Rejoinder to Interpretation of Dreams

Summary: Jean Dreze wrote an article ‘Interpretation of Dreams’ that was published in the Times of India (April 2009) . It made several false and misleading statements. Almost all claims were wrong except the one regarding Macaulay’s statement. This article responds to the article and gives another point of view.  

The author has made several false and misleading statements. He seems to think that ‘occasional famines’ translates into ‘economically poor nation with hunger being common’. This is a very misleading statement. All we need to do is to go through Fa-Hien’s and similar travelogues to know that India was definitely a very rich nation. Just because there were a few famines in that century does not qualify India to be declared as a poor nation. After all, famines were ‘exceptions’ and the normal condition was that there were bountiful crops and hunger cases were very rare.
Mahabharata and other Itihasa-Puranas do state about occasional famines which are few and far in between. But they also categorically state that the nation was otherwise very rich where people lived without the fear of hunger and chronic poverty. The author and Ms Romila Thapar seem to believe that only famine-related passages appear visible to them. If you refer to a text to ascertain economic situation in India, you cannot cherry pick what suits you but skip that does not. The fact that India was a wealthy nation is substantiated by both the Indian and foreign sources. (See links below).

The author wrote that plastic surgery was practiced in India before 400 CE. I would request Dreze to read the Sushruta Samhita. Rhinoplasty was performed in India even in the 18th century when the art was dying out. In fact, Joseph Carpue used the Indian rhinoplasty method to perform the first rhinoplastic surgery in Britain in the early 19th century. The method came to be known as “Carpue’s operation” (sic) in the western world.

Thereafter Dreze does not seem to give much importance to the testimonies of Megasthenes. That is perfectly unjustified. But one cannot simply wish away his work. After all, the very foundation of Indian historical eras is based on the identification of Megasthenes’ Sandrocottus with Chandragupta Maurya. It is true that Megasthenes wrote many fanciful stories but his testimonies in those cases have to be accepted where local evidence substantiate the same. If such rigorous methods as prescribed by Dreze are applied to ancient ‘history’ texts, most contemporary records prior to 1st century BCE need to be completely ignored.

Further Dreze’s statement that Joshi has not cited local sources makes me smile. It is a case of ‘die if you do and die if you don’t’. When local sources are cited, these ‘historians’ pooh-pooh the evidence. When foreign/neutral sources are cited, they ask for local evidence. BJP’s manifesto is not a paper on history. It is illogical to expect Joshi to cite each and every source. In fact, his insistence on neutral sources seems to be a conscious effort to overcome unnecessary scepticism but either way he is damned!

So also Dreze is not aware of the state of mathematics in medieval India. The Kerala school of Mathematics was far advanced than its contemporary Europe. Many mathematical ‘discoveries’ in 17th century Europe was known in India before the 16th century. This school came to an end due to the Portuguese, Dutch and Islamic invasions in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. One can say that discoveries stopped from the 16th century due to lack of law and order in Kerala. 

The book by Dr Gopalakrishnan of IISH, ‘We Claim These Are Indian Discoveries’, lists the sources for various such mathematical discoveries made in Kerala. Prof. Dreze might want to read this book and similar ones published by IISH (The Indian Institute of Scientific Heritage). The book makes us wonder whether the European discoveries were not a case of ‘unacknowledged’ borrowings. After all, there was a huge European presence in the subcontinent! Therefore, the claim about Indian knowledge is not completely wrong.

The author seconds the European view that India was neither rich nor its people intelligent during the pre-British era.

The author wrote that Mahatma Gandhi was wrong in stating that India became more illiterate under the British rule. I would ask the author to read the book ‘The Beautiful Tree’ written by Sri Dharampal (see links below). Dharampal has cited the British archives to conclusively prove that every village in Madras and Bengal provinces had a school and India’s literacy rate was higher than that of England during the early 19th century. More importantly his work tells us that these schools were open to all castes and had students from every community. Jean Dreze erred by echoing the European view rather than rely on indigenous research.

The truth is that in the first half of 19th century, India was stripped of her village schools by the British administration which contributed to an increase in illiteracy. In fact, the increase in the literacy gap between the higher and lower castes was due to British actions.

I must admit that Prof. Dreze has got atleast one fact right. Macaulay is purported to have made a statement in the British Parliament that no Indians were poor. Sri Joshi got carried away by its ubiquitous presence on the Internet while Prof Dreze states that no such statement was made.

I wonder when India will get rid of historians who belong to the clique of Habib, Thapar and Drezes etc. We need historians who cite evidence and go with the inherent logic conveyed by the same.

Also read –
1. Why did India become a poor country
2. Indigenous Indian Education in the 18th century
3. Rediscovering India
4. When Caste was not a bad word
5. Understanding Hinduism

Ravilochan Sharma is a student at the Nirma Institute of Management.

Receive Site Updates