The multi-tier colonial legacy which India has inherited through language has been increasingly tough to dismantle.
Amar Trivedi is an architectural designer and entrepreneur based in London. He has a great interest in UK and Indian politics, and is an avid reader who frequently writes about Indian culture and history, philosophy and UK-India relations. After recently being selected as a 35-under -35 UK-India young leader, Amar hopes that we can learn from the past to create a better brighter dharmic future.
Colonisation did not end when the British flag came down and the Indian flag was raised. Its debilitating effects linger in the psyche, where self and identity become subjected to a second, more pervasive form of colonisation: language. Language is about transmitting knowledge and ideas across minds. The utterances that people make can create bizarre ideas that formulate feelings, thoughts, emotions and shape narrative. A chain of words, written or spoken, remains simply that - a chain - until they are understood. Just as Mandarin to a person with no knowledge of that language is just a string of sounds without meaning, in the same fashion, written or spoken utterances only become relevant and useful as a communication tool when understood by the reader or listener.
Wittgenstein discussing ‘language games’ in ‘Philosophical Investigations’ posited that the meaning of words and language can only be understood once the context is understood. Words have hidden connotations based on culture and experience. By itself, the word has no meaning; the ‘meaning of the word is in its use in the language’. Without immersion and understanding of a group’s culture, traditions and history which bring with them understanding, words merely carry with them concealed, unquestioned conjectures and values, like a linguistic Trojan horse.
The power of language is such that it overlaps and influences various fields including psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy and logic, each of which has a profound effect on the human mind. The language and words one uses go to shape thoughts, feelings and actions, which in turn form stories; and from stories, narratives and ideas that directly implant from one mind into another.
Narrative is storytelling; it is shaping, framing and mediating how the story is told by the use of language, perspective and tone. Narrative controls how the reader or listener experiences the story, guiding them through a range of emotions, feelings and situations. Subtexts in the narrative combine with the overall plot, and inferences are used to direct the journey. It exerts such power on the recipient that it can numb and dismiss past experiences and facts out of the consciousness, displacing them with the idealised narrative of the teller. Where the narrative is dictated by the outsider, only snippets of the native understanding survive as if to lend a modicum of credibility to this new ‘testament’ which is then proposed as the truth. This language-forming and narrative capturing art of the coloniser’s framework has left many a dead civilisation in its trails including Egypt, Iran, the Americas, and even pagan Europe.
Despite independence, the West has continued to spread its colonial ideology in newer guises such as International ‘development’, through supporting and promoting NGO-led ‘charity’ activities as well as direct ‘aid’ which fails to reach its intended beneficiaries. Social justice is often the moralising umbrella used to spread culture-destroying religious and political value systems on the former colonies. This neo-colonialism runs deep: former colonies face this subjugation via both direct and indirect means; not only through economic pressure from Western governments but also via media and charities, many of whom themselves have ethically questionable standards.
The aim of this essay is to explore how narratives formed through language continue to have a long-lasting, detrimental effect of colonisation on the Hindu psyche. The focus upon Hindus, those that follow the cultural traditions originating from what is often termed as ‘Hinduism’, is apt since the problem of colonisation is most evident within this segment of the formerly colonised peoples. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, Hindus make up the largest of the recognisably non-monotheist pagan civilisations, therefore, how they acknowledge and respond to narratives about them is a useful lens through which to address the wider problem.
Some questions that at first seem confusing: Why is there such resistance by some to acknowledge their Hindu roots despite the fact that the West has for centuries drawn from the philosophical and artistic reserves of India? When thinking of India, visions of deep historical roots, mysticism, and spirituality, grand temple architecture, aromatic cuisine, amidst a vibrant and diverse culture spring to mind. Why then, is it that some who are born into this milieu, denigrate it in ways that even ‘outsiders’ who even if not taken in by India’s ‘mystique’, would not go out of their way to do?
Every world culture has its own vision, a sense of self, and idea of the world; its past and its heroes, its lexicon and language; its culture, traditions and practices (which may vaguely, and mostly incorrectly, termed as religion); and discernible characteristic moral and ethical frameworks - all of which combine to form, shape and project a unique identity.
