Author: Mangesh Nadkarni
Published in India’s Spiritual Destiny: Its Inevitability and Potentiality, 2006. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Society. Chapter 2, pp. 24-44.
There are many different kinds of negations of the Indian civilisation of which we will look briefly at some of the most important below:
1. The first of them is that India had no science, no tradition of rational discourse until it became the disciple of the West. From Macaulay to such reputed modern thinkers like Thomas Kuhn, the author of the well-known book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the Western attitude about science in India is matched in its ignorance only by its arrogance. Macaulay had declared in his famous Minute of 1835 that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. Thomas Kuhn has declared that only the civilisations that descended from Hellenic Greece have possessed more than the most rudimentary science3. This is a travesty of known and proven facts.
At the moment any number of books and papers are available showing that India originated much of the world’s mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, linguistics and technology until about 700 ad. Historical research has shown as an indisputable truth that India’s contribution to global science is invaluable in such diverse fields as civil engineering, metal techniques, textiles, shipping and ship building, water harvesting systems, forest management, traditional medicine, Mathematics, Logic and Linguistics. It is a modern myth that Indians did not make exact measurements. This has been repeated so often that we have come to believe in it. In the field of astronomy, it was the Frenchman Roger Billard who showed that this belief was totally wrong. We were excellent experimentalists in medicine, chemistry, metallurgy, agriculture and so on. Before the Enlightenment that took place in Europe in the 17th century, we were still ahead in many intellectual fields.
I would like to cite here just two examples from Subhash Kak’s work. One example comes from the Vedic period. One problem the Vedic Indians considered was that of the synchronisation of the lunar and solar years; the lunar year is about 11 days shorter than the solar year and if we add a number of days every few years to make up for the discrepancy, we find that we cannot do it elegantly unless we have a correction cycle of 95 years or its multiples. This 95-year cycle is described in the earliest Vedic text books. Modern science is undoubtedly a contribution of the West. But there was a time when Indian science was famous all over the world. If India had maintained that progress after the 6th century ad we would have been the foremost in the scientific field today. Most Western scholars are ignoring all this work.
The second example comes from circa 1300 CE. Sayana, who was the prime minister in the court of the Vijaynagar Emperor Bukka I, calculated the speed of light to be 2200 yojanas in half a nimisha, which does come to 186,536 miles per second.
2. The second reason for which Indian civilisation is held so low in esteem is its poverty. It is true that by the time the British left the country after bleeding it white for over two centuries and after ruining our trade and industry, the name of India had become synonymous with poverty, hunger, disease, somewhat akin to Somalia in the 1980’s and Ethiopia in the 1990’s. This was the effect of deliberate British policies. India was impoverished first by plunder and tyranny and then by unfair trade practices and later by economic exploitation. A British journalist recently writing in The Guardian has put this in these words: “We are rich because the Indians are poor. … For centuries we have permitted ourselves to ignore the extent to which our welfare is dependent on the denial of other people’s.”4
But it is not known to many of us that in spite of more than six centuries of ruthless plunder by the Islamic invaders, India in the 16th century was still a paradise for most European countries, something like what modern America is to most Indians today. By every account of European visitors, India was extremely wealthy until the mid 1800’s. Samuel Huntington of Harvard University writes that in 1750, India had 25 per cent of the world’s manufacturing output while Europe and America combined had less than 18 per cent. But by 1900, after a hundred years of British rule, India’s manufacturing output had collapsed to less than 2 per cent whereas America and the West combined had 84 per cent of the world’s share. He writes: “The Industrial revolution of the West was done at the expense of de-industrialisation of the colonies.” In a recent issue of the Guardian, George Monbiot, a British journalist, has corroborated this strongly in these words:
Britain’s industrialisation was secured by destroying the manufacturing capacity of India. In 1699, the British government banned the import of woollen cloth from Ireland, and in 1700 the import of cotton cloth (or calico) from India. Both products were forbidden because they were superior to our own. As the industrial revolution was built on the textile industry, we could not have achieved our global economic dominance if we had let them in. Throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries, India was forced to supply raw materials to Britain’s manufacturers but forbidden to produce competing finished products.5
“The material wealth of India and its industries were legendary for millennia, and were the very reason for the obsessions of the Europeans, Arabs and Persians to go to India—they were not desperate to go there to save their souls.”6
3. Another injustice that has been done to India is that all the blame for India’s social, ecological and human conditions of today has been put on its principal religion and civilisation and not where it really belongs, namely to the history of political and cultural oppression and economic exploitation by alien powers.
