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Gandhi’s Tiger

Gandhi’s Tiger: Multilingual Elites, the Battle for Minds, and English Romantic Literature in Colonial India
by Ruth Vanita

Published in Postcolonial Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 95-110, 2002

“… we want English rule without the Englishman. You want the tiger’s nature, but not the tiger;
that is to say, you would make India English. … That is not the Swaraj that I want.”
– M. K.Gandhi1

“This colonialism colonises minds in addition to bodies and it releases forces within colonised
societies to alter their cultural priorities once and for all. … Particularly, once the British
rulers and the exposed sections of Indians internalized the colonial role definitions … the
battle for the minds of men was to a great extent won by the Raj.”
– Ashis Nandy2

Gandhi’s fear that some Indians want a Swaraj that is tiger-like and thus more English than Indian is closely connected to the belief of post-colonial theorists like Nandy that “the battle for the minds of men was to a great extent won by the Raj.” However, the unacknowledged source of Gandhi’s anxiety is reflected in his choice of metaphor. To suggest that by becoming tiger-like, Indian rule would become more English than Indian, is odd, because tigers, animals native to India, not England, had a long-standing pre-colonial association in India both with sovereignty and with power. Kate Brittlebank, among others, has described how Tipu Sultan drew both on Hindu and Islamic symbolism in his choice of the tiger as emblem, represented on his coins, banners, garments, throne, and perhaps most famously in his mechanical toy tiger that devours a screaming Englishman with fierce snarls.3 As a vehicle of the warrior goddess Durga and in its association with Shaivism, the tiger represents aspects of Hinduism with which Gandhi, the exponent of non-violent Vaishnavism, was uncomfortable, but which both Hindu and Muslim kings had regularly appropriated to blazon their power. The commemorative medal struck by the British in 1799 after their defeat of Tipu shows a British lion above a supine tiger. A British account of the battle acknowledges the similarity of emblems when it states that the tiger is “the figurative Royal animal in the nations of India, as the Lion is in the British dominions.” The same identification of the tiger with Asia is central to the symbol’s most famous appearance in English literature, as Blake’s tiger.

Furthermore, as Brittlebank points out, many Indian languages do not sharply distinguish between “lion” and “tiger,” and Indian kings often blended features of both in the motifs of power that they developed. The attraction of many communities to the symbolic power of these creatures is reflected in the number of groups all over the country who, over many centuries, have adopted some variant of “simha” as their last name: Sinha, Singhal, Singh.

When the tiger fights the lion, it fights not the Self or the Other but a Similar. My argument is that when educated Englishmen fought the battle of minds with educated Indian men, they also fought not Others or even Bhabha-ite mimics but Similars. Perhaps the most important similarity between these two male elites was an awareness of scripted textuality as power. Post-colonial literary theory argues that as the gun was crucial to colonial victories on the battlefield, the scripted text was crucial to winning the “battle for minds.” I suggest that while Europeans were more practiced at manufacturing and using guns, elites in some colonized countries were just as practiced at producing and using scripted texts as were Europeans. In those colonies that had been producing written texts for centuries, Europeans were compelled, from the outset, to modify their claim to civilizational superiority. This was because European elites found that the terms on which their claim to superiority rested were, by and large, the same terms on which the indigenous elites’ claim to superiority rested. Among these terms were (a) a “high culture,” defined by a long tradition of producing literary and philosophical texts and critical and theological commentary upon those texts, and (b) multilingualism, including knowledge of classical literatures.

One of post-colonial theory’s central assumptions is that the colonial encounter, in the types of dominance, desires, and anxieties it produced, was radically unlike any earlier encounter between conqueror and subject, and, consequently, that post-colonial hybridities are altogether new and unlike earlier hybridities. Hence the centrality given to colonialism in the term “post-colonial,” with its implicit relegation of all earlier events and relations to the realm of the “pre-colonial.” My argument is that in India, where textual “battles for minds” were continually being waged between elites and were temporarily resolved only to produce the bases for fresh battles, Indian male elites’ battle with British colonizers was a somewhat but not entirely different battle. Although I disagree with Nandy’s view that “the battle for the minds of men was to a great extent won by the Raj,” I am deeply indebted to many of his formulations and insights, in the following examination of educated Indian men in the colonial period selectively reading and appropriating English Romantic poetry.

My argument is limited only to the battles fought by those elites who read and wrote scripted texts, in universities, courts, and government offices, whether these texts were in Sanskrit, Persian, or English. Since these elites were mostly male, my argument pertains more to men than women, although in the later colonial period, educated females of these elite groups who entered the public domain and fought intellectual battles, such as educationist and poet Mahadevi Varma, would also fit my paradigm.

In my view, both Nandy’s paradigm of the slave’s “authentic innocence” and post-colonial theory’s more widely used paradigms of Caliban-like mimicry and subversion apply more to first-generation literates like those who, in Bhabha’s account, received the Bible with awe and fetishized it even as they disavowed British mediation, because they lived in “a culture where usually only caste Hindus would possess a copy of the Scriptures.”4 To Indians who had never before owned a book, the Bible, in English or translated, may have been a sign taken for a wonder; to those Indians who owned books in several languages and knew how to use books to browbeat others, the Bible was just another interesting but not especially powerful book. As missionaries ruefully acknowledged, educated Hindus “cared as little for the Bible in its religious character as we do for Homer.”5 Noteworthy in this statement is the implication that educated Indians distinguished between the literary and theological value of a text, just as educated British Christians did when reading Greek texts.

