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Shades of Orientalism: Paradoxes and Problems in Indian Historiography Peter Heehs
Copyright Wesleyan University 2003 ABSTRACT
In Orientalism, Edward Said attempts to show that all European discourse about the Orient is the same, and all European scholars of the Orient complicit in the aims of European imperialism. There may be "manifest" differences in discourse, but the underlying "latent" orientalism is "more or less constant." This does not do justice to the marked differences in approach, attitude, presentation, and conclusions found in the works of various orientalists. I distinguish six different styles of colonial and postcolonial discourse about India (heuristic categories, not essential types), and note the existence of numerous precolonial discourses.
I then examine the multiple ways exponents of these styles interact with one another by focusing on the early-twentieth-century nationalist orientalist, Sri Aurobindo. Aurobindo's thought took form in a colonial framework and has been used in various ways by postcolonial writers. An anti-British nationalist, he was by no means complicit in British imperialism. Neither can it be said, as some Saidians do, that the nationalist style of orientalism was just an imitative indigenous reversal of European discourse, using terms like "Hinduism" that had been invented by Europeans.
Five problems that Aurobindo dealt with are still of interest to historians:
- the significance of the Vedas,
- the date of the vedic texts,
- the Aryan invasion theory,
- the Aryan-Dravidian distinction, and
- the idea that spirituality is the essence of India.
His views on these topics have been criticized by Leftist and Saidian orientalists, and appropriated by reactionary "Hindutva" writers. Such critics concentrate on that portion of Aurobindo's work which stands in opposition to or supports their own views.
A more balanced approach to the nationalist orientalism of Aurobindo and others would take account of their religious and political assumptions, but view their project as an attempt to create an alternative language of discourse. Although in need of criticism in the light of modern scholarship, their work offers a way to recognize cultural particularity while keeping the channels of intercultural dialogue open.
Myth and history are generally considered antithetical modes of explanation. Writers of each tend to distrust the data of the other. Many historians of the modern period see their task as one of removing all trace of myth from the historical record. Many students of myth consider history to have less explanatory power than traditional narratives. Since the Greeks, logos (word as demonstrable truth) has been opposed to mythos (word as authoritative pronouncement). In more general terms myth may be defined as any set of unexamined assumptions. Some modern historians have become aware that much so-called factual history is interfused with such assumptions.
What we call history is at best mythistory. Some even suggest that there can be no real distinction between the discourses of myth and history, between fact and fiction. The Agastya-Aurobindo narrative is an example of an account based on factual materials that gradually became transformed into fiction. It is accepted by some as historical truth; however when its development is studied critically, one can see that successive narrators "euphemistically" transformed its constituent propositions.
The Ramjanmabhumi narrative (at the center of sectarian conflict in India) took form in much the same way. It is not possible to accept these legends as historical truth, though there is no reason why they could not be used as the basis of artistic creations. To avoid conflict by attempting to keep myth and history entirely separate may not be possible because the two interpenetrate. The most fruitful approach to the problem might be to work towards a dialectical resolution. www.jstor.org/pss/2505649