Well, at least there are the railways…

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Locomotive 780

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Locomotive 780

I can’t remember where I heard it, but I had read somewhere and believed that despite the obvious exploitation of India under the British Raj, there were two lasting positive legacies; the education system and the railways.

A couple of days ago someone on facebook someone mentioned Thomas Babington Macaulay as responsible for severely damaging the Indian education system. I had not heard of him, and I was told about an article in Hinduism today that described his attitudes towards Indian culture and the changes he implemented in India. This totally changed my opinion of the effect that the British Empire had on education in India.

Thomas Babington Macauley

Macaulay was a member of the Supreme Council of India. He was in charge of funding education in India. At the time higher level teaching in India was in Sanskrit or Arabic. Macaulay removed all funding for the teaching of these languages and switched higher education in India to English.

Macauley believed that European books and culture were superior to any Indian works. He said:

“I have no knowledge of either Sanskrit or Arabic. But I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanskrit works. I have conversed both here and at home with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”

This is remarkable in its arrogance, and also contradicts the opinion of many Western scholars who are perhaps better placed to judge Indian culture. There are many quotes at the remarkable website, A Tribute to Hinduism.  I will mention a few here as a contrast to Macaulay’s statement.

“In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial” 
— Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)  American Philosopher and Writer

India is a highly civilized nation – a nation which developed a rich culture much earlier than any nation of Europe, and has never lost it.
— Rev. Jabez T. Sunderland (1842-1936) American born, former President of the India Information Bureau of America.

“India is the source from which not only the rest of Asia but the whole Western World derived their knowledge and their religion… The literature of the Sanskrit literature incontestably belongs to a highly cultivated people, whom we may with great reason consider to have been the most informed of all the East. It is, at the same time, a scientific and poetic literature.
— Arnold Hermann Ludwig Heeren (1760-1842), Egyptologist

Macaulay’s opinion on the literature of India was not by any means the limit of his prejudice. He said:

“The superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable. The question now before us is simply whether, when it is in our power to teach English, we shall teach languges in which, by universal confession, there are no books on any subject which deserve to be compared to our own; whether, when we can teach European science, we shall teach systems which, by universal confession, whenever they differ from those of Europe, differ for the worse; and whether, when we can patronize sound philosophy and true history, we shall countenance, at the public expense, medical doctrines which would disgrace an English stable hand, astronomy which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school, and geography made up of seas of treacle and seas of butter.”

There is no doubt that the Western world had made many recent scientific and technical discoveries at that time. I suspect that Macaulay did not realise that much of the mathematics at the heart of the technological advances, including the decimal number system, originated in India. He almost certainly did not know that logic and syllogisms were formulated in India independently of Socrates, or that India was the first country to systematically investigate the science of phonetics.

It is clear that Macaulay’s opinion of Indian culture and knowledge was ignorant, but if his motivation was to improve and educate Indians perhaps we could still have some sympathy with his position. Unfortunately this is clearly not the case. Macaulay set out to educate a convenient class to sit between the British rulers and Indian population. He said:

“It is possible to make natives of this country thoroughly good English scholars, and that to this end our efforts ought to be directed. It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”

The legacy of this was a generation of Indians who were not proud of their own heritage. Of course things are never black and white, as there are certainly some advantages to India in having a large number of English speakers in today’s world. It is difficult to judge how large this advantage is.  China seems to manage rather well without a wide use of English inside China. Ironically the widespread knowledge of English is also something that has helped Westerners understand the rich Indian traditions and spiritual wisdom.

So much for education as a lasting positive legacy of the British Empire. Well, at least there are the railways…

10 responses to “Well, at least there are the railways…

  1. Wow, that guy was draw-droppingly ignorant. How one could look at the Mahabharata, even in translation, and not see its stunning beauty is beyond me. Better than Shakespeare, in my opinion. And the Sanskrit language itself! I don’t know if there is any more beautiful.

