Common section


1600 to 1900 CE


1600 (December 31) Queen Elizabeth I charters the British East India Company

1750-1755 The Bengal Famine causes ten million deaths

1756 The Black Hole of Calcutta causes dozens of deaths

1757 The British East India Company defeats the Muslim rulers in Bengal

1757 First wave of British Raj begins

1765 Robert Clive becomes chancellor of Bengal

1782-1853 Sir Charles James Napier lives

1813 Second wave of British Raj begins

1857-1858 The Rebellion, formerly known as the Mutiny, takes place; third

wave of the British Raj begins

1858 The British viceroy officially replaces Mughal rule (and the East India Company)

1865-1936 Rudyard Kipling lives

This matter of creeds is like horseflesh. . . . the Faiths are like the
horses. Each has merit in its own country.

Mahbub Ali, in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, 19011

The tumult and the shouting dies—
The captains and the kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget!

Rudyard Kipling, “Recessional,” 1897

This chapter will begin with a very fast gallop over the perilous steeplechase race known as the British Raj (the two centuries during which India was part of the British Empire), highlighting, like all reportage of equine events, the disastrous falls along the way, particularly those with consequences for religion. There was a chronological divide, between what we might call three waves of the Raj, in imitation of the feminist and cinematic nomenclature. The first wave took place in the eighteenth century, with the first consolidations of the previously scattered European presence in India, and, in scholarship, the discovery of the Indo-European language system; it began with the Black Hole and the subsequent government takeover in 1756. The second wave began in 1813, with the official entrance of Christian missionaries. And the third wave began in 1857-1858, with the aftermath of the event known to the British as the Sepoy, Bengal, or Indian Mutiny; to Indians as the National Uprising or First War of Independence; and to most others as the Insurrection or Great Rebellion,jw depending on where you stand. Like the three alliances of Hinduism, the three waves do not replace one another but build up like a palimpsest: The new ones develop, but the old ones remain, so that Rudyard Kipling, for instance, though he lived during the third wave, is really a first wave Anglo-Indian, with a difference.

I will conclude with case studies of two riders in that race, Sir Charles James Napier and Kipling. Kipling’s ideas about horses and religion (as in the first passage cited above) are surprisingly pluralistic (as is his attitude to power in the second passage cited above). Then we will, as always, consider the horses. As for Hinduism, I am not even going to try to cover the many texts that were produced, and the many practices that evolved, during this period but will focus on ways in which the British affected Hinduism, for British voices too became part of Hinduism, along with Hindu voices raised in reaction and protest to those British voices. I will leave to the next chapter a discussion of religious reforms among Hindus during this period.


In the eighteenth century all sorts of Europeans, mainly the Dutch, the Portuguese, the French, and the British, were milling about in India. “The French and Indian Wars” can be read as a kind of historical pun; such wars took place on two continents (North America [1754-1763] and Asia [from 1751 until well into the nineteenth century]) and involved two different sorts of “Indians” but the same sort of British and French. During this period in India, while the Europeans fought one another and the British intrigued among themselves for personal advantage, Mughals killed Mughals, Rajputs killed Rajputs, Mughals killed Rajputs, Rajputs killed Mughals, British killed Mughals and Rajputs, Mughals and Rajputs killed British, and starvation and taxation kept killing the farmers and laborers of India as usual.

At first a commercial rather than political or martial or missionary presence, the East India Company never lost that original priority; it was always there for the cash, not for the glory. Its main trade was in cotton textiles, but it also bought silks, molasses, and saltpeter from Bengal, indigo from Gujarat, and much else.2 In addition to the private loot systematically grabbed by company officials, there were a number of grants, treaties, agreements, and understandings, which became “the pretext for the assumption of sovereign rights over trade, revenue, law, and land on the part of a monopoly joint stock company that was at the same time systematically violating the terms of its own relationship to the Crown and Parliament of England.”3 Those treaties and agreements, together with the company’s military and financial presence, allowed it to take part in the government and to make laws governing the people of India, even though it was a private trading company. When the East India Company declared bankruptcy (though all the members of the company were ostentatiously rich), the British government took over to protect its investment.


The Urdu/Hindi word “nawab” designated both native deputy viceroys under the Mughals and independent rulers of Bengal, Oudh, and Arcot. The English called them nabobs (also spelled nawbob, nobob, nahab, and nobab). But then, confusingly, the English spelling (nabob) came to denote Englishmen who made fortunes working for the British East India Company and returned home to purchase seats in Parliament and retire to elegant country homes—or, finally, anyone of great wealth and/or power and/or prominence, just as the English word “mogul” (from “Mughal”) did. The whole lot of them, British and Mughal, were robber barons, all cut from the same (cotton) cloth. Debauched nawabs surrounded themselves with swarms of “eunuchs, courtesans, concubines and catamites,” while the nabobs were equally dissolute and in league with the nawabs.4 Some Hindus thought that the British and the Mughals, nawabs and nabobs, balanced (if they did not cancel out) each other and were equally alien to the rest of the people of India.

The company had native troops to defend it, called sepoys (from sipahis, a Turkish word for “soldiers.” The rank-and-file sepoys, many of whom were left over from the Mughal armies, were soldiers for hire and had been, in their day, defenders of kings, hardened bandits, grooms for horses and camels, and skilled spies. Often sepoys of the Indian nawabs and maharajas fought against sepoys of the British nabobs; the old sepoy in Kipling’s novel Kim, written in 1901, was proud to fight for the British and against his own people, whom he regarded as traitors. In battle, sepoys were known to switch sides depending on who they thought was winning the battle, to make sure that they got a share of the spoils of war. Under these circumstances, allegiance was a very slippery thing indeed. The British rank-and-file soldiers usually came from the British or Irish working class and were predominantly unskilled laborers. Most of them were small by today’s standards (between five feet two inches and five feet five inches tall), dwarfed by the six-foot-tall sepoy grenadiers. Yet until 1857- 1858, though the ratio in the British army was nine Indian soldiers to one British soldier, the British kept the whip hand; they had the guns, as well as an equally powerful weapon, a highly efficient public relations machine that befogged both their own troops and the sepoys. Until 1857.


Social theories of both race and class propped up the British. Often class trumped race. At a party in 1881 the Prince of Wales insisted that King Kalakaua of Hawaii should take precedence over the crown prince of Germany, his brother-in-law, and when his brother-in-law objected, the prince of Wales offered “the following pithy and trenchant justification: ‘Either the brute is a king, or he’s a common or garden nigger; and if the latter, what’s he doing here?’ ”5 Whatever their social origins in Britain, the British generally joined the upper classes when they entered India. They saw the native princes, not the Brahmins, at the top of the multistory Hindu hierarchy and generally treated them as social equals.6 Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” laid bare to the bone all the aristocratic pretensions of the British ruling elite in his unblinking portrait of two lawless scoundrels who came to India precisely in order to throw off the class-bound shackles of their old identity and to get rich, indeed to become kings and even, for a while, gods (to the point of one of them being crucified). The British adventurers in India snubbed everyone but the rajas, for they felt themselves to be rajas, and their political domain became known as the Raj; they called their public court and assembly, the setting for elaborate pomp and circumstance, a durbar, the word that the rajas had used for their own audiences, also known as darshan (the word for a glimpse of a god or a king). Yet it was all pomp and circumstance. Under colonial rule, kingship was moored no longer in power but in a royal ritual devoid of power, a “hollow crown,”7 and privilege was preserved primarily in pageantry.8

The Hindu caste system—more precisely the class system within which the caste system was imperfectly assimilated, awkwardly interleaved—enabled the British to fit into Hinduism as one more Other, another Other. The sahibs (as the British were called and addressed: “sir”) belonged to the castes of horsemen who came to India throughout Indian history, beginning with the authors of the Rig Veda and continuing through the Kushanas and Scythians and the Mughals/Mongols. Along the lines of the process of assimilation within the caste system, called Sanskritization, this was an instance of Kshatriyazation, assimilation into the class of Kshatriyas, kings and warriors, a term originally applied to certain non-Hindu tribes that came to be regarded as Kshatriyas but later also to the British.

