The Western Influence on India

A native of Bengal, whose courage in controversy parallels that of Elmer Davis in this country, NIRAD C. CHAUDHURIwas a commentator on world affairs for All India Radio in Delhi. Mr. Chaudhuri ‘s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, published by Macmillan in 1951, interprets the evolution of modern India through the story of his own life; now, in the article that follows, he seeks to evaluate the various pressures which the West has brought upon India and the rival faiths which are struggling for the control of that country today.



A FOREIGNER living in one of India’s big cities — Bombay, say, or New Delhi — will probably be inclined to wonder why anybody should ever have said, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”Especially if he is moving among fairly well-to-do people, he will see around him everywhere plenty of evidence that East and West do meet, and on pretty intimate terms at that. The influences which have been working toward the Westernization of India during the past century and a half are not only powerful, they are now thoroughly acclimatized and entrenched.

No observant Indian, whether orthodox or liberal, is likely to dispute this impression. Never in our recent history have Western ideas and ways been so dominant as at present, and never before have Westernized Indians enjoyed such power and prestige. Consequently, if any fear exists about the future of Western influence in the East, its causes must lie hidden behind the most profound questions of the Indian national character.

Let me begin with the things most obvious to the eye. The clothes, eating habits, furniture, amusements, games, and manners of the urban upper middle class, India’s present ruling order, are all essentially Western; no doubt about it. They have a distinctly Western air, recognizably imitative even when not wholly successful in imitation. In the externals of life this class has been more Westernized in the last thirty years than it was in the preceding century and a half of British rule. If I had to single out one feature of this transformation as more striking than any other, I would point to the number of Indian women seen in public places and with their heads bare. Both were inconceivable in 1920. In my boyhood our higher consciousness, and more especially our moral and religious ideas, had already been reshaped by Western influences, but our habits of living and manners were still substantially traditional and in many respects primitive. The youth of today has no experience of this mixture of the new and the old. The continuity in our Indian way of living has been broken.

This revolution can be illustrated with hundreds of examples: the demand for sofas and chairs, due more to new notions of social prestige than to new ideas of physical comfort; the cult of the automobile and the refrigerator; the magical hold of the cinema; the immense popularity of cricket and football; an almost Parisian weakness for restaurants; the growing vogue of alcohol. Each of these is significant, because in its latest phase Westernization in India is strikingly like spray painting, an accumulation of small particles on the surface. But I shall refer only to fashions in dress.

A surprisingly large number of Indians carry their European clothes naturally and gracefully. Many go into evening dress, and even those who follow the official mode and don a black sherwani pay their share of tribute to a Western custom. The less wealthy do not perhaps look very graceful, but they too feel more at home in European dress than in any indigenous costume. Even children in India wear clothes of a European pattern, and when they go on doing so until adolescence they become permanently incapable of using Indian clothes.

The sari of the women would seem to be a decisive exception. But the Orientalism of the sari is deceptive. Those who have followed its evolution in recent years know to what extent it has been fashioned by Western influences. In design, as in manner of wearing, the sari had an immense range of regional variation. It is now approaching an all-India norm, in which the differences are mere modes. This is largely due to extraneous influence. How far down it should reach, how close it should cling to the body, how much of it should go towards obscuring the bust and the face were no problems in former times. Now they are important decisions, and designers and wearers take their cues from the fashions of London and Paris.

The coiffure of our women of fashion has been Western for decades. Make-up has arrived lately. It is proving so irresistible even in lower-middleclass homes that the walls of Old Delhi were placarded recently wtth the demand for a ban on the use of lipstick by school and college girls. But of course ihe orthodox cause is already a lost cause.


MOST Occidentals regret these trends, and are grieved bv the ousting of the distinctive by the commonplace and of the picturesque by the drab. I can sympathize with their feelings. For my Westernization is of the older pattern, concerned more with the mind than with material things, and this has made me prone to draw a sharp line of qualitative distinction between the two kinds of change. But I am afraid my feeling is wasted. Vast stretches of Western banality must be accepted as normal in India, and in all other Oriental countries.

I disagree with those who think that these changes in the superficies do not matter. There is a class of Westerners who remember the Latin tag about Light from the East too well but have forgotten that the Romans balanced it with a saying about the Orontes emptying itself into the Tiber. They persist in believing that the heart of India remains true to Vedanta in spile of all the changes in the externals. No idea could be more mistaken. A revolution in modes of living always affects fundamental outlooks, and in India this is all the more true because for centuries Hinduism has been sustained only by a routine of external observances.

