Science's struggle to mould imperial subjects

June 28, 2002

'Native' scholars used to help transmit knowledge of western science to Indians, undermining the British effort to present European learning as an example of civilisation superiority, argues Michael S. Dodson.

In the mid-19th century, the north Indian city of Benares (now Varanasi) became an important arena in the British Empire for debates over the relative status of Indian and European knowledge. From its reputation as an ancient place of holy pilgrimage, Benares had long been considered by British Orientalists as the "heartland of Hinduism". Furthermore, it was recognised as the centre of Sanskrit scholarship in north India, as large numbers of pandits (learned men) lived and taught in the city's small seminaries. Given the city's reputed authority in matters of scholarship and the Hindu religion, it is not surprising that British educators and missionaries considered Benares an important place to conquer intellectually in their drive to bring science and rationality to their Indian empire.

With this in mind, British educational institutions in 19th-century north India became devoted principally to imparting to Indian students the rudiments of western scientific, historical and literary knowledge. This represented a fundamental part of the imperial programme to improve the state of colonised society. The goal of this programme was the eradication of superstition and error and, if at all possible, the proliferation of Christian values and belief systems.

In Benares, the key figure in the British educational drive was James Ballantyne, a Scottish educator who took charge of the Government College between 1846 and 1861. Ballantyne presented to his Indian pupils and their "native" teachers a comprehensive curriculum that encompassed everything from astronomy to chemistry and hydrostatics. Moreover, this "western knowledge" was characterised as nothing less than a substantial development on ideas present in India's ancient Sanskrit literature. As such, Europeans were rendered as the intellectual and scientific superiors to India's ancient but underdeveloped traditions.

The assistance of the city's pandits was required in any attempt to promote the "new" scientific knowledge of Europe. This aid came largely in the form of translation. By the middle of the 19th century, Anglicist plans to promote English as the lingua franca of polyglot India had been largely abandoned as unworkable. Instead, educational initiatives looked to the country's regionally specific vernacular languages, such as Hindi, Marathi and Urdu.

Yet educators such as Ballantyne were now presented with a serious obstacle to their plans, namely the relative dearth of scientific technical terms in these vernaculars. As such, the pandits employed by Government College were put to work constructing appropriate scientific nomenclatures that drew heavily on the "classical" vocabulary of Sanskrit. Indeed, Sanskrit was considered to be an effective and powerful medium for the communication of "higher" ideas, given its status as the parent language of the Indian vernaculars, and its close relationship to ancient Greek and Latin. British educationists wished to repeat history, as it were, by recreating in India the "release" of scientific knowledge from Latin in Enlightenment Europe, and the accompanying revolution in the "improvement" of European languages and scientific progress.

Yet the literal requirement that western "science" be translated in India left it vulnerable to contestation and cooptation by India's "native" intelligentsia. Scientific knowledge was characterised by the British, in some way, as "universal knowledge", available and open to all. Simultaneously, however, "science" in British educational initiatives in India became tied to a specific project of improvement, which emphasised the historical connection with Europe and took as its basis the supposed inferiority of the Indian knowledge base. Many of the pandits employed by the British government, however, rejected any necessary connection imputed to "science' and the West, effectively undermining the ideological base of "improving" pedagogy.

Pandits such as Vitthala Shastri and Bapu Deva Shastri, who made their livelihood in British educational establishments in India as translators and educators, tended to view the presentation of western "science" not as something foreign to India, but rather as a reflection of the totality of knowledge that was thought to be constituted within the sacred texts of Hinduism. Moreover, the ease with which this scientific knowledge was rendered into Sanskrit provided more grounds on which to prove the case. This interpretation would, in time, contribute to a revived and strengthened conception of Hinduism in India; a Hinduism that supported India's claims to an independent nationhood on the basis of the possession of an advanced, though distinct, scientific culture.

Although historians of British imperialism have long realised the connection between European scientific knowledge and overseas expansion - military and ship-building technologies, and skill in navigation and cartography all enabled the construction of the British Empire - "science", as this example shows, has always been rather more than just a tool of empire-building. Indeed, there was a fetishistic component to "science" as a marker for British civilisational superiority.

In recent years, there has been a tendency in the intellectual history of studies of empire and the history of science to focus on either "colonial discourse" or the mechanisms of "diffusion", which transmitted intact metropolitan-produced scientific knowledge into the "periphery" of empire. Both share a conception of the power relationship between coloniser and colonised that tends to see the former as holding all the cards and European knowledge as being uncontested in the colonial sphere. This provides little space for the historical agency of colonised peoples to negotiate the localised meanings of "science" within the contexts of colonialism.

We need a "new" historiography of science and empire founded on the understanding that dominant knowledge formations, such as European scientific knowledge, are always dependent on the facilitation and cooperation of subordinate groups for their authority, and that this very fact renders them liable to contest and negotiation. In this way, historians may seek to illuminate not only different understandings of the nature and content of "science", but also the distinctive uses to which "science" was put by the colonised subjects of empire in the construction of self-strengthening movements and anti-colonial nationalisms.

The colonial sphere is more than a receptor of scientific knowledge - it is an arena for the contestation and negotiation of ideas. As such, it opens up avenues of inquiry, including the exploration of how various types of knowledge were utilised by the colonised to further distinct political and social agendas.

Michael S. Dodson is assistant lecturer in the history of South Asia in the faculty of Oriental studies at the University of Cambridge.

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