A Perspective of India


THE awakening of Asia is the most dramatic fact in the world’s political life to-day. For two decades, since her victory at Mukden, Japan has been struggling to confirm her position as a world Power, and with Japan go the destinies of Korea and Manchuria. Immense, pacific China, with one fourth of the human race, is in active revolt against foreign influence, a protest that first flared up in the Boxer rebellion. Even more significant is India, which for ages has held a great place, spiritual and political, in the life of the world. For a generation pulses of new life have been throbbing in India.

Early in the nineteenth century like forces of revival swept over Latin America, from the valley of the Rio Colorado to Cape Horn, and a score of new nations sprang to life. What will history have to record a century hence concerning the awakening of Asia? Will Central Park have the statue of some Indian Bolivar?

A generation ago the government of India was in fact a military despotism. Britons to the number of a thousand, in the covenanted civil service, who carried on the administration, and two hundred million natives in the directly governed presidencies and provinces, were equally without votes. They received orders from the higher authorities, and the power of the higher authorities rested on the British regiments in the Indian Army.

Yet one could not call this military despotism oppressive. The members of the covenanted civil service, from the newest assistant magistrate up to the collectors, commissioners, and provincial governors, pursued the even tenor of their way under well-defined rules; so long as they complied with these, they were unmolested. And the myriads of natives, outnumbering their rulers two hundred thousand to one, also had their clearly marked lines of conduct. The things they were forbidden to do were lucidly set forth in the Indian Penal Code, a piece of Lord Macaulay’s handiwork; this code, rendered into scores of Indian tongues, could be bought for a few annas in the bazaars. Its application was set forth in an equally simple Procedure Code and a Law of Evidence, slightly modified from the English law to suit Oriental conditions. There were a few laws, like the Contract Act, to regulate details of business, not very importunate in that unadventurous community. Beyond these there was no legislation whatever in that peaceful land.

The intimate concerns of native life, all matters regarding the family and the inheritance and division of property, were untouched by these Britishmade codes; they were regulated by age-old Eastern tradition, the Laws of Manu for the Hindus, and the Koran, with its commentaries, for the Mohammedans.

In large areas of the Ganges and Indus valleys the rural population was dense, more than a thousand to the square mile, facing starvation on exhausted, badly tilled soil. I he villages were attractive; they seemed to have grown from the earth, remaining akin to it; oblong huts built of mud and thatched with dun reeds made no discordant note among the groves of mangoes and feathery bamboos in the vast expanse of the level rice fields. There were a few brick houses belonging to the ‘better folk,’ as they called themselves, but their old-rose walls struck no inharmonious tone. The clothing of the men consisted of three strips of cotton: a waist cloth to the knee, or longer for the better folk, a scarf thrown over the shoulder, and a piece of cotton twisted about the head to form the turban, though many of them went bareheaded, arming themselves with a white umbrella against the moon. For the women, a single piece of cotton, gracefully wound and draped, formed both skirt and bodice. The better folk of the male sex wore shoes, and sometimes socks. But in those days all the women of India, save only the Parsee ladies of Bombay, went barefoot. All ate with their fingers, rice and curried vegetables and fish, deftly tossing pellets of food into their mouths, and using broad leaves for plates. So there was no sewing, no cleaning of table forks and knives, no washing of dishes.

The weather was as simple and orderly as the administration by the covenanted civilians, or the division of hereditary occupation among the natives. With March the hot season began, fanned to a blaze through April and May; by May 20 we had the ‘ little rains,’ drenching us for a few days only, and searching out all the vulnerable points in our cement roofs; then, on June 20, began the ‘great rains,’ with rending thunderstorms and crackling violet lights across the cloud curtains, filling the air with steam; through September and October the stifling, muggy days that brought the malarial mosquitoes, whose iniquities were just beginning to be discerned; finally, four fair months, by courtesy called ‘the cold season,’ though it was too hot for strawberries except on the distant hills. In those tempered days we rode forth camping through the district, pitching white pyramid tents in the green gloom of mango groves. Then after the cold season the flaming heat began again, presently swelling the immense channels of the Ganges with melted Himalayan snows.

