British Orientalism (1772 to 1835)
was a unique phenomenon in British Indian history that was
inspired by the needs of the East India Company to train a
class of British administrators in the languages and culture
of India. This period of British Indian began in 1772 with
the coming to power of Warren Hastings (17321818), the
first and perhaps most famous of the British governors general
of India. This period of British Orientalism marks the formative
years of a century of intense intellectual, religious and social
change in Bengal that in now known as the Bengal Renaissance.
For the most part, the British Orientalists were a unique group who reflected
the eighteenth century ideals of rationalism, classicism, and cosmopolitanism.
Unlike many later British officers serving in India, the Orientalists were
appreciative of the ancient religious and cultural traditions of classical
India. Consequently, they made significant contributions to the fields
of Indian philology, archeology, and history. The idea that traditional
oriental learning could be combined with the rationalism of the West was
the inspiration of British Orientalism. Intellectually it was one of the
most powerful ideas of nineteenth century India.
In 1800 Governor General Wellesley established the College of Fort William
as a training center in Calcutta for those company servants who would be
employed in the field. The idea behind the college was the perceived need
to understand Indian culture as a basis for sound Indian administration.
In the words of Warren Hastings, to rule effectively, one must love
India; to love India, one must communicate with her people; to communicate
with her people, one must acquire her languages. The College of Fort
William became the effective vehicle of British Orientalism in India for
the next two and a half decades.
Under the auspices of the College of Fort William, an elaborate and expensive
program of literary patronage and research was undertaken. Faculty were
trained, language instruction was initiated, an extensive library was established,
and books were published in Bengali, Marathi, Urdu, Hindi, Persian, and
Sanskrit. The college hired numerous traditional Persian and Sanskrit scholars
along with European academics. Over a hundred Sanskrit texts alone were
translated and published by the college. Indeed, the effects of British
Orientalism on Bengal were revolutionary. The College of Fort William was
the first institution of its kind in India to employ the tools of modern
comparative philology, textual criticism and historical analysis on a vast
scale in conjunction with traditional learning.
The fruits of Orientalism, although intended to serve the needs of company
servants and European academics, had a profound impact on Bengals
intellectual and cultural elite, the bhadraloka. For the first time the
bhadraloka gained a systematic overview of its Sanskrit Hindu culture,
making them keenly aware of the grand accomplishments of their cultural
Ultimately the success of British Orientalism was the source of its downfall.
As knowledge of Indias ancient past became evident, Christian missionaries
and other colonial interests soon began to wonder in whose favor Orientalism
was intended, that of the rulers or the ruled. The Charter Act of 1813 opened
the door to a new group of Europeans, the Christian evangelicals, who quickly
established themselves throughout Bengal. This new breed of post-Orientalist missionaries
was the very antithesis of British Orientalism. They viewed Hindu culture as
backward and profane. To them the strength of European culture was its Christian
foundations. Their goal was to obliterate as much of Hindu culture as possible
and to replace it with Christian values, English education, and Western ideas.
By the 1820s the forces of racism and cultural imperialism had begun to overpower
the ideals of Orientalism and this unique period in British Indian history
began to wane. By the late 1830s British Orientalism as official policy
had all but vanished from British India. The struggle that ensued eventually
saw the College of Fort William effectively shut down by Governor General
William Bentinck (17741839) in 1835 when he dissolved the College
Council and began to disperse the library. The college was officially closed
by Governor-General Dalhousie in 1853.
Although the British Orientalists and Christian evangelicals might seem to
have little in common, their combined influence had a powerful effect on
the lives of the bhadraloka. British Orientalism lit the fires of Hindu
pride, while the attacks of the missionaries and other colonial interests
such as the Utilitarians, inspired by John Stuart Mill, created a powerful
impetus to reformulate and understand traditional Hindu religious culture
in the light of modernity. The Orientalists idea that the critical
techniques of modern scholarship could be combined with traditional learning
was powerful. It is clear that many prominent members of the bhadraloka
including Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891), Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay
(1838-1894) and Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda (1838-1914) employed the techniques
of British Orientalism in their search for Hindu religious and cultural
identity. As a result, the works of many of the bhadraloka attempted to
redefine and defend Hindu ideals in the light of modern European thought.
There is little doubt that the methods adopted by the British Orientalists
heralded a new approach to Indian studies that influenced Bengali intellectuals
and men of learning well into the twentieth century.
Shukavak N. Dasa
Kopf, David. (1969). British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance. Calcutta:
Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay.
Majumdar, R. C. (1978). History of Modern Bengal, 1765 to 1905. Calcutta: G.
Bharadwaj and Company.
Copyright © 2002 Sanskrit
Religions Institute. All Rights Reserved.
Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda
The Bengal Renaissance
Michael Madhusudan Datta
Encounter with Modernity
An in-depth look at Kedarnath Datta's life and theology.
must have the
Acrobat Reader to download and read pdf files.
Datta's Family History
One of Kedarnath Datta's Autobiography
Bhagavata: Its Philosophy, Ethics and Theology
This is the text of the
famous Dinajpur speech given by Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda
in 1868. It is one of the few extant samples of English writing
that came from the pen of Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda.
An article written by Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda about the Vaishnava initiation