I picked up Charles Allen’s The Buddha and the Sahebs at the Eluru Library in Boag Road, Thyagaraya Nagar. It opened up a facet of Indian history that I was almost totally unaware of until then – the European contributions to the rediscovery of India’s past and its enormous role in shaping India’s present and future.
It was as shocking and eye-opening as The Lexus and the OliveTree which made me understand how unaware I was of current affairs, or Sivakamiyin Sabatham, which made me aware of my ignorance of Indian history and Tamil culture. The history I learnt in school, PS Senior Secondary school in Mylapore, was basically half about some aspects of India’s past, and half about British colonialism and India’s independence movement.
A common complaint among Indians nowadays, especially those who take up learning about Indian history in their twenties or later, not from academia but from reading books, tweets, blogs and attending lectures, is that there is too much stress on Guptas and Mughals and almost complete neglect of every other aspect of Indian history. Tamils feel the pang that Cholas and Pandyas are left out, Kannadigas about Hoysalas and Chalukyas, Telugus about Kakatiyas and Satavahanas and so on. Another complaint is that Leftists took over academia, obliterating the noble and glorious accomplishments of not just these dynasties but of poets, scientists, artists, philosophers of that period. While there is some truth to such allegations and angst, reading this made me aware of how widely, deeply, passionately and dispassionately, European scholars, primarily English, and some Indian collaborators had researched vast swathes of India’s buried past; and how much Indians owe an enormous debt to such scholarship. Allen and the geniuses in his book –William Jones, James Prinsep, Alexander Cunningham and others – almost turned me into an Anglophile.
Allen’s book is perhaps the most perfect and scholarly riposte that I have read, to Edward Said’s critique of colonial scholarship – “Orientalism”.
I found Said’s book practically unreadable; Allen’s book is unputdownable.
I later discovered that Allen followed in the footsteps of John Keay, several of whose books I have also enjoyed reading. I think that Indian academics have tossed out the baby of Orientalist scholarship along with the bathwater of European colonial exploitation, at least as far as school textbooks are concerned.
I read this book around 2009 or 2010 I think. I had read some other history books on India before this – Nilakanta Sastri’s History of South India, Abraham Eraly’s Gem in the Lotus (where I first read about Ajivakas), AL Basham’s The Wonder that was India, Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India, al Beruni’s Indica, Travels of ibn Batuta; and several others I don’t remember.
The Buddha and the Sahebs starts with the discovery, in the late eighteenth century, of several isolated pillars in some major cities lke Delhi and Prayagraj (Allahabad); and remote places like Vaishali, Lauriya Nandangarh and Sanchi in India. Some of them, like that in Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi and the Allahabad pillar, had inscriptions, not only in Persian in the Arabic script but also others in an archaic Nagari script and a then unknown script which no living Indian could read or recognize. Curious and adventurous Englishmen kept stumbling upon mounds, temples, buried and destroyed monuments, broken idols, abandoned cities, coins, and all kinds of objects, whose existence was a surprise and whose history was a closed book to the most learned Indians of that time. The bureaucrats and scholars brought over from England by the East India Company, to help the businessmen make money, collect taxes and administer society, found endless wonders wherever they looked – if they looked. The formal establishment of a society to study Indian history, geography, culture, literature, law, economy, music, science, medicine, religion etc organized the information they collected across the length and breadth of the land. The very act of organizing, discussing and theorizing produced a wealth of information that astounded eager audiences in Europe, who only had vague notions of what India was from Arabian tales, ancient Greek and Roman travelogues, and the chaotic, disjointed, and sometimes fanciful accounts of sailors and merchants.
The company’s adventurers not only explored India, but also all its surrounding territories – Nepal, Tibet, Burma, Ceylon. The recent field of archaeology was yielding rich treasures in Europe itself, about ancient Rome and Greece; and newly conquered old civilizations like Egypt and Mesopotamia. Some of the Indian pundits who were first skeptical and cautious about the English sahebs, later recognized that some of them were truly curious and eager scholars, and began to both help them and learn all the new fields of knowledge that the European Enlightenment, Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution had to offer.
Allen explains the travels, discoveries, missteps, surprises, of these Orientalists, who published them under the auspices of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. The tales are as riveting as are their adventures. Their ignorance was sweeping in its scale; what amazed me was how much Indians too were ignorant of their own past, and substituted myth and legend and hearsay for actual history, with no sense of the scale of the eras or the volume and dimension of the events of their past. All of this is presented in school text books in bland and dull prose, as though Indians always knew all this history.
I had a chance to present this exciting story of the rediscovery of India’s past a few times; once at the Indianoil, Patna branch, thanks to a friend, Ganesh, who helped me travel and enjoy several places in Bihar. A second time for INTACH, at the New College in Royapettah, Chennai. And afterwards for THT and Ethiraj college.
The first reading of The Buddha and the Sahebs effected a substantial transformation in my understanding of history. And of the political social and cultural motives that inspired people and institutions to ignore and obfuscate it.
Literature essays in my blog
History essays in my blog