The unit of administration was the district, a thousand square miles with a million people. Over the district presided the collector at the civil station, where were the courts and treasury. The district judge sat in the principal court, with deputy magistrates in two or three lesser courts. The superintendent of police, the district engineer, and the civil surgeon completed the administrative family. These gentlemen, with their ladies and a few pale, heat-tormented babies, made up the social world. Ten districts were supervised by a commissioner of a division, and half a dozen divisions made up a province.

Each district was cut up into four or five subdivisions, with smaller courts and tax offices; in such a subdivision the assistant collector learned the rudiments of his craft. As head of the police he caught his few mild malefactors; as magistrate he tried them; if they were convicted he gave them into his own custody as governor of the local jail; as visiting justice he inquired into their welfare there. He also collected revenue, paid local salaries including his own, and sent the balance to the district treasury. Sweltering in his narrow court beneath a creaking punkah, he tried small cases of assault, robbery, the illicit making of native liquors; he dispensed sticky postage stamps, pungent bricks of opium, and the dreambringing drug called ganja, which looks like withered asters. The assistant collector panted for the cold season; then he went forth on a camping tour through villages scattered across the rice fields; riding from one camp, after breakfast in the white of the dawn, he came to a second camp a dozen miles deeper into the country, and was ready to overhaul the village institutions, relics of an immemorial past. A panchayet, an elected council of five, brooded over village problems and appointed the blue-clad spearmen who kept watch and ward; a part of his duty was to see that these watchmen were duly paid. Each had a little notebook with entries of his slender salary. There were also village schools to be inspected, with bright-eyed, velvet-skinned children, awe-struck by their portentous visitor. Though the brown millions in the villages were always perilously close to starvation, it was in many ways an idyllic life, and there seemed no reason why it should ever change. Yet the seeds of change were already sown and were germinating beneath the incandescent sky.

It happened that we were at no great distance from the field on which the foundations of India’s military despotism were laid. In one of the camping expeditions of the cold season we visited Plassey, on the Ganges bank, in a region of tropical woods. Without the aid of villagers we should never have found the monument to Clive’s decisive victory in 1757, a small, lean obelisk languishing within a rusty railing; hardly a dozen Europeans see it in a year, possibly not half that number. There is a second monument, a roundtopped pyramid of clay within a fence of split bamboo, and adorned with odd little horses of baked red clay no larger than one’s hand; they are the last vestige, perhaps, of the ‘sacrificial horse’ that played a great part in ancient days in the Asvamedha sacrifice. This second monument records the piety of the villagers, though they were hardly involved on either side, in the battle that began the British Indian Empire.


The India of those days, when Britain with ‘an unwilling willingness’ began the conquest, was as far as possible from being a single nation, or even a congeries of nations. There were four types of political powers, sharply contrasted in origin and character. By far the oldest was the group of Rajput States in the arid country to the west, between the Vindhya Mountains and the Indus; with their feudal government and royal pedigrees going back in some cases for millenniums, these Rajput principalities represented, as they represent to-day, the ancient India of the golden age. The noblest names in India’s spiritual history — Rama, Krishna, Siddhartha the Buddha — all belong to the splendid Rajputs, and to them the Upanishads accredit the core of their spiritual teaching. The conservation of these ancient Rajput principalities, which were threatened with extinction, is the best fruit of the coming of the English.

Next in antiquity, though in comparison only of yesterday, among the dominant Indian powers when Clive fought at Plassey came the Mogul Empire, founded by Baber of the victorious race of Genghis Khan, which won realms far greater than the empire of the Cæsars, a race with a notable record for literary achievement and religious tolerance. The winning of the greater part of India, begun by Baber, was completed by the magnificent Akbar and consolidated by Aurungzeb the bigot. It is worth noting that four leaders of the Mongols—Kublai Khan, Tamerlane, Akbar, and Aurungzeb— inspired masterpieces of English literature. But Aurungzeb was the last great figure in a family of brilliant genius, unless we except his brother, Dara Shukoh, who never ruled, but who gained enduring renown by translating the great Upanishads into Persian; the Latin rendering of this version first brought these most mystical of all Scriptures to the knowledge of the Western world.

