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Aryans And British India

Aryans And British India
Item Code: IDE358
Author: Thomas R. Trautmann
Publisher: Yoda Press, Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2004
ISBN: 8190227211
Pages: 294 (Figures: 10)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 9.0" X 10.0"
Preface to the Paperback Edition

This book pursues a complex idea (the Aryan) across a large but limited terrain (British India).

The idea of the Aryan is complex because it is doubled, referring to a group of languages-the Indo-European language family, uniting India, Iran and Europe-and at the same time to a people. It is one instance of a more general phenomenon of twinning languages and nations in the though of Europeans during their worldwide imperial expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The belief that languages and nations are tightly connected authorized a plan to recover the deep history of nations through the genealogies of their languages. The "languages and nations project", to give this larger phenomenon a name, doubled at the core, had double outcomes as well. On the one hand, the languages and nations project led to durable scientific achievements concerning the historical relations among languages. Furthermore, arranging languages in genealogical trees, families of historically related languages were formed that revolutionized our knowledge of the historical relations among peoples. The discovery of the Indo-European language family was the most unexpected, spectacular; and lasting of these accomplishments, though it was but one of many. On the other hand, belief in the close identification of languages and nations in this conception also fueled a politics of identity which has taken many forms, some of them exceedingly virulent, the most extreme instances of which are found in the West, in the racial politics of the Nazis and the hate groups using the Aryan name today. In this book I have sought to find a way of dealing with the languages and nations phenomenon as a whole, holding together the intellectual accomplishment and the dark politics that emerged from it in a single field of vision.

The terrain across which I pursue this project is India under British rule, with forays into Britain itself, over the long century from the founding of the Asiatic Society (1784) till the publication of Macdonell and Keith's Vedic index (1912). This is a large terrain, to be sure, but it does not contain the whole of the object of study.

There are several reasons for focusing on British India, even though in many ways it may appear that the center of the story lies in Europe, more specifically in Germany, as explained works such as Leon Poliakoff's. The Aryan myth (1974). Indeed, it was because I imagined this central story to have been well-served by others, and the British-Indian part of it to have been neglected and forgotten (I discuss the causes of this forgetting in Chapter I), that I undertook to write this book. A second reason, no less important, is that India's rich tradition of formal analysis of language made British India an especially productive site for the production of new knowledge about language history, and for the absorption of Indian analytical methods and concepts into European ideas through the study of Sanskrit. This, too, is a forgotten development needing to be brought to light. It seemed to me that the lost story of Indian learning at the heart of a modern science was deeply interesting of itself, and that recovering it was essential to the full clarification of the languages and nations project.

Once having crossed it, of course, the terrain looks different. The writing of the book has led me to further ideas about what next steps might advance our understanding of the languages and nations project and its intellectual and political outcomes. Some of these next steps are already underway, others lie in the future. Two areas of inquiry seem especially promising: the development of the languages and nations project in colonial Madras, and the matter of race and the racial theory of History. Let me say a word about each. I need also to say something about the Aryan debate in contemporary India that was emerging when the book was in progress.

While the book sets out from colonial Calcutta and its role in the emergence of the concept of the Indo-European family of languages in the writings of Sir William Jones, it goes on to explore what came after his famous announcement of the Indo-European concept. In the course of this exploration, I came upon sources concerning Madras and the emergence of the concept of a Dravidian language family. These sources bear upon the work of a little-known civil servant named Francis Whyte Ellis, Collector of Madras, and the circle of Indian and British scholars around him at the College of Fort St. George, a school for teaching the languages of India to arriving British civil servants. The College was a productive site for the production of new knowledge about South India, and scholars connected with the College, Indian and British, wrote important new works. Some of the material I found is presented in Chapter 5. The most spectacular and enduring outcome of the work of Ellis and his colleagues is the first published demonstration that the languages of South India form a family of related languages-the Dravidian family as it is now called-distinct from Sanskrit and the languages of North India. This finding, balancing and opposing and accompanied by other distinctive contributions to the knowledge of South India that served as corrective contributions to the knowledge of South India that served as correctives to the generalization about India coming from the Calcutta Orientalists. I have subsequently named this scholarly formation the "Madras School of Orientalism," because it was a distinctive school of thought which attempted to correct and improve upon the Orientalist scholarship Calcutta, from a South Indian perspective.