Thus assimilated to the class of some Hindus (the rajas), the British tended to look upon their own people as members of a class so exalted above the Indian rank and file that friendly association with them was taboo.9 They supported caste in many ways, both because they unconsciously tended to adopt the ideas of social stratification of the people they were ruling and because the Indian caste system echoed their own subtle and deeply entrenched social hierarchy.10 The British therefore raised the caste consciousness of the Brahmin sepoys of the Bengal army, encouraging them to regard themselves as an elite and to become more particular about the preparation and eating of their food. Thus “notions of caste, which in India had traditionally been relatively fluid, underwent a process of ‘Sanskritization,’ as the sepoys came to understand such issues being central to their notions of self respect.”11

Despite their assimilation to a Hindu class, the British tended to prefer the company of Muslims to Hindus for a number of reasons: Muslims were, like them, the rulers of India; they were better horsemen than the Hindus; Islam was a monotheism that revered the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament; and it was quite easy to convert to Islam, much easier than to convert to Hinduism. The native elites (nawabs) collaborated with the British residents (nabobs) so that the latter became part of the Mughal entrepreneurial class; in 1765, one of the last Mughals formally inducted Robert Clive, governor of Bengal from 1755 to 1760, into the Mughal hierarchy as diwan, or chancellor, for Bengal.12

In the early years of the Raj, British employees of the John Company (as the East India Company was also called) went native in more intimate ways, hanging out in India, as the hippies were to do centuries later. This was the Lawrence of Arabia crowd, the White Mughals (as William Dalrymple calls them) who admired Indian culture in general and Muslim culture in particular. They were equal opportunity thieves, robbers but not racist robbers. Often they married native women—both Muslim and Hindu, both noble and working class—and treated them well, as legitimate wives, regarding their sons as their legitimate heirs and leaving their fortunes to the women and their children. The practice of keeping an Indian mistress was common; one in three wills from Bengal in 1780 to 1785 contains a bequest to Indian wives or companions or their natural children. And surely many more did this off the record. The young company officials had an after-dinner toast that took the traditional popular song “Alas and Alack-the-Day” and turned it into “A Lass and a Lakh [a hundred thousand rupees] a Day,” which expressed what had brought most of them to India in the first place. Similarly, the practice of keeping an Indian mistress became so common that Urdu poets in Lucknow changed the old Hindustani romantic formula—“Muslim boy meets Hindu girl with fatal consequences”—to “English boy meets Hindu girl with fatal consequences.”13

Native women met the British as equals on the royal level. One Maharashtrian leader, Malhar Rao Holkar, whose son and grandson had died, relied on his daughter-in-law, Ahalyabhai, during his lifetime, and after his death in 1766 she took over and ruled Malwa for thirty years of peace and prosperity. She was said to be “an avatar or Incarnation of the Divinity,” according to oral traditions collected by the British. She built forts and roads that kept the land secure, and she patronized temples and other religious establishments as far away as Varanasi and Dvaraka (in Gujarat). In 1772 she wrote a letter likening the British embrace to a bear hug: “Other beasts, like tigers, can be killed by might or contrivance, but to kill a bear it is very difficult. It will die only if you kill it straight in the face. Or else . . . the bear will kill its prey by tickling.” (Presumably, the “other beasts” were the Muslim enemies of the Maharashtrians; as in Mughal times, the Maharashtrians were major players, who controlled the most territory, revenue, and forces.14) Clearly Ahalyabhai had the British number.

This first wave of British colonizers didn’t need to erect elaborate barriers to separate themselves from the people of India in order to preserve, or to construct, their identity. They knew who they were: Englishmen with a God-given right to rule. The scholars of this period, the first Orientalists, were genuinely curious about India and open to the possibility that its civilization might have something of value to teach them; they abetted the government indeed, but primarily in their attempts (misguided as some of those turned out to be) to govern India by its own traditional rules. The men of the East India Company in this period often romanticized India; they learned local languages and went native in various ways, adopting local dress (robes and turbans) and furnishing their houses with Indian fabrics and furniture. In matters of religion too, as we will see, the British were open-minded and fair at the start. This batch of British, typified by Warren Hastings (governor-general, 1773-1786), might be called conservative: Like the Mughals, they provided stable government and law and order, did not interfere with local customs and religions, and supported indigenous arts, education, and festivals.

But this was no multicultural Garden of Eden. Even then considerations of social class rather than egalitarianism were what made some Indian women marry the company men, in much the same way as the Mughals had arranged dynastic marriages. And no amount of goodwill could erase the fact that a relatively small group of men had invaded India and were bleeding everyone in it, through heavy financial tolls extracted by a process that was often forcible, violent, and destructive. Moreover, the seeds of the darker sort of Orientalism were sown even now. The early scholars of Hinduism licked their chops at images of Hindu cruelty; one of the earliest European books about India, Abraham Roger’s The Open Door, published in Leiden in 1651 and more widely disseminated in the French translation of 1670, selected for its few illustrations images of Hindus swinging from hooks and the Juggernaut rolling over Hindu bodies. (Euro-American writers called all sorts of people Juggernauts, including the pope, Napoleon, and Mr. Hyde [the worse half of Dr. Jekyll].) Already tales of madness, out-of-control multiplicity, and brutal sexuality were being nurtured, now simply out of prurience but eventually to justify colonial interventions.

Moreover, however fine that first fancy may or may not have been, it was quickly polluted. A number of factors eroded the genuine goodwill of most of the British in India. Some of the changes in the British attitude to India and Indians were gradual, arising in either England (such as racism15) or India (such as resentment). Partly in response to changes in the concept of family and the availability of better living conditions in India, the men brought their women over from England; this not only dampened (though it did not extinguish) the fires of romances between Englishmen and Indian women, but also banished the formerly live-in servants to separate buildings, now that memsahibs (as the wives of sahibs were called) were running the houses. The men withdrew from Indian life; “the club closed its doors to Indians; and the vicar often came to tea.”16 There were also more white women and children there to justify the erection of barriers against unhealthy native influences and to claim to have been massacred when the massacres began. Going native had lost its charm.

The estrangement between rulers and ruled had begun already in the eighteenth century. Eventually, by the early twentieth century, it would have reached that point where the British could speak to Indians only to order them about. In E. M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India (1924), the wife of the petty bureaucrat in charge of a particular British colony attempts to learn Urdu: “She had learnt the lingo, but only to speak to her servants, so she knew none of the politer forms and of the verbs only the imperative mood.”17This did not happen only in novels. In India in 1963, I heard a very similar story from Lady Penelope Chetwode, who had grown up in India when her father (Field Marshal Sir Philip Chetwode) was commander in chief there, from 1930 to 1935 (just a decade after the publication of Forster’s novel), and had now returned to India to learn Hindi, among other things. When I asked her, “But why are you only learning Hindi now? Didn’t you learn it years ago, when you lived in India?” she replied, deadpan, “Yes, of course. But we only learned the imperatives of all the verbs!”

Anti-British feeling even in the late eighteenth century was strong enough to spawn, and fuel, a number of anti-British myths. The weavers were caught between the rapacity of the Indian agents who served as middlemen and the Englishmen for whom they worked. The British treated the weavers in Bengal so cruelly18 that they were widely believed, apparently on no evidence, to have cut off the weavers’ thumbs,jx or, on the basis of one piece of dubious evidence, to have so persecuted the winders of silk that they cut off their own thumbs in protest.19 Weavers’ thumbs were not literally cut off, but the myth arose because “worse than that happened to them and to Bengal.”20 The myth of the weavers’ thumbs may also have grown out of the famous Mahabharata story of the low-caste archer Ekalavya, forced to cut off his right thumb.

Changes in British-Indian relations were precipitated, in part, by a series of violent and dramatic events, reaching a climax in the Rebellion of 1857-1858. But there had been distant early warnings a century before that.


One of the great British icons of the historical mythology of the Raj is the Black Hole of Calcutta. To begin with, the British themselves built the Black Hole, the detention cell and barracks’ punishment cell of their fort in Calcutta (a city founded by the British, later renamed Kolkata), and that prison was already known by that epithet before the incident in question. But it entered British mythology in 1756, when the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daula, attacked Calcutta and Fort William and the British withdrew in panic to their ships, leaving Siraj in charge of the city, which included a number (a much-disputed number) of European men, women, and children who had failed to get away. Siraj put them, unharmed and apparently intending them no harm, into the Black Hole, from which, next morning, twenty-three (a number that is not much disputed) emerged alive, dehydration and suffocation having killed the rest, perhaps another fifty (this is the disputed number). Of course, many more died every day of starvation in India as a result of British policies (or indifference), but since they weren’t British, and slow starvation doesn’t (unfortunately) make for lurid headlines, those Indian deaths were not a useful political myth for the British. The news of the Black Hole deaths, however, set off a series of self-righteous British reprisals, as each side kept responding to alleged atrocities of the other, upping the ante, a pattern that was to be repeated many times in India, right through the Partition riots. The Black Hole became a rallying call used to justify a number of British aggressions, beginning with Clive’s recapture of Calcuttain 1757 and, by 1765, the British conquest of the rest of Bengal. Near the end of that conquest, in 1764, twenty-four of the company’s Indian sepoys had refused orders and been sadistically executed: They were strapped to cannons by their arms, their bellies against the mouths of the guns, which were then fired, “in front of their quaking colleagues.”jy Clive made about £400,000 sterling on the conquest of Bengal, and his pals made more than £1,250,000.21 This is a particularly ugly chapter in the history of the Raj.

Over the next century, taxes levied on the company’s “subjects” were consistently increased. Like the Mughals, the British collected the tax on pilgrimages to shrines like the Jagannatha temple and so did not interfere with them. But their main taxes were often paid in crops, and they destroyed the surplus that was an essential buffer when the monsoon failed. The money from taxes became the principal source of the Company’s income and so the mainstay of what was called the Pax Britannia (British Peace). But as John Keay remarks, “In the experience of most Indians Pax Britannia meant mainly ‘Tax Britannica.’ ”22 The merchant in Kipling’s Kim says, “The Government has brought on us many taxes, but it gives us one good thing—the te-rain that joins friends and unites the anxious. A wonderful matter is the te-rain,”23 and the British boasted that they had given India the great gift of “trains and drains.” This argument (later echoed in the “Hitler built the Autobahn and Mussolini made the trains run on time” justification for crimes against humanity) ignored the deep distrust that many Hindus had of both trains and telegraphs. In response, Indians would retort that the main drain was the drain of resources from India to England, 24 which, exacerbated by stockpiling, corrupt distribution, and hoarding by the British, led to widespread famines. This was a Black Hole in the astronomical sense, a negative space into which the riches and welfare of the Indian people vanished without a trace.

