Cultural Effects of the First Century of British Rule

The cultural effects of British influence during the century from 1757 to 1857 , though less spectacular, were in the long run far-reaching. At first there was very little impact. But as the Europeans grew in political importance, Indians became interested in the causes of the growth, so that the first examples of cultural influence were in the military field. Some Europeans, in their turn, interested themselves in Indian culture, as was evident from the foundation of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784 by Sir William Jones and from the translation of Sanskrit works such as the Bhagavadgita and Kalidasa’s Abhïnnanashakuntalam and of Persian works such as the Ain-e Akbari by Abul-Fazl Allami. Sir William Jones, an outstanding scholar from Oxford, arrived in Calcutta in 1783 as a Puisne Judge of the Old Supreme Court.

Even earlier had come Charles Wilkins (1770), Nathaniel Brassey Halhed (1772) and Jonathan Duncan (1772), known as Warren Hastings’s “bright young men”, who had paved the way for the two future institutions – the Asiatic Society and the College at Fort William. However, while others were thinking in terms of individual study and research, Sir William Jones was the first to think in terms of a permanent organisation for Oriental studies and researches on a grand scale in India. All the Orientalists who became famous in history clustered around either the Society or the College or both. The Society, of course, was the pioneer and first in the field.

Warren Hastings offered attractive financial inducement for translation exercises including lndian texts on law and jurisprudence. Under his patronage Bengali became the first Sanskrit based vernacular to be studied systematically by Englishmen.

The agents of Western influence were government officials, who carried Western ideas such as utilitarianism and equality before the law and Western concepts of property into their administration of revenue and the law, and missionaries, who combined hostility to Hinduism and Islam with the presentation of a new ethic-the practice of good deeds and the promotion of English education as preliminaries for conversion.

There were many Indians, who while remaining good Hindus or Muslims and having no intention of converting, began to study Western ways and thought for promoting their careers. There was also a small group who sought to study the ideas and spirit of the West with a view to incorporating in their own society anything that seemed appropriate for India. Thus the English language became popular because it opened paths to employment and influence; even orthodox Hindus patronised the English schools and promoted the Hindu College (later Presidency College) in Calcutta (1816). This college, along with Alexander Duff’s Scottish Church College, also in Calcutta, became a centre of Western influence and saw the rise of the Young Bengal movement, the Westernising zeal of which was noteworthy.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy also advocated English education as a means of bringing Western knowledge to India. Ram Mohan Roy’s followers cooperated in the spread of English education, and began the movement of borrowing from the West without any feeling of disloyalty to their past.

By the year 1857 the British had established complete political control of the Indian subcontinent, which they ruled directly or through subordinate princes. They had established an authoritarian system of government, making use of Mughal practice and tradition and supported by an efficient civil service and a relatively efficient army. Princely India remained, for the most part, in a stagnant traditionalism. In British India land settlements had produced much social dislocation while purporting to respect traditional rights and to learn from the past; in particular, the Western concept of property in land had led to much social displacement. The Westernised legal system was efficient in suppressing crime but dilatory in upholding rights and incomprehensible for most natives in its working. The revolutionary aspect of the British presence was the decision, taken about the time of the tenure of Lord William Bentinck as governor-general, to introduce Western knowledge and science through the medium of the English language. Western inventions like the telegraph, modern irrigation, railways, and steamships followed, throwing India open to the industrialising and democratising world of the developing West. Along with education came the Christian missionary intrusion, with its moral and ideological challenge. This, in its turn, provoked a creative response from Indians who, while laying the foundations of a modernised Hinduism, also helped in ultimately promoting nationalism.


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