July 05, 2016

Olcott argued that the Aryans were indigenous to India

Romila Thapar on "The Colonial Roots Of Hindutva ‘Nationalism’" https://t.co/GWh5LbbV34

A few decades ago, there was much discussion on what goes into the making of nationalism. The discussion was varied, since nat­ionalism is an abstract concept. Benedict Anderson, the political scientist and historian, referred in his influential book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism to an imagined community as constructed by people who think of themselves as a community with common perceptions that unite them. The unity was more feasible in modern times than in earlier periods because of the spread of literacy with the assistance of the printing press and the reading of newspapers, etc. To this one could add, if so desired, the influence of television and the cinema as sustaining or even assisting in creating a national feeling.

In Nations and Nationalism (1983), Ernest Gellner, the British social anth­ropologist and a leading thinker on the subject of nationalism, linked it more closely to a new society that grew out of an earlier society and differed from it in various ways. It permitted the growth of an impersonal society where individuals were bonded through def­ining a shared culture and learning a shared history. Again, to this one could add that the observance of the same code of laws was also a binding factor.

Eric J. Hobsbawm, the British thi­nker and historian, made a connection in Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (1990) between history and nationalism and explained how history is reconstructed in a way that suits the ideology of nationalism and is essential to the construction of nationalism. It is essential to the making of a state and this incorporates not just the elite but also the less privileged. Nat­ionalism may begin with ideas among the elite but its propagation involves having mass support. Initially, anti-colonial Indian nat­ionalism had a more limited role as compared to what it bec­ame when converted into a mass movement in the 20th century. History plays a crucial role in both creating the basis of the unity and for sustaining it. Hobsbawm compares the role of history to nationalism with that of the poppy to the heroin addict.

This is one explanation for why history in India has become the arena of struggle between the secular nationalists and those end­orsing varieties of religious or pseudo-nationalisms. [...] Three arguments were foundational to the colonial interpretation of Indian history. The first was periodisation. James Mill in The History of British India (1817-1826), almost two hundred years ago, argued for three periods, labelled in accordance with the religion of the rulers: Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and the British period. [...]

History as viewed by Hindu religious nationalism, in its inc­arnation as Hindutva, is a narrative of Hindus having been the original inhabitants of the land later known as British India, and thus the rightful inheritors of the past. It is said that the Hindus once had a great and glorious past that was destroyed by Muslim conquerors. Consequently, the creation of a Hindu state is projected as a legitimate return to a rightful inheritance. The unbroken descent of Hindu ancestry and rel­­i­­gion (pitribhumi and punyabhumi) from earliest times, according to this sch­ool of thought, legitimises the primacy of Hindus in the present. It combines with this the construction by F.M. Mueller, the Orientalist and philologist, of a superior Aryan culture and the Aryan foundations of Indian (read Hindu) civilisation.

Interestingly, it was the Theosophists, and in particular Colonel H.S. Olcott, the organisation’s co-founder, who were initially the major propagators of this theory in the nineteenth century. Olcott argued that the Aryans were indigenous to India and took civilisation from India to the West, an idea that is promoted by Hin­dutva, but with no reference to its colonial origins. The Theosophists were close to the Arya Samaj before they fell out.

The advantage of the Aryan theory of origins was that the elite castes claimed an Aryan descent and thereby also an unbroken lineage of dominance since the beginning of the establishment of civilisation. They also claimed close kinship with the British, who were geographically at the other end of the ‘Aryan’ spread across Eurasia. The existence of the Harappan civilisation, discovered in the 1920s, questions this narrative. But by maintaining that the Harappans were also Aryans, this questioning is disallowed.
However, there is as yet no evidence for this argument. Both the two-nation theory and the theory of Aryan origins are rooted in the nineteenth-century colonial interpretation of Indian history. These theories become a form of nurturing and continuing colonial explanations of Indian history, while claiming them as indigenous Indian history. Most historians have questioned these and other theories formulated, for instance, by the trilogy of Mill-Macaulay-Mueller, the authors of the more established colonial construction of the Indian past.

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