In his essay Young India, Ananda Coomaraswamy served a “reminder”: “The future of India depends as much upon what is asked of her as upon what she is.” The future contours of a civilisation can and is largely derived and delineated from the civilisational maps of the past. In order to figure out what we shall be or how we aspire to be perceived, it is essential to revive, in collective memory, the perceptions of what we were as a civilisation. All efforts at civilisational re-assertions are followed with an intense quest for re-examining past perceptions of the national self—primarily cultural and ideational, the material being the manifestations of these two dimensions.
When PM Narendra Modi told his American interlocutor that India wishes to be India and that once upon a time, not very long ago, in civilisational terms, India was the “golden sparrow”, it was essentially an expression of this national quest—recovery of a dynamic memory of the past civilisational self—that has just begun. It is thus helpful to look back, in intervals, at past perceptions of our national self and nature, perceptions which were made, not with hyperbolic intensity but with the genuine fascination for the higher civilisational echelons achieved by a people. Such périodique exercises at retrospection usually serve to strengthen and supplement efforts at creating a future framework and a renewed perception of the national self.
While the negative and conjured descriptions of India and Indians made by those who had never visited the continent gained credence, positive descriptions of the same region and people made by observers who had widely traversed the land were deliberately marginalised. It is interesting to look at some of these.
When his ship anchored at Fort St. George sometime in 1780, at a time when the colonial system had not yet completely disrupted the Indian social and governance systems, British painter William Hodges was struck by the nature of the “Hindoos”, whose manners he found “mild, tranquil, and sedulously attentive”. “In this last respect”, observed Hodges, the “Hindoos” were, “indeed remarkable, as they never interrupt any person who is speaking, but wait patiently till he has concluded, and then answer with most perfect respect and composure.” In his travels across the land, Hodges met a most hospitable people, who were “constantly attentive to accommodate the traveller in his wants”. The period from 1770s onwards saw some of the worst famines wrack India apart and yet people at large seemed to have adhered to the “dharma” enjoined on them.
Thomas Munro, governor of Madras in 1820s, was struck, for example, by the Indians’ dexterity and acumen for commerce. “The people of India,” wrote Munro, “are as much a nation of shopkeepers as we are ourselves. They never lose sight of the shop… It is this trading disposition of the natives which induces me to think it impossible that any European trader can long remain in the interiors of India, and that they must sooner or later be driven to the coast...”
The systems of governance, justice and the general well-being of the people fascinated some Western minds as being quite unique. Governor of the Dutch Malabar in 1670s, Hendrik Van Rheede, noted that governments of the “natives” were like “republics” which had “free people blessed with privileges”. Hindus, noted Rheede, “willingly suffer people of all nations, and all religions to live among them… They never overpass paternal boundaries, nor do they suffer the aggression of strangers to be repeated with impunity”.
Such past assessments serve to reverse the gaze and aid in gradually recovering our essential civilisational self—which is imperative for our times.