The Destiny of India


’THEIR writings,’ said a distinguished man of the Sanskrit scriptures, ‘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.’

We might be inclined to think that this is the view of some fiery Nationalist of Benares or Poona, or perhaps a detached Orientalist like Burnouf, or Whitney of Yale. Both guesses are far afield. This was written by Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of British India, in October 1784, as a part of his introduction to the translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Charles Wilkins. In this introduction Warren Hastings also says that, among all the known religions of mankind, this scripture is the one example of a theology accurately corresponding with that of the Christian dispensation, and most powerfully illustrating the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.

This earliest English version of the ‘Song Celestial,’ as Edwin Arnold later named it, is of high interest to students in America, and especially in New England. For this is the book that Thoreau carried with him in his exploration of the Concord and Merrimac Rivers in 1839, and he quotes it at length, laying stress on the part which Warren Hastings had played in its production, in his log book of that notable journey, whose charm and value were hidden for two generations. It is fairly certain that this volume was among the score of Oriental books which Thoreau left, at his death, to Emerson in 1862. And Emerson’s debt to the Bhagavad Gita is recorded in more than a dozen entries in the thoughtful study by Frederic Ives Carpenter, Emerson and Asia. The Sanskrit poem, and with it certain of the Upanishads, colored the literature of that fruitful period in New England as sunshine illumined the meadows and river valleys about Concord for Thoreau.

The influence of these scriptures of India grew with the years, setting in motion a tide of spiritual thought which flowed against the materialism, not so much of Darwin, who was deeply religious, as of some of his disciples. And now that materialism is once more ebbing, — giving way, as in the recent writings of Sir Arthur Eddington, to a more philosophical concept of life, — this newest current of thought flows once more toward the ideals and ideas of ancient India.

Before we try to describe these spiritual principles, it may be well to establish the intellectual importance of the land of the Indus and Ganges in more prosaic fields. Recent books seeking to give a general account of philosophical and scientific thinking have shared the shortcoming that they begin everything with the Greeks, and practically ignore India, thus throwing the whole subject out of perspective. But we find Laplace, who died more than a century ago, pointing out that it was India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by means of ten symbols, each symbol receiving a value of position as well as an absolute value, a profound and important idea which we now so completely take for granted. Laplace adds that the very simplicity of this system of ten numbers, and the great ease which it has lent to all computations, put our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions; we shall appreciate the grandeur of this achievement the more when we remember that it escaped the genius of Archimedes and Apollonius, two of the greatest men produced by antiquity.

The importance of these Indian numbers, popularly miscalled Arabic; of the cipher, or zero, also borrowed from India; and of the system of value by position, in virtue of which the number one has different values when it is the first figure of ten, a hundred, a thousand, and so on, is worked out in detail by Dr. Tobias Dantzig in his new book on Number, The Language of Science. He proves to demonstration that we are debtors to India both for the scientific and for the practical development of arithmetic. The most matter-of-fact merchant makes obeisance to the Rishis when he adds up the totals in his cashbook. He uses symbols borrowed from India every time he writes a check. As suggesting our debt to India in other fields of mathematics, we may follow Dr. Dantzig in quoting from the Brahman Bhaskara, who is assigned to the twelfth century of our era, a sentence which has a singularly modern flavor: —

‘The square of a positive number, as also that of a negative number, is positive; and the square root of a positive number is twofold, positive and negative; there is no square root of a negative number, for a negative number is not a square.’

Since Dr. Dantzig considers that mathematics began in modern Europe with the Italian Bombelli in the sixteenth century, the priority of India seems clear. The difficulty is that all early dates in India are still under the cloud cast by Archbishop Ussher’s chronology; 4004 B.C. for the creation dominated all our first Orientalists, who telescoped millenniums into centuries and centuries into decades in obedience to that shrunken yardstick. So far no one has seriously undertaken to unscramble this confusion. Therefore India’s achievements may be far older than the ‘early centuries A.D.’ to which Dr. Dantzig cautiously attributes them.