Famine and plague (which raged during this period), as always, affected religion. The widespread economic devastation may well account for the increase, at this time, of goddess worship, which generally flourishes during epidemics. When two years of failed monsoon led to the famine of 1750 to 1755, in which a third of the population of Bengal, some ten million people, died, there was a surge in the worship of the goddess Kali in her aspect of Annapurna (“Full of Food).25 Hard times give rise to hard deities. And it was religion that really soured the Raj.


As long as it was just a matter of graft and the lust for power, the British treated the people they robbed as human beings. It was religion that made them treat them like devils. At first the East India Company had adamantly excluded all Christian missionary activity from its territories, demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of what was at stake in the religious debatejz and a consciousness of the disadvantages of unnecessarily antagonizing its Indian subjects. In 1793, Charles Cornwallis (Governor-General from 1786 to 1793) made a pact promising not to interfere with the religions of the people of India. The Company continued the patronage accorded by indigenous rulers to many Hindu temples and forbade its Indian troops to embrace Christianity. But when the Company’s charter was renewed in 1813, the growing evangelical conscience in England forced it to allow Christian missions to operate in India. The evangelical Clapham Sect in London converted a Governor-General (Sir John Shore, 1793- 1798) and a leading Company director and put pressure on the government in Westminster.26

Thus the second wave began. In contrast with the conservatives and Orientalists of the first wave, this batch of British might be labeled evangelicals and opportunists, who regarded India as a land of heathens and idolaters in desperate need of being missionized. They met with some degree of success. Tribals converted to Christianity in large numbers because they associated the value system of the Christian missionaries with the power of the British.27 Some low-caste Hindus converted to avoid the stigma of being Pariahs, though the missionaries, respecting caste, as all religions in India always did, boasted of the number of their Brahmin converts. Other low-caste Hindus converted just for the relief of the soup kitchens, which made upper-caste Hindus call them rice Christians. Hindus of all castes converted as a result of their involvement in government and administration, intermarriage, and change of heart.

Both Hindus and Muslims blamed the government for allowing the missionariesfree rein.28 The missionaries influenced the government to intervene in Hindu matters; under James Dalhousie (Governor-General from 1847 to 1856), the government passed laws making it possible for Hindu widows to remarry, Hindu converts to Christianity to retain inheritance rights (which, according to Hindu law, they would have lost when they ceased to be Hindus), and castes to mingle in railroad carriages.29 Evangelical officers favored Christian sepoys, and meddling, arrogant missionaries taught the young Indian students in their schools to be ashamed of their parents’ religions.30 In a move reminiscent of the ambiguous positioning of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu, Jesus became one of the avatars in a Christian tract published in Calcutta (and written in Oriya) in 1837, warning the reader that the deity worshiped in the Jagannatha Temple at Puri in Orissa was a degenerate form of the true Jagannatha and exhorting the pilgrim to Puri to “remain a Hindu and also believe in Christ,” who is, by implication, the true Jagannatha.31


The tipping point came in 1857. The eighteenth century saw military incursions, floods, famines, epidemics, political disruptions, and bankrupt treasuries. Great land settlements displaced many landholders, and the confiscation of buildings previously rent-free for religious officials raised hackles in various quarters. The British relationship to Indians changed dramatically after 1813, degenerating into “a compound of cold utilitarian logic, cloying Christian ideology, and molten free-trade evangelism.”32 That Christian ideology made the country a tinderbox of resentment, just waiting for a flame to touch it off.

The flame, the proximate cause of the rebellion, came, in 1857, in the form of a bit of awkwardness about certain cartridges. Religious awkwardness. The British issued a new rifle, the Enfield, for which the cartridges had to be bitten open (since both hands were otherwise occupied; think of John Wayne biting off the tops of those grenades in World War II movies) to pour the powder down the rifle’s barrel. Greased cartridges had been first imported in 1853.33 The sepoys believed, possibly rightly, that these cartridges were greased with a tallow probably containing both pigs’ fat and cows’ fat (lard and suet, animal fats that were used for a lot of things in the military, and though the fat was more likely to have been mutton fat, it was still anathema to the many vegetarian Brahmins among the sepoys). The one thing that you could say for this arrangement, which would have forced Muslims to eat pork and Hindus to eat beef, is that it was equally disgusting for both groups to bite the bullet, and at least the British could not be accused of favoritism. But the animal grease was not merely disgusting; it would have been spiritually disastrous, bringing instant excommunication and damnation. (Later the British briefly entertained but finally dismissed a suggestion to allow the troops to grease the cartridges with ghee.) From early 1857, “newspapers had made known the general repugnance felt by the Sepoys to the use of the new cartridges.”34 As one contemporary British observerka wrote of the cartridge scandal, “It was so terrible a thing, that, if the most malignant enemies of the British Government had sat in conclave for years, and brought an excess of devilish ingenuity to bear upon the invention of a scheme framed with the design of alarming the Sipáhi [sepoy] mind from one end of India to the other, they could not have devised a lie better suited to the purpose.”35

The rumors fueled the suspicion that the British had done it on purpose, in order to leave the sepoys no option, if they wanted to save their souls, but conversion to Christianity. When sepoys refused to load the cartridges, they were publicly humiliated, imprisoned, or expelled.36 Although the British quickly withdrew the offending cartridges, the damage had been done, and the sepoys didn’t trust any existing cartridges.37 In the intense heat of May 9, 1857, eighty-five sepoys in Meerut were arrested for refusing to handle the cartridges. On the next night, other sepoys banded together, massacred the English residents of the town, and marched on Delhi.38 More sepoys, and more officers, joined the fight, which quickly escalated. Muslims fought on the side of the Hindus, Sikhs hostile to Muslims with the British. Innocent civilians, women and children, were routinely killed by both the British and the Indian troops.39

A small British community sought refuge from the rebellion in the local fort at Jhansi, which was ruled by a Maharashtrian queen named Lakshmi Bai, a beautiful young widow who was an accomplished horsewoman. The British refugees were massacred. Lakshmi Bai insisted that she too had been victimized by the sepoys. When a local rival to the throne invaded Jhansi, she claimed loyalty to the British, but they did nothing to help her. When the British laid siege to Jhansi, in 1858, she led her troops into battle, but Jhansi fell. She slipped out in disguise, rode away, and (with the help of a confederate) captured Gwalior. When the British attacked Gwalior, she was shot to death.40

The Jhansi massacre is one of several events that stand out amid a long catalog of deaths and horrors and thus serve as historical pegs upon which people have hung a range of myths and legends that express the emotional impact of the Rebellion. Another concerns Mangal Pandey, a sepoy of the No. 5 Company of the Thirty-fourth Native Infantry at Barrackpore, near Calcutta, who, on March 29, 1857, more than a month before the Rebellion, publicly objected to the cartridges, on religious grounds. Others joined in, all hell broke loose, and Mangal Pandey was executed by hanging on April 8. But subsequent mythologies (and a popular Bollywood film, Ketan Mehta’s Mangal Pandey, 2005, with Amir Khan as Pandey) have overlaid the events surrounding Mangal Pandey to such an extent that they have almost totally obscured what evidence there is. According to one legend, when a mounted officer rode at him, Pandey fired at him and hit the horse (the first casualty in the Rebellion), unseating the officer.41 There is also some debate about whether Pandey was under the influence of bhang,42 opium, alcohol,43 some combination of all of them, or none. (The hardship caused by a new opium tax was said to be one of the major factors that led to the Rebellion.44)

Yet another incident, somewhat better authenticated but equally mythologized, concerns a massacre at Kanpur (or Cawnpore, as the British called it, near what was Harsha’s Kanauj) on June 27, 1857. When insurgents besieged the British there, General Wheeler accepted terms under which the British would be allowed passage by boat downriver to Allahabad. Some four hundred of the British surrendered; as they boarded boats at Sati-Chaura Ghat, a detachment of sepoys under the command of Nana Sahib, the Indian ruler of Kanpur, ambushed them, and many of them were shot down or drowned. Nana Sahib rescued about two hundred women and children and locked them up in the Bibighar (“Ladies’ House”), which was, significantly, a small bungalow where a British officer had once housed his Indian mistress. Many of the captives were suffering from dysentery and cholera.45 On July 15, troops of Nana Sahib’s adopted son attacked the Bibighar, and when the regular soldiers refused to carry out the command to execute them all (a minor rebellion of its own), four or five butchers from the local market slaughtered all who were still alive and threw the body parts down a well. Some historians argue that Nana Sahib intended to use the captives as hostages and did not issue the order for the extermination, while others believe that he panicked, fearing that the British would seize Kanpur, and gave the order. In any case, as Keay describes it, “Their slaughterhouse methods, clumsy rather than sadistic, constituted an atrocity which would haunt the British till the end of their Indian days. For sheer barbarity this ‘massacre of the innocents’ was rivaled only by the disgusting deaths devised for dozens of equally innocent Indians by way of British reprisal.”46 Though the cartridges were the proverbial straw, the camel (flanked by the cow and pig) was already heavily loaded with economic, social, and political resentments, which continued to fester.