The Moguls governed through nawabs; as the central power at Delhi began to break up after the death of Aurungzeb, these provincial viceroys established themselves as independent monarchs. It was, in fact, against one of these, the Nawab of Bengal, that Robert Clive fought at Plassey. The first acquisition of territory by the English in India was thus at the expense of the invading Moguls. It is worth noting that one of these Mogul provinces survives to-day as the largest of the self-governing Native States. The Nizam of Hyderabad, premier Prince of India, represents the successful assertion of sovereignty by a Viceroy of the Mogul Empire, and has maintained much of the magnificence and some of the administrative idiosyncrasies of the Great Moguls.

Then there were in the India of Clive’s day two strong military powers, which had risen as the Moguls declined. The Sikhs of the Punjab, founded some four centuries back by Nanak Guru as a protest against Brahman priestcraft, became, under his successors, a formidable power, and under the Maharaja Ranjit Singh, in the early nineteenth century, a militant kingdom. The Mahrattas of the Vindhya Mountains, inspired by Shivaji, a soldier of genius, grew into a predatory power whose hordes of cavalry swept over India as the horsemen of Genghis Khan had harried Northern Asia. But the Mahrattas soon broke up into separate states under masterful families, several of which, like Gaekwar of Baroda, Holkar of Indore, and Sindhia of Gwalior, are still numbered among the rulers of Native States.

British expansion and conquest were directed against the last three of the four types of states we have described: the Moguls with their viceroys, the Mahrattas, and the Sikhs, Rajputana has remained intact, stronger rather than weaker because of British rule. So that it was not against an ancient and united India, but the Mogul invaders and two quite modern predatory Powers, that the Western conquerors prevailed.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the conquest was complete so far as India was concerned. Later accessions, like Burma and Baluchistan, are beyond her frontiers. Then in 1857 came the Mutiny. But it was more than a revolt of the native regiments, and had many contributing causes. One was the rapidly growing tendency of the British power to absorb the Native States, whenever a disputed succession offered a pretext; another was the prophecy that the rule of the East India Company would end a hundred years after Plassey; a third was more potent though less defined: the genius of India felt itself rebuked by the dominant English, as Antony’s genius was rebuked by Cæsar’s. Heavy moral and mental pressure, resented as oppression, caused reaction and revolt.

The prophecy was kept to the car but broken to the hope. Following the Mutiny, an even century after Plassey, the East India Company ceased to exist and the period of imperial government began. But this was no abrupt revolution. The right of the British Government to supervise the Company was implicit in the original charter of 1600, and as long ago as 1783 Parliament had established a board of control to direct the directors of the Company. The chairman of the board, who was a member of the British cabinet, gradually became the effective ruler, so that after the Mutiny only a change of name was needed to transform him into the secretary of state for India. The British viceroys had long been appointed, not by the Company, but by the prime minister acting for the Crown. So that the change, when the imperial government of India took form in 1858, was only the final stage of a gradual transformation spread over three generations.


At the inauguration of the imperial era Queen Victoria issued a proclamation which contained the promise that all government posts in India would be opened to the natives in the measure of their abilities. This sentence came to be regarded as the Magna Charta of India’s liberties. Going back a generation, to a period a generation after the Mutiny, let us see how far that promise had then been fulfilled.

We have outlined the administration of the district, the unit of administration, with its million inhabitants, nine tenths of them dwelling in villages among the rice fields. The administrative body, so far as its British part was concerned, consisted of the collector, who was head of the district, the judge, a joint magistrate, and, perhaps, an assistant collector studying the elements of his art, which he would presently apply in a subdivision with a quarter of a million villagers. All these were members of the covenanted civil service.