Pythagoras, whose long studies in Egypt and in the East are too generally ignored by the school which holds that all wisdom began with the Greeks, held some form of heliocentric teaching. A like view, that the sun, and not the earth, is the centre of the solar system, was pointed out by the American Sanskritist Fitzedward Hall in the Vishnu Purana: —

‘Of the sun, which is always in one and the same place, there is neither setting nor rising; for what is called rising and setting is only the seeing and the not seeing the sun.’

But the later Greek astronomers, including Hipparchus and Ptolemy, were convinced that our earth is the centre of the universe, which they conceived as a not very large globe with the stars ‘fixed’ on its inner surface. If we supplement this small globular universe with the chronology deduced from the Hebrew scriptures and finally formulated by Archbishop Ussher, we have the world as it continued until the discoveries of Copernicus, whose great book was published as he lay dying, in the year 1543, some twenty years before the birth of Shakespeare. The steady extension of the universe both in space and in time is the most notable fact of the last four centuries. The most recent results are embodied in the splendidly imaginative writings of Sir James Jeans and Sir Arthur Eddington. And the noteworthy fact is that those newest results are singularly like the views taught millenniums back, in ancient India.

Let us take examples in space and time. First, the Ptolemaic empyrean contained some five thousand stars. Perhaps ten thousand may be seen from a mountain top in India on a moonless night, when the stars gleam like colored jewels. But Buddha, teaching two thousand five hundred years ago, speaks of a hundred thousand times ten million worlds — that is, a million million. Sir Arthur Eddington is quoted as estimating that the great hundred-inch mirror telescope may make a photographic record of stars up to the 22d and 23d magnitudes; in all, perhaps, three hundred thousand million. It is possible that, the new two-hundred-inch mirror may bring these figures up to the Buddha’s total. Again, Sir James Jeans is quoted as estimating the age of the stellar universe as two hundred million million years. This still falls short of the total for a Year of Brahma, the universal Expansive Power, in the tables of the Puranas. Further, Buddha, or his disciples, taught a nebular theory closely resembling the most recent speculations of Jeans and Eddington.

To sum up: In the firmament of our intellectual life are two shining lights, Hellas and Palestine, from which we have drawn the essence of our science and our religion. But the ethical and religious teachings of India are in spirit singularly like those of the New Testament; Warren Hastings recognized that, a century and a half ago. When it comes to science, India is far closer to the most modern cosmological conceptions than Hellas ever was, while to India we owe such prosaic yet indispensable elements of our modern world as the figures which, with zero, are the very foundation of our practical and theoretical computations. India, therefore, among the nations of all time, is one of the few which have been greatly creative, in the intellectual as well as in ihc spiritual and ethical fields. But, while it would be unprofitable to seek in the Athens or Palestine of to-day for the living spirit that gave Greece and Judæa their world significance, with India it is not so. Her spiritual and intellectual life still burns, though buried deep under the débris of the centuries. Therefore, the future of India is not only the concern of India, or of the British Empire, but of the whole world. The hidden fires may, at some future day, be uncovered, once more burning brightly to illumine mankind.


Warren Hastings, bringing the new work to the attention of the higher powers of the East India Company, wrote his introduction to Charles Wilkins’s Bhagavad Gita in October 1784. He was then at Benares, seeking, by methods not overscrupulous, to extend the sway of the East India Company to the northwest, from the lower Ganges valley where it had its effective beginning on Clive’s battlefield of Plassey in 1757.

The dual errand of Warren Hastings in Benares, nearly a century and a half ago, is symbolic of the twofold work carried out by the British in India. The first governor-general was an enthusiastic student of Oriental lore; in his introduction, he gives an account of the Mahabharata war, which shows original research. Far more important, he was a generous and effective patron of Oriental studies, the presiding genius of the Asiatick Society of Bengal, the venerable precursor of so many kindred societies, including the American Oriental Society. To the period in which his influence and example were dominant belong the translation of the Laws of Manu by Sir William Jones, Thomas Colebrooke’s Vedic and grammatical studies which laid the foundation of Western knowledge of Sanskrit, and, as we have seen, the first translation of the Bhagavad Gita. This vitally important activity of Warren Hastings is almost ignored, even in the official English histories of the Indian Empire. But its influence has been world-wide; the valley of the Merrimac River is only one of innumerable regions to which the wave of intellectual and spiritual life set in motion at Benares a hundred and fifty years ago has spread. To the influence of the first governor-general of British India, the scholars who worked with him and their successors, we owe our knowledge of Eastern scriptures, the comparative study of religion, and such works as the Sacred Books of the East series. It would be difficult to name a more vital influence in modern religious thought.

