For a colonized people, winning political freedom is the easy part; it is much harder to set the mind free.
India’s experience of the British Raj was disastrous in terms of material prosperity. Economists estimate that British occupation cost India $45 trillion dollars of wealth and the destruction of native industry and education systems.
But most of all, the British foisted false narratives of history on India. If you ask me why the minds of many Indians remain colonized, this is it.
The American historian John Henrik Clarke said: “To control a people you must first control what they think about themselves and how they regard their history and culture. And when your conqueror makes you ashamed of your culture and your history, he needs no prison walls and no chains to hold you.”
India was the world’s leading nation in science before the Middle Ages. Indian technology was flourishing before the arrival of the British. It is estimated that India’s share of world trade in 1800 was about 20 to 25 percent. Abraham Parsons, a British traveler, described India’s shipbuilding prowess in 1775: “Ships built at Bombay are not only as strong, but as handsome, are as well finished as ships built in any part of Europe; the timber and plank, of which they are built, so far exceeds any in Europe for durability that it is usual for ships to last fifty or sixty years; as a proof of which I am informed, that the ship called the Bombay grab, of twenty-four guns, (the second in size belonging to the Company’s marine) has been built more than sixty years, and is now a good and strong ship.”
India’s textile industry, which was the best in the world, was decimated by the British. They cut off India’s export markets by a variety of means. The Calico Act of 1721, intended to protect the wool and silk industries, banned most cotton cloths. The Act was repealed in 1774, but Indian textiles entering the British market faced stiff import duties, ranging from 27–59% ad valorem in 1803 to 71–85% in 1813.
When the mechanization brought about by the industrial revolution gave their own textiles a cost advantage, the British made sure that India was not provided the resources to build its own factories. As India became deindustrialized, it turned into a huge monopoly market for British products. British Raj made token investments in science and technology.
Jobs in India simply disappeared. Outside of village crafts, and sparsely staffed revenue and medical departments and schools, one could only find jobs in the army or police or as clerks working for urban enterprises. When the railway system was built by the British, the employees for a long time could only be British or Anglo-Indians.
More and more people became servants and cooks, if they could find anything. Indians became office seekers. Any government position, even if only of the attendant in an office, was considered supremely desirable.
Nearing the end of their depredation of India, the British created national services. In 1920, India’s scientific services had a total of 213 scientists of whom 195 were British!
Comparing the path India chose with that of Japan, Sri Aurobindo argued that Japan embraced Western science while keeping to its spirit of the samurai, while India abandoned its own genius for the security of work in the office to serve the colonialists.
This was the model that goes back to the British outpost at Fort St. George where Indians kept books or did other manual jobs. This has continued in recent times where Indian companies serve as the back office to Western companies without the ambition to produce their own products.
But why did this happen? Dharampal in his The Beautiful Tree explains that after dismantling India’s own education system, which while not perfect managed to educate estimated 60–70% of the populace, Britain made sure that Indian elite were fed on their biased understanding of India. The literacy rate in India on the British watch declined to about 12% and a near complete loss of memory of its previous condition ensued.
The British version of Indian culture and its past was worse than superficial, it was just wrong. Writing nearly 80 years ago, the great scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote this of accounts of Hinduism by Western scholars and their Indian followers:
“[A]lthough the ancient and modern scriptures and practices of Hinduism have been examined by European scholars for more than a century, it would be hardly an exaggeration to say that a faithful account of Hinduism might well be given in the form of a categorical denial of most of the statements that have been made about it, alike by European scholars and by Indians trained in our modern skeptical and evolutionary modes of thought.”
Unfortunately, these accounts are the foundations on which the intellectual life of modern Indian elite rests. This is the reason why bizarre stories on Indian festivals and customs are put out by journalists from time to time. One doesn’t know whether to cry or laugh, but one may, borrowing Jonathan Swift’s epigram, just say that we face “a confederacy of dunces.”
Repeated over the past eighty years countless times, it forms the foundation of instruction in schools and colleges, public policy, and the practice of law. People have internalized it and sincerely believe it to be the truth.
Declaration of Independence
In 1837, Emerson delivered a famous speech, titled “The American Scholar” to the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts that in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes became America’s “Intellectual Declaration of Independence.”
Emerson declares in the opening of the address. “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests. Events, actions arise, that must be sung, that will sing themselves… We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe….We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.”
Emerson’s speech marked the direction that America needed to take to actualize its own destiny. He spoke of connecting to nature, books, and action and this is what came to fruition in the next several decades.
India needs a similar declaration of intellectual independence to connect back to its spirit. Indians need to choose the path of the yogi — not the other-worldly one but that of the karmayogi — , a person devoted to perfection in action, a warrior in the Kurukshetra of life.