Recognizing the power of the resentments ignited by these events, the British took countermeasures. In 1858 Victoria proclaimed that the British crown was taking over all the rights of the East India Company; she became queen of India.47 She forced the missionaries to lay off, now more than ever realizing, again, what was at stake in interfering with Hinduism. Acknowledging that the sepoys in 1857-1858 had genuinely feared conversion to Christianity, Queen Victoria’s proclamation of 1858 not only curtailed missionary activity but reduced the public funding of mission schools and ordered British officials to abstain from interfering with Indian beliefs and rituals “on the pain of Our highest displeasure.”48 She also specifically disclaimed any “desire to impose Our convictions on any of Our subjects.” (Victoria herself has become the religion: She capitalizes “Our” as the missionaries capitalized “God.”)

Many of the missionaries had been killed during the Rebellion, but the damage had already been done. While the new official attitude was superficially similar to the earlier hands-off policy toward Hinduism, the sentiments fueling it were very different; whereas the missionaries had attempted to convert the Hindus, now the British as a whole were totally dismissive of them as irredeemable heathens, with no hope of ever becoming human beings. After 1858 the government officials themselves had become more Christian in their scorn for Hindus, whom they avoided as much as possible. Now that they felt that they had a divine mission to rule India and were convinced of Christianity’s moral superiority, they lost their earlier toleration, let alone their support, of Indian religions.49 This third batch, in contrast with the conservatives and Orientalists, together with the evangelicals and opportunists, were Utilitarians and Anglicists, who believed in the superiority of reason and progress and pushed for Western education.


What made the sepoys so suspicious of those greased cartridges in the first place? Let us go back and reconsider the shifting winds of religious interactions in the century between 1756 and 1857.

In the first wave (roughly between 1750 and 1813), despite the steadily darkening political scene, the British had respected both Islam and Hinduism and were, in general, blessedly free of religious zeal.50 In the late eighteenth century a Muslim visitor to India commented with surprise on the respect that the British paid to both Hindus and Muslims—at least to those of a certain respectability:

They treat the white-beard elders and old-established families, both Muslim and Hindu, courteously and equably, respecting the religious customs of the country and as well the scholars, sayyids, sheikhs and dervishes they come across. . . . More remarkable still is the fact that they themselves take part in most of the festivals and ceremonies of both the Muslims and the Hindus, mixing with the people.51

And there were conversations. The medieval Indian tradition of debate in the Mughal court, patronized by rulers and commonly held in the royal darbar (Akbar is the most famous but by no means the only example), was transformed, in the colonial period, first into Muslim-Christian debates, retaining much of the medieval structure and rhetoric,52 and then, through the end of the nineteenth century, into debates between Hindu court pandits and traveling controversialists. The social context of these debates was radically broadened, now accessible to a much wider literate audience. One missionary remarked that religious debate was a major source of entertainment in India, “and the people will enjoy the triumph as much when a Brahmun falls as when the Christian is foiled.”53 The crowd laughed at the Brahmins and then at the missionaries. This was a self-serving argument, implying that since Hinduism was already a space of debate and entertainment, the missionaries would do no harm,54 but there was some truth in it.

The conversations, however, often turned into conversions. Religious tensions were greatly exacerbated during this period by what Hindus perceived as attempts to convert them to Islam or Christianity. As we have noted, traditional Hinduism was not a proselytizing religion, though particular renunciant and reform movements within it did increasingly seek converts. Therefore, when Hindus had ceased to be Hindus, often against their will and/or by accident, and wished to return to the fold, it was difficult for them to reconvert back to Hinduism. Indian sepoys lucky enough to survive the First Afghan War, in 1839 (there were enormous sepoy casualties), found when they returned to India that they were ostracized as Pariahs, for in Afghanistan some had been forced to convert to Islam, and in any case they lost caste by crossing the Indus, transgressing the geographical bounds of India, which was against caste law. (Earlier, Hindus had had the right to refuse foreign service on the grounds that they would be polluted if they crossed the sea.55) Sometimes they could reconvert by crossing the palms of various priests with silver; previously Hindus had been able to reconvert with the spoils of conquest, but since the sepoys had lost in Afghanistan, there were no spoils.56 There were also ritual prescriptions, dating back to the first or second century CE, by which an excommunicated man could be purified by performing a vow of restoration,57 and new reconversion ceremonies were developed out of these prescriptions as well as from prototypes originally designed for reconversion from Islam under the Mughals.

But converts to Christianity, though relatively few in number, posed different theological and political threats. It was primarily the Protestants rather than the Catholics who messed with Hinduism. Catholics, who had been in India for many centuries, recognized and appreciated many of their own traits in Hindus: the many gods corresponding to many saints; the pageantry, color, and occasional brutality of the imagery; the animal sacrifice that could be assimilated to the Paschal Lamb (or, as the case may be, the Paschal goat, still sacrificed in many Indian Catholic communities at Easter). The Protestants admired little in Hinduism but its texts and philosophy. The rest was a lot too much like Catholicism to suit their tastes.

On the eve of the second wave, when the company’s charter was about to be renewed, in 1813, Major General Sir Thomas Munro (who served in India from 1789 to 1827, chiefly in Madras) warned the directors of the East India Company about their attitude to the people of India. He spoke like a true man of the first wave, which indeed he was: He had learned Hindi and Persian and was noted for his generous rapport with both humans and horses (an extraordinary equestrian statue of him in Chennai depicts him mounted without saddle or stirrups, which I take to be symbolic of his relaxed attitude to dominationkb). On this occasion he granted that other conquerors had treated Indians with greater violence and cruelty, “but none has treated them with so much scorn as we, none has stigmatised the whole people as unworthy of trust, as incapable of honesty, and as fit to be employed only where we cannot do without them.”58

His words fell on deaf ears. The British applied their scorn both to the people and to their religion. In 1810, Robert Southey (poet laureate of England), who had never been to India, declared, “The religion of the Hindoos . . . of all false religions is the most monstrous in its fables, and the most fatal in its effects.”59 In 1813 (the year that the missionaries were let in), William Wilberforce, an abolitionist and member of an evangelical sect, argued in the House of Commons that the need for such missions in India was more important than the abolition of slavery, because “our religion is sublime, pure and beneficent [while] theirs is mean, licentious and cruel”; because Hindu deities are “absolute monsters of lust, injustice, wickedness and cruelty,” Hinduism is “the most enormous and tormenting superstition that ever harassed and degraded any portion of mankind,” and Hindus therefore “the most enslaved portion of the human race.” Hindu science and cosmography came under fire too. In 1835 Thomas Babington Macaulay (the son of an eminent evangelical leader) issued his notorious tirade against “medical doctrines which would disgrace an English farrier, astronomy which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school, history abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long, and geography made up of seaskc of treacle and seas of butter.”60 And that was before the Rebellion.

After that, in the third wave, things went from bad to worse. Even the Bhagavad Gita, generally so dear to the hearts of European observers of Hinduism, came under fire in the English imaginary. In Forster’s A Passage to India, the bigoted policeman McBryde, discussing what he regards as the criminal psychology of Indian natives, remarks, “Read any of the Mutiny records; which, rather than the Bhagavad Gita, should be your Bible in this country. Though I’m not sure that the one and the other are not closely connected.”61 This reflected a widespread nineteenth-century canard: The members of one Bengal secret society were alleged to take an oath of allegiance before an image of the goddess Kali, with the Bhagavad Gita in one hand and a revolver in the other.62 A secret police report submitted in 1909 to the chief secretary to the government of Bengal stated that students were initiated into the secret society by taking their oath lying flat on a human skeleton with a revolver in one hand and a Gita in the other.63 This whole scene is suspiciously close to one imagined by the Bengali author Bankimcandra Chatterji in his highly influential 1882 novelAnandamath (“The Mission House”). Though Chatterji may have influenced the British, it is more likely that they both were reflecting the mythology of the period rather than any real practice. The most infamous players in that mythology were the Thugs, worshipers of the goddess Kali, to whom they were now said to offer British victims; they were probably just dacoits who happened to worship in Kali temples.64 The Rambles and Recollections (1844) of Lieutenant Colonel Sir William Henry (“Thuggee”) Sleeman of the Bengal army and the Indian Political Service is the proof text of that mythology.

The British brokering of relations between Hindus and Muslims also did considerable damage. A report by Patrick Carnegy in 1870 insisted that Hindus and Muslims used to worship together in the Babri Mosque complex in the nineteenth century until the Hindu-Muslim clashes in the 1850s: “It is said that up to that time Hindus and Mohamedans alike used to worship in the mosque/temple. Since the British rule a railing has been put up to prevent dispute, within which, in the mosque the Mohamedans pray, while outside the fence the Hindus have raised a platform on which they make their offerings.”65 But the report was based on no evidence whatsoever that there had been such disputes or any need to separate the worshipers.66 And even by this report, the British had put up a railing where none had been, causing the disputes that they were allegedly preventing.

