November 27, 2007

The early-twentieth-century nationalist orientalist, Sri Aurobindo

Home >List of Issues > Table of Contents > History and Theory Volume 42 Issue 2 Page 169-195, May 2003 To cite this article: Peter Heehs (2003) Shades of Orientalism: Paradoxes and Problems in Indian Historiography History and Theory 42 (2), 169–195. doi:10.1111/1468-2303.00238
In Orientalism, Edward Said attempts to show that all European discourse about the Orient is the same, and all European scholars of the Orient complicit in the aims of European imperialism. There may be "manifest" differences in discourse, but the underlying "latent" orientalism is "more or less constant." This does not do justice to the marked differences in approach, attitude, presentation, and conclusions found in the works of various orientalists.
I distinguish six different styles of colonial and postcolonial discourse about India (heuristic categories, not essential types), and note the existence of numerous precolonial discourses. I then examine the multiple ways exponents of these styles interact with one another by focusing on the early-twentieth-century nationalist orientalist, Sri Aurobindo.
Aurobindo's thought took form in a colonial framework and has been used in various ways by postcolonial writers. An anti-British nationalist, he was by no means complicit in British imperialism. Neither can it be said, as some Saidians do, that the nationalist style of orientalism was just an imitative indigenous reversal of European discourse, using terms like "Hinduism" that had been invented by Europeans. Five problems that Aurobindo dealt with are still of interest to historians:
  • the significance of the Vedas,
  • the date of the vedic texts,
  • the Aryan invasion theory,
  • the Aryan-Dravidian distinction, and
  • the idea that spirituality is the essence of India.

His views on these topics have been criticized by Leftist and Saidian orientalists, and appropriated by reactionary "Hindutva" writers. Such critics concentrate on that portion of Aurobindo's work which stands in opposition to or supports their own views. A more balanced approach to the nationalist orientalism of Aurobindo and others would take account of their religious and political assumptions, but view their project as an attempt to create an alternative language of discourse. Although in need of criticism in the light of modern scholarship, their work offers a way to recognize cultural particularity while keeping the channels of intercultural dialogue open.

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