The Lost Access to the Hindu Societal Past

Unlike Muslim regimes, the British consciously destroyed traditional Hindu institutions as a result of which today's Hindu society has lost access to its own societal past.
The Lost Access to the Hindu Societal Past

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The Lost Access to the Hindu Societal Past

THE CLEAREST DIFFERENTIATOR that marks an India before the advent of the British is found in the realm of social engineering. For the preceding six hundred years, successive alien Muslim regimes had not mucked around with the traditional and social institutions of Hindus. Muslim invaders who had come from abroad had permanently settled in India after establishing empires.

However, from the start, the British knew that their stay in India would be temporary. The copious archives they have left behind show that they were aware that they would have to eventually pack their bags and leave. The British hated everything about this country – its climate, its people, their culture and society. The oppression of the Hindu society by Muslim kings was extremely crude, violent, and evoked instant outrage. But the British oppression was more deliberate and long-term. It was imbued with a single goal: to extort the maximum amount of wealth with maximum efficiency and speed. Guns and swords would only take them so far.

And so, by mid 19th century, they initiated a generational project of social engineering. Among its chief outcomes was introducing a new education system, an alien legal framework, and dismantling traditional Hindu institutions and replacing them with British models. For example, the university system and the elaborate court hierarchies that we’re all familiar with now did not exist before the British disruption of India.  

The overall scenario looked like this: by the second half of the 19th century, India was becoming transformed in an unprecedented fashion, and this transformation had an irreversible quality to it. Nowhere was this transformation more pronounced than in education beginning with the infamous Macaulay Minute which aimed to create a class of Indians who would think like the British and blindly imitate them in all respects. But apart from education, the British also inflicted colossal damage on our traditional institutions of say, charity, community-based economics, guilds, and so on. 

All these changes naturally left a deep and lasting impact on Indians as a people and India as a civilization.

And so, to fully grasp the challenge of decolonization, we also need to understand the psychological impact of the kind of government that the British gave us. Its fundamental aim was heartless economic exploitation, and all structures that they erected were solely meant to serve this exploitation. Thus, education was transformed into a device of serving this extortionate government aided by a well-oiled and subservient bureaucracy manned by a class of people slightly better than automatons. The Sanatana conception and practice of education as an ideal and value lost its philosophical primacy. Laws were concocted overnight to circumvent inconvenient systems that were in place.

By the third quarter of the 19th century, a new India had emerged:  for the first time in our long history, we had two countries within the same country – England as represented by its colonial government and the “original” India still untainted by the British infection. This naturally birthed two societies within the same society – the new, English-educated Indian elite and the original Indians who were anchored to their roots. At no point in our history did this situation exist.

Until the British began vandalizing our social institutions, a king, a chieftain or a rich Zamindar would only tell a poor man, “you can’t build a bigger house than mine.” He never said, “you can’t eat more than me.”

In other words, despite differences in economic status, religious beliefs, etc., there was an internal harmony between the ruling class and the plebians in India. This is also why we never find a single mass revolution in the entire history of India unlike in Europe.

So, how was this harmony achieved? Here are two quotes that supply the answer to this question. The first is by Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri, a towering scholar of history.

“In the history of the world, it is only Hinduism that gave not only to India but also to all her neighbours an organic conception of society based upon economic as well as spiritual needs. It is the very antithesis of ‘the principle of accumulation based on inequality’ which is a vital part of the Western order of society. It recognized frankly the hard fact that perfect equality in all spheres is impossible of attainment. Therefore, it attempted to mitigate the evil consequences of great disparity by aiming at only the essentials. It reconciled the antagonism between rights and obligations, so that the individual by asserting his ‘inherent’ right might not break up social solidarity, nor could society impose such obligations as to cripple the spirit of individualism. Liberty and law were synthesized to achieve spiritual freedom.”

The second quote is by another luminary, D.V. Gundappa, deeply familiar to the readers of The Dharma Dispatch. He delineates perhaps the clearest contrast between our traditional forms of government and the British system of parliamentary democracy:

“There has always been present in the body politic of England an element distrustful of authority and critical of its ways… we in this country never had, as the British had, a conflict between the king and his barons or bishops, and never a split in the citizen-body as royalist and roundhead, Tory and Whig, Conservative and Liberal. There was no occasion for our ancestors to develop such a bifurcation of the public life… Our party life of today is an artificial creation…”

Both D.V. Gundappa and Dr. Srikanta Sastri wrote their treatises in the 1950s. And when DVG declares that “our party life of today is an artificial creation,” he clearly points to the political impact of colonization even after India had attained independence. In other words, this time-honoured harmony that had existed for millennia had been almost irreversibly shattered by British colonization.

To be continued

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