Being then on the eve of his departure from India, Warren Hastings was also bent on consolidating what was destined, a century after Plassey, to become Britain’s imperial rule, that rule which is now so fiercely assailed by some of the modern ‘Nationalists.’ Let us try to gain a general view of the field of contention.

What was the character of the huge, semi-continental area over which Britain had begun to extend her sway? There were at that time three outstanding political powers: the waning Mogul empire; the militant theocracy of the Sikhs in the Indus region; and the associations of mounted Mahratha tribesmen in Central India, as mobile and as predatory as locusts. There were also rival European powers, Portuguese, Dutch, French. One may note in passing that at one time the contest between Britain and France was fairly equally balanced. Lack of sea power had hindered France from bringing critically needed reënforcements to Madras; just as England’s lack of effective sea power kept her from bringing much-needed reënforcements to Yorktown, not long before Warren Hastings wrote his introduction to the Bhagavad Gita at Benares. Had the forces of East and West been reversed, Yorktown might have been a British victory, perhaps deciding the war; while India might have become a French empire, as Tonkin later became. Perhaps, in that case, the Calcutta Nationalists would have voted that French, not English, should be the national tongue of the future independent India of their hopes.

The power of the Mogul conquerors, which was finally extinguished only in 1857 by the Indian Mutiny, was representative of a millennium of destructive invasions of India. In the year 711 the forces of militant Islam, not yet a century old, had attacked Western India. The Arab invaders captured the fortified city of Debul on the lower Indus, after a courageous resistance. The Brahmans and other inhabitants were invited to accept Islam, and, ‘on their refusing, their waves and children were enslaved and all males of the ago of seventeen and upward were put to the sword.’ This may stand as keynote for ten centuries of ruthless incursions. Besides invasion by the Arabs, there were inroads of Turks, who had not yet reached the Bosporus, culminating in the incursion of Timur the Lame, or Tamerlane, in Chaucer’s days; there was the invasion of Timur’s descendant Baber, which founded the Mogul Empire in Tudor times; last, and most ruthless, was the descent of Nadir Shah the Persian, not long before Plassey. It is interesting that another Nadir Shah now reigns beyond the Kyber Pass.

During these ten centuries the warriors of India made a gallant resistance.

More than that, they had excess energy enough to initiate the two great indigenous movements already noted: the Sikh theocracy in the north, and the Mahratha predatory principalities in the Vindhya Mountains of Central India. One may suppose that, had the European invaders never reached India, the end of the Mogul dynasty and the emancipation of its viceroys would have come about much as they did. The fruit was ripe to rottenness and would have fallen. Then either the theocratic Sikhs and the marauding Mahrathas would have reached a balance of power, or one would have prevailed over the other. Had the Sikhs prevailed, there would have been a prospect of able, despotic uniformity, in which what is most distinctive and valuable in India would probably have been destroyed. The triumph of the Mahrathas might have meant a rule greedier than that of the East India Company, with a far greater destructiveness. One cannot see that, in either event, the world would have profited from the stored wisdom of India.

But ‘ King Karma,’ as their sacred books would say, decreed that Company Bahadur should overcome first the Mahrathas and then the Sikhs, and should, a century after Plassey, give place to the imperial government, in virtue of which King George has succeeded Akbar the Magnificent and Aurungzeb the Persecutor as Emperor of India. Let us consider how imperial rule was at work, a generation after its inception in 1858.