Understanding develops from one’s experiences, culture and knowledge, which provide the framework by which one perceives anything new and unfamiliar be it a person, situation or a whole civilization. So inevitably, early European explorers, influenced by an awakening from the Dark Ages to the ‘age of discovery’, having gone through the Renaissance and Reformation, shaped their outlook. This defined the European epoch of Christian expansion and empire, the people and lands they ‘discovered’ were only destined to be ruled over by the ‘divinely chosen’, as an ordained destiny in the Christian Law of Nations.Descriptions provided by travellers and missionaries would have been framed where conquest was legitimised by Christian theology.
This is how and why the British found religion in India. The Protestant framework only enabled sense to be made of the ‘alien’ in such terms. The narrative of the Indian ‘heathen’ took root wherein two centuries of Protestant ‘academic’ research and white political endeavour have gone into interpreting and demonising the heathen who could only be saved by the grace of the one Christian God. Those ‘beastly people with a beastly religion’, as so contemptuously described by Winston Churchill, simply crystallised the monotheistic view of the Hindu from possessors of the sole truth.
That brings us to the perpetually vexing controversy of the now - largely discredited - Aryans into India theory, which to this day, remains a cause for ‘racial’ identities and leaves some Indians feeling in awe of lighter skin. While no local historic records or mythical folklore exist about the arrival of outsiders into India, the notion was first touted by German and English scholars that North Indians had European genes not native to the subcontinent. From ‘Arya’, the Sanskrit meaning of which is noble person, Max Mueller invented a North Indian race, a race apart from another race, the ‘Dravidians’. Thus Mueller, who in the cloisters of Oxford, theorised into existence two distinct and inimical races in India: the Aryan and the Dravidian native.
Western monopoly on education
To the present, several examples show how these imported impositions of the outsider’s narrative about the Hindu continue to persist. Western academies still produce copious ‘research’ through the Christian theological prism invented at the dawn of empire and colonialism. Edward Said in ‘Orientalism’ dissects how Western scholars establish and continue to maintain a monopoly on how indigenous cultures are to be interpreted, which they then use to subtly impose a colonial control on people. Although Said wrote about the Middle East, the same can be said to apply to India.
‘The acquired foreign language is therefore made part of a subtle assault upon populations, just as the study of a foreign region like the Orient is turned into a program for control by divination. Yet such programs must always have a liberal veneer, and usually this is left to scholars, men of good will, enthusiasts to attend to. The idea encouraged is that in studying Orientals, Muslims, or Arabs "we" can get to know another people, their way of life and thought, and so on. To this end it is always better to let them speak for themselves, to represent themselves (even though underlying this fiction stands Marx's phrase—with which Lasswell is in agreement—for Louis Napoleon: "They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented"). But only up to a point, and in a special way’. 
Appropriation of native languages and introduction of English
Over time, Indians like other colonised peoples, had British governance and institutions imposed on them. To enable this, a new local elite arose, educated and conditioned to the inherent styles and demands of their British masters. Colonial education, governance and civic norms displaced indigenous practices, many of which had still survived since ancient times despite Islamic onslaughts. Thus, was set in motion the formal dismantling of local language and practices in public and civic life; to be replaced by English, acting not just as the official language but also driving a narrative of Indians within an English cultural framework that saw only ungodliness and crudity in the native.
The imposition of English also led to some osmosis into English of Sanskrit origin words such as guru, avatar, and juggernaut but not without dilution or even distortion of context and underlying meanings. Whilst everyday words like pyjama, jungle and shampoo still carry their original meaning, it is notable that culture-defining ideas and words such as Dev, Devi, Murti, not only don’t much appear, but are largely replaced by the lower case ‘god’, or ‘goddess’ and’ ‘idol’, the latter of which so many supposedly educated Indians dumbly use to describe their deities without an iota of understanding that ‘idols’ are just the false gods so reviled in Christian theology.
False depictions make a perversion of Hindu experience and beliefs. Consider Hanuman Bhagavān for example -Bhagavān itself doesn’t mean God or Lord as in the Judeo-Christian Western sense. Hanuman in the Valmiki Ramayana is described as vānar, a ‘forest dweller’. But in a Christian theological framework, the narrative of Hanuman is just a false God and an agent of the devil. Another academic authority recently described ‘Hanuman as a “cute, cuddly, dimwit Ram Bhakt”, who has now been morphed by “Hindu extremists” into an “angry Hanuman”’. Such derogatory distortion is endorsed by public intellectuals and scholars which drives a psychological dagger into the heart of the Hindu sense of self.
