The IDEA of India

Sun Temple Konarak, Odisha.
  • The Idea of India as enunciated by the British, which Indians faithfully adopted, is in the context of Caste and Science.
  • Author tweeted, “The British created the "caste system" that Indians think has existed for ever and ever.”

There are many who see India’s recent election results as a repudiation of the textbook idea of India. They find the results painful, as if the walls of the India of their imagination have been brought down.

They say they love India as much as anyone, so they can’t understand how the people could have been so destructive to vote the way they did.


Spring is passing, the birds cry, and the fishes fill with tears on their eyes. — Matsuo Bashō (17th century)

I want to present a different take on the election. I concede that the results are a rejection of an India that many have come to feel comfortable with, but it is an India based on falsehoods and half-truths, motivated by pseudoscience and racism.

If the changes that have occurred inspire people to investigate the foundations of the rejected idea of India and examine them with an open mind, that will be a good thing. I am hoping they will be convinced that the past described in textbooks is inaccurate, make peace with it, look at the future with hope, and discover new ways for growth and prosperity for all Indians.

That will be a new dawn!

My barn burnt down, I can now see the moon. — Mizuta Masahide (17/18th century)


The Old Idea of India

The old idea of India emerged from the work of British colonial administrators and European scholars motivated by the demands of the Raj, pseudoscience and racial prejudice. The British dismantled India’s schools and created a new system of colleges and universities using English as the medium of research and instruction. Their understanding of India was imperfect quite like someone claiming to know Britain ignorant of Shakespeare and Shelley, Austen and Dickens, or Darwin and Dirac. But the British ruled the narrative; Indian classics were thrown out, and Indians could enter the academy only on the terms set by them.

To provide justification for colonial rule, the British declared that Indian society was pre-rational and it needed guidance by Western ideas. Depicted thus in textbooks at all levels, Indians slowly came to believe this characterization, and this included nationalist politicians and intellectuals. So I was not surprised that even a nationalist poet like Ramdhari Singh Dinkar in his much-praised Sanskriti ke chār adhyāya parroted this understanding.

There were two main elements to this idea of India:

One: India is a land divided by rigid caste and hierarchy and its social and intellectual history must be seen within this framework and as an encounter between different races.

Two: Indian society is deeply conservative and religious and it has no real tradition of science, arts and innovation. There has been some innovation in mathematics, architecture, and philosophy, but it was done by outsiders who were descendants of invading or migrating groups. India has received most of its worthy ideas from the west and the north, and this includes writing.

After the British left, the education, administrative, and political ecosystem remained tethered to this idea. There was challenge to it from scholars who knew Indian texts and by subaltern groups, but they were strongly ridiculed. New research over the last few decades has undermined the previous model and a new generation of serious scholars has joined in the criticism. It has become clear that the idea of India conjured up by the British is false, and mostly a fabrication.

But there has also been a reaction by others in the academy who are driven by Eurocentrism and prejudice. Astonishingly, some have even resorted to fabrication of evidence in support of the old view (for example, see here).

Caste in India

Many will be shocked to discover that the modern idea of caste is a colonialist construct (see also this). There is no synonym for caste in any Indian language. The word ‘caste’ comes from the Portuguese casta, a word that was meant to describe the jāti system that is composed of clan or occupation based communities, but slowly it has come to have a much broader connotation. The term was conflated with varṇa, which is a theoretical classification based on social class.

India’s jātis represented a fluid system, not too dissimilar from that of other cultures. As people migrated from one region to another, they often changed occupation or were identified with a different class. There was also powerful religious sanction to the idea that varṇa, as representative of the class one fitted in best, was based on temperament rather than birth.

To get context for what was happening to the jātis, one should remember that the British destroyed India’s economy by crushing taxation and preventing investments in India just as the industrial revolution took off in Europe. India rapidly became deindustrialized and turned into a destination for British goods. This was great for the Empire but a disaster for India. The horror of that period may be guessed from the estimate that India’s share of the world manufacturing fell from 20% to about 1.4% during the British rule (the estimate if for 1750 -1914).


The dynamics between the jātis has been influenced a great deal by historical and political factors. During the periods of economic growth, the jātis have been relatively open-ended; during periods of hardships the jātis have tended to draw in for the sake of survival.

Colonial anthropologists failed to understand the complexities and fluidity of the jātis. The classification in terms of these castes was used to categorize people in the census forms in 1872. Most jātis were not aware of the specific varṇa class they belonged to but were squeezed into the varṇa system by the British administrators.

Based on his understanding of the 1872 Census, the British administrator Denzil Ibbetson argued that jātis were a social rather than a religious mechanism for those who had converted to Islam also had it. He insisted that varṇa categories of Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra did not correspond to reality. He thought that the Kshatriya likely no longer existed and Vaishya certainly did not. There were classes of Brahmins who were viewed as outcastes even by the lowest ritual rank, the Shudra, and that the latter term was primarily used as a form of abuse rather than in any categorical sense.