A more positive, though more obviously mythical, story about a similarly dichotomized Hindu/Muslim shrine is told by Forster. The shrine was created when, according to legend, a Muslim saint was beheaded but, having left his head at the top of a hill, contrived somehow to continue to run (in order to accomplish his mother’s command) in the form of a headless torso, to the bottom of the hill, where his body finally collapsed. “Consequently there are two shrines to him to-day—that of the Head above and that of the Body below—and they are worshipped by the few Mohammedans who live near, and by Hindus also.”67 This image of the separation of head and body suggests but does not realize the recombinatory quality of Hindu mythologies of such head/body separations. The two shrines remain apart, but both Muslims and Hindus worship in both.

Generally relations between Hindus and Muslims took several turns for the worse under the Raj, in some cases grotesquely twisting the genuine rapproachements that had taken place under the Mughals. In the nineteenth century, certain yogis claimed that Muhammad had been trained by a student of the great Hindu yogi Gorakhnath. They were scrupulous about fasting and ritual prayer when they were with Muslims, and about Hindu customs when with Hindus, eating pork according to the custom of Hindus and Christians, or beef according to the religion of Muslims and others.68 They argued that the striking resemblance between the Muslim minaret tower and prayer niche, on the one hand, and the Shaiva linga and yoni, on the other, explained both why the prayer niche and minaret were always found together and why Islam had spread so successfully. In this way, they relativized the sacred sources of Islam and subordinated them to Indian figures and categories.69 On the central Nath temple at Gorakhpur there is a small board explaining that Muhammad was a Nath yogi and that Mecca was a Shaiva center, known in some Puranas as Makheshvara (“Lord of the Sacrifice”).70 The arrogant insult in this wordplay of appropriation was the very opposite of the appreciative attitude that had inspired Hindus under the Delhi Sultanate to coin Sanskrit versions of Arabic titles such as Mohammad (Maha-muda) and Sultan (Sura-trana).


British attitudes to India, at first appreciative and tolerant (the first wave), then scornful (the second wave) and hostile (the third), were three facets of what we have been calling Orientalism. At the start, I defined “Orientalism” as the love-hate relationship that Europeans had with the Orient for both the right and the wrong reasons, making it in many ways the European inversion of what the Hindus called hate-love (dvesha-bhakti): loving India but with a skewed judgment and self-interest that amounted to hate, that distorted the Orientalists’ understanding and was often horrendously destructive to the object of their affection.

The early Orientalists were reacting against an early version of what has recently been dubbed (in response to Edward Said’s term) Occidentalism, a stereotyped and dehumanized view of the West (more precisely, Europe and America, in contrast with all Asia).72The two views share all the stereotypes, which always misrepresent both sides: the East = religion, spirit, nature, the exotic, adventure, danger, Romanticism (including Orientalism), myth, while the West = science, materialism, the city, boredom, comfort, safety, the Enlightenment, logos. The East is feminine, the West male; Eastern males are therefore feminine and impotent,kd but also oversexed, because the primitive Other is always oversexed.73 The only difference, and it is crucial, is the value placed on these stereotypes, Romanticism favoring the Eastern values, Enlightenment the Western ones.

Before Said’s book, in 1978, Indologists of my generation had admired the British scholars who had recorded dialects and folklore that otherwise would have been lost to posterity, established the study of Sanskrit in Europe, and made available throughout India as well as Europe many of the classical texts recorded in that language. We felt indebted to them for our own knowledge of and love of India. But the anti-Orientalist critique changed our way of thinking forever. It taught us that those British scholars too had been caught up in the colonial enterprise, sustained it, fueled it, facilitated it. It taught us about the collusion between academic knowledge and political power, arguing that we too are implicated in that power when we carry on the work of those disciplines. In Kipling’s novel Kim, spying often masqueraded as anthropology, another form of Orientalism; Kipling made his master spy, Colonel Creighton, an amateur ethnographer.

At the heart of the anti-Oriental enterprise was the argument that scholars, then and now, affect and often harm the people they study. In a delightful satire on Orientalism avant la lettre, J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964), a British geneticist who spent his final years in India and died in Bhubaneshwar in Orissa, stipulated in his will that after his death his body was to be sent to the nearest medical college, so that “some future Indian doctors will have the unusual experience of dissecting a European.”74 This would be a fitting revenge for all the Indians who had been dissected by European Orientalists.


At the start the British hoped to govern India by its laws and, as we saw, treated the Indian ruling class, at least, with some respect. As Protestants they preferred texts to practices, and as Orientalists they preferred the glorious past to what they regarded as the sordid present. This was the result of their confrontation of a quandary: How could Europeans continue to revere the culture of the people who had the oldest language in the world, Sanskrit, and presumably the civilization that went with it (closely related to the Greek civilization that the British claimed as their own heritage), at the same time as they were justifying their rule over contemporary Indians on the ground that those Indians were benighted primitives? The answer was a doublethink historical process: For many centuries, as science replaced superstition (the social variant of Darwinian evolution) and Europe was rising up, India was sinking down, as the Brahmins and the hot, wet climate ruined the pristine Vedas and produced the degradation of present-day Hindus (an inversion of the Darwinian hypothesis). The Orientalists needed some fancy footwork to keep these two rivers flowing up and down at the same time (like yogis simultaneously breathing out of one nostril and in through the other), but somehow they managed. The argument was that the Indians were once like us (language) but are no longer like us (intermarriage of Indo-Europeans with indigenous Indians), the resolution of antiquarianism and racism.75

The British Orientalists of the first wave reached back into the past, to Sanskrit texts, and began to translate them. (By the third wave, after 1858, the government severed support for the study of Sanskrit and Persian, disparaging the culture even of ancient India.76) European translations began in the eighteenth century with a fittingly fraudulent document, the so-called Ezour Veda (presumably a corruption of Yajur Veda), a French text in the form of a dialogue between two Vedic sages, one monotheist and one polytheist, who find that the monotheism of “pristine Hinduism” points to Christian truth. The text was, for a while, believed to be the French translation of a document composed in Sanskrit by one Brahmin and translated by another Brahmin in Benares who knew both French and Sanskrit. The Chevalier de Maudave gave a copy to Voltaire in September 1760, claiming to have received it from the hand of the Brahmin translator; Voltaire was deeply impressed by it and cited it often.77 In 1822, Sir Alexander Johnston claimed to have found, at the French settlement of Pondicherry, in South India, the manuscript copy of the “Ezour Vedam” in French and Sanskrit. His colleague Francis Whyte Ellis then published an article in which he argued that the work was not the French translation of a Sanskrit original but a work entirely composed in 1621 by the Jesuit Roberto de Nobili, who was accused of having written it in order to deceive Brahmins and convert them to Catholicism. Its authorship remains unknown, but it is now certain that it was an original French composition that claimed to be a copy of a lost Sanskrit text.

The first books genuinely translated from Sanskrit to English were Charles Wilkins’s 1785 translation of the Bhagavad Gita, Sir William Jones’s translation of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala (in 1789), and then, in 1794, Jones’s Laws of Manu. The statue of Jones in St. Paul’s Church in London holds a volume of Manu in his hand, thus commemorating Manu in a Christian church, an honor accorded him by no Hindu temple, to my knowledge. As chief justice of the High Court of Calcutta, Jones had searched for something that the Hindu witnesses could be sworn in on that would put the fear of god(s) in them, since perjuries were rife. He tried the Ganges River, but when that failed to produce the desired effect, he sought expert counsel from the local learned men, who gave him Manu and inspired him to learn Sanskrit.78 Jones’s Manu translation became the basis of much of British law in India (including the disastrous treatment of suttee); the text became instrumental in the construction of a complex system of jurisprudence based on the British belief in a unified Hinduism, the privileging of the “classical” language, Sanskrit, over local languages, and the Protestant bias in favor of scripture. In the courts of the Raj (and later independent India), “general law” (based on British law) was supplemented by a “personal law” determined by one’s religious affiliation (such as Hindu law). “Hindu law,” or rather the British interpretation of Jones’s translation of Manu,was applied to nearly 80 percent of the population of colonial India in matters of marriage and divorce, legitimacy, guardianship, adoption, inheritance, and religious endowments.

Yet Manu had never been used in precisely this way before; the British system completely bypassed the village governing units (called panchayats) that actually adjudicated in vernacular languages on the basis of case law built up over many centuries. This is not to say that the British inventedManu; it had been (primarily through its many commentaries) an important text both in local law and in the Brahmin imaginary, which still exerted a heavy influence on many Hindus. What the British did was to replace the multiplicity of legal voices and the centuries of case law with a single voice, that of Jones’s Manu. It was as if U.S. courts had suddenly abandoned case law to rule only by the Constitution.

