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On the Misportrayal of India

On the Misportrayal of India: Toward a New Look at Indian History
by David B. Gray, PhD

Copyright 2001, The Educational Council on Indic Traditions
Presented at the Asian Studies Development Program National Conference on March 21, 2001
at the College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL

The study of India in the West has long been overshadowed by the concerns of Eurocentric historians, who, to the extent that they studied India at all, did so in a manner that privileged Europe as the motivating force of world history. India has, ever since the classical Greeks make contact with the Persians to the East, been an object of curiosity for Europeans, although until recently their knowledge of India was largely second-hand and imprecise. As Europeans gained greater access to India, it was under the context of the British conquest and colonialization, and this significantly affected the resulting portrayal. India has been represented as lacking historical agency, and serving a role in history that is subservient to the agenda of Europeans. Despite the many recent critiques of colonial orientalist historiography, elements of this tradition linger on in contemporary studies of India, and, in particular, in textbooks geared for secondary school and undergraduate students.

The purpose of this essay is twofold; it will attempt to undertake the following aims:

1. Elucidate the paradigms of Indian historiography that have prevailed in academic writings, especially the notion that India lacks a historical tradition per se, and that India was a passive field activated primarily by the incursion of invading groups.
2. Counteract this notion and restore the historical agency of Indians by stressing the numerous ways in which India served as a powerful civilizing and economic force in the world, not because of invasions but in spite of them. Evidence concerning centrality of India in the pre-modern and early modern world economies should be presented in secondary and undergraduate level texts.

In this paper the former task will largely be addressed. Given the time constraint, it will only be possible here to suggest an alternative approach to the study of Indian history.

Much ink has been spilled concerning the issue of orientalism; in the context of India, Ronald Inden and many others have shown the degree to which the orientalist enterprise was deeply intertwined with colonial institutions. Histories of India produced by this school tended to represent Indian history in a fashion that legitimated colonial rule. This paper will explore one aspect of this historiography, an aspect which is unfortunately alive and well in many current accounts.

One might hope that by now a new model of Indian historiography would have developed, one that stresses the agency of Indians and rejects contrived culturally chauvinist constructions. Fortunately, new models are emerging, but unfortunately they have not yet fully supplanted the older models, which still linger on albeit in weakened forms. One model is what might be called the “invasion theory” of Indian history. In its strong form, it is simply a version of the Hegelian portrayal, the assumption being that India as a passive, unchanging entity has only undergone historical change when motivated by outside forces, namely active aggressors. While the explicit version of this model has fallen out of fashion, it remains in an attenuated forms in narrative accounts of Indian history that are structured around invasions, making them implicitly appear to be the central events in Indian history.

Now, India was of course invaded over the course of its long history, usually from the interior of Asia. This is not peculiar to India, but is a pattern seen throughout Eurasia, in which sedentary agricultural societies situated along the coasts or in river valleys were periodically invaded by nomadic, pastoral peoples from the interior. This pattern is also seen in East and West Asia as well as in Europe; it is unlikely that India suffered invasions with any greater frequency than these regions. In fact, it seems likely that East and West Asia were invaded more frequently simply because they are far more geographically open to attack. China’s northern border, for example, is simply the open steppes of central Asia, whence invaders descended with alarming frequency. Lacking a natural barrier such as the Himalayan and Hindukush mountains that admirably shield India’s northern border, the Chinese expended incredible time and energy constructing a series of walls and guard posts. Naturally, no barrier is impermeable; walls can be breached and mountain ranges have passes. Since India is no exception in this regard, there is thus no good reason to particularly dwell on invasions as a motivating force in Indian history.

Hegel played an important role in this model of Indian historiography. In so doing, he ignored and indeed discredited the extensive influence India had on other Eurasian civilizations. He wrote in his Philosophy of History that

On the whole, the diffusion of Indian culture is only a dumb, deedless expansion; that is, it presents no political action. The people of India have achieved no foreign conquests, but have been on every occasion vanquished themselves. And as in this silent way, Northern India has been a center of emigration, productive of merely physical diffusion, India as a Land of Desire forms an essential element in General history … From the most ancient times downwards, all nations have directed their wishes and longings to gain access to the treasures of this land of marvels, the most costly which the earth presents; treasures of nature – pearls, diamonds, perfumes, rose-essences, elephants, lions, etc. – as also treasures of wisdom. The ways by which these treasures have passed to the West, has at all times been a matter of World-historical importance, bound up with the fate of nations. Those wishes have been realized; this Land of Desire has been attained; there is scarcely any great nation of the East, nor of the Modern European West, that has not gained for itself a smaller or larger portion of it.1

India so characterized makes the Western colonial aggression and resultant theft of resources appear as an essential an inevitable stage of history; this indeed is the ulterior motive, conscious or unconscious, in constructing an essentalized version of Indian history. The conclusion of this passage, which portrays the colonization of India as something practically every “great nation” has done, is also clearly an attempt at the legitimization of the colonial enterprise.

