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Imagining India.

In the foreword to a recent book on the contribution of Orientalism to the discovery of ancient India, the late A. L. Basham paid the following tribute to British Orientalists:

India is greatly indebted to this small band of gifted amateurs who commenced the long and as yet incomplete process of revealing her great heritage. That they happened to be Britishers is perhaps merely an accident of history, but they are nonetheless worthy of praise and admiration of posterity of any and every race, for their great contributions to the enrichment of the human spirit.(1)

The Orientalists Basham refers to owe their origin to Warren Hastings, whom the British East India Company chose as their first governor-general in 1772. It was because of his own love of India, "its richness and variety, and above all the antiquity and splendor of its civilization,"(2) that he aimed to develop a British civil service elite in India who would undergo an acculturation process rather much like his own. Hastings saw a direct correlation between a linguistically competent and intellectually acculturated civil service and an efficient one. As Percival Spear pointed out, he sought "to understand Indian culture as a basis of sound Indian administration."(3)

Hastings immediately organized a coterie of company officials whom he personally inspired with a love for Asian languages and literature. He was especially interested in the younger men recently arrived in India. Among the earliest intimates of Hastings were Charles Wilkins, who came to Bengal in 1770, and Nathaniel Halhed and Jonathan Duncan, both of whom began their tour of duty in 1772. William Jones, who came to India as a famous scholar and served as a judge, did not arrive until a decade later, in 1784. In this way, Hastings gave birth to British Orientalism:

Increasingly, Britishers in South Asia acquired a curiosity about the whole range and substance of what has been called Indian civilization. By 1784, when Hastings founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal, his vision of an accultured service elite had been partially realized ...(4)

This brief introduction to British Orientalism is necessary because Ronald Inden's Imagining India, though purportedly a book on British Orientalism and India, contains nothing on the historical origins of the Orientalist movement in India, its growth, impact and the historical writings on its place in modern Indian history. Instead of scholarship, Inden chose to join the trendy school of politicized, Orientalist-bashing rhetoric. It should surprise no one that a chief source for Inden's intellectual mischief is Edward Said, who convinced many naive people in the late 1970s that Western conceptions of the East--even when reflected in impressive works of scholarship--were part of a huge conspiracy to deprive Asians of their cultural origins and innocence.(5) As a conformist, Inden has also turned to Antonio Gramsci for support.(6) In this context, Orientalists, for Inden, are best described as "hegemonic agents" who are "deployers of imperial knowledges".

For those who know the history of nineteenth-century Indo-British encounter, Inden's Orientalist is pure fiction, a product of an imagination shaped by social theory in defiance of historical accuracy. Inden's attempt to create a no-nonsense, deromanticized Orientalist type must be approached with a sense of humor. The only kind of relationship between a European and an Indian which Inden can appreciate is the one between an "Orientalist" representative of a Western power and the Asian "Other" whom he seeks to dominate. The "Orientalist" is a kind of establishment intellectual whose research is used to advance Western colonialism. Thus, the ideal type of "Orientalist" is a Milton Friedman or a Henry Kissinger, and the ideal institution promoting Orientalism is not the Royal Asiatic Society, as many had commonly believed, but the International Monetary Fund.

The humor in this stems from the fact that the historic Orientalists who have been known as such since the establishment of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784 are not really "Orientalists" because they lack the power and influence of the hegemonic agent. Then there is what Inden calls the "hegemonic text" which Inden's "Orientalist" writes and which is greatly influential in shaping public opinion. At one point, Inden acknowledges that William Jones, considered by some to be the "Father of British Orientalism," was among the greatest of British scholars to work on India and he even cites one or two of his noteworthy achievements. But Jones was not, according to Inden, an "Orientalist" because "his essays, well-written and rhetorically persuasive as many of them were, hardly constituted a hegemonic text". The true contemporary Orientalist was James Mill who did write a hegemonic text, The History of British India. Of course, historically speaking, it does not seem to trouble Inden that Mill was a member of the Anglicist faction in the East India Company who was violently anti-Orientalist in his interpretation of Hinduism and his view of the Hindu past. Inden never raises the question of a polarized response of the British to Indian civilization. Orientalists tended to be Hinduphiles whereas men like Mill tended toward Hinduphobia.(7)