For Indians, knowledge of English became synonymous with success and employment opportunities during British rule. The emergence of these pro-British elite was architected by Thomas Macauley who argued that western education was inherently superior, and could not be taught through native languages. The British Education Act 1835 legitimised and cultivated the new local elite class to do the admin for their British masters.
Macauley’s, “We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”, provided foot soldiers for the colonial machine, but also powered the direction and thinking of the ‘new Indian’ against his own culture.
By 1870, 6000 Indian students had enrolled in English medium higher education, and 200,000 in Anglophone secondary school, with Calcutta growing a substantial English Language publishing industry. Since then, succeeding generations of aspiring Indians have been adept and willing to quote Shakespeare and Steinbeck but ignorant of Kalidāsa. Much of these English educated Indian elite know little that would be considered as positive about their tradition, and much that is fabricated, building on the narrative set in colonial times. It is routine to denigrate India’s Hindu culture and practices as backward and inferior to Christianity and in need of reform, or even being banned.
Tradition Gurukul Education
Colonisation led to a neglect of traditional Vedic Gurukul education as English education opened career doors. A dogmatic modern education, designed to support the colonial power and based on the Abrahamic premise to serve with belief, all but destroyed the Gurukul experience,where questioning, self-discovery and critical analysis of multi layered tradition, and the development of intelligence, where impetus lay not on results and employment opportunities but on building personality, character and knowledge.A traditional culture and system that had produced a rich body of literature on science, medicine, politics, engineering, philosophy, astronomy, and philosophy, was allowed to decay. The colonial project was also helped since the newly English educated Indians could no longer read Sanskrit or other Indian languages.
The economic and cultural loss due to the decay of the Gurukul system is not discussed much, let alone measured. One study of the brain function of Vedic pandits who were able to accurately recite large numbers of Sanskrit verses from scriptures has found a substantial increase in white and grey brain matter.Grey matter density and cortical thickness increases demonstrated improved neuroplasticity through language, memory and visual systems, which was not evident in the control group.Studies have also shown that increased neuroplasticity improved learning capacity, knowledge retention, faster physical healing from ailments and even slowing down degenerative conditions including Alzheimer’s.
Survival of culture, ideas, and traditions are dependent on language: maintenance of intangible and tangible cultural heritage is very much reliant upon and a part of language.
“A single generation of English education suffices to break the threads of tradition and to create a nondescript and superficial being deprived of all roots—a sort of intellectual pariah who does not belong to the East or the West, the past or the future. The greatest danger for India is the loss of her spiritual integrity. Of all Indian problems, the educational is the most difficult and most tragic” as Ananda Coomaraswamy states.
Equally worrying is that Wendy Doniger and other Indologists, many backed by powerful institutions, are regularly consulted for advice and opinion on Indian culture and history. They thus dictate the narrative through an alien framework, telling Indians what their narrative should be, ‘researching’ revered texts not as philosophy and culture but as ‘mythologies’ implying them to be fiction.
Western liberal academia such as Oxford and Kings College London still project themselves as the font of knowledge on the pagan Hindu; viewing him through the prism of Christian theology. They act as mediators and instructors; the Hindu has to be instructed. This asymmetric way via the colonisers’ language discounts the authority of native language and thought.
Another example is Doniger’s undeniable assault on Vedic tradition, claiming to investigate violence and sacrifice in the Vedas, or her use of Freudian psychoanalysis to show that Indian culture is inherently perverse, laden with erotic symbolism and sex-obsessed gurus.Such writing including ideas from Marxism, feminism, and Christian theology reduces the culture of a billion Hindus to ridicule. Hijacking of words and ideas creates misconceptions, even vilification of cultural meanings and identification such as recent disparagement of Diwali and Holi.