For this reason any change in externals produces a radical alteration in the outlook of a Hindu. In a new physical environment he is able to shed his traditional beliefs as easily and neatly as a snake casts its skin. That is why the external changes of which I have been speaking are in many ways more significant than the changes which had previously taken place in the higher spheres of culture. All over India the external revolution is bringing about a corresponding revolution in the mores of the people, and the transformation of the mores is reacting drastically on the Hindu system of values.

But in trying to redress the balance in favor of factors whose importance is often overlooked I do not mean to belittle the Westernization in spheres properly called cultural. In these the change has been operative over a long period and the Western influences have been assimilated. This can be observed without any special effort in modern Indian literature, art, scholarship, and scientific, ethical, and religious thought. But in some ways the most significant illustration comes from Indian painting, for in my lifetime it has described a complete circle. It has passed from imitation of European academic styles to imitation of modernist styles, having had in between a phase of intense nationalism, in which only the indigenous schools were copied. This nationalist phase is now almost outmoded if not discredited, and any work which does not reveal the impact of somebody or other between Manet and Picasso may provoke sneers, or at best a condescending tolerance.

Those who are in touch with modern Indian culture will already have arrived at conclusions similar to mine. Those who are not will be unable to judge for themselves without an elaborate documentation. This I cannot attempt; but I can at least draw attention to an amazing fact which more than anything else proves the hold of Western civilization on India. It is the retention of English as the official language, even after independence. The employment of a foreign language, intelligible only to a small fraction of the country’s population, for all the higher expression of a nation no longer politically subject is in itself staggering. It is unparalleled anywhere else in the world except. Ceylon. When in addition it is recalled that the decision to adopt English was taken and is being maintained in the face of violent emotional opposition and impressive intellectual arguments, the mind demands an explanation, and the only one which sounds adequate is that those who took it had a sense of overriding necessity.

Indeed they had. For the main concept of our nationalism, the concept of India, is in its essentials a product of the impact of the West, and whatever may happen in the future, at present it exists through English alone. This is not merely to say that in their contemporary activities Indians from the different parts of the country meet on common ground only when they employ English. The sense of geographical unity, an indispensable element of nationalism, is indeed being maintained here by the language and the administrative system left behind by the British. But a sense of unity in time, or historical consciousness, is equally vital to nationalism, and this also, besides being a gift of Western scholarship to India, can be acquired by Indians solely through English.

Indian nationalism has been helped by Western Orientalists in two ways. In the first place, their works for the first time made Hindus conscious of an Indian past. Before British rule the Hindus had no recollection of their ancient history and not much understanding of the true character of Sanskritic civilization. The first was reconstructed and the second reinterpreted for them by Western scholars. As I have written in my book, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian: “European Oriental research rendered a service to Indian and Asiatic nationalism which no native could ever have given. At one stroke it put the Indian nationalist on a par with his English ruler. The resuscitation of their past fired the imaginations of the Hindus and nuide them conscious of a heritage of their very own, which they could pit not only against the Muslims but. also against the far more powerful and virile English.”

Secondly, the researches of these same scholars made it possible for Indians to see their past as a whole, and trace a continuity in their cultural evolution. Until the basic writings of ancient Indian culture, which were in Sanskrit or the Sanskrtic languages, and the basic works of Indo-Islamic history, which were in Persian, had been translated into English, any view that an Indian could get of his past was bound to be partial; for very few Indians knew both Sanskrit and Persian and not many knew even one of these. European Orientalists, through their translations and interpretations, reduced t hem, so to speak, to a common denominator and made comparison possible. Perhaps they gave a greater impression of continuity than had existed in fact, but since belief in this continuity is a major element in Indian nationalism, the West’s service lo it cannot he underrated.


MANY other contemporary activities can be drawn upon to make fuller the picture of the Westernization in India, but perhaps what has been said will be enough to give a broad indication. Now, it may be asked, if this picture is not grossly overdrawn, where is the challenge to Western influence?

One answer which would readily occur to an American or European is that my assessment leaves out of aeeounl at least nine tenths of the population, whose inertia, as democracy becomes effective, may squeeze out Westernization, which has left them untouched. Hut really I have no fear of the masses. An extraordinary thing about all the civilizations of India is that they have been, superstructures imposed on a primitive peasant, laborer, and artisan community which itself has hardly changed since the end of the neolithic age in Western Asia. This basic community has supported successive cultures by supplying food, land revenue, goods, and services; it has also been partially influenced by the cultures; but it has never made any positive contribution to any culture, nor been the active enemy of any. The masses const it ut ing this community have been the Eternal Sudras, and if they continue in this state they will not play a significant part in any future conflict of cultures in India. If, on the other hand, their life is draslically changed by Western technology, their weight is more likely lo be thrown on the side of the West than against it.

