India’s Engagement with World

India and West

  • For a long time there have been contacts between the West and India.
  • Greeks were some of the first people who became interested in the idea of writing stories, they often called them histories, about where they went and what they saw. A very famous man called Herodotus who wrote an account of India in around the 5th century BC.
  • He describes India as being a country which is characterized by being densely populated, full of people who spoke many languages, having many different religious traditions and fabulously wealthy.
  • Fascinating by these stories, Alexander the Great, tried to conquer as far as India and when he reached the shores of river Indus, he reached the limits of the area that he could conquer.

Origin of the Word ‘India’

  • Though ‘India’ is an English word but it has been borrowed from the Greeks. Greek culture got as far as the river Indus and they established this idea that the people who live around the river Indus must be the Indians.
  • However, the word Indus comes from the Sanskrit word Sindhu which is the very word for river itself. So at the foundation of the word India we find a Sanskrit word.
  • Another word for India, which is sometimes used still in English and used in India and Pakistan as well, which is Hindustan. This word contains two elements, the word ‘stan’ which means ‘place’ both in Sanskrit and in Persian and the word ‘Hindu’ which again relates to this notion of the river, the place, in which Indians live.

India and East

  • In the 5th to the 7th century there were a number of Chinese pilgrims who reached India and left very extensive written accounts of what they saw. Pilgrims such as Hsuan Tsang’ who came to India with the idea that India is the source of Buddhism, the religion that he followed, would be the place in which he could find out the most authentic information about Buddhist practices, also to describe what the land was in which Buddhism had once flourished and still flourished, at the time when he came.
  • Hsuan Tsang describes India in glowing terms and very vividly. When he got there he was told by local Indians that the name for India was Matri-Desha’ which is a Sanskrit term which means the central country. He was somewhat surprised because Chinese believe that they live in the middle of the world and the Indians also believe that they live in the middle of the world.

India and Middle East (Arabs)

  • Arab visited India between the 10th and 13th centuries. There are two sorts of Arab accounts of India.
  • The earliest accounts which date from around the time of the beginnings of Islam, describe India as a sort of place which is far away from the Arabian Peninsula and a place full of many cultures, many languages, many religious traditions.
  • A second set of accounts which begin to be written from the time when Central Asian communities start to move into north India. People such as Mahmud Ghazni and Al Beruni, a man who was originally from central Asia from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan area and who describes India in terms which are somewhat different because he wants to glorify perhaps the claims of those who he is working for as they were conquering India.
  • Al Beruniwas the First Muslim Scholar to study India and its Brahmanical tradition. He is called father of Indology and the first anthropologist. He also wrote a monograph on Indic culture, Kitab al-Hind.

India and Europe

  • By the 17th century European travelers started exploring Asia. One such remarkable traveler was ‘Thomas Coryatewho was at the court of James the First. He walked from Jerusalem to Agra that is from Israel to India overland.
  • Once he got to India he wrote a letter to his countrymen in Britain, which was published in 1616 and it says: “Thomas Coryate, traveller, for the English wits and the good knights of this kingdom to all his inferior countrymen, Greeting!, especially to the serenical gentlemen that meet the first Friday of every month at “The Mermaid” in Bread Street.” He was very proud of the fact that he has ridden an elephant. In his letter there was a gorgeous illustration of Coryate riding an elephant imagined by an European engraver.
  • He also wrote about a land of a huge population, of vast wealth and of spiritual traditions very different from his own country.
  • The first autobiography written in Hindi was written by a man called Banarasidas Jain’, and in that autobiography he talks about how he remembers where he was on the day when Akbar died, from this period onwards a direct glimpses into Indian concepts of what India is, written by Indians themselves as biographical texts were made available.
  • In Banarasidas Jain writing trade was a central feature of India with other parts of the world and within itself. Until the 7th century, India was also the world’s only source of diamonds and major source of gold, so it was immensely rich and known for that.
  • The other thing India was associated with was ‘spices’, particularly pepper which is native to India, because before the trades with India began, foods perhaps just had salt in it.
  • India’s geographical setting and its capacity to produce tropical plants that were not available in Europe were also very important trade goods. Cotton is a tropical crop and only grows in hot countries. Besides cotton the dyes are all basically tropical plants. So a red dye is the juice of a particular tree, oranges and yellows are made from saffron or tamarind, Indigo to produce a deep purple, all are a tropical plant.
  • One of the facts which comes through the written accounts of travelers like ‘Thomas Coryate’ that they see India as wealthy as the West or in many cases more wealthy than the West in the pre-colonial era. In the 17th century the richest and most magnificent city in the world was Lahore which is now in Pakistan but was part of the Mughal Kingdom and ruled by the richest rulers in the world, the Mughals.
  • European powers began to gradually take over aspects of Indian trade and then taxation, commerce and governance. By that time European writer stared to write about India in new ways to somehow justify European powers taking India over. So they described it as badly governed, chaotic and suggested that foreign power come in to help India sort out its problems.
  • This western models divides history of India essentially into three periods. An ancient period, an Islamic period and the period in which the Europeans arrived and were going to be somehow the saviors of India.
  • This is very unrealistic picture of India, although it does contain useful information but misrepresented facts because it’s put together in ways which were designed to be for essentially an unsympathetic audience.
  • In the middle of 18th century, the first Sanskrit works began to be translated into European languages. Works like the Bhagwat Gita, one of the foundational texts of Hinduism and the drama like Shakuntla was
    also translated into many European languages at this stage.
  • At that time the growth of German nationalism, the search for German roots, and the search for European roots, were also taking place in Europe. The search for European roots, involved engagement with India and Indian literature. India became known in the West as a place of enormous literary and cultural achievement.

Indian Diaspora

  • As Europeans started trying to engage with Indian traditions and Indian texts, this then inspired Indians to make their own traditions more accessible for people in the west. Some known and respected figures who took this work seriously were Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Vivekananda. In 1893 Vivekananda sailed from India to Chicago to attend a world conference on religions, and made a huge impact on Western understandings, about the Indian spiritual traditions like Yoga and others.
  • By late 19th century Indian Diaspora begins in various ways. Indians had started travelling around the world for different purposes. At present there are around 25 million Indians living around the world in different countries.

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