The fact is that Inden has no interest in history or what actually happened to real people in the past known as Orientalists. It is some imaginary collection of false ideas about Hindu India which intrigues Inden and which he integrates under the concept of "Orientalist discourse." The chapters of Imagining India are indeed organized under the most flagrant of these false ideas which, not surprisingly, have been, according to Inden, deliberately conceived by the West to control the Other. There is a chapter on caste which, interestingly enough, dominated Inden's own scholarship for the greater part of his career until he renounced it along with his erroneous Orientalist outlook.(8) Other chapters include "Hinduism: the Mind of India," "Village India," and "Divine Kingship." Each of these topics is made up of a number of metaphors which Inden believes contrast the superior West with inferior India. For example, whereas Christianity in the West is seen as neat and unified, Hinduism is seen as a jungle "with the Brahman elite serving not as gardeners but forest officers". Another is the alleged tendency to depict Hindu thought as feminine or spiritual whereas Western thought is masculine, rational and scientific.

Again, because Inden ignored what happened in order to advance his dubious thesis about "Orientalist" discourse, he tends to overlook the fact that the true Orientalists never subscribed to these metaphors. The true British Orientalists produced a historical scholarship that was spectacular from any point of view and in comparison with any other period of achievement anywhere. Orientalists provided Hindus with a systematic view of their own pre-Muslim past organized with chronological precision for the first time. As I have written elsewhere:

Texts, heroes and institutions were no longer relegated to the oblivion of sacred timelessness, but were endowed with existence in the annals of recorded civilization. That the Vedas were the scriptures of the Aryans and the Upanishads preceded the Vedanta, were the inventions of the Orientalists. The facts that Buddha was once a human being as well as Sankara, that the Mauryas ruled a vast empire, and that classical civilization reached its peak under the Guptas, were also significant accomplishments of Orientalist scholarship. The task of integrating a vast collection of myths, beliefs, rituals and laws into a coherent religion and of shaping an amorphous heritage into a rational faith known as Hinduism were endeavors initiated by Orientalists.(9)

The reason for the enormous discrepancy between the historical record on British Orientalism and Inden's "Orientalist" discourse is, as intimated, that his observations are shaped not by facts but by social theory. There is no doubt in this reviewer's mind that Imagining India is less about Orientalism and India than it is a vehicle for Inden's philosophy of deconstructionism. Even Inden's prose style betrays his ahistoric methodology. His paragraphs often begin with pronunciamentos which are never backed up with supporting evidence. One is expected to believe that Inden has done his homework.

Inden's homework is really his understanding of social theory in the 1970s or earlier. The reader must be prepared for the startling fact that after attacking earlier generations of Westerners for their alleged biased and false knowledge of India, Inden turns for salvation to another set of Westerners who are expected to lead us from error to truth, even though this latter group of theorists has considerably less knowledge of Indian society or culture than the earlier Orientalists. There are I. A. Richards (1930s), Max Black (1960s) and Andrew Ortony (1970s), whose work on metaphors influenced Inden.(10) Brian Fay (1970s) provided ideas on the scientific method especially as applied to the social sciences.(11) Inden's references to nominalism and essentialism so crucial in his deconstructionism appear to be derived, in part, from Mark Hobart's work in the 1970s.(12) There are also Paul Hirst (1970s) on evolution theory, Anthony Giddens (1970s) on functionalism, Barry Hindess (1970s) on post-scientific materialism, Peter Winch (1950s) on empiricism and the Martin Hollis- and Steven Lukes-edited anthology (1980s) on rationality and relativism.(13) W. V. O. Quine in the 1960s and Nelson Goodman in the 1970s offered Inden insights on linguistics.(14) According to Inden, of paramount importance in his intellectual development was the work of R. G. Collingwood (The Idea of History, 1956) and Michel Foucault, the French post-structuralist of the 1970s.(15) Then, of course, there was Jacques Derrida who gave us deconstructionism, per se.(16)

With this impressive bibliography behind his study of British "Orientalism" and India, Inden concludes that the distortion in the "Orientalist" discourse is not simply a matter of colonialism but can be traced back to natural science claims to objectivity which dominated history and the social sciences and wrongfully eliminated the subjectivity and relativism of human agency in the study of all intellectual endeavors. This is the extent of Inden's theoretical contribution to "South Asian studies," which incidentally is an expression which seems to fill him with horror because it has "generally replaced 'Orientalism' nowadays".

By way of conclusion, the reader must also be aware of the contradiction between Inden's revolutionary purpose in deconstructing the Orientalist legacy and the identity of Professor Ronald Inden of the South Asian Center of the University of Chicago, who is a member of the establishment elite. It should be kept in mind that Inden acknowledges his debt to over twenty persons, most of whom have been or are currently chairmen of the very Asian studies programs Inden has attacked. Moreover, this reviewer believes that had Inden been a sincere deconstructionalist-revolutionary, he would have critiqued the living Orientalists who are among his friends and refrained from jousting with Vincent Smith, A. L. Basham, Louis Renou, and G. W. F. Hegel, who are all dead straw-men, unable to respond.