The translations of the Bhagavad Gita had equally long-lasting repercussions. Wilkins’s Gita had a preface by Warren Hastings,79 a brute of the first order, who was impeached (though acquitted) on his return to England, in 1793. Gandhi first read the Gita, in 1888-1889, in a later translation by Sir Edwin Arnold; the American transcendentalists too, led by Emerson and Thoreau, read and loved the Gita. Yet just as Manu was not the most important Hindu legal text, so too texts other than the Gita—both Sanskrit texts, like the Upanishads and the Puranas, and vernacular texts, such as the Tulsidas and Kampan Ramayanas, and, most of all, oral traditions—were what most Hindus actually used in their worship. The highly Anglicized Indian elite followed the British lead and gave the Gita a primacy it had not previously enjoyed, though like Manu, it had always been an important text. The fraction of Hinduism that appealed to Protestant evangelical tastes at all was firmly grounded in the renunciant path of Release and philosophical monism. The evangelists in India assumed that God had prepared for their arrival by inspiring the Hindus with a rough form of monotheism, the monism of the Upanishads;ke pukka monotheism, in their view, was available to Brahmins but not to the lower castes, who were fit only for polytheism.80

Many highly placed Hindus so admired their colonizerskf that in a kind of colonial and religious Stockholm syndrome, they swallowed the Protestant line themselves and not only gained a new appreciation of those aspects of Hinduism that the British approved of (the Gita, the Upanishads, monism) but became ashamed of those aspects that the British scorned (much of the path of rebirth, polytheism, the earthy and erotic aspects) and even developed new forms of Hinduism, such as the Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj, heavily influenced by British Protestantism. Scholars have noted a pattern in which colonized people take on the mask that the colonizer creates in the image of the colonized, mimicking the colonizer’s perception of the colonized.81 This group of Indians became just what the Anglicists wanted, typified by Macaulay’s hope of developing in India “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect,”82 or, as Sumit Sarkar has paraphrased it, “brown in colour but white in thought and taste.”83 Such people are what present-day South Asians refer to as coconuts, the opposite of the U.S. term “Oreos” (and with more precise resonances; in Hindu rituals, coconuts are often offered to gods in place of human heads).

It is one of the great ironies of the history of sexuality that the Victorian British, of all people, should have had control of India during one of the great ages of sexual and gender reform, the nineteenth century.84 When confronting the earthier aspects of Hinduism, such as the worship of the linga, the British were not And some nineteenth-century Hindu movements internalized British Protestant—indeed Victorian—scorn for Hindu eroticism and polytheism. That attitude was simultaneously scornful and prurient: “Look how dirty and naughty these people are. Look! Look!”

There was a rebound Orientalism in the Hindu reaction to the Protestants, as upper-caste Hindus scurried to get the low-caste temple dancers and prostitutes (Devadasis) out of the temples and swept the village sects and stories out of sight, in shame, in shadow. These right-hand Hindus hastened to put Hindu eroticism into a kind of purdah, behind a veil formed of the Gita and Indian philosophy and the more Protestant than thou nineteenth-century Hindu reform movements. Some Hindus took pride in every aspect of Hinduism that appealed to Europeans such as Schelling and Goethe and Hegel and to Americans such as Emerson and Thoreau, holding up those parts of their tradition like cover-up Mother Hubbard gowns as if to say, “We are not the filthy savages some of you think we are.” This sanitized brand of Hinduism is now often labeled sanatana dharma,“perpetual, eternal and universal” Hinduism, although that term was previously used in a very different sense, to designate the moral code that applied to everyone, in contrast with the particular moral code for each particular caste. British legislation of all aspects of Hinduism, including sexual aspects, owed as much to Calvin as to Manu. It was a deadly one-two punch. But British prudery was not “simply an exotic attitude forced on an innately sensual subcontinent. The sexual economics of empire were no less complex than any other form of colonial exchange.”85 For some of the British played an important role in revalidating Indian eroticism against the puritanical tradition of the Hindus themselves, translating the Gita-Govinda and tracking down and preserving Kama-sutra manuscripts in decaying libraries (the first translation of the Kama-sutra into English appeared in 1883).86 Nor are the British alone to blame for the sanitizing of Tantrism or the quasi-Tantric aspects of Hinduism. Long before the British presence in India, from at least the time of Abhinavagupta in the eleventh century, Brahmin, Buddhist, Jaina, and Christian critics X-rated Tantrics in India, and later some orthodox Muslims objected too. The British just made it all worse, so that thenceforth sexuality in India was subjected to the triple whammy of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian Puritanism.


While the British provided the impetus for changes in Hindu law, society, and religion, Hindu art and literature made their impact on Europe. Some forty years after the “Ezour Veda” captivated Voltaire, the myth of the transposed heads of the Brahmin woman and the Pariah woman inspired Goethe (who also went mad for Shakuntala). Working apparently from Richard Iken’s translation of a Persian version of a Tamil version of the story,87 in 1797 Goethe wrote a poem, “The Pariah,” which can be summarized as follows (from the moment when the Brahmin woman has lost her magic chastity):


She appeared before her husband, who seized his sword and dragged her to the hill of death. [He beheaded her.] His son stood before him and said, “You may be able to kill your wife, but not my mother. A wife is able to follow her beloved spouse through the flames, and a faithful son can also follow his beloved mother.” His father said, “Hurry! Join her head to her body, touch her with the sword, and she will come back to you, alive.” The son hastened and found the bodies of two women, lying crosswise, and their heads. He seized his mother’s head and put it on the nearest headless body. He blessed it with the sword, and it arose, and his mother’s dear lips spoke words fraught with horror: “My son, you were too hasty! There is your mother’s body, and next to it the impious head of a fallen, condemned woman. Now I am grafted to her body forever, and will live among the gods, wise in thought, wild in action, full of mad, raging lust from the bosom down. As a Brahmin woman, with my head in heaven, I will live as a Pariah on earth. And whoever, Brahmin or Pariah, is overwhelmed by sorrow, his soul wildly riven, will know me if he looks to heaven.88

Note the reference to the possibility of suttee (which got into just about everything that any European wrote about India for several centuries, though here it is also the suttee of a son for his mother) and the judgment that the Brahmin woman is wise and loving, while the Pariah woman is wild in action, mad, and raging in lust. Yet the poem concludes that heaven watches over both Brahmin and Pariah, especially when their souls are “riven” as the women in the story are riven. The word “Pariah,” originally found in ancient Tamil literature, referring to a particular low caste, then entered German and English in its broader sense. In 1818 the Irish clergyman and dramatist Charles Robert Maturin called all women “These Pariahs of humanity,” and in 1823, Michael Beer’s play Der Pariah likened the Jews to the Pariahs. Goethe’s poem became a best seller (and inspired several imitations) in Germany.

The myth of the transposed heads was also picked up in France and, eventually, England and America, undergoing several gender transformations along the way. In 1928, Marguerite Yourcenar published a story in French entitled “Kali Décapitée,” republished in 1938 in English (“Kali Beheaded”).89 In her retelling, the goddess Kali’s amorous escapades with Pariahs lead the gods to decapitate her; eventually they join her head to the body of a prostitute who has been killed for having troubled the meditations of a young Brahmin. The woman thus formed is a creature who becomes “the seducer of children, the inciter of old men, and the ruthless mistress of the young.” In the English edition, Yourcenar explains that she rewrote the ending, “to better emphasize certain metaphysical concepts from which this legend is inseparable, and without which, told in a Western manner, it is nothing but a vague erotic tale placed in an Indian setting.”90 This is a very different story indeed, combining Hindu ideas of caste rebellion (Brahmin women sleeping with Pariahs and disturbing male Brahmins) with misogynist European ideas about feminist rebellion (seducing children, exciting old men).

The Indologist Heinrich Zimmer (1890-1943) knew both the Goethe poem and a different Sanskrit version of the story, in which two men, rather than two women, are decapitated, and the woman, who is the wife of one and the brother of the other, switches the heads when she restores them to life.91 Zimmer brought the Sanskrit story to the attention of Thomas Mann, who, in 1940, wrote a novella (The Transposed Heads) in which the woman, who is married to one of the men and in love with the other, accidentally, or not so accidentally, switches the heads.92 And in 1954, Peggy Glanville-Hicks wrote an opera based on the Thomas Mann novel, also entitled The Transposed Heads. The notes for the 1984 ABC Classics CD of the opera say, “The original source is in the Bhagavad Gita,” a lovely leftover from the colonial heyday of the Gita, when it was regarded as the source of everything Indian. Ms. Glanville-Hicks herself said, “Many of the themes are taken freely and in some cases directly from Hindu folk sources,” and she also described the heroine’s inadvertent transposition of her lovers’ heads as “the greatest Freudian slip of all time.”


The best pun in the history of Raj, one that reveals a number of rather serious aspects of colonialism, is attributed to General Sir Charles James Napier.

