Looking Back at the Festival of Festivals: Idea of India Part 8

Idea of India Part 8: India and The West

By Harish Alagappa, Official Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger


The Greek philosopher Aristotle is considered to be one of the pre-eminent minds of the ancient world. This is largely due to the reverence with which his works were treated by medieval Arab scholars, and later Renaissance European thinkers. The fact that this veneration has survived right up to the modern day is more than a bit surprising, given how many of his observations about the physical world were so staggeringly wrong. For starters, he propounded that the human brain was merely a heat sink, and the heart conducted all thinking processes. He also stated that flies have only 4 legs, an observation that could have been refuted relatively easily, and yet held sway for over a thousand years. Not satisfied with being simply inaccurate, Aristotle forged on to claim that women were inherently inferior to men, going so far as to describe women as “deformed males”.


 The famous meeting of Alexander the Great and Indian king Porus (Purushottam) at the Battle of the Hydaspes by Charles Le Brun


Aristotle also taught his most famous pupil, Alexander the Great, that beyond the Hindu Kush mountains, to the east of Persia, there was a tiny peninsula that jutted out into the great Earth-circling Ocean. This peninsula was called India, after its major river, the Indus, and the people who lived there were called Indians: a barbaric race of exotic brown-skinned people who believed in strange Gods, followed even stranger customs, and were in dire need of the Greek’s superior brand of civilization. Alexander the Great did eventually cross the Hindu Kush, only to be told that whilst it was true that India was a peninsula, it was also twice as large as his whole empire at that point.

Alexander’s campaign in India around 326 BCE was quite possibly the first meeting between the archaic West and East. The terms West and East refer to loose approximations of places, peoples, eras in time, and cultures, which share some similar values and are closely knit together through centuries of trading, diplomacy, warfare, and a common gene pool for many of their royal families. The West includes, but isn’t limited to, Europe — particularly Western Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand.

A lot of the West’s truths, notions, and misconceptions about India are vestiges of the ideas first fostered by Aristotle, and later added to by the experiences of Alexander and the Hellenistic Satraps he put in place in what is now Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. Even nearly two thousand years later, the arrival of the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and finally, British to India did little to erase the idea of India as a land of magic, snake-charmers, occult spiritual practices, and oriental excess.

Perhaps the root cause of this misunderstanding arose from the West’s view of India as a single political, social, and cultural entity. It was not until the nineteenth century that the diversity in languages, beliefs, and customs in India was finally communicated to the West. In a series of late nineteenth century lectures, later published as a book plainly titled India, the noted Civil Servant Sir John Strachey compared the linguistic and cultural differences within the sub-continent with those between the nations of Europe, stating: “Scotland is more like Spain than Bengal is like the Punjab”.

The next big change in the West’s idea of India came about after the Second World War, when, depending on the narrative, India either successfully won its Independence from Great Britain, or a militarily and financially crippled Great Britain withdrew from its colonies around the world. A nation ravaged by an avaricious and very efficient empire suddenly found itself divided into two nations. At the time, India and Pakistan were seen by the West as amongst the world’s poorest and weakest countries; a stereotype that was reinforced by the grainy black-and-white images of starving children and the aftermath of the partition genocide that graced the magazines and newspapers of New York, London, and Paris.

These labels survived and thrived, even though by the 1970s, India was exporting rather than importing its food. The new Republic’s attempts to avoid joining any global blocs during the Cold War, and Indira Gandhi’s flirtations with dictatorship and with the Soviet Union in the 1970s meant that to most Western observers, India remained a poor, starving, possibly commie third-world country, which occasionally produced an exceptional musician or cricket player.


Robert Clive meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, 1757. An apt depiction of how Europe viewed India at the moment when the British became the dominant power in the subcontinent


In the last decade or so however, a more open market, the communications revolution, and the fact that two hundred years of British rule left India with the highest number of English speakers in the world, means that the West’s idea of India has started to match the reality. People in the West have always been aware of India’s unique notions of spirituality, philosophy, and religion. However, they have also now started to discover India’s pop culture, business acumen, humour, thriving independent film and music scenes, and literature, from mass-market pulp to Booker Prize-winning classics.

Poverty still forms a large part of the twenty-first century western narrative about India, which it should since over 40% of India still lacks access to electricity, clean drinking water, and sanitation. However, it is tempered with stories of India’s emergence as a major world player, an economy that’s on the up, and a space agency that can get you to Mars for less than it costs Hollywood to make a movie about space. Software engineers have replaced snake charmers as the national stereotype.


Indian software engineers. The new stereotypical photo of India


After centuries of misunderstanding, fear, revulsion, curiosity, and pity, the West’s idea of India is finally catching up.


© Harish Alagappa

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