Recently, a twitter storm erupted when academic Audrey Truschke, a former student of Doniger and Sheldon Pollock, commented: “Sita calls Ram a misogynistic pig”, which justifiably led to extensive and strong rebuttals from several quarters.Inciting enmity not only at the poetic licence that white academics are apparently entitled to when commenting on Hindu culture, but further to the insult itself,
‘if you have grown up in a home where reverence for the world outside your own self and body is taught through practices like not kicking a book because it is Goddess Saraswati or treating all images of goddesses and gods with some care, what matters is not whether you fell for an “invented belief,” but the fact that you put an enormous investment into your ethical-aesthetic education, very early’.
Hybridisation of Language
It is inevitable and generally a good thing that substantial language attrition and hybridisation continues to occur as it has done throughout history. Globalisation has merely accelerated this process. Indians both in and outside India employ a mix of Indian languages and English-lexicon (itself is a Greek word) in many situations. This ‘mix’ formed from local Indian languages, many founded on Sanskrit and its derivatives, combines with a hybrid of Latin, Greek, French, German and new-techie speak, not unlike the evolution of English since the Romans, the Vikings, the Norman conquests and beyond.
Although an inevitable natural process, unconscious and lazy hybridisation can be detrimental to indigenous cultures - meanings and thoughts, ideas and actions which are vitally encapsulated within specific words get diluted, or worse, get misappropriated to other use or get displaced, and potentially get lost forever.
Such appropriation or destruction of valuable cultural assets by the propagator often leads to the native recipient naïvely receiving concocted narratives about himself, and accepting as ‘truths’ the distortions that are designed to devalue his own culture. Critics may argue that language is universal without ambiguous meaning, but meanings can develop and change over time with words and phrases taken out of context having an entirely different meaning.
‘Fantastic’, commonly used to depict something ‘extraordinarily great’, is a word that arose via ‘fantastique’, a Middle Age French word meaning ‘existing only in imagination’, whereas the medieval Latin ‘fantasticus’ indicated a lunatic. All of these variations of the word derive from the root Greek ‘phantastikos’. Thus to translate accurately, the original contextual meaning must be maintained; and poetic license cannot be tolerated.
In the same way, Indian origin words such as Devi, Avatār, Murti, Bhagavān, cannot be translated without loss of their essence. The difficulty with Sanskrit is that it is rather more than a language for communication; it is an experiential language that carries Hindu culture and thought. Its sounds and incantations are at one with the Hindu - for to him, its sound and vibrations have distinct effects on the human consciousness.
Therefore, instead of continuing with borrowed words such as god and idol, by extending English or indeed any other language with these Sanskrit words, and explicitly using them in the way originally and contextually meant, we would arrest stolen narratives. After that, should people choose to misuse words and ideas then they must be open to criticism. This applies to all, Hindus as well as others.
Although beyond the scope of this essay, hijacking the language of symbols including the Swastika by the Nazis, twisted from the auspicious Vedic symbol of good fortune to one of hate, oppression and fascism, directly reveals the damage done by cultural misappropriation.
Negative effects of using English
Whilst English is considered a global language of commerce and science, it was initially the carrier for colonialism and a theological doctrine, and even today it still retains its Christian colonial roots. Despite institutional and educational reliance on English, many Indians in the workplace communicate in indigenous languages and do not possess suitable literary and communication skills for sitting exams, with English still feeling like a foreign language. A recent study showed students test results in indigenous mother tongue far exceeded those taken in English.
A UNESCO Study states ‘children who begin their education in their mother tongue make a better start, and continue to perform better, than those for whom school starts with a new language’.
This dependence on English creates further problems of development and modernisation with Indians being heavily reliant on the language for jobs in tech, IT and services. The advent of social media further exacerbates the issue, since in the Indian context, these platforms have been adopted wholesale in their English medium incarnation. The detrimental effect of colonialism seeps through wherein it's just easier to conform than to rethink. In contrast, China has created indigenous social media platforms and search engines. Apart from creating economic barriers to entry, Western companies such as Google, Facebook and eBay can’t dictate the cultural values of ordinary Chinese in the way that Indians and their value systems are impacted. It is a sad reflection that India boasts a global IT industry, but Indian companies have done little to develop the media platform market in local languages. The fallacy where success in IT is only possible in English has been exposed by Israeli IT and technology exports predominantly working in Hebrew.