Writing in Many Tongues: Multi-Lingual and Hybrid Male Elites

Both in pre-colonial India and in early modern England, those who rose to high position were usually fluent in several languages, both classical and vernacular. Linguistic and cultural hybridity was a precondition for intellectual success under the Islamicate and also a necessity for successful integration into urbane society. This continued to be the case in colonial India, with English being added to the languages that the educated were required to know, but not displacing Persian, Sanskrit or the modern Indian languages.

The multilingualism of educated elites in colonial India, with English being only one of the languages in which they were fluent, was not, therefore, a new phenomenon born of Western education. It was rooted in long-standing traditions of pre-colonial life in the large urban centers, as life histories of well-known pre-colonial intellectuals attest. Witness two of Mughal Emperor Akbar’s “nine gems” – the courtiers Rahim and Birbal. Birbal, original name Mahesh Das, born 1528 in a Brahman family in what is today Uttar Pradesh, learnt Hindi, Sanskrit, and Persian at school; he became a wit, poet and musician first at the court of the Hindu king Bhagwant Das in Jaipur, and joined Akbar’s court in 1562 at the Emperor’s desire.6 Abdul Rahim Khan-I-Khanan (1556-1627) was a general, fluent in Persian, Turkish, and Sanskrit. A poet in Persian, he also occupies a respected place in the canon of Hindi poets for his couplets, Rahim Satsai. The mixed ancestry of many Indians facilitated this ability to draw on different literary heritages – thus, Sufi courtier-poet Amir Khusrau (circa 1253-1325), whose father was Turkish and mother of Hindu Rajput descent, is equally famous for his Persian and his Hindvi poetry.

This pattern continued during the colonial period in both countries. The average university graduate in Victorian England and in the early twentieth century could read and write English and French as well as Latin and some Greek. An average graduate in north India in the same period could read and write English, Hindi, Urdu, and the mother tongue (such as Punjabi) and also some Persian and/or Sanskrit.

Extraordinary intellectual success in both Indian and British cultures also continued to be marked by extraordinary knowledge of languages. William Jones was famed for having learnt more than a dozen languages, including Greek, Latin, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Sanskrit. Swami Vivekananda knew many languages including English, Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Persian, and Sanskrit. Both his father and grandfather knew Persian and Sanskrit.7

The Kayastha community provides a collective example of intellectual success based in hybridity and multilingualism that developed in pre-colonial India but persisted in colonial and post-colonial India. Historians suggest that this community coalesced around the profession of writing, in a problematic relation to the varna system, since at various times Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras adopted this profession.8 A politically influential and intellectual community in pre-colonial India, with a tradition of occupying administrative posts under both Hindu and Muslim rulers, they were fluent in Persian, Urdu, their mother tongues and frequently in Sanskrit as well. This command over more than one language, and especially over more than one script, including a rumored secret script, was a major source of their power and prosperity. It enabled Kayastha men to dominate bureaucracies in pre-colonial India, from the highest to the lowest levels, to shape policy and law, and also to acquire land. Kayastha women too were relatively well-educated and accomplished in the arts. The Kayasthas are hybrids par excellence – Kayastha sub-castes vary widely in their marital and dietary practices, and ritual statuses. This hybridity served them well in pre-colonial as in colonial and post-colonial India. Any list of Indian nationalists, social reformers, or civil servants, writers and artists would be liberally peppered with Kayastha men and women. To view colonial and post-colonial hybridity as altogether distinct from earlier types of hybridity is to overlook the continuous traditions of hybridity represented by such communities as the Kayasthas.

Male elites in pre-colonial India were habituated to constant translation practice – mental, oral, and written – much like educated British men who moved with ease between English, French, and German. Oral translation was part of everyday life in cities such as Delhi, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Varanasi, with cosmopolitan, polyglot cultures, and there were also sophisticated written traditions of translation between various Indian languages in pre-colonial India. For example, translated versions of Bhakta poets’ compositions were transmitted both in writing and orally, the Guru Granth Saheb being one written compendium of such versions.9 Rulers like Akbar and royal patrons like prince Dara Shukoh commissioned translations between classical languages, for instance, of Hindu religious texts from Sanskrit to Persian.

The first upper-class Indian readers to encounter English literature were therefore in a position to add it to the arsenal of literatures with which they were familiar, and to wield it to their own benefit. The Committee of Public Instruction remarked of Hindu College students in 1830, only fourteen years after its foundation, that “a command of the English language, and the familiarity with its literature and science have been acquired to an extent rarely equalled by any schools in Europe.”10 Holt Mackenzie commented around the same time that Hindu College students showed “an astonishing proficiency in language, writing it, many of them with purity quite equal to that shown by lads of the same age in an English school.”11

Contesting Superiorities and the Appropriation of English

Macaulay’s notorious Minute of 1835 is often quoted as indicative of the colonizers’ assurance of their own superiority. What it does not indicate, however, is whether all the colonized were equally convinced of this. Theorists often slip from the first to the second assumption. For instance, Gauri Viswanathan, although she says she is concerned not with Indian response but only with British intent and policy, slides into linguistic structures which strongly suggest that what the British government wanted to happen actually did happen:

Not only then did British educational ideology get maximum advantages from the employment of morally trained men for those who ran the country, but such employment was impressed upon the general public as beneficial to its own moral character. The importance of English literature for this process could not be exaggerated; as the source of moral values for correct behaviour and action, it represented a convenient replacement for the direct religious instruction that was forbidden by law. … A discipline that was originally introduced in India primarily to convey the mechanics of language was thus transformed into an instrument for ensuring industriousness, efficiency, trustworthiness, and compliance in native subjects.12

The phrase “was thus transformed” takes a jump from intention to execution. “Transformed” in the minds of government officials? Or in those of Indians? Is it possible to transform an entire literature into an instrument for “ensuring … compliance”? Can compliance ever be “ensured”? Did all English literature actually become educated Indians’ “source of moral values for correct behaviour and action” or did the government mistakenly think it did? I suggest that regardless of British intentions, many “native subjects” received English literature from a position of intellectual self-confidence.

