| A colonel with his pundits, 1815
The Buddha and the Sahibs The Men Who Discovered India’s Lost Religion By Charles Allen, John Murray, £ 25
The Bhagavad Gita is a part of the great epic Ramayana. There is a Sanskrit play called Rudra Rakshasa which tells the story of Chandragupta. These are two gems from this book by Charles Allen, the “acknowledged master of British Indian history”, according to the blurb. After encountering these any reader with a modicum of knowledge about India, its history and culture, will be hardpressed to take seriously anything that Allen has to say.
The book applauds those British administrators and scholars who worked assiduously to rediscover Indian culture and large chunks of Indian history. This is nothing new. But Charles Allen feels that his sahibs need to be defended against the attack launched against them by Edward Said in his famous book Orientalism.
I am afraid Said’s argument is a bit beyond Allen’s ken. He either misunderstands it or distorts it. Said was attempting to unravel a form of knowledge which he argued had informed the way the Orient had been configured in the Western imagination and scholarship. He analysed what he called Orientalism as a discourse of power. It was not an attempt, as Allen seems to think, to denigrate the work that had been done by the Orientalists. In fact, Said drew many examples from writers who were not Orientalists but were influenced by the form of knowledge Said called Orientalism.
Indeed all the Orientalists were far more learned about things Indian than Charles Allen, their present-day adulator. They took more care with their home work and hardly ever made howlers of the kind that Allen and his ilk make. This is one reason why their scholarship has endured.
The other reason is that they often sought the assistance of very competent and erudite native informants. But the pundits who worked with, say William Jones, are lost to history. So are the learning and the skills they embodied. This suppression and eventual disappearance was not a planned thing. Nobody conspired to achieve this. It was the fallout of a process of history, power and a form of knowledge that was part of that process. Edward Said, among many other things, had been trying to analyse this process.
Despite the catchy name of the book, Allen’s account is not only about the discovery of Buddhism by the Orientalist scholars. He begins his account with William Jones and Charles Wilkins who between them fathered Indology. The book’s title is thus misleading.
One of the principal protagonists of this book is James Prinsep, an official of the Calcutta Mint and secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal who in 1837 interpreted for the first time the Brahmi script and was thus able to read the edicts of Asoka. Prinsep’s discovery released a flurry of enthusiasm and he was flooded with demands from all over. Dealing with all this and the travails of deciphering inscriptions recovered from India’s north-west frontier (in a script known today as Kharoshti) led to a mental and physical breakdown. Prinsep was dead by 1840 and is remembered to this day by his memorial on the strand in Calcutta. Allen, to give him his due, is rather good in the reconstruction of Prinsep’s life and career.
Allen makes the point that contrary to the view of Vincent Smith, the Muslim invasions did not destroy Buddhism in India. The religion of Gautam was a “spent force” in India even before the first Muslim raid had begun. As Tibetan and Sinhalese sources suggest, the persecution of Brahmin-dominated rulers was a factor in the demise of Buddhism. Buddhism also lost the moral high ground to Sankaracharya. The point of Brahminical persecution is worth noting since so much is made these days about the essentially tolerant character of Hindutva. Allen has chosen a good but not an original theme. But clearly he is a bit out of his depths in reconstructing the work of his heroes and their significance. All this is also laced with an admiration for British rule. He never lets us forget that he is a storyteller of the raj. There is a difference between plain tales of the babalog and what men like Jones were trying to do. Allen never quite overcomes the difference. There is a hint of superficiality here which the Orientalists would never have approved of.