While political leaders from Russia, China and even small European countries choose to use their indigenous language at Global conventions, India still relies upon English. It is a promising sign that Indian leaders are choosing to communicate in native languages; a small chink in the colonial mind-set. The Indian Government are driving forward to include Hindi as an official language of the United Nations, and rightly so since Chinese is included despite there being numerous regional vernaculars in China.The irony is that some in the English-educated elite have been loudest to object: showing the persistence of McCauley’s legacy.
Vamsee Juluri on Indian languages states:
“Mother tongue diversity is perhaps the cultural locus of Hinduism’s integrity and diversity which baffles simpler minds with simpler moral motives perhaps. We can see how we are different, and yet, not draw swords and blood about it. Imagine for a moment how vastly the organic, indigenous experience of Hinduism through linguistic diversity is from the rigidly Eurocentric and European forms several translations that occupy academic high ground are confined to”.
The same can be applied globally, where diversity should be an essential part of human culture and nature. The mirror of hypocrisy needs to be shown to the self-loathing Indian elite and their counterparts in the West whose accusations that the Hindu is chauvinistic and fundamentalist. If Chinese is fine and considering that even a small nation like France insists on French being spoken, then why not Hindi or Tamil? How can the advocates of diversity and pluralism be allowed to denigrate the Indian native?
For centuries, the Hindu has allowed himself to be pushed into submission forgetting how to assert his culture without apology. It is time the Hindu changed and defined himself on his terms within his native framework; as the rest of the world does theirs. In a world where ideas are perpetuated at the speed of light and open to critique and change, time has to be called on the contagious demonization of the self through mental conditioning, being repeatedly fed negativities as seen through the eyes of the stealers of narrative and their proxies.
That the Hindu is unable to talk about Varna and Jati in normal speech without depictions of ‘caste’ arising; that his psyche is fearful of being called misogynistic, right-wing or regressive, leaves him unable to be the author on his own Sanskriti, unable to wrest it from ‘others’ who will not relinquish their imperialist entitlement of power over his narrative.
The Hindu academic, promoting traditional values (rather than the prescribed Western ideology) faces consistent professional and societal pressure to back down, time and again being bracketed into a homogenous political ‘box’, ignoring the reality that Hindus span the entire political spectrum as commonly understood in the Western framework. It is time these interpretations are unpacked, exposed to reveal and shed the sets of ideas, traditions, and politics which have controlled the Hindu mind.
‘Your identity was supposed to enhance your standing as a scholar, but as a Hindu, you are deemed incapable of representing yourself, let alone being objective, leaving thousands of years of your vast wisdom outside the door’. Where it is naturally established in Hindu Dharma, the right of mutual respect and not just tolerance needs to be adopted by all.
So embedded in the Hindu consciousness this idea of ‘white is superior’ and the subconscious identification with success and the West is, that this self-inflicted denigration of the ‘Indian’ is ingrained in the psyche. That one does not realise it’s happened, has caused many to continue acting as ‘sepoys’ to past colonial masters.
Eminent scholar Balagangadhara aptly says:
“We know the West as the West looks at itself. We study the East the way West studies the East. We look at the world the way West looks at it. We do not even know whether the world would look different, if we looked at it our way. Today we are not in a position even to make sense of the above statement. When Asian anthropologists or sociologists or cultureologists do their anthropology, sociology or cultureology- the West is really talking to itself”
Long established are the detrimental and devastating effects of colonialism on indigenous communities, destroying cultures into extinction in its path. What will it take for the artefacts and edifices to re-nurture, re-grow, overwriting the covertly sub-textual colonial ways out of mind, body and action, awakening the sleeping self-respect of value to the Hindu’s motherland, its culture and practices?
True diversity and civilisational development is maintained outside of the imposition of colonial languages, benefitting not only the natives but the global community to embrace this diversity. Since other civilisations choose to claim their narrative in their chosen languages, Indians are also entitled to the same respect. It is not only about rearming and reclaiming one’s own culture, but about ensuring diversity in the cultural genetics of global society.
*This article was originally published in “Think Different”, a Tattva publication. Explicit permission has been sought from Tattva and the author to re-publish this work.
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