  2. Sometime back there was a controversy about these opinions of Macaulay, saying it was a hoax. The people calling it a hoax were usually from either the socialists or the so-called”secular”[this is the term used in India for any one who espouses the belief that anything Hindu is communal/bad/not worthy of respect]. May be Macaulay did not address this to the parliament,but elsewhere,but this is used as an excuse to say that it is not true and that it is “False propaganda” by Hindu “fundamentalists/communalists/terrorists” to whip anti-minority feelings amongst the populace. Thanks to the pervasive influence of Christian Missionaries ,most Hindus are easily brain-washed to believe that all the good that is happening in India are due to the Missionaries.Hindu /Indian History is Manipulated and the “Aryan-Invasion “theory is even now taught to our school children even though pertinent questions against this theory has been raised for at least a decade. The Macaulayen Education system was established to generate unthinking Zombies for the empire,tand sixty years on nothing much has changed ,as other people[mostly indian politicians have moved in to takeover from where the British left,to carve up our beautiful,rich country into their self serving pockets;They have also made sure they will not be thwarted from their goal,by following the policy of divide and rule,that was again started by Lord Curzon,which they have perfected by dividing our society according to our religions[Hindu vs Others],castes [uppercastes vs.others],and rich vs poor.
    C.Rajagopalachary,our first Indian Governor -General has said,over fifty years ago, that English was the gift of Saraswathy to our country as it has helped open India to others and Other Countries to Indians.This still holds good,because despite all attempts people still have Faith in India and her Traditional culture

  3. you forgot postal services:)

  4. English is indeed a blessing to India. When a country has lot of clans, fighting among themselves, it becomes multilingual. Being from Tamilnadu, I have a tough time going to neighboring states due to the language problem. The locals don’t understand Hindi, the national language, except for those in the travel profession. More than English or Hindi, sign language must have been the national language of India. Multilingualism of India is nothing to be proud of. Same is the case with Europe.
    It’s not English but overpopulation and the high competition for survival, the main reason for Indians ignorant of their own holy texts/anything that doesn’t have monetary value. Multilingualism is also one of the reasons. Though Sanskrit was popular for mantras, there are lot of texts in other languages that are yet undecipherable, due to their poetic form.
    Though a lot of Indians blame the British. It’s quite natural that a country with no unity and lot of infighting, will fall prey to an alien power. If it had not been British, it would have been some other. The surgery was inevitable for India. More than anything else, the British invasion has atleast put an end to this infighting.

    • This guy is living in a fools paradise… He doesn’t have any idea how British used english to divide our country. Sanskrit for mantras..? He has not even taken a look at the literature treasure of India. This is the problem with India now, Her people don’t understand Her greatness. Before British came, India was Akhanda Bharatam, now it is divided into many states that fight for silly reasons, where Christian missionaries are given shelter to fool people. Please open your eyes and see what is happening.

  5. Lokesh Sharma

    Bravo Senthil!

    You are absolutely right. Even after 50 years of independence, less than 50% people use Hindi in their daily life and a little more than 50% can speak hindi and around 30% only can write an essay in hindi translated to them. If I visit any country in the world, local people never force me to learn their language. But, it happens in the states between unified India. An NE (North Eastern) can’t live in Delhi, a UPite / Bihari can’t go to Mumbai, a North Indian is not welcomed in cities south of Hyderabad, a South Indian is afraid of going north of Hyderabad, a person from rest of India is not allowed in Kashmir. Even after more than 1,000 years of slavery, people did not learn love, respect, unity and value of freedom.

    • That’s because of the narrow mindedness of our polititians who wants to make vote banks. You go to any village, and I am sure you will be welcomed there, becasue the poison of English education has not eaten them up. It is not the English language that is the problem, but the false propagandas made by Macaulay’s education system.

  6. Vis-a-vis the validity of Macaulay’s praise : I have not found a reference for it.
    Vis-a-Vis his intentions in selecting English Education :
    I have given the quotes and references here : http://ancientindians.net/sociology-and-social-issues/british-presence-influence-interference/english-education-in-india/

    By the way, I have forwarded your blog address to a western Hindu I know and I hope it is of help to him..


  7. To senthil and lokesh, which country do you live in? and in which century? Several of my friends in school were all south indian, speaking tamil and hindi both fluently. They have since worked in places like Chandigarh, Pune, Bangalore, Chennai and Delhi. I know north indians who have moved to Chennai, hyderabad and bangalore. I know kashmiris working in Pune and Bangalore. Muslim Kashmiris. My brother has worked in Orissa, and mumbai. Most every south indian I know can speak hindi fluently.

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