Many educated Indian Hindus and Muslims were convinced of their own civilizational superiority over the British. Under the Islamicate, despite the overall relations of dominance and subordination between Muslims and Hindus, men educated in the Sanskritic and the Persian traditions already had a highly developed mutual relationship of acknowledging the other tradition’s excellences while each remaining convinced of the superiority of their own. These Indian elites shifted the terms of the contest to accommodate the English literary tradition. In this new triangulation, members of all three groups tended to vacillate in their opinion as to who occupied the second and third positions in the hierarchy of intellectual attainment, but each had very little doubt regarding their own primary position.

It is well known that in the pre-colonial period, upper-caste Hindus were disdainful of foreign cultures, an attitude also well-documented for Chinese elites. Al Biruni (973-1048), who came to India with Mahmud of Ghaznah, and researched Hindu philosophy, science, and culture through extensive discussions with Brahman scholars as well as translations of Sanskrit texts, remarked in his famous Kitab-al-Hind: “the Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs.”13 Things had not changed much by the seventeenth century when Italian Nicolo Manucci, recorded his impression that Indians thought Europeans “have no polite manners, that they are ignorant, wanting in ordered life, and very dirty.”14

Colonization in India proceeded slowly and went through many phases; it also took different forms in British India and in the princely states. As in China, Indian cultural prejudices underwent modification but did not disappear. Gandhi’s much-quoted and often-disdainful comments on European civilization (“Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?” “I think it would be a very good idea.”) are not just examples of his quirky individuality. They are entirely typical of a persistent strain of upper-class Indian disdain for the West. Also, as Maulana Mohammad Ali remarked in his Presidential Address to the 1923 annual session of the Indian National Congress, “the rule of India [having] passed from Muslim into English hands by slow and hardly perceptible degrees … the Muslims had not ceased to regard the new rulers of India as something very inferior to themselves in civilisation and culture.”15

Since both Indian and European societies had old urban centers with traditions of producing comparable written texts such as drama, lyric, epic, and works on poetics, it was easy for both Europeans and Indians to draw cross-cultural comparisons, and to make claims regarding the longevity and continuity of cultural production. A modern Indian commonplace, often heard in Hindi today, to the effect that Britishers lived in primitive conditions “like monkeys” at a time when Indians were already civilized, appears to have a long history as it was put forward by William Jones in a letter to a close friend George John Spencer: “Whatever the age when drama was first introduced in India, it was carried to great perfection in its kind, when Vikramaditya, who reigned in the first century before Christ gave encouragement to poets, philosophers, and mathematicians at a time when Britons were as unlettered and unpolished as the army of Hanumat [the monkey general in the Ramayana]…”16

Paradoxically, it was this sense of superiority that rendered the upper-class Indian reception of English active rather than passive. The confidence of these groups in their ability to select, reject, and discriminate is evident in the oft-quoted statement of the Calcutta citizens who requested Sir Edward Hyde to set up a college offering English education: “if they found anything in the course of it which they could not reconcile to their religious opinions, they were not bound to receive it; but still they should wish to be informed of everything that the English gentlemen learnt, and they would take that which they found good and liked best” (emphasis mine).17 These prosperous parents, clamorously demanding English education for their sons, seem to have had little fear that exposure to Christian theology would shake those sons’ religious moorings. This conviction turned out to be well-founded, as only a negligible minority of the children who received an English education converted to Christianity. As the Gandhian Syrian Christian S. K. George remarked : “Western education, it was hoped, would prove a preparation for the Gospel – a hope that has to a great extent been falsified and been largely abandoned.”18

Having learnt English, many educated Indians were convinced that their knowledge of English was superior to that of most Britishers. A story told by my Sanskrit professor Madhav Deshpande, illustrates this confidence, even arrogance, of the educated elite. When Deshpande was a schoolboy in Pune, his Maharashtrian teacher of English (who had also taught Deshpande’s father and had himself been educated in colonial India) one day asked each student to pronounce the word “water.” One boy, who had been raised in England and had just returned to India, repeatedly pronounced the word without the hard “t” characteristic of an Indian accent. At this the teacher grew very annoyed and said that Britishers, because they live in a cold climate, cannot pronounce the word properly but that is no reason why Indians should not pronounce it correctly with a hard “t.”

“That which they found good and liked best”: Indian Readers and English Romantics

G. N. Devy argues that “cultural amnesia” created by colonialism prevented the Indian intellectual from “tracing his tradition backwards beyond the mid-nineteenth century.”19 However, he elsewhere points out that some twentieth-century Indian literary critics’ postulation of a binary opposition between “Indian” and “Western” poetics overlooks Indian culture’s “remarkable talent for adjusting to new situations on its own terms,” an adjustment whereby “alien cultural features are accepted by Indian society after a careful process of selection, and after giving these features a traditional appearance.”20 Building on this latter insight, I argue that Indian readers educated in colonial India carefully selected certain English poets and compared their writings to Indian texts both in Sanskrit and in modern Indian languages, especially to Bhakti medieval devotional texts. Often, these readers’ interpretations gave English poets’ writings “a traditional [Indian] appearance.” This type of assertion of cross-cultural similarities is not, in my view, merely an example of Western humanist universalism but rather an example of Indian syncretic universalism in that it compares not so much the Indian to the Western but the Western to the Indian. As such, it provides an apt example of Indian readers’ intellectual self-confidence.