When we come to ask what part the natives might take in the government of their country, the first point to bear in mind is this: even before the Mutiny the ranks of the covenanted civil service had been opened to all ‘naturalborn subjects of the British Crown,’ and therefore to natives of India. And several able and active-minded young natives had availed themselves of the opportunity. In one year four passed the competitive examinations held in London, when forty candidates were selected. In another year a youth of Brahman descent, whose family had been converted to Christianity, had the distinction of heading the list; he had a marvelous memory and a wonderfully alert mind.

When these covenanted civilians of Indian blood came to serve side by side with Englishmen, they suffered no personal or social disabilities. They gave dinners and were invited to dinners exactly as if they had been Englishmen, and their ladies were received on terms of entire equality. A British assistant collector served under a collector, a native of Bengal, with perfect equanimity. The social life of a civil station, the little administrative capital of a district, was inspired by the same practical tolerance. One has seen a set of tennis at the club in such a station where the four players were a Mohammedan prince, splendid in red and green satin; a youthful raja of Brahman blood, with a countenance like old gold; a young Oxford graduate, the junior covenanted civilian of the district; and a Eurasian girl, daughter of the civil engineer, who had married a lady of Bhutia race from the Himalayas. The civil engineer and his family were among the most popular members of that little social world. To complete the picture, it may be noted that the honors of the game were shared between the satin princeling and the Eurasian maid.

But their right of entry into the covenanted civil service was only a part, though the most distinguished part, of the share of the natives in the practical work of government. At every civil station there was a native sub-judge, trying civil cases, who received a salary about twice as large as that of the junior covenanted civilian; there were three or four native deputy collectors, and three of the four subdivisions were normally administered by native deputy collectors who, on the whole, did their work as efficiently as the youthful Briton in the fourth subdivision. Then the entire working staff of the courts and offices was made up of natives, for the most part speaking and writing very fair English; trustworthy, able, and attractive men, whom one remembers with affectionate regard even after the lapse of years.

These were administrative functions only. But there were, in every district, at least four types of bodies having activities that were genuinely legislative. Beginning with the simplest, there was in every village the elected panchayet, lineal descendant of the self-governing body in the age-old village community. Next came the elected local board, for each subdivision, not indigenous, but quite recently overlaid on the native life by the British administrators. Then there was an elected district board, with supervision over roads, bridges, hospitals, and schools, and with power to raise local taxes. These district boards had in them the germs of the county councils of modern England, themselves remote successors of the Saxon shire mote. Finally, the municipalities were governed by elected bodies, predominantly native.

So there were, a generation ago, elements of self-government in India, as well as opportunities for qualified natives to share in the daily work of administration. All these elements might well have developed along indigenous lines.

The actual course of events was altogether different. This brings us to another class of educated natives, who were very conspicuous in every civil station: the lawyers, Hindu or Mohammedan, who made a living by pleading hi the civil and criminal courts. Most of them spoke English fluently; all were men of ready tongue. One finds at once a contrast between them and those natives, from the sub-judge and the deputy collectors downward, who were engaged in judicial and administrative work. These were on the official pay roll, and in all things were directly ruled by British superiors. The lawyers were more independent; their whole activity made them so, and much of it ran counter to the official activities. Thus, when the police superintendent caught the rather mild criminals, the native lawyers fought to set them free again; they defended civil suits brought by the collector for taxes, and in all this they gained the habit of arguing with volubility and persistence. These English-speaking lawyers were Lord Macaulay’s mental children, brought into being by his policy of education in English, and inevitably imbued with the political aura of English Liberalism, of which their great patron was the incarnation.

This was the class from which the Indian National Congress was largely recruited, when the agitation for political rights began in 1883. Not many years after its inception we happened on an amusing expression of its spirit. We were traveling on a little branch railway, or, rather, patiently waiting for the diminutive train to get under way. In the next compartment were Bengali lawyers on their way to the National Congress. Through the open window came a penetrating voice: ‘Amra fighting-for-the-common-cause hoilam!’ the first word meaning ‘we,’ the last, ‘are.’ There were no words in their native tongue for the thoughts they were dealing with, and they had to borrow from Macaulay; so far from being indigenous was the whole movement of which they were a part.