I anticipate the onslaught on Westernization from different quarters. I shall presently name them. Hut as a preliminary it is important to note that the attack will prove dangerous because the present state of our Westernization is vulnerable. A brief sursey is sufficient to bring this point, home. Two broad stages are to be distinguished in the course of our Westernization. In the first, which began early in the nineteenth century and lasted till its end, Western influences were felt mainly in the higher centers of consciousness and manifested themselves in the sphere of culture. In contrast, in the second the imports from the West have been almost exclusively technological and material. For some time, the two singes overlapped. But now clear chronological limits can be assigned to each. If 1910 was the latest date at which the first type of Westernization could be felt as a real force, by 1920 the dominance of the second had become plain and clear.

These two stages of Westernization stand for different values in the held of culture, or rather one stands for something and the other by itself for nothing at all. The cultural activities which the impact of the West brought into being in nineteen! hcentury India pass under the name of the Indian Renaissance. The spiritual and intellectual consequences of these activities justify the label. For Westernization in the early phase created the same respect for reason, human personality, freedom, and humane letters in India as the Renaissance did in Europe. In addition, coming later, the Indian movement had the advantage of subsequent developments in the West the Reformation, the rationalism of the eighteenth century, and the liberalism of the nineteenth. Religious and ethical movements strongly marked by Protestant and Nonconformist traits and a movement of social reform inspired by liberalism form significant and integral features of the so-called Indian Renaissance.

The culture which was thus created in India bore all the impress of the Christian and humanistic civilization of Western Europe. On the other hand, the technological impact of the West is devoid of all moral and cultural import — unless the Occidental lower-middle-class and materialistic values it is popularizing can be endowed with some.

This historical process has evolved a contemporary situation as paradoxical as any that could be conceived. On the one side there is the expanse of Westernization, obtrusive in the big cities: men thoroughly Westernized holding almost all key positions; national reconstruction so Western that even the names of the prized schemes, the FiveYear Plan, Dnmodnr Valley Corporation, Hirakud Dam, Community Projects, National Physical Laboratory, suggest a creedal formula. On the other, one finds that the strength of Western ideas is reduced to the point of exhaustion. Few men are capable of putting passion into their faith in Western values or are willing to fight for those ideals as Indians fought in the nineteenth century. The upper middle class, the present ruling order, have indulged themselves in an easygoing and affluent materialism. In a word, the facade of Westernization stands intact, but a dangerous emptiness of faith and ideas lies behind it.


THE void is being filled up by live ideas supplied from the ready assets of two fanatical systems — Communism and retrograde Hinduism — both of which are finding converts in large numbers among the ideologically hungry. Indians with Western leanings are prone to overlook the danger from Communism, because from their standpoint Communism is as Western as the liberal civilization of Western Europe, and also because they feel that the spread of Communism will not only leave untouched but will actually promote the sole form of Westernization they are now capable of understanding— namely, Westernization in material thingd. Thus many upper-class Indians are flirting with Communistic ideas in the same manner as the French nobility, blissfully unconscious of their march towards the guillotine, flirted with the ideas of Voltaire and Rousseau.

Westerners for their part are likely to go wrong over the menace from retrograde Hinduism. They know little about it. The opposition to cow slaughter is perhaps the only article of its creed of which they have heard, and this seems so funnily absurd. Its existence is also screened from the outside world by the Westernizing professions of the present ruling class, the adherence to the principle of the Secular state, and the denunciation of militant Hinduism as communalism, an expression almost unintelligible to the West but of great damning force in India. This Western underestimate needs greater correction than the Indian underestimate of Communism. Therefore I must indicate the nature of the phenomenon 1 call retrograde Hinduism, which might also be called Hindu nationalism in its purest and most intense form.

Strictly speaking, we cannot call it a resurgence. Hindu nationalism has been a live and constant factor in Indian history for over a thousand years, and has never been dead, or even quiescent. It was evolved between the eighth and twelfth centuries, in the course of the losing struggle with Islamic expansion, and by the time the Muslims established their political power in India (about A.D. 1200) it had become a full-fledged system of resistance to everything foreign. Its existence and the fanaticism which fired it were noted by the great Muslim scholar Alberuni in the eleventh century. With only minor adjustments it became as effective against British rule as it was against the Muslim. Having met it at every point in my own life, I can say that in its essential nature it has hardly changed in a thousand years.

