Those of us born in India grew up believing that Indian history taught in schools was beyond reproach. When we moved to the West and started to examine our understanding of Indian history critically, doubts began to emerge.
We discovered that it was a product of the British colonial project, which in turn was colored by the misunderstandings and imaginations of the contemporary European mind. Today, what is referred to as India’s history is the work of various foreign actors comprising the likes of the Orientalists, the missionaries, the colonial administrators, and various cogs of the colonial government, such as the census bureau.
Driven by their shared objective to further the interest of the colonial occupation of India, the foreign actors began building a narrative that would portray India and the Indians as primitive people in need of being civilized by superior European ideas and culture. As a result, the following concepts about India had gained wide currency by the end of the nineteenth century:
- A racial theory declared that India’s civilization was produced by a clash and subsequent mixture of the light-skinned Aryan invaders and the dark-skinned barbarian aborigines identified as Dravidians.
- The “Caste system” ranked the local inhabitants on a civilizational ladder in line with the racial theories.
In spite of their origins in the colonial past, these theories continue to dominate the discourse about Indian society even today and continue to hold sway on Indian society, politics, day-to-day discourse, and the national psyche.
This three-part series of articles will attempt to explain the evolution of these ideas that grew to define the Indians and their history.
European Enterprise of Global Conquest – How it all Began
Fifteenth-century Europe was a Catholic domain where the production and dissemination of knowledge were strictly controlled by the papacy, with the pope acting as the supreme religious leader and the arbiter between the royal households of his realm. The religious texts, as interpreted by the Church, maintained that the world was created in the year 4004 BCE and that it was populated by the descendants of Noah’s three sons – Japhet, Shem, and Ham, who had survived the flood in the year 2349 BCE with God’s mercy(1). This worldview was accepted by people as the true and complete history of humankind; therefore, they had little incentive to learn about or understand people of other lands and cultures. Asia was already globalized at the time due to the flourishing trade with the outside world, particularly with the Middle East and Europe. China and the Middle East used the Silk Route to carry goods to Europe, and a flourishing maritime trade existed from India and other Asian countries through Arab lands. Merchants of Venice handsomely profited from this trade.
In the year 1453, the city of Constantinople fell to the Turks, ending the Byzantine Empire and disrupting the trade between Asia and Europe as the trade routes fell under the control of the Turks. The disruption resulted in a scarcity of popular Asian goods such as silk, cotton textiles, and spices, which were in high demand in Europe. Spices were an essential commodity needed to preserve meat during the European winters, as the scarcity of fodder during the winter months resulted in the loss of much livestock. Therefore, Europe needed an alternate route to Asia, bypassing the Turk-held territories.
Papal Edicts Divided up the World between Portugal and Spain
Having invested heavily in sea navigation technology, the Portuguese began to explore sea routes to Asia. However, their maritime technology was not sophisticated enough to enable them to travel in open seas around the Horn of Africa in order to reach India and the rest of Asia. However, by this time, it was generally known that the world was a sphere. This knowledge inspired the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus to propose to the Portuguese king to sponsor his venture to travel westward to reach India. However, the court geographers, believing that Columbus had underestimated the earth’s diameter, recommended against the proposal.
Undeterred, Columbus approached Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who, in turn, agreed to finance the venture. His famous westward voyage in 1492 led to the so-called “discovery” of the Americas and its immense natural resources – particularly gold and silver – bringing fabulous riches to Spain. Spain’s claim of sovereignty over the newly discovered lands was duly legitimized by Pope Alexander VI, who issued the papal bull (edict), Inter Caetera, in 1492, followed by another papal bull, Doctrine of Discovery. The Inter Caetera stated, in part:
Among other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty and cherished of our heart, this assuredly ranks highest, that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself. …[W]e … assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, … all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south, by drawing and establishing a line from … the north, …to …the south, … the said line to be distant one hundred leagues towards the west and south from any of the islands commonly known as the Azores and Cape Verde.
This claim was contested by Portugal, and the pope issued his next bull, namely the Doctrine of Discovery, which asserted that “any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be ‘discovered,’ claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers.” It further declared: “The Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself (2).
Among other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty and cherished of our heart, this assuredly ranks highest, that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself…
The papal bulls were followed by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1493, which assigned the lands east of the specified meridian in Inter Caetera to the Portuguese kings and their descendants to conquer and rule. Consequently, as far as the European world was concerned, the papal bull and the treaty legitimized the European conquest of foreign lands and the people and their subsequent colonization (3).