Napier was born in 1782 and in 1839 was made commander of Sind (or Scinde, as it was often spelled at that time, or Sindh), an area at the western tip of the northwest quadrant of South Asia, directly above the Rann of Kutch and Gujarat; in 1947 it became part of Pakistan. In 1843, Napier maneuvered to provoke a resistance that he then crushed and used as a pretext to conquer the territory for the British Empire. Mountstuart Elphinstone (formerly Governor of Bombay) likened the British in Sind after the defeat in Afghanistan to “A bully who had been kicked in the streets and went home to beat his wife.”94 The British press described this military operation at the time as “infamous,”95 a decade later as “harsh and barbarous” and a “tragedy,” while the Bombay Times accused Napier of perpetrating a mass rape of the women of Hyderabad.96 The successful annexation of Sind made Napier’s name “a household word in England. He received £70,000 as his share of the spoils”97 and was knighted. In 1851 he quarreled with Dalhousie (the Governor-General) and left India.

In 1844, the following item appeared in a British publication in London, under the title “Foreign Affairs”:


It is a common idea that the most laconic military despatch ever issued was that sent by Caesar to the Horse-Guards at Rome, containing the three memorable words, “Veni, vidi, vici” [“I came, I saw, I conquered”], and, perhaps, until our own day, no like instance of brevity has been found. The despatch of Sir Charles Napier, after the capture of Scinde, to Lord Ellenborough, both for brevity and truth, is, however, far beyond it. The despatch consisted of one emphatic word—“Peccavi,” “I have Scinde” (sinned).

The joke here (well, it’s a British joke) depends upon the translation of the Latin word peccavi, which is the first person singular of the past tense, active voice, of the verb pecco, peccare (“to sin”), from which are derived our English words “impeccable” (someone who never sins) and “peccadillo” (a small sin). Thus the double meaning is “I have sinned” (that is, “I have committed a moral error”) and “I have Scinde” (that is, “I have gained possession of a place called Scinde”). Got it?

The story caught on. In a play published in 1852, a character named Sir Peter Prolix recites, at a dinner party, the following doggerel:

What exclaim’d the gallant Napier,
Proudly flourishing his rapier
To the army and the navy,
When he conquered Scinde?—“Peccavi!”98

The story has been told and retold in history books ever since. A 1990 biography of Sir Charles actually entitled I Have Sind cites it three times,99 and the Encyclopaedia Britannica online (2008) says that Napier “is said to have sent a dispatch consisting of one word, ‘Peccavi’ (Latin: ‘I have sinned’—i.e., ‘I have Sind’).”

But all evidence indicates that Sir Charles Napier never dispatched such a message. The passage about Caesar and Napier is not from the Times of London but from the comic journal Punch (1844, v. 6, 209), whose editors evidently made it up and also represented him as confessing that he had sinned in that his actions had raised such a storm of criticism in England.100 The authors of the Punch item may have been inspired by another apocryphal historical anecdote, which was linked with the peccavi story as early as 1875 and was in circulation for some time before that; it tells us that someone who had witnessed the defeat of the Spanish Armada announced it with one word: “Cantharides,” the Latin and pharmaceutical name of the allegedly aphrodisiac drug known as the Spanish fly.101 (Another British joke.) So it is not Napier’s text, but it is a British text—a lie but a text—with a history of its own; it is a kind of nineteenth-century urban legend, a myth. Salman Rushdie retold the story in Shame, referring to his “looking-glass” Pakistan as “Peccavistan,” though he calls the story apocryphal, bilingual, and fictional.102 The shift from the text of history to the hypertext of journalism is significant; the idea of the sin was initially a writer’s idea, not a general’s. With this in mind, let us unpack the myth a bit more.

Besides the two meanings I’ve mentioned (“I have conquered a part of India” and “I have committed a moral error”), there is a third, which we discover if we heed the good advice of Marshall McLuhan, who taught us that the medium is the message, for the medium in this case is Latin. That third message signifies something like “Let’s say it in Latin, which we Oxbridge types, English upper classes, know, and the natives do not, though they know English, which we taught them.” Stephen Jay Gould, who takes the anecdote as history, remarks: “In an age when all gentlemen studied Latin, and could scarcely rise in government service without a boost from the old boys of similar background in appropriate public schools, Napier never doubted that his superiors . . . would properly translate his message and pun: I have sinned.”103 And when Priscilla Hayter Napier told the story (as history, not myth) she remarked, “Possibly this was when he sent his celebrated message—‘Peccavi,’ which, in the Latin every educated man had then at his command, means ‘I have sinned.’ ”104 Latin here functions as a code that the bearers of the message will not understand. Yet even Punch, which invented the story, glossed it in English, realizing that some of its readers might not have been educated in good schools and therefore might not know Latin.

But it is the second meaning of peccavi, the meaning of “sin” as moral error, that is most relevant Though Sir Charles apparently never said (or wrote) peccavi, he seems to have had a sense that he had sinned in Sind. When he was posted there, he wrote: “We have no right to seize Sind, yet we shall do so and a very advantageous piece of rascality it will be.”105 “Rascality” is a rather flip way to refer to the murder of many people defending their own land, but afterward he wrote, speaking of his ambition, “I have conquered Scinde but I have not yet conquered myself.”106Napier was also surprisingly sensitive to the disintegration of the sepoy-officer relationship after 1813, when the first wave gave way to the second. Years before 1857, he expressed regret that the older type of officers who “wrestled” with their sepoys were being replaced by men who did not know the sepoys’ languages and practices and who readily addressed the latter as “nigger”ki or “suwar” (pig).107 He was also aware of the British complicity in the negative role of caste: “The most important thing which I reckon injurious to the Indian army, is the immense influence given to caste; instead of being discouraged, it has been encouraged in the Bengal army; in the Bombay army it is discouraged; and that army is in better order than the army of Bengal, in which the Brahmins have been leaders in every mutiny.”108

But Napier was also capable of equivocating, as when he wrote of the Sind campaign: “I may be wrong, but I cannot see it, and my conscience will not be troubled. I sleep well while trying to do this, and shall sleep sound when it is done.”109 This last phrase is almost verbatim what Harry Truman said after the bombing of Hiroshima: “I never lost any sleep over my decision.”110


The sense of sin is not usually a part of the discussion of the story of Napier in India, but it may indicate a moment when some of the British felt moral ambivalence about their conquest of India and, perhaps, when we ourselves should feel morally ambivalent about the British. The list of massacres and degradations that I selected for my cavalry charge through the history of the Raj, England’s greatest hits (in the Mafia sense of hits), is what Indian logicians call the first side (purva paksha), establishing good reasons to hate the British. I should like now to try to nuance that view a little, to aim for a more balanced hate-love toward them.

The Freudian and post-Freudian Marxist agendas tell us to look for the subtext, the hidden transcript, the censored text; the Marxist and to some extent the Freudian assumption is that this subtext is less respectable, more self-serving, but also more honest, more real than the surface text. In India the British surface text—“We are bringing civilization to these savages”—reveals a subtext: “We are using military power to make England wealthy by robbing India.” But there are more than two layers to any agenda, and we mustn’t assume that it’s self-interest all the way down. The peccavianecdote suggests that beneath the subtext of self-interest may lie at least a slightly nobler self-perception, a place where guilt is registered. And perhaps, beneath that, there may be yet another layer, an admiration of India, a desire to learn from India, perhaps even a genuine, if misguided, desire to give India something in return, still surviving, bloody but unbowed, from the first wave of Orientalists.

If we ask, What did the Hindus get out of the Raj besides poor? the answer, in part, is the mixed blessing of certain social and legal reforms, which reinforced the native reform movements already under way. Most of the giants of the independence movement—Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Dadabhai Naoroji, and others—studied abroad, generally in London.111 But they also got, as they did from the Mughals, the complicated legacy symbolized by horses, now more complex than ever.


Horses were, you will not be surprised to learn, a problem for the British in India. Some horses were bred well in India; in 1860 a Captain Henry Shakespear, who had bred horses in the Deccan for many years, insisted that “no foreign horse that is imported into India . . . can work in the sun, and in all weathers, like the horse bred in the Deccan.”112 But the native Indian forces that opposed the British kept most of the best horses for themselves, and only a small fraction of the worst horses reached the horse fairs in the east, where the British were in control.113 There was therefore, as usual, the problem of importing horses (most of them being shipped in from New South Wales, hence called Walers); shipping such fragile and valuable cargo “in a pitching East Indiaman on a six-month journey halfway round the world” was a costly and risky venture, and British horses became even more scarce, and even more expensive, when so many of them were used in the Napoleonic Wars.114 (They imported dogs too; one Englishman in 1614 ordered from England mastiffs, greyhounds, spaniels, and small dogs, three of each, cautioning the importer that dogs were difficult to transport.115) Occasionally, exporting, rather than importing, horses also became a problem. Sir Charles Napier was crazy about a half-Arabian horse named Blanco, “perfectly white,” whom he rode, talked to, and talked about for sixteen years. Sparing no expense, Napier had tried to ship the old horse home like a pensioned-off Indian civil servant, to spend his final days out at grass—good pasturage at last. But Blanco died in the Bay of Biscay while being, against the usual current, exported from Portugal to England.116