First through the theory Aryan invasion, which is a fiction still being taught in our schools, seeds of division were sown between the so-called north Indian Aryans and the south Indian Dravidians. Similar seeds of mutual suspicion were sown between Hindus and Muslims, between the forward classes and backward classes, between Brahmins and non-Brahmins and between leading communities and castes in every State.
Wherever human societies exist exploitation of the weak and the disabled always takes place and this has happened and is still happening in India and elsewhere in the world. But in our country we put all the blame for the economic woes of our backward classes and communities on the upper classes. Agreed that these upper classes in India were rapacious but not any more rapacious than upper classes elsewhere in the world. Indian society need not remain permanently scarred and divided by this. The fact is that even here it is to our history, more particularly to the British rule that we owe much of the economic backwardness of our lower castes.
It is well-known that during the 19th century the British fostered the growth of British trade and commerce at the cost of India. First they ruined Indian industry by making certain kinds of industries illegal and by imposing heavy taxes on Indian exports. It is all a very dismal story. When the manufacturing towns and centres were laid waste, their populations were driven to overcrowd the villages. “The millions of ruined artisans and craftsmen, spinners, weavers, potters, tanners, smelters, smiths, alike from the towns and from villages had no alternative save to crowd into agriculture.”7 Families which were at one time affluent were driven out to desert towns and had to take to agriculture. What was an industrial-cum-agricultural economy became a purely agricultural economy. The exploitation by the British rule and not the upper class of Brahmins or the Zamindars is primarily responsible for the economic woes of our country, including the economically depressed castes and classes. But the political game of blaming the upper castes and dividing the Indian society is going on even today. It must also be remembered that the living conditions for this new poor class were so bad that more than 30 million people (more than 10 percent of the total population of India) died of starvation in the first 82 years of British rule and during this period the export of wheat and rice from India to Great Britain increased by about 25 times!
4. There is another aspect of this negation of Indian culture, and that is to declare India’s spirituality as pessimistic and world-negating. It is a misrepresentation to say that Indian culture denies all value to life, detaches from terrestrial interests and insists on the unimportance of the life of the moment. Most European commentators seem to think that in all Indian thought there was nothing but the nihilistic school of Buddhism and the monistic illusionism of Shankara. It is patently absurd to see in all Indian art, literature and social thinking nothing but the statement of their recoil from the falsehood and vanity of things.
Besides, as Sri Aurobindo has pointed out:
India has not only had the long roll of her great saints, sages, thinkers, religious founders, poets, creators, scientists, scholars, legists; she has had her great rulers, administrators, soldiers, conquerors, heroes, men with the strong active will, the mind that plans and the seeing force that builds. She has warred and ruled, traded and colonised and spread her civilisation, built polities and organised communities and societies, done all that makes the outward activity of great peoples.8
Once we clear our minds of misinformation about our past and remove the cobwebs of the negative stereotypes about ourselves, we will be able to see clearly what our civilisational strengths have been and what weaknesses brought us low. Mere enthusiasm for building a Bharat that is mahaan is not sufficient; we must know what made India great in the past and then find ways which will enable it to realise its full potential, and become the dynamo of spirituality it is intended to be. This does not mean that we must revive our past. Sri Aurobindo was clear on this point. “The spirit and ideals of India had come to be confined in a mould which, however beautiful, was too narrow and slender lo bear the mighty burden of our future. When that happens, the mould has to be broken and even the ideal lost for a while, in order to be recovered free of constraint and limitation.”9
- Francis Fukuyama: “The End of History?’ The National Interest 16 (Summer 1989).
- APJ Abdul Kalam, Ignited Minds: Unleashing the Power within India, Penguin Books India (P) Ltd., New Delhi, India, 2002.
- Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 166-67, The University of Chicago Press.
- Reported in The Times of India, Hyderabad, 22 October 2003.
- Reported in The Times of India, Hyderabad, 22 October 2003.
- This quotation is taken from one of Rajiv Malhotra’s many postings on the Website Indie Traditions E-group. He has done yeoman service by rallying scholars settled in the U.S. to fight the attempt of the West to negate the image of Indian civilisation. Another source to which I am greatly indebted for some of the materials and insights contained in this paper is Prof. Subhash Kak some of whose writings are posted on Sulekha and other websites.
- See Dr. V. V. Bedekar, V. Y. Sardesai: ‘How the British Ruined India’.
- Sri Aurobindo: A Defence of Indian Culture, 185-86.
- Sri Aurobindo: Karmayogin (SABCL Vol. 2), p. 212.
To be concluded…