Several British commentators noted, in tones ranging from appreciation to consternation, that English-educated Indians in the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, had a strong predilection for English Romantic writers and for Shakespeare. Sister Nivedita (Margaret Noble) wrote of “Hindu life in the city of Calcutta … a world in which men in loin-cloths, seated on door-sills in industry lanes, said things about Shakespeare and Shelley that some of us would go far to hear.”21

This choice of the Romantics was not arbitrary. After the advent of Islam in India, Sufism and Bhakti had provided a meeting-ground for adherents of very different religions that were often placed in adversarial positions. Devotional mysticism in both Hindu and Muslim traditions had a universalist aspect that served to build bridges between communities. English Romantic poetry had a similar universalist aspect that drew on the Christian devotional mysticism of a past near-erased in Protestant England. Furthermore, it is well known that several English Romantic writers had revolutionary sympathies and were radical opponents of the British establishment.22

In the 1820s and 1830s the Romantics were already being read by English-educated Calcuttans such as Henry DeRozio. The charges brought against DeRozio when he was forced to resign in 1831 from Hindu College were strikingly similar to those brought against Byron and Shelley in England: “that he did not believe in God, that he encouraged rebellion against parents, and that he believed in incest.”23 At this time, Byron and Shelley were still dubbed “the Satanic school” by mainstream literary journals in England. Both had died in self-chosen exile from England, and their writings contain powerful diatribes against the British government, the Anglican church, the literary establishment and upper-class English society in general. As C.D. Narasimhaiah points out:

India was engaged in a political confrontation with Great Britain. … the Romantics provided the right idiom to express our … hatred of tyranny. … another factor: the personal lives … of a Wordsworth … who expressed spiritual affinities with the Indian; a Byron who was disowned by his own countrymen and laid down his life for the freedom of Greece; and a Shelley whose … spirit of revolt against all manner of oppression for which he became the darling of the Indians.24

The anti-authoritarianism of English Romantic writers was not restricted to opposing certain governmental policies, and this is where they differed from many Enlightenment writers. The novelty of Romantic libertarianism consisted in its strong tendency to antinomianism, and its privileging of emotion over reason, sympathy over judgment, and pleasure over self-denial. Romantic writing and Indian writing, or, to use another kind of phrasing, “the Romantic sensibility” and “the Indian sensibility” were systematically and simultaneously denounced by British conservative opinion from the days of Blackwood’s Magazine to those of Scrutiny.

The sources and terms of these denunciations were very similar. Both Hindu and Romantic philosophies were accused of idolatrous blasphemy and irrational sentimentality. Missionaries, attacking Hinduism for its individualism, argued that the Hindu notion of the Self was destructive of morality – if human beings are divine, whatever they do is divine and beyond categories of good and evil, right and wrong. A similar charge was leveled at Romantic individualism. Victorian didactism was uncomfortable with the insistence in classical Sanskrit aesthetics on art as pleasurable in and for itself. This insistence was seen as not far from the “art for art’s sake” of the late Romantics Pater and Wilde, which caused such distress to the British literary establishment. British educationists frequently lamented Indian readers’ predilection for the beautiful and the useless in literature.

When the first translations of Sanskrit literature appeared in Britain in the late eighteenth century, journals like the Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly Review critiqued it for its mythologizing of history, humanizing of the gods and deifying of humans, while Persian poetry was criticized for its sensuality. Any reader of the notorious reviews of Keats’ poems in these same journals will recognize similar charges – sensuality, unmanliness, lack of morals, and pagan tendencies. It is hardly surprising that in addition to being castigated for his “blasphemous” pantheism and paganism, Shelley was also condemned for having gleaned his ideas of vegetarianism and equality “from all quarters, all kindreds, and all ages of the system of infidel philosophy.”25 In his essay “A Refutation of Deism”, composed in 1812-13, and privately published in 1814, Shelley mounts a frontal attack on Christianity but declares himself “willing to admit that some few axioms of morality which Christianity has borrowed from the philosophers of Greece and India dictate … rules of conduct worthy of regard.”26

Despite Shelley’s acknowledgment of Indian influence and even after Raymond Schwab’s path-breaking documentation of Romanticism as an “Oriental Renaissance” in Europe, most teachers of English Romanticism still trace its sources to European, Platonic and neo-Platonic thought, but ignore the influence of Eastern thought.27 However mixed the motives of such Orientalists as William Jones and Charles Wilkins who undertook the first translations of texts such as the Bhagvad Gita (1785), Hitopdesha(1787), Shakuntala(1789), Gita Govinda(1792) and portions of the Upanishads (1806), there is no doubt that European Romantic notions of pantheism, pluralism, anti-monotheism, hedonism, the sympathetic imagination, and individualist anarchism were strongly reinforced by, if not derived from, such translated texts. In late Romantic writing such as Fitzgerald’s hugely popular Omar Khayyam, the debt is often more obvious. Mainstream Romantic studies’ disposition to ignore this may be, as John Drew suggests, partly due to Western intellectuals’ “reluctance to consider that the foundations of Europe’s classical culture, no less than England’s modern material prosperity, may owe something to a place which Europe finds as difficult of approach on account of its traditional metaphysical abstruseness as on account of its contemporary material impoverishment.”28 I suggest then that Indian readers’ selection of Romantic texts was based not only on political affinities but also on the fact that much Romantic writing represented a phenomenon that Eric Sharpe has described as “an idea, partly derived from Indian sources … passing through a Western mind and then being fed back into India.”29