To begin with, the characteristic thing was not the Government of India, with its capitals at Calcutta and Simla, but rather the dozen provincial governments, which, broadly speaking, followed the ancient boundaries of Indian kingdoms, each with its languages, history, and traditions. The situation was far more like Europe in the seventeenth century than, let us say, the United States in the nineteenth — except that there was, and is, immeasurably greater diversity of race in India than in Europe, even if we emphasize the Lapps and Finns, the Turks and Magyars, the Maltese and Basques. The fundamental distinction of the Four Colors exists to-day as in the days of the great adjustment formalized in Manu’s Code. The Mahabharata describes the Brahmans as white, the Rajputs as red-limbed, the Vaishyas as yellow, the Shudras as black. And to this day the men of pure race in Rajputana are red, like the red granite statues of old Egypt; the Brahmans of pure race are white beneath their light coat of sunburn; the Santals and Savaras are yellow; the Dravidians of the South are black. There are also a great many intermediate shades, but these four primary elements remain.

The fundamental principle of the Company and its imperial successor has been to give each of the innumerable elements of this vast mosaic of peoples a government fitting its own nature and tradition. The Brahmans have received the printing presses needed to broadcast their scriptures and poetry; the Rajputs, who were driven almost to destruction by the Mahrathas, have been protected and conserved. The Vaishyas, agriculturists and merchants, have had irrigation canals and railroads built for their service. Even more fundamental, every tribal and linguistic division has had an administration and law courts in its own tongue, so that the members of the Covenanted Civil Service, about a thousand in number, probably know more languages than any equal group on earth. While there has been a single British Indian Government, now centralized at New Delhi, it is like the whitewash which once covered the many-colored frescoes in Norwich Cathedral. The essential reality has been the almost infinite diversity of local adjustments, under which the leaf wearers of Orissa and the pandits of the Anandashrama at Poona found the amplest scope for their individual development. True of all British India, this was even more true of the Native States, almost equal in total area and with a population about equal to France and Italy combined. They are of many types, many traditions; the venerable houses of Rajputana carry their history back before the Christian era. Mysore is a stronghold of orthodox Brahmanism. Hyderabad, largest of these states, is a revolted Mogul Viceroyalty. Baroda, Indore, Gwalior, are fragments of the Mahratha realm; and so on, through several hundred. In each, the principle has been carefully to preserve its indigenous character, tradition, language or languages, customs, religious practices. Ethnical and spiritual conservation has been the watchword of the British Raj.


At the period we are considering, about thirty years after the Indian Mutiny, a new element appeared in India. During his meteoric passage across the firmament of India, Lord Macaulay did two things: he drew up the Indian Penal Code, and he introduced the general study of English for the literate classes in India. The resultant of these two factors was the development of a new caste: the English-speaking lawyer. And while there was also a class of natives, often speaking and writing good English, who rendered effective aid in the administration, and some of whom filled very responsible and highly rewarded positions and were in substantial harmony with the British rulers, the new English-speaking lawyer caste, on the contrary, was, by the very nature of its activities, prone to wrangle with the British judges and magistrates — in a perfectly legal and lawful way, be it understood. But the United States has, in its legislatures, a graphic illustration of the effect of legalistic contention upon character. And in the sunlit valleys of the Indus and the Ganges the effect, similar in principle, went to much greater lengths, since the new caste, through its possession and use of an alien tongue, was already half uprooted from its native soil, as its ‘western’ education, superficial though it may have been, tended to cut the new caste off from ancestral traditions.

About the year 1885, there lived among the deodars of the Simla hills a retired Commissioner — that is, one who had been overseer of eight or ten districts, grouped in a division. He was an ornithologist, author of two learned volumes on the birds of India. He formulated the idea, which he persuaded the Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, to approve, of gathering an assembly or Congress, in the main consisting of the new English-speaking lawyer caste, to discuss social and ethical problems, but at the outset refraining from politics. This first Congress may justly be regarded as the Great Divide of India’s modern history.

We have already tried to describe the tendency, inherited in the main from the days of the East India Company, and developed with wisdom and success by the imperial Raj, whereby each of the many ancient ‘nations,’ tribes, peoples, which make up the vast mosaic of the Indian region, had an administration adapted with conscious care and sympathy to its own nature and traditions — a system which may be called truly national, and which provided for the individual development of a score or more of ‘nations’ and of innumerable lesser tribes and groups. There was endless scope for the extension of that principle of wise individual development, and one can see nothing but good coming from its continued application.

