Sunday, November 23, 2003

Stale ideas recycled
Kamaldeep Kaur Toor

Orienting India: European Knowledge Formation in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
by Vasudha Dalmia.
Three Essays Collective, Delhi. Rs 100. Pages 81.

Orienting India: European Knowledge Formation in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth CenturiesEdward Said’s Orientalism precipitated a plethora of books by various culture critics and the book under review appears to be one of them. It is a compilation of three essays that deal with the manipulation, appropriation and reconstruction of Indian history, religious scholarship and traditional rituals by British administrators during the Raj.

The first essay delineates the contribution of Max Mueller in interpreting the Vedic past of India. His concluded that the Vedic hymns were composed by the Aryan race and these formed the pinnacle of Aryan creativity. According to Dalmia, “He (Mueller) 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 sub continent in the eleventh century.” Max Mueller reconstructed this history cautiously and argued that the Aryans were not the same as ancient Hindus. On the contrary, they had more in common with the ancient German race. He completely negates the previously held belief that Indian tradition could play a pivotal role in the regeneration of European society.

The second essay describes the formation of Benaras Sanskrit College in 1791 and gives an insight into its role in imparting education and also managing and controlling Indian epistemological systems. This was an endeavour to institutionalise the Hindu culture in order to understand it better. But soon there emerged schisms between the traditional (guru-shishya parampara) and the modern (public instruction) methods of pedagogy. Dalmia traces the gradual Anglicisation of this college when the British administrators introduced entrance exams and age restrictions and finally when Sanskrit was no longer helpful to the British in governing India the English language was introduced. Of the three essays this one is the most commendable for its clarity and rigorous research.

The third essay examines the ritual of sati that continually perplexed the British administration until William Bentinck finally banned it. Dalmia quotes statistics to prove that the practice of sati became more widespread during British rule. This was because “the lower castes effect upward mobility by emulating the customs of the higher castes.” Initially the British considered sati as sacrifice based on superstition and tried to curb it through the spread of western education. But the clash between western rationality and enlightenment and this ostensibly barbarous ritual based on superstition could not be successfully negotiated and William Bentinck supported by Raja Rammohan Roy finally made it a punishable offence by law.

Dalmia explores these disparate issues within the knowledge-power paradigm and it how it operates in the Third World. Even though the essays are based on the theoretical framework created by Said, yet surprisingly Dalmia does not acknowledge Said’s contribution in creating this paradigm and its immense importance in the field of culture criticism. The essays are not path breaking and do not offer any fresh ideas or insight. It is for this reason that while Edward Said has imitators, he has no successors.