When writing the passages on Madras in the book I knew that there was more to be found and written on the subject, and, indeed, when the publisher sent me the first copy of the book I was working at the Tamil Nadu State Archives, searching out further material on Ellis, the College of Fort St. George and the Scholars of Madras. I have since published several articles that expand upon what appears in this book, namely, "Hullabaloo about Telugu" (South Asia research 19.I, 1999:53-70), "Inventing the history of South India" (in Invoking the past: the uses of history in South Asia,) ed. Daud Ali, 36-54, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999) and "Dr. Johnson and the pandits: imagining the perfect dictionary in colonial Madras" (Indian economic and social history review 38.4, 2001:375-97). I have also completed the manuscript of a book on the topic, called Languages and nations: F. W. Ellis and the Madras School of Orientalism (forthcoming, University of California Press). Thus the few pages on the Madras School in this book open up what has become a very much larger and more detailed picture of the ways in which the peculiar conjuncture of Indian and English scholarly traditions contributed to the languages and nations project in distinctive ways. Other scholars, too, have written on persons connected with the College of Fort St. George. Recent woks known to me are those of Lisa Mitchell and Peter Schmitthenner. Mitchell has written on Ellis, Alexander Campbell and Pattabhirama Shastri in "From Medium to marker: the making of a mother tongue in modern South India" (Ph. D. dissertation, Columbia University, 2003) and "Making the local foreign: shared language and history in southern India" (forthcoming in Adventures in heteroglossia: navigating terrains of linguistic difference in local and colonial regimes of knowledge,) to appear in a special issue of the (Journal of linguistic anthropology). Schmitthenner has written a biography of C. P. Brown, a product of the College of Fort St. George and an eminent Telugu scholar, called Telugu resurgence: C. P. Brown and cultural consolidation in nineteenth-century South India (New Delhi: Manohar, 2001).

The "Madras School of Orientalism" formed around Ellis and the College of Fort St. George; but there was also, at the same time, the survey of South Indian history and geography conducted by Colin Mackenzie and his Indian assistants, which has left a massive collection of papers now residing in London (the British Library) and Chennai (the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library). The current study of this body of sources was opened up by Nicholas Dirks, in his article, "Colonial histories and native informants: biography of an archive" (in Orientalism and the postcolonial predicament: perspectives on South Asia,) eds Carol A. Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer, 279-313, Philadelphia: University of Pennsyvania Press, 1993; see also Dirks, Castes of mind: colonialism and the making of modern India, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). Other subsequent works known to me are Peter Robb's "Completing 'our stock of geography', or an object 'still more sublime': Colin Mackenzie's survey of Mysore, 1799-1810" (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society series 3, 8.2, 1998:181-206) and Rama Mantena's "Vernacular futures: Orientalism, history, and language in colonial South India" (Ph. D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 2002). Phillip Wagoner's recent article, "Precolonial intellectuals and the production of colonial knowledge" (Comparative studies in society and history 45.4, 2003:783-814), makes a convincing argument that the skills of dealing with documents in many languages and scripts acquired by Telugu Brahmins working in the chancery of the Nawab of Arocot, put at the service of Mackenzie's project, were foundational for the study of Indian inscriptions, and that many of the epigraphic practices currently used by the Archaeological Survey of India are directly traceable to those of the Mackenzie project and its Niyogi Brahmin assistants.

From this it will be apparent that my formulation of the idea of the Madras School of Orientalism, which came out of the work of this book, is a more complex phenomenon than first imagined, and is not confined to the College of Fort St. George. It must also include the Mackenzie project and the scholars associated with it, and it must try to capture the relations between the two. Some of this work has already been undertaken, but more is needed.


The matter of the racialization of the Aryan idea is especially complex. In the first place, as I explain in this book, the concept of race itself changed radically over the course of the long nineteenth century. Race is more or less interchangeable with nation in the eighteenth century, but at some point thereafter the race concept becomes biologized and the nation concept politicized under the influence of the idea of popular sovereignty. In the second place, the idea of a necessary connection of language to nation or race comes into question in mid-century and is reconceptualized as a non-necessary connection. All these developments served to reconfigure the languages and nations project in late nineteenth-century Europe and British India.

As race science arose in late nineteenth-century Europe, the cry arose (as explained in Chapter 6) to end the "tyranny of Sanskrit", meaning the subordination of bodily sings of race to linguistic classifications. This subordination of the body to language as the leading sign of race was the main interpretative principle of the hegemonic racial classification of J. C. Pritchard, and in the early writings of Max Muller, who had said that philogy shows a racial connection, a sameness of blood, between the Bengali and the British where complexion does not. Max Muller himself later repented of having said so, having come to believe that much mischief had been wrought by assuming that languages and races were necessarily connected, and he proposed an amicable divorce of philogy and ethnology.

