviewing studies in cognitive encounters between the coloniser and the colonised and the epistemological confrontations between science and Indian knowledge — allegedly non-science — he seeks to examine the relationship between knowledge and forms of authority of North India.

Dodson addresses himself to ideational genealogies, adaptations, innovations, and valuations made of knowledge and representation in particularised local contexts, and their relationships to the fashioning of forms of power. He examines why certain forms of knowledge gained social currency locally and could be converted into forms of power.

In an attempt to forge a closer link between intellectual and social history, he traces how people in the colonial context used their education and institutional standings as well as the strategies for producing forms of authority for knowledge, in the furtherance of different social, cultural, and political projects.

The author believes that questions of historical agency in the colonial sphere become more open-ended and responsive, accounting for processes of social and cultural change, rather than remaining content with invocations of a breaking out from dominant representational systems.

Pundits' role

The book has six chapters, with a brilliant introduction that provides the basic theoretical formulations. The first chapter seeks to reassert, unambiguously, the important connections between the history of 18th century orientalism and the rise of British imperial power in India.

The next goes on to examine the enabling contexts for the production of oriental scholarship by citing the link of British scholars with the pundits. It is argued that during the 18th and early 19th centuries, the strengthening of the characterisation of Benaras as a ‘sacred Hindu city' and as central to an understanding of Indian civilisation was intimately connected with both the authorisation of the early orientalist scholarship, and the establishment of cultural and political legitimacy for the Company's government.

The third chapter examines the ways in which early orientalist knowledge, pre-conceptions and methodologies — built up largely during the late 18th century — were partially utilised by constructive orientalists within a specific project of colonial education underwritten by liberal conceptions of civilisational hierarchy.

The fourth chapter studies in depth the practices of translation in the Benaras college under Bellantyne's superintendence, and how these practices came to be built over the notions of relationship between language and civilisation to produce authentic representations of European ascendancy. The analysis in the fifth chapter helps us appreciate the inconsistencies within Orientalism. The concluding chapter makes a closer analysis of the roles the pundits played in facilitating constructive orientalism, and how they utilised their institutional role as India's cultural and intellectual guardians to promote Sanskrit knowledge systems.

Eminently readable, the book is striking for its conceptual clarity and intellectual depth, and is capable of attracting the general as well as specialised readership.

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