But its expression has varied according to circumstances. When and whore the military and political strength of the foreigner was overwhelming, Hindu nationalism never urged revolt. In these phases it occupied itself overhauling the cohesion of the Hindu community, strengthening its defensive perimeter, maintaining it. as a parallel society, and boosting its morale by a whispering and incessant campaign of slander and denigralion of the foreigner. At the same time, every appearance of military and political weakness was fully exploited. Hindu nationalism waged a war of attrition— moral, cultural, and political—on foreign domination, It was this nationalism, and not the form imported from the West, which was only a veneer, that ultimately wore out British rule. Now that the British are gone, ils virulence is directed against the ideas and values of the Westernized upper middle class.

The basic, notions and attitudes of this movement are simple to the point of crudity. In fact, crudity is the main source of its strength. No worth-while knowledge of any aspect of ancient Hindu civilization lies behind it. Hindu nationalism is nothing more than loyally to a fixed pattern of behavior, called the Sanatana Dharma, or the Eternal Way, regulated by a set of hidebound traditions. Certainly, it is significant that the most typical expression of Hindu nationalism is usually found in the sphere of social or moral reform; for instance, in British days, in the outcry against the prohibition of the burning of widows, raising of the age of consent, and the like; and in the era of independence, in the opposition to the Hindu Code Bill, which sought to confer the right of divorce and inheritance on Hindu women.

Thus in its operation Hindu nationalism is not only backward-looking, it is also preponderantly negative. Its most obvious facet is xenophobia, both personal and ideological. However polite he may he to foreigners as individuals, a Hindu can never respect a foreign community. Of non-Hindu ideas he must be even more contemptuous. Thus it happens that even the undeniable superiority of the West in technology is discounted by extremely ingenious arguments: first by saying that, it is only mere material excellence, and second by claiming that all these devices were known in ancient India. An immense number of educated, serious, and sincere people believe that airplanes and firearms were known to the ancient Hindus.

It is almost foolish to expect the anemic Occidentalism of the upper-class Indian to stand up against this nationalism. Even the democratic liberalism of the West preached by Westerners themselves, so long as it retains its present complexion, cannot, be a match for it. Hindu nationalism combines the enormous strength of its fossil bones with the virus of its putrid flesh, and no modern system of thought will be able to break it, unless it possesses the same intolerance of rival ideologies, the same confidence in itself, the same inflexibility, added to a new eschatology—a plausible theory and promise about the future which Hinduism today does not offer.

Unfortunately, in the present-day world, only one such rival for retrograde Hinduism exists, and that is Communism. It also has a large and dynamic following in India. Therefore I have come to feel that in India, sooner or later, there is bound to be a conflict for power between Hindu nationalism and Communism.

It is my personal belief that in this struggle, unless there is active intervention by the Soviet Union, combined with complete inaction on the part of the West, Communism will not win. But I do not wish to commit myself as to the final outcome, for there are unpredictable elements in the future strength of both retrograde Hinduism and Communism.

Whatever the outcome of this struggle, the future of Western civilization in India is necessarily at stake. In the case of a victory for retrograde Hinduism, all Western influences, barring the technological, will disappear completely. Even the technological will subsist on a low and inefficient plane. In the event of a triumph for Communism, there will be a form of Western civilization which will emerge in India, but which will not be the European civilization known to us. Yet perhaps we should not formulate the antithesis in this stark form. It may make a world of difference if the true West shows itself capable of revivifying and renovating its faith and values, and preaching them to Asia.

Certainly there is time to do so. I do not expect the real crisis for Western civilization in India to arise in less than fifteen to twenty years. During this period the Western influences in India are likely to be protected by two accidental circumstances, one of personality and the other of history. In the first place, nearly all the men who are wielding power in India today were born before 1900 and are products of the older Westernization. They will not pass away before a decade or two, and while they live they will naturally uphold the ideas on which they were brought up.

The historical circumstance is more subtle. The unquestioned dominance of Western ideas in contemporary India is largely due to a past frustration. When the British were in India they showed no anxiety to propagate Western civilization. On the contrary, they wanted Indians to remain true to their traditions and scoffed at Westernized Indians as “Babus.” These Westernized Indians have succeeded in having their revenge. The children of the West in spirit and intellect and the children of India by birth, they have found their opportunity late, after long suppression under British rule. As I have written in a recent article in an Indian newspaper: “ We are seeing the real fulfillment of British rule in India in post-British days and the most un-Indian group of Indians in the position of a dominant minority. They, the ideas and the men, are all the more assertive because they never quite had their chance before. Thus above every fluttering Indian national flag today I see its ideal in the Platonic sense, a transcendental Union Jack.” Of course, this cannot last forever. But there is a breathing space, and something can still be done to create a militant Western faith which will be an adequate substitute for Communism and a dissolvent of retrograde Hinduism.