Edmund Burke devoted seven years to prosecuting the trial of Warren Hastings, the governor-general in Calcutta, for oppressive extractions from the Indians. Burke saw Hastings as an arriviste undermining India’s ancient and admirable system of hierarchy and degree.
Edward Jones’ sensational announcement in 1786 that Sanskrit had descended from the same unknown ancient language as most ancient and modern European languages galvanized Northern European intellectuals as romantic nationalism was coming into fashion.
Jones’ implication that Northern Europeans were descended in sizable part from the same warrior race who had overrun Iran (Aryan) and India was exciting to scholars who had previously assumed that their ancestors were lost to the mists of time and illiteracy. German thinkers had long had to endure endless praise of the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans without much of anything to say about their ancestors other than what could be gleaned from Germania by Tacitus.
A fad for Indian culture spread among German highbrows, such as Arthur Schopenhauer, who introduced Hindu and Buddhist thought to European philosophy. Schopenhauer explained:
The highest civilization and culture, apart from the ancient Hindus and Egyptians, are found exclusively among the white races; and even with many dark peoples, the ruling caste or race is fairer in color than the rest and has, therefore, evidently immigrated, for example, the Brahmans, the Incas, and the rulers of the South Sea Islands. All this is due to the fact that necessity is the mother of invention because those tribes that emigrated early to the north, and there gradually became white, had to develop all their intellectual powers and invent and perfect all the arts in their struggle with need, want and misery, which in their many forms were brought about by the climate. This they had to do in order to make up for the parsimony of nature and out of it all came their high civilization.
The French aristocrat Arthur de Gobineau, who saw himself and his fellow nobles as descended from the Germanic barbarians who had overthrown the Roman Empire, developed an Aryan master-race theory that today seems strangely Indo-centric for a man always denounced as a racist. Gobineau was realistic about the limited contributions of Aryans to Greek and Roman civilizations, but he attributed all the achievements of India to its Aryan invaders. Moreover, both China and Egypt were offshoots of Indian civilization, according to Gobineau’s speculations.
There are some praiseworthy aspects of Gobineau’s assertions. To most Westerners, India is a bit of a historical black hole, due in part to the Indian aversion to recording their own history. To Europeans, India is merely where Alexander the Great wept because he had no more worlds to conquer. So Gobineau’s fantasy in which India was the basis of Egypt and China was at least different.
In truth, India was a bit of a laggard at developing civilization because agriculture couldn’t begin until Middle Eastern crops were adapted to India’s monsoon climate. And tilling the soil in India wasn’t introduced by the Aryan herdsmen, but by their smaller, darker predecessors who founded the Indus Valley civilization (in modern Pakistan) well before the Aryans arrived from the north.
Later German theorists such as Richard Wagner’s son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain were even less restrained in their worship of Indian thought. In reviewing Chamberlain’s The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, Teddy Roosevelt observed:
Mr. Chamberlain’s hatreds cover a wide gamut. They include Jews, Darwinists, the Roman Catholic Church, the people of southern Europe, Peruvians, Semites, and an odd variety of literary men and historians. To this sufficiently incongruous collection of antipathies he adds a much smaller selection of violent attachments, ranging from imaginary primitive Teutons and Aryans to Immanuel Kant, and Indian theology, metaphysics, and philosophy….
The most influential figure in this tradition today is likely Friedrich Nietzsche, who extolled, in his infinitely sardonic manner, Hindu eugenics in Twilight of the Idols:
Let us consider the other method for “improving” mankind, the method of breeding a particular race or type of man. The most magnificent example of this is furnished by Indian morality, sanctioned as religion in the form of “the law of Manu.” Here the objective is to breed no less than four races within the same society: one priestly, one warlike, one for trade and agriculture, and finally a race of servants, the Sudras…. How wretched is the New Testament compared to Manu, how foul it smells!
The Indian moviegoing masses seem to share the pro-Aryan prejudices of the old Northern European philosophers, with most Bollywood stars drawn from the fairer and taller Northern Indians with more steppe descent.
On the other hand, how much objective evidence is there today for the old prejudice that the more Aryan Indians of the north are objectively superior to the more Dravidian Indians of the south?
While India has made a fair amount of economic progress since giving up Fabian socialism in 1991, the shorter, darker people of the South seem to be pulling ahead. The parts of India that are doing best today, such as, in their ideologically different ways, capitalist Bangalore and leftist Kerala, tend to be in the more Dravidian, less Aryan south. In contrast, the “Deep North” of states like Uttar Pradesh remains locked in poverty.
An Indian reader wrote me in 2004:
China has an enormous advantage over India: relative homogeneity. In China there is no significant difference in racial appearance between the rich and the poor. They come from the same people. In India, you can see a colour line dividing classes every inch of the way. Sure these lines aren’t cut and dry like black and white, and there are overlaps, but the trends are easy to follow for anyone willing to observe. The fact that the Chinese don’t have 4000 year old caste hatreds gives them the advantage over India.
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