It is now widely recognized that such theories of history are basically ethnocentric justifications of European colonialism. While they are rooted in the very real hegemony achieved by the Europeans of most of the world during the nineteenth century, they err in assuming this achievement was due to an intrinsic superiority of the Europeans. This myth of the superiority of the West is in fact based upon a systematic erasure of the interdependency of humanity, and the negation of the many and real contributions of other regions of the world that made the European rise to power possible.

The colonial perspective lingers on today in what might be termed the “invasion theory” of Indian history. This narrative assumes (usually implicitly) Hegel’s idea that India is an intrinsically static, passive civilization, incapable on its own of having a history. Indian history then is taken as the result of a long series of invasions, beginning with the mythical “Aryans” and culminating in the invasion by the British. While there was at times warfare between India and her neighbors, sometimes culminating in invasion, India here is no exception to the general trends of ancient and medieval history. To assume that invasions are THE motivating force in Indian history is to fall into the self-justifying theory of Indian history developed by the British to legitimate their exploitive colonization of India.

This pattern is often repeated in contemporary histories of India. These typically begin with a cursory description of the Indus-Saraswati civilization, before moving on to describe the destruction of this civilization by the “Aryans”, a nomadic people, supposedly originating in the steppes of Central Asia, whose invasion destroyed its older precursor, but who introduced to India their own culture which was to give rise to glories of the Vedas and classical Indian Vedic civilization. This is the first of the invasions that mark the “invasion theory” narrative. It is based on one bona fide fact: that there is in fact a strong linguistic connection between European and Indian languages. This theory slips from the factual and into the mythical, however, in making several assumptions. The first is the equation of language and race. The second is that language transfer was necessarily effect through the medium of invasion, rather than by diffusion, peaceful migration or some other means.

There are several inconsistencies with this theory. One is that there is actually no evidence that invaders destroyed the Indus-Saraswati civilization; this theory is in fact based upon the interpretation of several ambiguous Rig Vedahymns. As Shaffer and Lichtenstein have pointed out, archeological evidence points to a gradual abandonment of Indus Valley sites due to climate change, and particularly due to massive tectonic activity around 1900 BCE which changed the course of the Saraswati river and rendered the numerous cities located on its former banks uninhabitable. These changes occurred several centuries before the Aryans supposedly even arrived in India, which is usually dated around 1500 BCE. These changes led to the gradual migration of peoples East, into the Gangetic Valley, a event which is attested both in the archeological record and in the Vedic texts themselves. As Shaffer and Lichtenstein put it,

The modern archeological record for South Asia indicates a cultural history of continuity rather than the earlier eighteenth through twentieth century scholarly interpretations of discontinuity and South Asian dependence upon Western influences. The cultural and political conditions of Europe’s nineteenth and twentieth centuries were strong influences in sustaining this interpretation. It is possible now to discern cultural continuities linking specific social entities in South Asia into one cultural tradition. This is not to propose social isolation nor deny outside influence. Outside influences did affect South Asian cultural development in later historic periods, but an identifiable cultural tradition has continued, an Indo-Gangetic Tradition linking diverse social entities which span a time period from the development of food production in the seventh millennium BC to the present. (Shaffer and Lichtenstein 1999:255-56)

It is not my point here to argue that there was or was not an Aryan invasion. Given the ambiguity of evidence, it is a topic on which I must remain agnostic, although I should add that the burden of proof lies with those who insist on its veracity. Here I would only like to point out the peculiar fact that on such a tenuous hypothesis rests an entire edifice of Indian historiography. The assumption of Aryan conquest of Northern India was elaborated into timelines of Indian history as well as theories of social geography and demography that are extended well into the historical era, as if this one event of the distant past is the key to understanding all of Indian history. As Inden points out,

Presupposing their Aryocentric geography and oriental demography, scholars have represented these states on their maps and read the political history they fabricated from them. That history consisted of the narrative of a society that was made to be inherently dependent on the intervention of a Western political economy for its unity and prosperity. (1990:187)

The next invasion in the invasion theory timeline is that conducted by Alexander the Great. Our sources for this invasion are Greeks, who may have had a natural tendency to exaggerate the significance of this event, which in fact made no impression whatsoever on the Indian historical record. Even in the Greek sources, Alexander’s sojourn in India is admittedly brief; having made it to the Indus River he quickly returned West again. The consequence of this event was the establishment of the Seleucid Greek kingdom in Persia and the Middle East, as well as the establishment of a smaller, independent Greek kingdom in Bactria, in what is now Afghanistan. Their expansion into India proper was prevented by the rise of the Mauryan dynasty in the late fourth-century BCE, which succeeded in uniting most of India under centralized rule.