But the ideas of racism were very strong and the perfect fit for the colonial project in India. Missionaries, anthropologists, and government officials set about identifying and classifying Indians into different castes. They used head measurements, skin color, physique, and occupation to develop a racial theory of Indian civilization.

The British Superintendent of the 1921 census summarized what they had done over the previous half-century: “We pigeon-holed everyone by caste and if we could not find a true caste for them, labelled them with the name of hereditary occupation. We deplore the caste system and its effect on social and economic problems, but we are largely responsible for the system we deplore.”

Some jātis were declared to be martial and therefore fit to serve in the army, others were left with menial jobs, and yet others were labeled criminal. The British created a system of institutionalized discrimination. Slowly, the jātis that came out on the top in this classification began to believe in the myth of their superiority since immemorial time. These false ideas have poisoned politics for over a century in the entire Indian subcontinent.

Think about this: H. H. Risley hoped to demonstrate that the social status “varies in inverse ration to the mean relative width of the nose” and his colleague guessed that “intelligence is in inverse proportion to the breadth of the nose.” People were discouraged to apply for clerical jobs if their nasal index exceeded 78.

The historian Thomas Trautmann considers H.H. Risley, who became Census Commissioner in 1899, along with the philologist Max Müller, to have most aggressively pushed the idea “that the constitutive event for Indian civilization, the Big Bang through which it came into being, was the clash between invading, fair-skinned, civilized Sanskrit-speaking Aryans and dark-skinned, barbarous aborigines.” Their influence is not entirely gone. Some of the most racist scholars are to be found in the Indology and Sanskrit departments of the West.

Shyamji Bhai shop, village Bhujodi, Kutch, attracts customers globally. Media calls him a Dalit. 

India and science

Writing in 1068, the Spanish-Arab savant Said al-Andalusi declared in his book Ṭabaqāt al-ʼUmam (Categories of Nations) comparing the science of the leading nations that Indians were the most advanced: “The Indians are the essence of wisdom, source of fairness and objectivity. They are the peoples of sublime pensiveness, universal apologues, and useful and rare inventions.”

The British administrators in the education system were generally ignorant of India’s history of science so they did not accept this characterization, even if they acknowledged that the Indian schools were able to impart basic education to broad segments of society, irrespective of their jāti. Macaulay famously stated, Indian knowledge was worthless, and reason enough to separate Indians from their traditions and books, and this became a cornerstone of their education policy.

It is now well accepted that India has been one of the leading scientific nations of the world. Since I have already written much on it elsewhere, here are the links to an overview of ancient Indian science and how it supplied the foundational bases of modern science. Nevertheless, this material is generally unknown to the layperson and therefore old myths persist.

An aside on why I ever got into the study of the history of Indian science. In the eighties, I happened to see a paper which argued that if there was something in Indian scientific texts that was not to be found in Greek or Babylonian texts, then it should be taken as an example of lost Greek or Babylonian knowledge. The fact that such a stupid hypothesis was taken seriously in the academy got me hooked into investigating this field (see also this).

The election and the aftermath

The election was held in the background of rapid economic growth (fastest of any major economy) when jobs have remained under pressure due to the inevitable increase in the use of automation and AI technologies. The policy differences between the BJP and the opposition parties were not large but their manifestos appeared to be motivated by distinctly different visions.

The BJP espoused a nationalism that appeared to reject the Western textbook idea of India, which was ridiculed by the media in India and overseas. The Left parties spoke of incremental change while continuing to see India through the colonial lens that has been the consensus for decades.

The magnitude of the Left’s defeat surprised most observers. The election turned out to have been a subaltern revolt against the elites. The well-informed subaltern felt morally and educationally superior to those with advanced degrees who are ignorant of India’s own history. Seen from this perspective, the election results are an indictment of India’s education system.

Let the light of knowledge banish old myths and darkness. To help that along, the government will do well to undertake these two administrative steps:

1. Discontinue the use of the inaccurate term caste in government and official documents, and replace it by jāti or community, as appropriate.

2. Introduce a course on the history of Indian science in high school and college curricula, and also a curriculum for those who are interested in Indian classics.

Indian culture is humanistic and universal; it has no dichotomy of believer and non-believer, and it has the capacity to deal with the challenges of artificial intelligence for all mankind.

If the people of India voted for progress (सर्वे भवन्तु सुखिनः, सर्वे सन्तु निरामयाः, let all be prosperous and let all be wholesome) and a rejection of the colonialist prejudices of the yesteryear, isn’t that a good thing?

To read all articles by author

Also read

1. Were Backward Classes always suppressed in India

Article was first published here . Author has authorised eSamskriti to re-publish.  

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