I have said that Max Muller's formulation, which has tended to prevail, gets it backwards, and that the reverse is true: that race science and racial theories of history flourished after the divorce of philology and ethnology, after race science was released from the dominance of linguistic classifications. This way of stating the developments I have been trying to elucidate has led to misunderstanding, that the Orientalists are somehow innocent of contributing to racial thinking, which I by no means intend or believe. I should perhaps have said that Max Muller was right on the first count-that the tight connection of languages and races was a source of mischievous racial doctrines-and wrong on the second-that recognizing the non-necessary nature of the connection of languages and races would end the harm; in fact, it increased it, by releasing racial thinking from the straitjacket of language classification. It is in the second half of the nineteenth century that racial theories of history come into their own, and they did so, explicitly and directly, against the logic of linguistic classifications, against the "tyranny of Sanskrit".

In India this take the form of what I call "the racial theory of Indian civilization," which I have explained in Chapter 7. Since writing it I have come to see that further work needs to be done on this formation and its relation to parallel developments in Europe. I had thought that the European side of the question was well-studied, but the writing of this book has prompted me to give closer attention to that side of things and has disabused me of that assumption. As it now appears to me, the key text for the emergence of a racial theory of world history is the notorious work of Arthur de Gobineau, the massive four-volume Essay on the inequality of the human races (Essai sur l'inegalite des races humaines), 4 vols, Paris: Firmin Didot Freres, 1853-55. I intend some day to do a study of its relations to Indian philology. In doing so I hope to complete the articulation of the central finding of this book, that the intimate connection of languages and nations (or races) had to be rejected for a full-blown racial theory of history and of white racial supremacy to emerge, which is exactly what Gobineau constructs. Gobineau, well-read in the literature of Orientalism, especially the massive work in German of the Norwegan scholar Christian Lassen Indische Alterthumskunde, 4 vols., Bonn: H. B. Keoning; Leipzig: L. A. Kittler, 1847-58) that was appearing while he was writing his own book, drew upon the emerging Orientalist knowledge of India's past, but he explicitly rejected linguistic classifications because, as he believed, they could mask and distort the racial picture. In Gobineau race become the historical cause of causes, the fundamental motor of world history and the rise and fall of civilizations. He asserted that all or most of the world's civilizations were produced by the white race, and all but one of them-northern Europe-had declined because of racial intermixture. This noxious idea supplies the theoretical base for all subsequent forms of the politics of racial hate in Europe and America.

This in not the place to expound the details of this direction of enquiry, which I must leave for a future occasion. I merely point it out by way of letting readers know that the aspirations of this book will only complete themselves when these further writings are done.

The Aryan Debate

As this book was being researched and written a storm of controversy was arising in India over the relation of the Aryans, Sanskrit and the Veda to the Indus Civilization, a controversy which has since become huge, and hugely politicized. The book does not engage with the debate, which was only in its early stages when I was researching and writing it; and indeed the chronological frame of the book ends before the discovery of the Indus civilization in 1924 (Sir John Marshall, "First light on a long-forgotten civilization," Illustrated London news,) 20 September 1924, pp. 528-48), whose relation to the Veda is what the controversy is about. Inevitably, now that the debate has grown large and heated, it will affect the way the book is read and used. Although it was no part of the original plan of the book to deal with the matters at the center of the Aryan debate it is perhaps necessary to say a few words about it here.

The standard view that has prevailed in works of scholarship holds that Sanskrit and the people calling themselves Arya entered India from outside it after the high period of the Indus Civilization, and differed in language and culture from the Indus people. The alternative view that is now being advanced by some archaeologists and others holds that the Indus civilization was the creation of the Sanskrit-speaking Aryas and that they were indigenous to India. That is the main issue of the Aryan debate today. In relation to that debate we may say that this book is a critical history of the development of scholarly ideas about Indian history leading up to the discovery of the Indus Civilization and the formation of the standard view; in relation to the Aryan debate, then, it is an exploration of its intellectual prehistory.

The main object of criticism in this book is the racialized interpretation of the genealogical trees of language families, which attained solidity in the latter half of the nineteenth century, at a time when, through the indenture system and other means a racialized division of free labor was created following the abolition of slavery. I have showed how scholars under the influence of prevailing European racial ideas of the time overinterpreted select passages of the Vedic text to produce a racial theory of India's history. I have argued that the discovery of the Indus Civilization, which showed the existence of a civilization prior to the Aryans and the Veda, gave the lie to the idea of the racial theory of civilization, by showing that the prior inhabitants of Indian (under, namely, the standard view) were not savages and that the Aryans did not bring civilization into India for the first time. I have argued that what is needed at this historical moment in the development of the field is a strong dose of skepticism, towards racial ideas of India's deep past as a way of correcting for the excessive influence they have had.

