History Optional Paper-2 Solution – 2011: Q.2 (b)

Q.2 (b) Orientalism produced a knowledge of the past to service the needs of the Colonial States.” Elucidate.


British Orientalism in India was the 18th century administrative policy of the East India Company favouring the preservation of Indian languages, laws and customs.

The period of Orientalism can be said to begin from 1773 with Warren Hastings being appointed the Governor General of the East India Company and extends upto 1832, when the East India Company government made English education compulsory in India and brought the Orientalist phase to a close.

The fundamental principle of this tradition was that the conquered people were to be ruled by their own laws. It therefore needed to produce knowledge about Indian society, a process which is often called “reverse acculturation”, whereby the dominant society (i.e the British) acculturated themselves to the colonized society (i.e Indian society).

Orientalism was not knowledge of the Orient produced by Englishmen sympathetic to the cultures of the East but it was knowledge meant to serve the need of the colonial state because of the following reasons:

(1) Efficiency of administration

Warren Hastings, who found himself in charge of a corrupt and degenerate government, saw the Indianization of the civil servants as a means to improve the administration of the newly acquired territories. Thus, for Hastings the quickest way to increase the efficiency and honesty of the civil servant was to develop in them a love and affection for India, to love India one must communicate with her people and to communicate with her people it was necessary to learn her languages and her culture and history.

It was with this political aim that Fort William college at Calcutta was established in 1800 to train civil servants in Indian languages and tradition.

(2) To placate Indian sentiments

Further, there was fear amongst the East India Company officials in the late 18th century that the Indians might reject British rule as being alien and thus ventured to study Indian culture and history to placate such sentiments.

(3) Moral justification of colonialism

William Jones established linguistics between Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, all supposedly belonging to the same Indo-European family of lanuagaes. This along with Max Muller’s Aryan Migration Theory gave the idea of kinship between the British and the Indians dating back to the classical period. It was said that once golden Indian civilization got degenerated and British, with superior civilization, is morally bound to advance Indian culture due to blood relation. This was used as moral justification of colonialism through rhetoric of kinship love.

(4) Racial Theory

Max Mueller synthesized this philological discovery into the Aryan Migration theory, whereby the Aryans migrated to India from Central Asia and subjugated the natives. This racial theory provided a pseudo scientific basis for racism in the late 19th century. In this view, Indians were seen as inherently backward and inferior compared to the superior Western civilization, while at the same time it created an inclusive space whereby Indians and Europeans were related by blood. Both facts were used to justify colonialism.

While in most of the cases, Orientalism was of an attempt to legitimize colonization, there were few exceptions:

(1) H.T. Colebrooke, an Orientalist, pushed for the establishment of a museum on the premises of the Asiatic Society to preserve and display the vestiges of India’s past while also criticizing the practice of Sati as having no validation in the shastras, calling for its abolition thus, demanding a change in ancient traditions.

(2) The special enthusiasm of the Germans (such as Max Mueller) in studying the Orient was not to serve imperialism as Germany was not involved in any imperial projects in India.

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