This legalistic agitation continued for years, and still continues. Its Great Charter was, as we have said, the royal proclamation of 1858, following the Mutiny, promising to the natives of India a larger, but undefined, share in the government of their country.


On the one hand, the impelling force of this long and sometimes heated agitation was the inevitable reaction from the instinctively overbearing attitude of the British rulers of India, which ‘rebuked’ the ancient genius of the land; as, indeed, Western nations have tended to ‘rebuke’ all Oriental peoples. On the other hand, the forms of thought and aspiration of the Indian National Congress, and the long years of agitation which grew out of it, were an unconscious tribute to this same dominating Western mind; the agitators asked for parliamentary institutions like those of England, and, as we have seen, they asked in phrases that remained obstinately English, alien to the men who used them.

Since 1883 the leaders of India’s constitutional agitation have gained much of what they sought. Many stops have been taken in the introduction and development of democratic institutions. To-day India is at the halfway house. There are eight or nine little parliaments, one for each province, with a big parliament for all British India. The electorate numbers some six or seven millions, less than half of whom have any knowledge of English. Superficially the result is not unlike t he situation in Canada, with its provincial legislative bodies under the Dominion Parliament, and a governor-general, representing the sovereign, as the crown of the pyramid. There has been a steady progress toward the Liberal ideals of the Indian National Congress that seemed almost impossible in 1883.

But if we look deeper we shall find a marked contrast with Canada. The bureaucracy of the covenanted civil service has maintained itself strongly entrenched, with a profound, though perhaps largely unconscious, sense of its vested interests, its inherent right to govern India, based in the beginning upon conquest, and resting on Britain’s feeling of proprietary rights over India. The covenanted civil service remains as a ruling power, side by side with the new parliaments, with the result that legislative and administrative functions are divided between the two, the covenanted civilians on the one hand, and the native elected bodies on the other. This divided rule — or dyarchy, as it is called — is a somewhat unstable arrangement, with considerable possibilities of friction between its two parts. It cannot be regarded as a final solution.

During the intervening years there have been periods of bitter feeling, of violent outbreaks and vigorous repressions; but to-day there is an atmosphere of greater sympathy. It is true that the traditional tendencies of the covenanted civil service are pulling backward, while the native politicians are pulling forward, yet they are working together without jarring dissonance. While the foreign rulers have become more liberal, the natives have grown more conservative. Their ideal to-day is not an independent India, but dominion status within the British Empire; a participation in the future destiny of the Empire, with the steadily growing autonomy of its parts, within a circle maintained by moral rather than legal ties.

For the more conservative attitude of the natives of India there are two apparent reasons. The first is the recrudescence of violent feuds between Hindus and Mohammedans, inflamed by the desecration of temples and mosques. This has suggested large possibilities of anarchy and civil strife, if the peacecompelling arm of England were withdrawn. It is worth noting that these feuds come rather from discordant creeds than from difference of race. Of the fifty million Mohammedans in India, not one in a hundred represents the invaders who came through the Western passes in the armies of Mahmud of Ghazni, Baber, and Nadir Shah. The overwhelming majority are converts from Hinduism, identical in blood with their Hindu neighbors against whom they wage these bitter feuds. Murshid Kuli Khan, founder of Murshidabad, the capital of Bengal in Mogul days, was a Brahman converted to Islam, and in this the prototype of millions. The motive for conversion has been social rather than theological, a passionate escape from the compartment ed oppression of the Hindu system of caste, which confers high privileges on the Brahmans and bears so harshly on the lower castes. So that there is no real race cleavage behind these sectarian feuds; it is a mental, not an ethnical discord. But this discord is sufficiently threatening to inspire in the minds of the native politicians, Hindu and Mohammedan alike, a measure of caution, toning down their aspirations for full independence.