Finally, in this reviewer's judgment, the most cardinal sin in Inden's work is that of omission. Incredible as it may seem, this book on Orientalism in India has been written, reviewed by outside readers, and published, without benefit of a single source on Orientalism in India. To be more explicit, Inden has chosen to ignore primary archival resources on Orientalists and their institutions, contemporary articles in newspapers and journals on Orientalists, a number of key Orientalist biographies and the more historically oriented, well-researched monographs that focus on different aspects of Orientalist history. It is inconceivable that Imagining India could have been drafted without carefully noting the immense fund of relevant information found in O. P. Kejariwal's The Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Discovery of India's Past, 1784-1838 (Calcutta, 1988) and D. Kopf, British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance (Berkeley, 1969). Inden deserves the severest form of chastisement for what seems more and more a deliberate neglect of sources that show Orientalists in a favorable light. There is not a single reference to the work of Garland Cannon, who has spent a lifetime researching William Jones and who has recently published the definitive Life and Mind of Oriental Jones (Cambridge, 1990).

Even worse, perhaps, is the absence of critically important Orientalists in Inden's discourse such as James Prinsep. Here was a scholar in Company service whose Herculean work on the political and cultural history of India of the first millennium B.C., which incidentally cost him his life, led to the translation of the Brahmi script, the earliest disclosures which verified that Buddha was a human being and when he lived, the first historical references to the Maurya dynasty and the Emperor Asoka.(17) Ironically, Inden's present interest in medieval Indian polities--a bit of which he shares with readers of Imagining India as his "reconstruction" of Indian history--would have been impossible to undertake without the Maurya foundation provided for him and others by British Orientalist scholars such as James Prinsep.

1 A. L. Basham, "Foreword," in O. P. Kejariwal, The Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Discovery of India's Past, 1784-1838 (Calcutta: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), x.

2 D. Kopf, British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1969), 14-15.

3 Spear quoted in ibid., 17.

4 Ibid., 20.

5 E. W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

6 A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971).

7 For a discussion of this, see Kopf, "Macaulyism and the Decline and Fall of the Orientalist Movement," 215-53.

8 R. Inden, "Orientalist Constructions of India," Modern Asian Studies XX (1986): 401-46.

9 Kopf, "The Wonder That Was Orientalism: In Defense of H. H. Wilson's Defense of Hinduism," Bengal Vaisnavism, Orientalism, Society and the Arts, ed. J. T. O'Connell (East Lansing: Asian Studies Center, Michigan State University, 1985), 75.

10 I. A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1936); M. Black, Models and Metaphors (Ithaca, New York: Cornell Univ. Press, 1962); A. Ortony, ed., Metaphor and Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979).

11 B. Fay, Social Theory and Political Practice (London: Allen and Unwin, 1975).

12 M. Hobart, "The Art of Measuring Mirages, or is there Kinship in Bali?" in Cognition and Social Organization in Southeast Asia, ed. F. Huesken, J. Kemp (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1984).

13 Inden seems heavily indebted to Hirst since there are six references to him in the book. An important source by Hirst, for Inden, is "The Uniqueness of the West--Perry Anderson's Analysis of Absolutism and its Problems," in his Marxism and Historical Writings (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), 91-125. Giddens is also important, for Inden utilizes six of his works that support Inden's pontifical utterances in six places. There are five references to Hindess, whose Philosophy and Methodology in the Social Sciences (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1977) seems to have been an important work in the field. As for Winch, Inden makes use of The Idea of Social Science (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958). Hollis and Lukes collaborated on Rationality and Relativism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982).

14 W. V. O. Quine, Word and Object (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1964); N. Goodman, Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1976).

15 One book influencing Inden is M. Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Harper and Row, 1976).

16 Inden acknowledges his debt to Derrida on page 21 but does not mention a source.

17 For a discussion of this, see Kopf, "European Enlightenment, Hindu Renaissance and the Enrichment of the Human Spirit: A History of Historical Writings on British Orientalism," in Orientalism, Evangelicalism and the Military Cantonment in Early Nineteenth-Century India, ed. N. G. Cassels (Queenstown, Ontario: Edwin Mellon Press, 1991), 50-51.
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Author:Kopf, David
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
Words:2594
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