Many years ago I wrote an essay for the titled ‘Macaulay’s Children’. Thirty-five years on, I am pleasantly surprised that I still essentially think the same way. The main ideas of that essay were the need for roots, the English educational system that had made us into brown sahibs, the seductive attraction of English literature that I teach, and the need for an Indian perspective on that literature. I asked for a historic-minded criticism that would enable us to read ‘Indianly’. On this last point I have a different view now as will become apparent.
That essay began with my encounter with Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, the 68th head of the Kanchi Kamakoti Matham. He queried me about my origins and about my family, none of which I knew answers for. I reflected on our indifference to history and to our hoary traditions. The sage was a compendium of spiritual and secular knowledge, and enlightened me about the Palaghat Brahmin community I come from. The Acharya said that we came to Kerala originally from Tanjavur in Tamil Nadu as Purohits or as moneylenders. Later, I found out that Palaghat Brahmins were also expert cooks, musicians and bureaucrats. We speak a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam, and observe both Tamil and Malayali customs. This is my past and I should have known more about it.
I was separated from those roots by being sent at 11 years to a boarding school—Bishop Cottons, Bangalore—to escape Naxal-influenced Calcutta, where my father was serving. I think this separation was momentous in shaping my personality. I spent five crucial years in Cottons, learning to be suspicious of my mother tongue (we had to use only English in school), contemptuous of my customs and even food habits. I learnt English, imbibed Western mores, sang pop songs, forgetting the Carnatic music I had been exposed to, literally from my mother’s womb. I did the foxtrot and went to socials, mocked our Hindi and Sanskrit teachers. This had nothing to do with the strong religious upbringing at home and the rich cultural life that included celebrating our festivals, going to temples and Tamil movies. I became quite the Macaulayan brown sahib, the ‘native’—brown in colour, but English in taste and sensibility. We were taught British-sponsored history of India and I knew more about British monarchs than about Indian ones. This Macaulayan educational system sadly afflicts us even so many years after independence. The British have gone, but their influence remains.
University only reinforced this Anglicisation. I studied English literature, obtained a PhD, taught for some 40 years and had a satisfactory career. For this I am grateful to Cottons. It has given me material prosperity, but the costs must be counted. After leaving school, I returned to our way of life, particularly continuing my musical education, exposing myself to our Sanatana Dharma, but my ‘Englishness’ was at odds with it. The seductiveness of this Englishness is such that the search for roots is conditioned by it. This hybridity is what makes us ‘Macaulay’s Children’. I was part of this elite, but increasingly uncomfortable with our alienation from the Indian reality and her great culture. Universities in India are dominated by left-wing liberals, who are profoundly Macaulay’s progeny. Their snide references to Sanatana Dharma, their denigration of Sanskrit, their divisive discourse of class struggle, began increasingly to trouble me. Their repetition of the formulations of British colonialists with some variations made people like me realise that they were doing what the British did—exploiting fault lines in our society—race, caste, community, religion. Some of us watched this leftist takeover with increasing anxiety. The Left with its sophisticated network keeps out people not of its persuasion. But I, like some others, clearly a minority, who had university jobs, quietly challenged the Left, their way of reading literature and their view of Indian history. This did me no good at first because students avoided an unfashionable teacher, but slowly my persistence paid off and I began attracting them. Students knew I was spiritual and not afraid to mention God in class or speak of literature as literature, not as a political tool for the furtherance of the utopian Marxist agenda. That took extraordinary courage on their part. That I survived the toxic atmosphere is a marvel and certainly God’s grace.
So when I go back to ‘Macaulay’s Children’ and I find that I am using the term “historic-minded criticism”, I am amused, because I think differently now. I still think that we are mimic men, but my crucial realisation is that the Left is part of this imitative activity, and to be Indian one must resist them, their categories and their divisiveness. Their dominant narrative, much like the British, exacerbates caste and class fault lines, exploits the Hindu-Muslim divide, the Aryan-Dravidian distinction.