At the same time, in keeping with my aspiration to keep the good and the bad visible together in the same field of vision, I regarded, and continue to regard, the fundamental accomplishments of the languages and nations project in British India to be the emergent concepts of the Indo-European and Dravidian language families, concepts very much in use today. It goes without saying that, whatever the flaws of the original methods and assumptions leading to the formation of these ideas, they would not have stood the text of time so very well if they did not have a core of truth to them.

In making this book, then, I have examined the period prior to Sir John Marshall's 1924 interpretation of the Indus Civilization and its relation to the Veda, which may be said to be the beginning point of the standard view that is currently being called into question by the proponents of the alternative view. This is not the place to undertake an analysis of the alternative view, which is barely mentioned in the book and which truly falls outside its purview. I will however just say. To satisfy the inevitable questions of readers who may be perplexed so to say, that while the standard view has been modified considerably over the years, the alternative view has yet to make a convincing case to replace it, in my opinion. The most telling obstacle to the alternative view is that there is very little evidence to show that the Indus people were users of horse-drawn, spoked-wheeled chariots, as the Aryan warrior class of the Veda abundantly was. In addition, the patterning of retroflex sounds in Indian languages goes against the alternative view, proponents of which have offered no counter-explanation for the pattern. That is, retroflex consonants appear in the Dravidian languages, and in Sanskrit and its descendant languages in North India and Sri Lanka, but not in the other Indo-European languages, which goes to show that Sanskrit acquired retroflexion from Dravidian languages which were already in India (including North India) when Sanskrit arrived from without. This is the view established long since by Emeneau and Burrow (see, for example, M. B. Emeneau, "Linguistic prehistory of India," in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society98, 1954:82-92; M. B. Emeneau and T. Burrow, Dravidian borrowings from Indo-Aryan, University of California Press, 1962; and T. Burrow and M. B. Emeneau, Dravidian etymological dictionary, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961). Proponents of the alternative view need to come up with a convincing new paradigm that will overcome the well-tested standard view by showing that it better accounts for the patterning of evidence then the standard view does. So far, they have not done so.

I am grateful to reviewers, who have been sympathetic to the aims of the book and have given reason to think it did not entirely miss the mark. Some were kind enough to draw attention to errors, which we have been able to correct in this paperback edition. I am most grateful to Arpita Das for her outstanding editorial help and support, and to YODA PRESS for undertaking to issue the paperback.

Excerpts from Reviews:

Aryans and British India, as are all Thomas Trautman's studies, is meticulously researched and carefully argued…. Trautmann's study provides a lucid and forceful narrative of the inception and growth of the (Aryan) theory as a construct of the 19th century. - Romila Thapar

This is an engaging as well as a scholarly book about an idea that a troubled history in our time…. Professor Trautmann has examined the development of ideas about language, race and society in the context of nineteenth-century India with exemplary patience. - Andre Beteille

It (the book) serves, severally, as a commentary on interpretations of the origins of Indian civilization, an informed critique of Said's Orientalism (by a Sanskritist with an evident zest for his texts and a wry appreciation of the wilder shores of Orientalist endeavour), and, not least as a major contribution to the history of ideas of language and race as they evolved in tandem in India and Britain. The Aryans, one hopes, will never be the same again. - David Arnold

In an age when voices of scholarship have become strident if not shrill, Aryans and British India is remarkably different, characterized as it is gentle understatement, concern, and erudition - Kumkum Roy

About the Author:

Thomas R. Trautmann is Professor of History and Anthropology at the University of Michigan, USA. He is the author of Dravidian Kinship (1981) and Lewis Henry Morgan and the Invention of Kinship (1987). He is the editor of Time, Histories and Ethnologies (co-edited 1995), Transformations of Kinship (1998), and The Aryan Debate (2004).


Chapter 1
Chapter 2
The Mosaic Ethnology of Asiatick Jones
Chapter 3
British Indomania
Chapter 4
British Indophobia
Chapter 5
Philology and Ethnology
Chapter 6
Race Science verses Sanskrit
Chapter 7
The Racial Theory of Indian Civilization
Chapter 8

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