Then there are external causes. Afghanistan is a formidable power, with an inborn thirst for conquest and well supplied with modem arsenals, and a century has not passed since Afghan hordes were fighting in the Indus valley. The relations of British India with the Afghans have not been happy, in spite of long negotiations and costly wars. Afghanistan has grown steadily in military strength, and is further than ever from being submissive to English dictation. The Afghans stand where the great invaders of India stood in past centuries, and the likeness is close enough to reconcile the native politicians to the presence of British troops.

So the aspiration of the educated natives of India to-day is for dominion status within the British Empire, side by side with Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia, New Zealand, and the Union of South Africa, with a governor-general representing the sovereign and imperial unity, and with t he substantial work of administration and legislation in native hands.

There is a valid criticism of this ideal, and indeed of the whole movement that has led up to it: it is so completely external in origin and conception, so little rooted in the ancient spiritual life of India. We have suggested an alternative: the gradual development of indigenous forms, beginning with the self-governing village community. Might not the genius of India be better safeguarded in this way?

Perhaps the underlying realities of the situation may be brought out by asking a question: Does the future of India involve any deeper issues than are involved in the future government of, let us say, Brazil or Siberia? Let us borrow an answer from the first governor-general of India, Warren Hastings, writing in ancient Benares in the cold season of 1784: —

It is not very long since the inhabitants of India were considered by many as creatures scarce elevated above the degree of savage life; nor, I fear, is that prejudice yet wholly eradicated, though surely abated. Every instance which brings their real character home to observation will impress us with a more generous sense of feeling for their natural rights, and teach us to estimate them by the measure of our own. But such instances can only be obtained in their writings: and these will survive when the British dominion in India shall have long ceased to exist, and when the sources which it once yielded of wealth and power are lost to remembrance.

The consummation suggested by the second sentence has been in part attained. England is confirming the natural rights of the natives of India, and leading them in the paths of selfgovernment.

What of the third sentence? Was the first great architect of British imperialism right when he discerned in the ancient writings of India something that would last long after the British dominion there shall have ceased to exist ?

There is reason to believe that he was a true prophet. We are coming to recognize in ancient India one of the great intellectual and spiritual civilizations, perhaps the greatest in all history. The recognition is as yet neither general nor complete. Too many histories of thought begin with Hellas, ignoring India; as though an historian of architecture, dazzled by the Parthenon, were to forget the splendid temples of Egypt. Even to-day we speak of ‘Arabic’ figures and call algebra by an Arabic name, though both had their origin in India.

But the truth is that we are only now reaching the point in our own intellectual development when we can rightly estimate ancient India’s attainment. When Warren Hastings wrote the introduction to the Bhagavad-Gita, translated by Charles Wilkins, from which we have quoted, the version used by Emerson and Thoreau, it was the common view in Christendom that the world and the universe were but six thousand years old; but India had discerned millenniums ago the vast antiquity of life, and had developed figures of astronomical magnitude to express this perception. There was a clear view of the multitude of worlds to which our astronomy is only now attaining. India was thinking cosmically ages before the Seven Sages of Greece were born.

Yet it is not so much the magnificent sweep of their scientific thought, both in time and in space, that would seem to be India’s greatest achievement. That achievement lies rather in depth than in expanse, in the perception of the spiritual universe, a universe resting on eternal Life, and ruled by everlasting Law.

The records of this superb spiritual accomplishment exist — not carved on desert rocks like the inscriptions of Persia and Egypt, but recorded in a noble tongue, well known in India today, and from which half the current speech of India is derived. It is, in the best sense, a living literature; it is an undying literature.

So our concern with India goes deeper than our interest in the extension of self-government to two or three hundred millions, the inclusion of a sixth of mankind in the net of democracy. There is the larger question: India still holds her ancient inheritance; can she become in the future what she was in the past — a great intellectual and spiritual power?