At the same time, itinerant native horse traders, who were often highway robbers in their spare time (the equine equivalent of used car salesmen), posed an even greater threat as a kind of underground espionage network, a cosmopolitan culture that had its own esoteric language, a mixture of various local dialects combined with a special jargon and an extensive code of hand signs, exchanged during the actual bargaining at the fair, mainly concealed under a handkerchief.117 In recorded British history, horse breeding, spying, and Orientalism combined in the character of William Moorcroft, a famous equine veterinarian. In 1819, the British sent him to Northwest India, as far as Tibet and Afghanistan, on a quixotic search for “suitable cavalry mounts.”118 Moorcroft had seen mares from Kutch that he thought might be right for the army, and he was granted official permission “to proceed towards the North Western parts of Asia, for the purpose of there procuring by commercial intercourse, horses to improve the breed within the British Province or for military use.”119 But he also collected information on military supplies and political and economic conditions obtaining at the borders of the Raj,120 and shortly before his mysterious final disappearance in 1824, he was briefly imprisoned in the Hindu Kush on suspicion of being a spy. Moorcroft had delusions of Orientalism; he told a friend that he would have disguised himself “as a Fakeer” rather than give up his plan, and after he was lost, presumed dead, in August 1825, legends circulated about “a certain Englishman named Moorcroft who introduced himself into Lha-Ssa, under the pretence of being a Cashmerian” or who spoke fluent Persian “and dressed and behaved as a Muslim.” The final piece of Orientalism in his life was posthumous: From 1834 to 1841 his papers were edited not by a military or political historian but by Horace Hayman Wilson, secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford. According to his biographer, Moorcroft was thrilled by the stories he heard “from the north-western horse-traders—swarthy, bearded men like Kipling’s Mahbub Ali.”121 But Kipling created Mahbub Ali—a Muslim horse trader who works secretly for the master spy Colonel Creighton—fifty years after the publication of Moorcroft’s papers, and aspects of the characters of Creighton, Mahbub Ali, and Kim himself may have been inspired by Moorcroft. Kim is the son of a British soldier (a disreputable Irishman named O’Hara, already a marginal figure in the British world, who married an Irish nursemaid), but he masquerades sometimes as a Hindu, sometimes as a Muslim, and Mahbub Ali, a Tibetan lama, and Colonel Creighton all claim him as their son.

Horses are deeply implicated in espionage in Kipling’s Kim, right from the start. Napier’s code message, in the anecdote, was about a war; the very first chapter of Kim introduces a message about a war, coded not in Latin but in horses: “[T]he pedigree of the white stallion is fully established.” Again, it is a triple code, of which the first two levels are easy enough to crack: Ostensibly, on the first level, it means that the Muslim horse trader Mahbub Ali is able to vouch for a valuable horse that the colonel may buy. The coded message on the second level is that a provocation has occurred that will justify a British attack in Northwest India (much like Napier’s).

The third level of signification is more complex. The idea of a pedigree implies that you know the horse when you know its father and mother (or dam and sire); the ideas underlying the breeding of horses, ideas about “bloodlines” and “bloodstock” and Thoroughbreds, also marked the racist theory of the breeding of humans. Kim is said to have “white blood,” an oxymoron. The question that haunts the book is, Who are Kim’s sire and dam? I need not point out the significance of the color of the stallion in a book by Kipling (who coined the phrase “the white man’s burden”). But we might recall that the Vedic stallion of the ancient Hindus, the symbol of expansionist political power, was also white, in contrast with the Dasyus or Dasas, who were said to come from “dark wombs” (RV 2.20.7). British racist ideas, supported by a complex pseudoscientific ideology, rode piggyback on already existing Hindu ideas about dark and light skin conceived without the support of a racist theory like that of the British; one might say that the Indians imagined racism for themselves before the British imagined it against them. The white stallion also implicitly represents Kim’s Irish father in the metaphor that Creighton and Mahbub Ali apply to Kim, behind his back: Kim is a colt that must be gentled into British harness.122 On the other hand, to Kim’s face, Mahbub Ali uses horses as a paradigm for the multiculturalism of Kim’s world, which includes not only his English, Indian, and Tibetan Buddhist father figures, but both a good Catholic chaplain and an evil Anglican chaplain, the Bengali Hindu babu named Hurree Chunder Mookerjee and the Jainas of the temple where the lama resides. Kim feels that he is a sahib among sahibs, but he questions his own identity “among the folk of Hind” in terms of religion: “What am I? Mussalman, Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist?” Mahbub Ali’s response (in the passage cited at the start of this chapter) is: “This matter of creeds is like horseflesh . . . the Faiths are like the horses. Each has merit in its own country.”123


Kim’s multireligious identity crisis (“What am I? Mussalman, Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist?”) is stripped of its multicultural details in the simple question that he asks himself over and over again—“Who is Kim?”—and then, in the final chapter: “I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim?”kj Kipling bequeathed this individual quandary of multicultural identity to other novelists too, including Salman Rushdie, who, I think, modeled the hero of Midnight’s Children on Kim, a boy with English blood who appears to be both Hindu and Muslim. But Rushdie reverses the point about race: The English blood doesn’t matter at all, or the Hindu blood; the boy is a Muslim because he is raised as a Muslim. Hari Kunzru too is indebted to Kipling for some elements of the multicultural hero of his novel The Impressionist, though he takes the theme in very different directions: Kunzru’s hero has an English father and an Indian mother, and he passes for white but loses the white girl he loves, loses her because (final irony) she prefers men of color.

How are we to evaluate the legacy of Kipling, doing justice both to his racism and to his deeply perceptive portrayal of India?

In his surprisingly appreciative essay on Kim, Edward Said wrestles with his conflicted feelings about Kipling. On the one hand, Said demonstrates how deeply embedded, indeed coded, in Kim is the racist and imperialist view for which Kipling became notorious. On the other hand, Said speaks of Kim as “profoundly embarrassing”124—for Said, and for us, for any readers caught between their warm response to the artistry of the book and their revulsion at the racist terminology and ideology. Said speaks of Kipling as “a great artist blinded in a sense by his own insights about India,” who sets out to advance an obfuscating vision of imperial India, but “not only does he not truly succeed in this obfuscation, but his very attempt to use the novel for this purpose reaffirms the quality of his aesthetic integrity.” Said’s ambivalence was matched by that of the poet W. H. Auden, who argued (in his poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” 1939) that history would pardon “Kipling and his views,” though he later excised those lines from subsequent editions.

Yet Auden’s verses are powerful in precisely the way that, George Orwell pointed out, Kipling’s own verse is powerful. Auden argued that Kipling would be pardoned “for writing well.” Orwell argued that Kipling is a “good bad poet,” who wrote the kind of poetry that you would like to forget but that you remember, almost against your will, more easily, and longer, than good poetry. 125 Kipling is “good bad” not merely in his literary qualities but also in his ethical qualities; he is both a racist and not a racist. Mowgli, for instance, the Indian hero of The Jungle Book, is portrayed in positive terms to which race is irrelevant. And Kipling, always aware that the “captains and the kings” would depart from India, could have had Charles Napier in mind when he prayed for divine guidance, “lest we forget”—forget, perhaps, the harm that the British had done in India? Rushdie, writing of his ambivalence toward the good and evil Kipling, remarks, “There will always be plenty in Kipling that I find difficult to forgive” (as Auden decided not, ultimately, to pardon Kipling), but then he adds: “but there is also enough truth in these stories to make them impossible to ignore.”126

That truth grew out of a deep knowledge and love of India, where Kipling was born and which he described (in “Mandalay”) as “a cleaner, greener land” (than England). Some of his stories can be read as variants on some of the classical texts of Hinduism. “On Greenhow Hill” (1891) is a translation, in the broadest sense, of the story of Yudhishthira and the dog who accompanies him into heaven; in the Kipling story, some Methodists are trying to convert an Irish Catholic to Methodism. They don’t like his dog, and tell him that he must give up the dog because he is “worldly and low,” and would he let himself “be shut out of heaven for the sake of a dog?” He insists that if the door isn’t wide enough for the pair of them, they’ll stay outside rather than be parted. And so they let him bring the dog to chapel. In “The Miracle of Puran Bhagat” (1894), a Hindu who becomes a high-ranking civil servant under the British and is even knighted gives it all up to become a renouncer; wild animals befriend him, as he shuns all human life. But he reenters the world when, warned by the animals, he saves a village from a flash flood, giving up his own life in the process. By translating dharma and the householder life into civil service for the Raj, Kipling gives a new twist to the old problem of the tension between renunciation and service to the world. Kim is as much about the search for Release from the wheel of samsara as it is about the intensely political and material world of espionage. In the final chapter, the lama’s vision of the universe, including himself (“I saw all Hind, from Ceylon in the sea to the Hills. . . . Also I saw the stupid body of Teshoo Lama lying down . . .”), replicates the vision of the universe, and themselves, that Yashoda and Arjuna saw in the mouth of Krishna.

Kim is a novel written about, and out of, the British love of India. In part, of course, that love was like the love of one Englishman, Shakespeare’s Henry V, for France: “I love France so well, that I will not part with a village of it; I will have it all mine.”127 But that is not the only kind of love there is, even in the hearts of other dead white males who “loved” the civilizations of people they colonized;128 Gandhi referred to the British as “those who loved me.”129 The British also loved India for the right reasons, reasons that jump off every page of Kim: the beauty of the land, the richness and intensity of human interactions, the infinite variety of religious forms.

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