Early nineteenth-century English literature syllabi in India did not include the writings of the six poets today known as the major English Romantics. Thus, the English literature texts in Hindu College in the 1820s were Gay’s fables, Pope’s version of the AeneidParadise Lost and one of Shakespeare’s tragedies.30 By the mid-nineteenth century the syllabi in government and mission schools occasionally included Wordsworth. Other writers included were the overtly Christian Cowper, Goldsmith, Southey, Young, Campbell, Otway, while the bulk of the syllabi was still occupied by the Augustans such as Pope, Johnson, Addison. Viswanathan’s claim that missionary schools adopted “predominantly Romantic” syllabi is rather odd, given that the syllabi cited by her contain only one major Romantic, Wordsworth, and two minor ones (Southey and Campbell) in a total of over twenty writers.31 Manju Dalmia’s assessment that the syllabi were framed by “eighteenth-century British notions of propriety” appears better founded.32

Nineteenth-century Indian readers’ love for the writings of Byron, Shelley and Keats sprang from reading done outside of school and college curricula, a kind of reading often frowned upon by British educationists. Sri Aurobindo, studying in England, was not taught English literature as part of his formal education. He read it on his own and selected Shelley as a favorite. “Touched by something in Shelley’s imaginative recreation of the French revolution [inThe Revolt of Islam] Aurobindo decided to dedicate his life ‘to a similar world-change and take part in it.'”33

It is not possible here to deal in any detail with the relationship between Romantic and Hindu philosophical and aesthetic principles; however, a few examples may be considered for their suggestive value. The first is that of an all-pervasive divine energy manifested in the universe, as opposed to the idea of a Creator who is separate from and superior to the Creation. Romantic poetry was frequently attacked for its pantheism, as was Hindu thought. Nineteenth and twentieth century developments in Hinduism, especially reform movements such as the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj, tried to counter Western accusations of polytheistic idolatry by emphasizing Hindu notions of oneness in godhead. However, the sanctity of all forms of life and even of inanimate natural elements persisted in Hindu belief and practice. This is an idea that surfaces powerfully in Romantic poetry and is immediately recognized by many Indian readers. My undergraduate students at Miranda House, on first encountering “Tintern Abbey,” invariably read the references to “something far more deeply interfused … A motion and a spirit, that impels/ All thinking things, all objects of all thought/ And rolls through all things” as a reference to the Atman.

Similarly, the celebration of natural forces as sacred, from Shelley’s West Wind to Keats’ “holy the air, the water, and the fire” evokes an immediate response in Indian students. A student at Miranda House pointed out that the centrality of the killing of a bird in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is similar to the opening of Valmiki’s Ramayana where a hunter’s killing of a bird elicits grief (shoka) in the poet, and verse rises to his lips in a metrical form (shloka) suggested by the cry of the bird’s companion. Underlying many such texts is an idea of sympathetic interaction and dialogue between various living beings – mariner and water snakes; poet and skylark/nightingale/child.34

The intimate dialogue between poet and reader, so characteristic of Romantic poetry, comes close to the idea in Indian poetics of the appropriate reader as one who is sahridaya, “of one heart with,” the writer. Such a reader is a rasika, capable of relishing various emotions. According to Rasa theory poetry is pleasurable because it evokes the rasas or emotions such as grief, compassion, fear, anger, erotic love, nurturing love, devotion, and so on. By their fusion (samyoga) in a poem, these emotions awaken pleasure. Similarly, the Romantics emphasize emotions such as love and sympathy as the sources and effects of literature, claiming that the sympathetic imagination alone is the wellspring of morality. The coming together of two living beings within the poem, as of poet and reader, is imaged as a moment of blinding insight rather than reasoned comprehension.

Romantic writing foregrounds sight, many poems beginning or climaxing in vision (“on a cloud I saw a child”; “All at once I saw a crowd”, “I saw the water snakes”). This “seeing into the life of things” is a common pattern in Hindu and Islamic mystical writing and appeals directly to Indian readers. The aim of reasoned philosophy is a moment of vision, as is suggested by the Sanskrit term for philosophy, darshan (sight). As Bimal Krishna Matilal explains: “The sceptic’s argumentation through constant practice is supposed to lead one to an insight into the nature of what is ultimately real (prajna). This transition from radical scepticism to some sort of mysticism … is very pronounced in the Indian tradition, and it seems to be somewhat marginal in the western tradition.”35 Thus, as Nandy argues that Gandhi drew on mainstream Indian paradigms that happened also to chime with paradigms marginalized but present in modern Christian Europe, I argue that Indian readers drew on those Romantic concepts that were marginalized in mainstream modern Europe but chimed with mainstream Indian concepts.

