Indian Classics: The Big New Vision

The History of Akbar, Volume 1

by Abu’l-Fazl, edited and translated from the Persian by Wheeler M. Thackston
Murty Classical Library of India/ Harvard University Press, 614 pp., $32.95

The Story of Manu

by Allasani Peddana, translated from the Telugu by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman
Murty Classical Library of India/ Harvard University Press, 602 pp., $32.95
Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Art Resource
‘Akbar Inspects the Capture of a Wild Elephant’; illustration from Abu’l-Fazl’s History of Akbar, circa 1590

Like some procession of tireless penitents, much of the academic community continues to beat its collective breast and bewail its sins when it comes to Eastern studies. This attitude has persisted at least since 1978, when Edward W. Said published Orientalism, a book of which it can (or should) be meekly stated that it has been both influential and deleterious, especially in the credo it spawned—a credo that continues to infuse the field of postcolonial studies with inexhaustible self-righteousness.

Said’s book focused on Islam but a substantial chunk was devoted to India as well. And it almost exclusively called to account British Indologists, beginning with William Jones, as first and foremost useful agents of colonial imperialism, albeit with a noble philological aura. That certainly could be applied to India.

As it happens, though, in the golden age of Indology the greatest practitioners were German, or else French (from Abel Bergaigne and Sylvain Lévi to Marcel Mauss and Louis Renou), or Dutch, such as Willem Caland, rather than British. And as Said himself acknowledged, nineteenth-century Germany had no special national interests in India. Then why such a plethora of research and publications, if there was no power base eager to exploit them? To attribute motives of collusion with colonial interests to such scholars as Hermann Oldenberg, Albrecht Weber, Paul Deussen, Heinrich Zimmer Sr., Theodor Aufrecht, or Heinrich Lüders is simply laughable, as well as implausible. In its disregard of those names, Said’s book can be considered a generalized defamation. Those scholars had only one driving impulse: to understand. Nothing more, but also nothing less.

I am aware that these days a motive of this kind rings as suspect. Someone is bound to spring up, asking “At whose behest?” with a dreary fixed grin à la Bourdieu. But the answer is simple—and it applies to all fundamental books: “At no one’s behest.” Those Indologists were the authors of studies, translations, and commentaries that remain indispensable, though in some cases they date back more than a century. Their names barely make it into Wikipedia, but we are indebted to them for a fair share of the most accurate and solid information we now possess about India’s past. This leads me to think that, even outside of India, what we need now is a history of Orientalism that focuses on a number of scholars who were clearly possessed of genius and without whose aid it would have been just that much harder to access entire civilizations. One example among many: Marcel Granet for China.

Alongside this history of philologists who spent their lives deciphering, interpreting, and emending Eastern texts, we should also have, accompanying and supporting it, a publishing history, from a certain point onward. Its symbolic starting point would…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.