Modern India: The Origins of an Asian Democracy

By Judith M. Brown | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I

The Indian Subcontinent: Land, People, and Power

The Indian subcontinent has long exerted a fascination over people from other lands. Writers in the classical Mediterranean world as early as Horace and Herodotus commented on its supposed wealth and wonders--its gold, precious stones, and ivory, and its allegedly fabulous beasts such as eels 300 feet long, dogs capable of combat with lions, and one-horned horses. But then, as now, what people of different races and cultures knew or thought they knew of each other often took the form of a stereotype: a single image or stylized picture drawn from myth, fancy, and scanty knowledge, rather than true familiarity and accurate observation. This is not surprising, since India is 7,000 miles distant from western Europe and the journey had to be made by land or sea until the coming of commercial air travel in the mid twentieth century. Before steam replaced sail in the last century at sea and substituted railways for horses as the fastest mode of overland travel, visitors to India from Europe could spend at least three months on the way, facing considerable hazards from climate and disease. Moreover, those who made the perilous journey east were not trained observers of society and government; but diplomats, traders, and sailors, interested in profit and survival rather than in accurate reporting of the land and its people.

The image of India in European eyes has changed markedly over the centuries. Whereas it was once seen as a land of marvels, by the nineteenth century European Christians, scandalized by stories of customs such as child marriage and widow-burning, viewed its people as benighted heathen, fit subjects for conversion, good government and reforming education. But as western scholars began to learn Sanskrit, so the wealth of India's religious literature in that sacred language became apparent to them, and gradually India came to be seen not just as a 'white man's burden' but as the source of ancient wisdom and enlightenment on which Europeans and Americans, locked in the profit-making materialism of industrial society, could meditate and from which they could draw fresh inspiration. Later still, in the twentieth century, the image of a 'spiritual India' was reinforced by those westerners who were captivated by the preaching of non-violence by M. K. Gandhi during the nationalist movement; and by those dis-

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