It is possible to read the Romantics as radically egalitarian and also possible to read Vedantic philosophy, as Gandhi and some other nationalists read it, in the same way. It is often assumed, and even stated as incontrovertible fact, that the idea of equality is a Western post-enlightenment humanist idea and was imported into India via the English language. However, the same nationalists who quoted European writers to support the demand for equality simultaneously cited Indian philosophical texts as well. They were also quick to read Indian texts as more radically egalitarian than Western ones. For instance, Bipin Chandra Pal, speaking in 1906, explicitly quoted the language of the Book of Genesis to distinguish between the Christian notion of the human as God’s creation and the Hindu notion of the human as itself divine:

What is the message of the Vedanta? The message of the Vedanta is this: that every man has within himself…the spirit of God; and as God is eternally free, self-realised, so is every man eternally free and self-realised. … Man is made not out of the image, not in the image, but out of the substance of the maker, and as God is eternally free, so are you, prince or peasant, Brahman or Mohammedan, Buddhist or Christian, rich or poor, ignorant or learned, free and eternal.36

Implicit here is a critique of Christianity’s inadequate and limited notion of human freedom since, unlike Vedanta, Christianity subordinates creature to creator. In his readings of such texts as the Gita, Gandhi extended this philosophical argument for equality and freedom to non-human species, as thinkers like Shelley had also done.

The much-discussed Indian “love” for Shakespeare can also be read not merely as borrowed bardolatry but as often oppositional in quality. It is important to remember that early nineteenth-century British opinion was divided on the moral value of Shakespeare and on the nature of his influence in India. Thus, if the Rev. William Keane thought Shakespeare “full of religion” he also thought him “by no means a good standard,” arguing that Christianity was unconsciously rather than consciously present in the plays. If missionaries like Keane thought Shakespeare’s plays were imbued with Protestant common sense, several others argued that he should not be taught in India because “Shakespeare’s language (which contains words like fortunefatemuse, and nature) reflected a pagan rather than a Protestant morality.”37 This Victorian anxiety had arisen in reaction to the Romantic tendency to read Shakespeare as non-sectarian and beyond Christian dualistic morality, “taking as much delight in an Iago as an Imogen.” The Romantic insistence on Shakespeare’s universality had much to do with his texts not being overtly Christian but rather being saturated with pre-Christian ideas and images drawn from medieval English folklore, and Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology. The two English poets whom the Romantics wholeheartedly acknowledged as literary ancestors, while disowning many others, were Shakespeare and Milton.

Shakespeare’s tragedies and Milton’s Paradise Lost were included in nineteenth-century English literature syllabi in India. Indians displayed a greater predilection for Shakespeare’s comedies, especially A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and for the Milton of Paradise Lost Books I and II. Their Milton was not the Christian Milton of the Nativity Ode but the Milton who stood for liberty against tyrannical monarchs, the republican Milton of Aeropagitica and the tract in favor of divorce. Like Blake and Shelley, Indian readers tended to assume that Milton “was of the Devil’s Party without knowing it.” Thus, Sri Aurobindo, in his survey of English poetry, goes along not only with the Romantic view of the age of Dryden and Pope as “paltry, narrow and elegantly dull” but also with their view that Milton’s vision fails when he tries intellectually to justify the ways of god to men but succeeds when he poetically projects Satan and Hell.38

Selective Appreciation: the Politics of Diversity

Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Indian readers of English literature tended to adopt an appreciative mode that critiqued not so much by denunciation as by avoidance. Selecting for appreciation what they “found good and liked best,” these readers tended to ignore what they did not like. This mode of reading was developed before English texts appeared in India; it had long been in operation between regional, religious, and linguistic communities within India.

Much before the advent of the British, Indian societies had been compelled to come to terms with what today are called “multiculturalism” and “cultural diversity.” Take the example of the symbolic refusal of Hindu and Muslim soldiers in 1857 to bite cartridges rumored to have been greased with cow and pig fat. This civilizational refusal was premised both on difference and on similarity between Hindus and Muslims and it united them against the British precisely because of their own elaborately worked-out mechanisms for negotiating differences (such as meat-eating Hindus serving halal meat to Muslim friends and Muslims presenting uncooked food to Hindu friends). The perceived inability of the British to similarly accommodate difference signals what Dipesh Chakrabarti has termed, in another context, their “cultural provincialism” – a trait that appears today in the West in the titles of such books as Sacred Cows make the Best Burgers.39

Writers of different Indian languages, including Sanskrit and Persian, had long practiced generic mixing, interchange, and selection. Similar patterns of critical reception appear in Indian readers’ readings and selective appropriations of English literary texts. I outline below a few strategies of such comparative literary reading performed by pre-Independence Indian readers.

One strategy is simultaneous reference to Indian and English texts, for example, citing in the same breath both Guru Nanak and Hampden as instances of freedom fighters.40 Another is reading texts allegorically and analogically, in the style of traditional storytellers who imbued old tales with contemporary meaning. Thus, in 1941, C. Rajagopalachari, incarcerated in a British prison, occupied himself with learning Hindustani in the Urdu script, and also conducted classes on the Ramayana (in Valmiki’s Sanskrit, Kamban’s Tamil and Tulsidas’s Hindi versions), the Gita, and Shakespeare. B. Gopala Reddi, who was with him in jail, recalled reading Shakespeare’s tragedies with Rajagopalachari, who “explained … some of the situations in a masterly manner.”41 How he may have “explained some of the situations” is suggested by a reference he made to King Lear in a 1939 speech, in the Madras assembly, calling upon the Congress ministry to resign in protest, despite its sympathy with the Allied cause. Describing the opening scene of the play, and implicitly comparing the Congress to the fearless Cordelia, Britain to the bullying patriarch and India to the sympathetic spouse, Rajagopalachari said: “It is not flattery that will help. The Congress cannot give all its love to Britain. It must reserve that which is India’s share.”42