On the other hand, we have the new caste of English-speaking lawyers, with a certain number of Englishspeaking schoolmasters added; progressively detached from the soil and from the traditions of their fathers, they were in equal measure drawn toward each other, no matter whether they were Brahmans from Poona, Sikhs from Ambala, Mohammedans from Delhi, or more remote Dravidians, of the ancient, highly gifted, and artistic black races of the Deccan. In virtue of the annual meetings of the National Congress, as the newborn institution came to be named, they developed a common consciousness, a common tradition, a common and, as it seems to some of its critics, a wholly erroneous theory of the life of India. These ‘Congressmen,’ eloquent in an alien tongue, had spoken in childhood, and still sometimes spoke at home, a score or more of tongues, in large measure mutually unintelligible. But these mother tongues, whether Punjabi, Hindi, Mahrathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Uriya, Tamil, Telugu, Canarese, Malayalam, or whatever they may have been, nevertheless had this in common: in not one of them is there an exact indigenous equivalent of the words ‘India’ and ‘Indian,’ as these words are currently used to-day. There are ancient Sanskrit terms like Aryavartta and Bharatavarsha, but in strictness both these include very limited areas, probably not a quarter of what is now meant by India, especially if we include Assam, Burma, and Baluchistan, the most recent accessions.

The truth would seem to be that ‘India’ in the political sense is wholly the creation of the India Office in London, and has no substantial existence except as an organization administered by the India Office, through its picturesque representative, the Viceroy at New Delhi and Simla. Administratively, this India has a real existence; ethnically it has no existence; it is a legal fiction from the standpoint of Indian races and Indian historical development. And almost inevitably the new caste, from which once each cold season emerged the ‘Congressmen,’ came under the influence of this fiction, and made orations to each other as if the fiction were a reality.

Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that all these Congressmen have, from the first, been wholly unselfish, free from ambition, avarice, envy, and malice. If the view here set forth be true, and ages of history support it, then the activities of the Congressmen could not have been other than harmful, since they rested on a false foundation. They are Nationalists of a nonexistent nation, able to communicate with each other only in an alien tongue, eagerly chasing the mirage which, in Sanskrit, is graphically called ‘the thirst of the deer’ across the parched desert. If this view be true, then the greater the success of the Congressmen, the more harmful its results are certain to be; the wider will be the divergence of this artificial ‘nationalistic’ current from the genuinely national development of the score or more of really distinct nations. Let us suppose that, instead of undertaking to adopt English as their future national language, the Congressmen had voted to devise a new language compounded equally from the ten great languages just named, and from the more than two hundred lesser tongues: we should have a visible and audible symbol of the moral and mental confusion involved in treating the fiction of a purely administrative India as a national reality.

An exceedingly important factor in the complex problem of India is that the speech of the new lawyer caste which we have depicted in outline is also the speech of England, with its steady tendency toward what is called democracy — that is, a theory of government, of national organization, based on the idea that all the individuals constituting the nation are substantially equal in judgment, in regard to rights and duties. Because of their equivalence, it is possible to choose individuals from among them who will faithfully represent their wishes and purposes, and who, acting together, may form a thoroughly representative government, which will carry into effect the real aims of the nation. To some degree, England may be regarded as such a democracy, of fairly uniform mental and moral stature. At least, that is the theory on which the government of England is based.

There has, therefore, existed, and there still exists, the grave danger for India that this English democracy will accept, not what we have ventured to call the genuinely ‘national’ view of India, with its provision for infinite diversity, but the ‘nationalistic’ view of the ‘Congressmen,’ drawn predominantly from the new caste of Englishspeaking lawyers. This, as we see it, is the real danger of India to-day, the danger which threatens to thwart India’s true development, to make much more difficult the attainment of that destined goal which, if divine and human forces effectively cooperate, may brush aside the wreckage which now hides the fires of India’s genius, so that this ancient land may once again bring forth light and treasure for mankind.