To be Indian we must assert the continuity of our over 5,000 years of civilisation and bring this realisation into the classroom. Whatever subject we teach, our point of view should be rooted in an appreciation of our values. These are an acceptance of the religious in our lives, our unity and equality before God, our culture’s creative organisation of society where the castes were interdependent and our tolerance of difference. Sanatana Dharma is a way of life and not a set of dogmas. We certainly have doctrines, and every aspect of life is covered by the notions of dharma, karma and rebirth. Historic mindedness is not merely about dialectics, class struggle and revolution. It is to recognise and honour the Rishis, the Srutis, the Smritis, the Itihasas and Puranas, which have valuable historical information. Our culture tells us how to lead the good and righteous life. It is different from the Abrahamic faiths like Christianity and Islam. For them history is linear, for us it is cyclic—and our Yuga theory makes us engage with life from the perspective of eternity, and lifts the discourse to dizzy heights and an expansiveness no organised religion can offer.
This is a far cry from the divisive history we are taught even today because of leftist dominance. How much the Left has been influenced by British historians is astonishing and theirs is supposed to be post-colonial history! We must call out this mischief. The periodisation of Indian history into ancient, medieval and modern is a British legacy, and has the effect of playing up the discontinuity of our traditions when actually they are a continuum. Left history glorifies the Mughals, ignores their repressiveness and does not attend to Hindu kingdoms like Vijayanagar, or to icons like our freedom fighters who, from the arrival of Ghori and Ghazni, offered resistance to the invaders till we secured independence.
The leftist elite collaborates with Western scholars who bait India and who hate Sanatana Dharma. By calling it Hinduism, they reduce its expansiveness. With active help from NGOs and evangelicals, they seem intent on completing the unfinished British colonial agenda of converting India to Christianity and destroying Sanatana Dharma. Like the British, they try to make our religion look bizarre and our customs backward. But there is no use cribbing, and we must act to produce a discourse that matches the Left in organisation, research, methodology and marketing of ideas. Unfortunately, our cause is taken over by lumpen elements, who destroy mosques, ransack churches and lynch alleged cow stealers. This does not square with our proverbial tolerance. After all, Christians, Jews and Zorastrians found a home in India. We cannot hold it against our Muslim brothers that their ancestors were cruel and oppressive. We can do better than that.
A strong scholarly tradition needs to be built upon the foundations laid by Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Gandhiji, C. Rajagopalachari, S. Radhakrishnan, V.S. Srinvasa Sastri, Ananda Coomaraswamy and R.C. Mazumdar. We must take inspiration from the cultural histories published variously by the Ramakrishna Mission and the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Slowly and steadily this is happening. Scholars like Rajiv Malhotra, Meenakshi Jain, Kapil Kapoor, Prof Nagaswami and Vamsi Julluri, to name only a few, are offering a new cultural history, building on the work of the great savants I have listed. Their initiatives have put paid to the Aryan invasion theory and the vicious racial politics based on the Aryan-Dravidian divide. Neither Aryan nor Dravidian is a racial term. One means noble, the other is a region. They have foregrounded Sanskrit as the unifying language it is, shown how Tamil and Sanskrit have had a symbiotic relationship, and recovered our findings in science, mathematics and art from appropriation by the West. Above all, they have recovered the sacred in our literature from the intervention of left-minded scholars like Sheldon Pollock and Wendy Doniger and their Indian acolytes. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are religious texts, not merely a source for the political agenda of the Left.
Finally, our academic practice must call out the so-called ‘secular’. Sanatana Dharma is, unlike the Semitic and Abrahamic religions, inclusive, accepting, tolerant and broadminded. When the Jews fled Rome, some came to Cochin, which still has a small Jewish community. When the Zoroastrians fled Islamic tyranny in Persia, they found sanctuary in Surat and Mumbai. Christianity has over a thousand-year history in India. Islamic invaders came to India and stayed, and the Muslims of India have contributed to music, art and sport. Their Indianness must be accepted and they should be detached from their cruel ancestors who oppressed Hindus. All this can be done and is possible because the Sanatana culture of this country has been hospitable. It is secular in the best sense of the term. This is true secularism.
It is necessary for us to rewrite our history with greater balance and a fair coverage of Hindu kingdoms. Sanatana Dharma must survive. There should be an acceptance that all of us our Indians, that our DNA is the same, that our culture is Hindu, which actively promotes, not merely tolerates, religious pluralism. That is India and Macaulay’s Children, the leftists, cannot deliver anything worthwhile. They must be challenged and replaced by national-minded scholars. That way lies the future.
(The writer retired as professor of English in the University of Hyderabad in 2014. Views are personal.)