The freedom with which Indian readers moved between texts in different languages and between Indian and Western thought becomes evident when an apparently “Indian” idea is quoted from a “Western” source and is opposed to a “Western” idea emanating from an “Indian” source. Thus, in the debate on vegetarianism in Young India, Gandhi was confronted by a correspondent who quoted Swami Vivekananda’s opinion “that for Indians in their present state flesh-eating is a necessity …”43 This opinion was a response to a common stereotype of Hindus, especially Brahmans, as weak and cowardly due to their vegetarianism. Gandhi refuted it by citing the examples of great Hindu reformers like Shankara and Dayanand who, though vegetarians, were neither weak nor passive. He claimed that “Vegetarianism is one of the priceless gifts of Hinduism.”44 However, he also quoted Goldsmith and Shelley in support of his argument.45 He acknowledged that it was the Britisher Henry Salt’s book A Plea for Vegetarianism which first showed him “why, apart from a hereditary habit … it was right to be a vegetarian”.46 In another context, Gandhi combated Utilitarian rationalism by appealing to Wordsworth’s privileging of mystical emotion: “I exercise my judgment about every scripture. … I believe in Faith also, in things where reason has no place. … No argument can move me from that faith, and like that little girl who repeated against all reason ‘Yet we are seven’, I would like to repeat, on being baffled in argument by a very superior intellect, ‘Yet there is God.'”47

This kind of ability to accomplish enabling readings of a wide range of texts was not restricted to Indian readings of English literature. In colonial India, it continued to be used between various non-English texts. Readers who identified as Hindu or Muslim frequently quoted texts from the other religion to explicate thought and action. Thus, in 1940 Gandhi justified his fast by referring to “Mahomed’s life and his fast”; around the same time, Abbas Ali, a Muslim chief presidency magistrate, sentencing C. Rajagopalachari to a year’s imprisonment for sedition, “in a quavering voice … quoted Arjuna’s famous confession – ‘My body trembles, my breath stops, my bow slips from my hands’ – and expressed the hope that as a Gita student C.R. would understand a magistrate’s duty.”48

On occasion, Indians applied these reading strategies to propose enabling interpretations of avowedly imperialist writers. Such is the Gandhian S. K. George’s reading of Kipling’s poem “If.” George acknowledges that his reading of this poem “might seem … outrageous for it is a picture drawn by an out-and-out Britisher.” Yet, George uses the Blakean method of reading Milton to suggest that Kipling’s poem “is an unconscious description of Gandhi,” and asks readers “to go through it with this comparison in mind and see if it does not work.”49 In fact, the comparison works very interestingly:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue.
Or walk with kings, nor lose the common touch,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster,
And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son.50

By immediately afterwards citing Gandhi as exemplifying the Biblical saying “the meek shall inherit the earth,” George rewrites Kipling’s notion of a “Man” as one who conquers the earth.

Several post-colonial Indian writers have discussed their alienation from English literary texts that describe objects foreign to them. I suggest that many other Indian readers assimilated English literary texts to their own lives, no more needing to see a daffodil in order to understand Wordsworth’s Odes than they needed to see a Saki to understand Hafiz’s ghazals or a betaal to understand the stories of Vikramaditya. Such Indians’ love for English literature did not necessarily have anything to do with love for England or Englishness. On the contrary, it often identified with the anti-Englishness in many English literary texts.

Finally, many Indian readers’ tendency to look for “universal emotion” in the English literary text did not emanate only from Western humanism. Classical Indian aesthetics is based on the premise that some emotions are not localized or culturally specific. Bharata in the Natyashastra argues that spectators identify with emotion not their own, by comparing it with their own similar emotion. In other words, the rasas are universal emotions that all can feel and share.

I have argued that elite Indian readers under British rule actively and selectively assimilated those English literary texts that they found enabling into their multilingual and multiliterary mental universe, in which cross-literary and cross-language translations and comparisons had long been commonplace. In post-colonial India today, this relationship to English has begun to shift among the elites, concomitant with a shift from multilingualism to bilingualism.

At another remove, persons of Indian origin born and/or raised in the English-speaking West generally have verbal knowledge of an Indian language but have scripted knowledge of English alone. This crucially important imbalance, combined with the imbalance of being a linguistic minority in a Western country, puts Indian languages at a disadvantage for them, and distinguishes them from Indian readers raised and educated in India. this imbalance may well, to use Nandy’s phrase, “alter [their] cultural priorities once for all.” However, I have argued that the cultural priorities of Indians educated in colonial India did not alter once for all. To return to Gandhi’s metaphor, the problem is not that the monolingual post-colonial diasporic subject is acquiring the tiger’s nature; it may rather be that the many-striped tiger, that symbol of Indian multilingual, multiliterary syncretic tradition, is now threatened with extinction.

I am grateful to Saleem Kidwai, Rachana Kamtekar, Leela Gandhi, Chris Cuomo, Shiv Ganesh and Monica Bachmann for their helpful comments on this essay. I presented earlier versions of this paper at the University of Cincinnati and at Stanford University; the discussions that followed helped me to reshape it. Any mistakes that remain are, of course, my own.


1. Hind Swaraj (1908), in The Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi Vol. IV, ed. Shriman Narayan (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1968), 112.

