Criticism of Indian culture

WHEN we try to appreciate a culture, and when that

culture is the one in which we have grown up or from

which we draw our governing ideals and are likely

from overpartiality to minimise its deficiencies or from overfamiliarity

to miss aspects or values of it which would strike

an unaccustomed eye, it is always useful as well as interesting

to know how others see it. It will not move us to change our

view-point for theirs; but we can get fresh light from a study

of this kind and help our self-introspection. But there are different

ways of seeing a foreign civilisation and culture. There

is the eye of sympathy and intuition and a close appreciative

self-identification: that gives us work like Sister Nivedita’s Web

of Indian Life or Mr. Fielding’s book on Burma or Sir John

Woodroffe’s studies of Tantra. These are attempts to push aside

all concealing veils and reveal the soul of a people. It may well

be that they do not give us all the hard outward fact, but we are

enlightened of something deeper which has its greater reality;

we get not the thing as it is in the deficiencies of life, but its

ideal meaning. The soul, the essential spirit is one thing, the

forms taken in this difficult human actuality are another and

are often imperfect or perverted; neither can be neglected if we

would have a total vision. Then there is the eye of the discerning

and dispassionate critic who tries to see the thing as it is in its

intention and actuality, apportion the light and shade, get the

balance of merit and defect, success and failure, mark off that

which evokes appreciative sympathy from that which calls for

critical censure. We may not always agree; the standpoint is

different and by its externality, by failure of intuition and selfidentification

it may miss things that are essential or may not

get the whole meaning of that which it praises or condemns: still

we profit, we can add to our sense of shade and tone or correct

our own previous judgment. Finally there is the eye of the hostile

critic, convinced of the inferiority of the culture in question, who

gives plainly and honestly without deliberate overcharging what

he conceives to be sound reason for his judgment. That too has

its use for us; hostile criticism of this kind is good for the soul and

the intellect, provided we do not allow ourselves to be afflicted,

beaten down or shaken from the upholding centre of our living

faith and action. Most things in our human world are imperfect

and it is sometimes well to get a strong view of our imperfections.

Or, if nothing else, we can at least learn to appreciate opposite

standpoints and get at the source of the opposition; wisdom,

insight and sympathy grow by such comparisons.

But hostile criticism to be of any sound value must be criticism,

not slander and false witness, not vitriol-throwing: it must

state the facts without distortion, preserve consistent standards

of judgment, observe a certain effort at justice, sanity, measure.

Mr. William Archer’s well-known book on India, which

on account of its very demerits I have taken as the type of the

characteristicWestern or anti-Indian regard on our culture, was

certainly not of this character. It is not only that here we have a

wholesale and unsparing condemnation, a picture all shade and

no light: that is a recommendation, for Mr. Archer’s professed

object was to challenge the enthusiastic canonisation of Indian

culture by its admirers in the character of a devil’s advocate

whose business is to find out and state in its strongest terms

everything that can be said against the claim. And for us too it is

useful to have before us an attack which covers the whole field

so that we may see in one comprehensive view the entire enemy

case against our culture. But there are three vitiating elements

in his statement. First, it had an ulterior, a political object; it

started with the underlying idea that India must be proved altogether

barbarous in order to destroy or damage her case for

self-government. That sort of extraneous motive at once puts his

whole pleading out of court; for it means a constant deliberate

distortion in order to serve a material interest, foreign altogether

to the disinterested intellectual objects of cultural comparison

and criticism.

In fact this book is not criticism; it is literary or rather

journalistic pugilism. There too it is of a peculiar kind; it is a

furious sparring at a lay figure of India which is knocked down

at pleasure through a long and exuberant dance of misstatement

and exaggeration in the hope of convincing an ignorant

audience that the performer has prostrated a living adversary.

Sanity, justice, measure are things altogether at a discount: a

show-off of the appearance of staggering and irresistible blows

is the object held in view, and for that anything comes in handy,

—the facts are altogether misstated or clumsily caricatured,

the most extraordinary and unfounded suggestions advanced

with an air of obviousness, the most illogical inconsistencies

permitted if an apparent point can be scored. All this is not the

occasional freak of a well-informed critic suffering from a fit of

mental biliousness and impelled to work it off by an extravagant

intellectual exercise, an irresponsible fantasia or a hostile

war-dance around a subject with which he is not in sympathy.

That is a kind of extravagance, which is sometimes permissible

and may be interesting and amusing. It is a sweet and pleasant

thing, cries the Roman poet, to play the fool in place and right

season, dulce est desipere in loco. But Mr. Archer’s constant

departures into irrational extravagance are not by any means

in loco. We discover very soon,—in addition to his illegitimate

motive and his deliberate unfairness this is a third and worst

cardinal defect,—that for the most part he knew absolutely

nothing about the things on which he was passing his confident

damnatory judgments. What he has done is to collect together in

hismind all the unfavourable comments he had read about India,

eke them out with casual impressions of his own and advance

this unwholesome and unsubstantial compound as his original

production, although his one genuine and native contribution is

the cheery cocksureness of his secondhand opinions. The book

is a journalistic fake, not an honest critical production.




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