There is no doubt that the Greeks had an influence in North India and were in turn influenced by the stay there. But this influence has been exaggerated, extending beyond the realm of the probable and into the realm of the wildly improbable. Greek influence was particularly attributed to the rise of Buddhist art and the development of Mahayana Buddhism, casting India’s most significant cultural export as a product of European influence. These theories have been largely discredited, however, and exposed as what they truly are. As Stanley Abe put it,

The late nineteenth-century interest in claiming an originary role for the Greek tradition in early Buddhist art must, at least in part, be understood in the context of this larger European project to construct a cultural lineage back to purely Aryan Greece. The erasure of the non-Aryan within the West was played out in the assertion of Greek (Aryan) influence onto Gandhara. In this sense, the discovery of Greek influence in Gandhara has as much to do with the need of the West to secure its own internal dislocations and self-representation as it does with Buddhist art. (1995:84)

Following the Greeks, the invasion theory timeline moves on to the Mauryan dynasty, and then to the invasions of the Kushans and Sythians. The Gupta dynasty is then covered, only to move on to the devastation caused by the invasion of the Huns. Following the Huns, India is usually portrayed as undergoing a political decline characterized by fragmentation and decentralization, as well as a cultural decline, resulting in the rise of “unorthodox” religious traditions such as the Tantric schools of Buddhism and Hinduism. India was then purified by the violence of the Islamic invasions, resulting in the re-establishment of centralized rule under the Moghuls.

This narrative framework is found in many histories of India, including some quite modern ones. The classic version of this history is Vincent Smith’s The Oxford History of India (1919), which has been duly deconstructed by Inden, who makes quite clear the ideology underpinning the “invasion” narrative. Inden wrote that

To have represented the kingdoms of India as relatively autonomous agents, as complex, inter-related polities that could unite through pacts as well as ‘force’ within a single imperial formation and create new centres not determined by a fixed military topography, would have undermined this whole orientalist project. So Smith dispatched cruel Huns to prepare the way for the still worse advent of Islam, which would in turn, clear the way for the miraculous arrival by sea of the better Aryan, the Western or European. He could clip the Dravidian jungle and prevent the Russians setting fire to the whole green expanse. The history of medieval decline did not stop, however, by preparing for the modern. If Smith’s history of ancient India was, in effect, a history of its present, his narrative of medieval India was really a parable of the future, of what would happen in India if the British withdrew. (1990:188)

At issue here are not necessarily the “facts” of history, but rather the ideology that underlies certain configurations of “facts”, and the relative degrees of emphasis placed upon them. Even if all were true that would not render the “invasion theory” histories unproblematic. Histories are, after all, narratives, and as such are selective in the narrative elements in which they choose to convey. Histories are ideological in precisely this way; ideology is present in the choices historians make. This is not necessarily a conscious process. As Edmund Leach noted,

“Bad” history is seldom constructed out of fantasy; it is simply that we tend to accept as good history whatever is congenial to our contemporary way of thinking. The good history of one generation becomes the bad history of the next.

In presenting an essentalized view of India as a passive land of invasions, historians of the colonial era concocted histories congenial to their contemporary way of thinking. For us now, presumably, these are bad history, but one might wonder if the persistence of this narrative might indicate that we are not as far from the colonialist mentality as we would like to believe.

How might a new history be constructed? At this point I cannot answer this question definitively, but only offer a tentative solution. This would be to depict cultural influence not as a one-way street, but as a result of complex interdependencies between cultural regions. A more accurate portrayal of India would treat the influence of India on the rest of Eurasia at least as extensively as the influence of other cultures on India. So doing would require a conceptual framework that transcends the academic regional pigeon-holes such as West Asia, South Asia, East Asia and so forth and focus instead on the dynamics of inter-regional connectivity. Such would probably best be undertaken not by a single scholar, but by a group of scholars representing numerous methodological and regional specializations.

Here we should conclude with the hope that new histories do not fall into the same trap of essentalizing India. While we can and should seek a history that places greater emphasis on India’s historical agency, we should not do so with the assumption that there is any essential “India” out there which needs to be rediscovered. India is and probably always has been a complex of different cultural and ethnic groups who cannot be reduced to any particular essence. But in writing a history, such diversity must be respected, while at the same time paying more attention to the ways in which Indians throughout history have played an active role both in constructing their own history as well as in acting as influential players in the world.


1. Hegel 1956, pp. 141-42, op cit. Inden 1990 p. 70.

Works Cited

Abe, Stanley K. 1995. “Inside the Wonder House: Buddhist Art and the West”. In Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism Under Colonialism. Donald S. Lopez, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 63-106.

Hegel, G. W. F. 1956. Philosophy of History. J. Sibree, trans. New York: Dover.

Inden, Ronald B. 1990. Imagining India. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Leach, Edmund. 1990. “Aryan Invasions over Four Millenia”. In Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, ed. Culture Through Time: Anthropological Approaches. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 227-245.

Shaffer, Jim G. and Diana A. Lichtenstein. “Migration, Philology and South Asian Archeology”. In Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia: Evidence, Interpretation and Ideology. Johannes Bronkhorst and Madhav M. Deshpande, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 239-60.

Smith, Vincent A. 1919. The Oxford History of India. fourth edition, Percival Spear, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958.