2. The Intimate Enemy (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983; 1994), xi, 6-7.

3. Kate Brittlebank, Tipu Sultan’s Search for Legitimacy: Islam and Kingship in a Hindu Domain (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997), 37-38, 136, 140-46.

4. Homi Bhabha, “Signs Taken for Wonders,” in The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 117.

5. Calcutta Review 19:131-32.

6. Information from C. M. Agrawal, Akbar and his Hindu Officers (Jalandhar: ABS Publications, 1986), 30.

7. Amiya P. Sen, Swami Vivekananda (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), 19.

8. See Chitrarekha Gupta, The Kayasthas: A Study in the Formation and Early History of a Caste (Calcutta: K. P. Bagchi, 1996).

9. The Guru Granth Saheb, compiled in the sixteenth century, contains the only written text of the poetry of Baba Farid, thirteenth-century teacher of Nizamuddin. Baba Farid is considered in the Punjabi tradition, while Khusrau, Nizamuddin’s disciple, is not. This suggests the range of languages understood by people, both the compilers of written texts and the audiences who heard those texts read and sung. I am thankful to Saleem Kidwai for pointing this out to me.

10. Charles Trevelyan, On the Education of the People of India (London: Longman, 1838), 18.

11. Indian Education in Parliamentary Papers Part I, ed. A. N. Basu (1832; Bombay: Asia Publications, 1952), 280.

12. Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (London: Faber & Faber, 1989), 93 .

13. Alberuni’s India: an account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India, about AD 1030, edited with notes and indices by Edward C. Sachau (1910; Delhi: Low Price Publications, 1989), 22.

14. Quoted in R. Murphey, The Outsiders: The Western Experience in India and China (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1977), 54.

15. Extracted in Indian Political Thought 1832-1921 ed. K. P. Karunakaran (Delhi: Peacock Press, 1976), 68-69.

16. Quoted in S. N. Mukherjee, Sir William Jones: A Study in Eighteenth-Century British Attitudes to India, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 115.

17. Quoted in Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest, 43.

18. Gandhi’s Challenge to Christianity (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press, 1947), 32.

19. G. N. Devy, After Amnesia: Tradition and Change in Indian Literary Criticism (1992; London: Sangam Books, 1995), 10.

20. Ibid, 19.

21. The Web of Indian Life (1904; Calcutta: Advaita Ashram, 1950), xii.

22. I use the term “Romantics” throughout to refer to the Wordsworth and Coleridge of the Lyrical Ballads phase, and to Blake, Byron, Shelley and Keats. I am not referring to such late eighteenth-century poets as Cowper whose pro-liberty tendencies are offset by their Evangelism, or to the later Southey and Wordsworth.

23. Manju Dalmia, “DeRozio: English Teacher” in The Lie of the Land: English Literary Studies in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992), 92.

24. “Search for Values in Literary Criticism: Some Major Shifts in the Academic Situation Considered,” paper presented at “Seminar on Australian and Indian Literature” held at Azad Bhavan, New Delhi, January 12-16, 1970, page 4.

25. William Bengo Collyer, from a review of Queen Mab in “Licentious Productions in High Life”, Quarterly Magazine, 1822, in Shelley: The Critical Heritage ed. James E. Barcus (London, 1975), 371.

26. In Shelley’s Prose: The Trumpet of a Prophecy ed. David Lee Clark (Albuquerque, 1966), 125-26.

27. The Oriental Renaissance: Europe’s Rediscovery of India and the East, 1680-1880 (Paris 1950, English Trans. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).

28. John Drew, India and the Romantic Imagination, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987), 122. A typical example of this complete blanking-out is the Longman Critical Reader Romanticism ed. Cynthia Chase, general editors Raman Selden and Stan Smith (London: Longman, 1993).

29. Eric J. Sharpe, The Universal Gita: Western Images of the Bhagavadgita (London: Duckworth, 1985), 30.

30. “DeRozio, English Teacher,”53.

31. Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest, 54-55.

32. “DeRozio,” 53.

33. Peter Heehs, Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989), 11.

34. For a brief exploration of possible Indian influence on Shelley’s view of the relationship between human and nonhuman life, see Ruth Vanita, “Lamb Unslain: Shelley’s Demystification of Animal Symbolism”, Yearly Review 6 (Dec. 1992):13-24.

35. Bimal Krishna Matilal, Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986), 67-68. See also p. 33 for Bhartrihari’s concept of intuitive knowledge: “It is regarded as a flash of understanding which arises spontaneously in all sentient beings.”

36. Speech on the “New Movement” delivered in Madras in 1906, extracted in Karunakaran ed. Indian Political Thought , 248.

37. Quoted in Viswanathan, ibid, 80-81.

38. Sri Aurobindo, The Future Poetry, 80-82,89.

39. Phrase coined by Mark Twain, now the title of a popular book by Robert Kriegel.

40. See Surendra Nath Banerjea’s 1878 “Address on Indian Unity,” in Karunakaran ed. Indian Political Thought, 88.

41. Rajmohan Gandhi, The Rajaji Story 1937-1972 (Bombay: Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, 1984), 73.

42. Ibid, 52.

43. Extracted from Young India 7 Oct. 1926, in M. K. Gandhi, The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press, 1959), 18.

44. Ibid, 19.

45. Ibid, 20, extract from India’s Case for Swaraj, 1932, 402-03.

46. Ibid, 23, Address to the London Vegetarian Society on 29 Nov. 1931.

47. Harijan, 5 Dec. 1936.

48. Rajaji Story, 71-72.

49. George, Gandhi’s Challenge, 14.

50. Ibid, 15.