The papal bulls and the treaty specifically authorized Spain and Portugal to conquer the lands and rule over the people who did not practice Christianity and bring them into the Christian fold by force, if necessary. Upon the completion of Vasco da Gama’s voyage to Calicut on the southwest coast of India in 1498, the King of Portugal, Manuel I, laid claim to sovereignty over Africa, Asia, and the Indian Ocean. The naval adventures of Spain and Portugal over the next several years brought them great wealth from plunder, trade, and piracy on the high seas. The global order they created, known as the Spanish-Portuguese imperial order, lasted for about one hundred years.
Other European Powers Join in the Loot
The Protestant Reformation in 1517, led by Martin Luther, brought wars to Europe for many years. The royal houses were divided into different Christian denominations. The privilege that Spain and Portugal had enjoyed under the papal bulls was now being challenged by other European powers, which no longer accepted the papal edicts as the “word of God.” In particular, Britain and France had little patience to sit on the sidelines and watch Spain and Portugal accumulate incredible amounts of wealth and power. By the end of the sixteenth century, Britain and France joined the Pan-European project of conquest in what was euphemistically framed as “trade”. Other European powers soon joined in the ’trade’ in due course. They also began to gather huge amounts of wealth from these endeavors, leading to their financial, technical, and military superiority over the rest of the world. During this time, the Europeans began kidnapping and selling Africans into slavery in the Americas. With this newly gained wealth and power, the Europeans developed and maintained a new global order, namely the British-French imperial order, which lasted until the end of the Second World War. Under this global order, a few select countries of Europe successfully claimed the moral and legal right to colonize the non-European lands, exploit their resources, and govern over their people in the name of spreading the Christian gospel and, later, “civilizing the natives.” The consequence was the untold devastation brought on many indigenous cultures and the creation of a false narrative of human history.
Christian Theology and the New World Order
Interestingly, this new world order evolved out of a false belief rooted in Christian theology, namely that the Christian Bible was the literal history of humankind. This history held that the world was created in 4004 BCE and was subsequently populated by the descendants of Noah’s three sons, who had survived the Great Flood (4). Specifically, two biblical episodes formed the basis of the presumed legitimacy of the European conquests.
The first episode narrates that Noah, having drunk the wine from the vineyard he had planted after the Great Flood, got drunk and fell asleep naked. Upon seeing Noah drunk, his son Ham disrespected him, whereas his two brothers respectfully covered him and laid him in his bed. When Noah woke up and learned what had happened, he cast a curse on Ham, declaring that he and his descendants would be bound to be the servants of his two brothers and their descendants. (Genesis 9.25). The episode is commonly known as the Curse of Canaan.
The second biblical episode of interest is the story of the Tower of Babel. Many generations after the flood, the descendants of Noah took up a project to build a tower that would rise high up toward the sky. God viewed this as an attempt by humans to build a stairway to heaven and promptly derailed the project. He confused their minds by making them speak different languages and dispersed them across the world as different ethnic groups (Genesis 11.7-9).
The story of the Tower of Babel formed the understanding of linguistics in Europe at the time. The people who spoke the same or similar languages were believed to belong to a common ethnicity.
The above two Bible stories became the basis for European understanding of the non-European world. It led to the fabrication of false narratives of the conquered people that will be discussed in the next two parts.
- Part 2 – Conquest, Confusion, and Invention of Aryan Invasion Theory
- Part 3 – Social Darwinism and Manufacture of Caste System
- Trautmann, Thomas (1997), Aryans and British India, University of California Press, Chapter-2.
- The Glider Lehrman Institute of American History: History Resources, The Doctrine of Discovery, 1493, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/spotlight-primary-source/doctrine-discovery-1493, accessed on 2/16/2022
- Digital Encyclopedias of European History, The Treaty of Tordesillas, June 7, 1494, https://ehne.fr/en/encyclopedia/themes/treaty-tordesillas-june-7-1494, accessed on 2/16/2022
- Trautmann, Thomas (2006), Languages and Nations, University of California Press, Chapter 1.
- Trautmann, Thomas (1997), Aryans and British India, pp 31.
- Trautmann, Thomas (1997), Aryans and British India, pp 58
- Trautmann, Thomas (1997)., Aryans and British India, pp 172.
- Bannister, R.C(1989), Social Darwinism and Myth of Anglo-American Thought, Temple University Press
- Dirks, Nicholas B (2001), Castes of Mind: Colonialism and Making of Modern India, Princeton University Press
- Trautmann, Thomas., Aryans and British India, Chapter 6
- Dirks, Nicholas B (2001), Castes of Mind: Colonialism and Making of Modern India, Princeton University Press, Chapter 9.