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A Literary History of India Review


Often I’m surprised in older books how well they can hold up despite the tide of years. We are so used to thinking of books about other cultures a century ago as being impossibly blinkered, condescending, and often simply prejudiced that it’s surprising to find that often they can be admiring, such as at least Myths and Legends of the Polynesians and Myths and Legends of the Japanese. At worst, while views from the past might have been shown to be incorrect, we can recognize that they were a fumbling attempt to understand the world, and to not indulge in excessive critique. But there wouldn’t be this cliché of the past if there wasn’t a grain of truth of it, and you can see it on display in A Literary History of India by R.W. Frazer, a book from 1897 about Indian history, and well, of course, literature. There’s almost nothing redeeming about this book from today’s perspective (and even at the time it would have been of little real value), with its intense biases, lack of discipline in covering the subject, common absence of intellectual rigor, and a mediocre writing style which does little to showcase the beauty and value of the work that it covers.

To start with, the book is very far from being a real literary history. Of course, any literary history must inherently cover the milieu and environment that literature was written in: you could hardly understand Romanticism without the French Revolution, nationalism, and the beginning of industrialization, you could hardly understand medieval romances and ballads without a picture of medieval society and its ideals of chivalry and romantic love, you could hardly understand books by the Chinese scholar-gentry without an idea of the Chinese imperial exam system: the list goes on and on. Context matters, but A Literary History of India more often appears more a history of India rather than being a literary history of India: it is a long account of various events which transpired throughout Indian history, into which only intermittently appear actual Indian literature. It waxes on interminably about the Aryans and their invasion of India, about the creation of Hinduism as a way to guard the racial purity of the invaders, about the tragedy of India never having been unified and a spiritual vanguard such as Buddhism or Christianity never having led it onwards to patriotic unified feeling: only rarely does it deign to cover literature, its ostensible focus.

While it’s interesting to observe what late 19th century racial views about India were, there is similarly no real substantiating value to it. Its perspective on the Aryan invasion, when the Indo-European speaking people invaded India, is extremely simplistic and by our standards shockingly racist, consistently denigrating all people existing in India other than the invading Aryans, referring to them as the primitive, or more often rude, (used in the same context as French uses rude, ie. another term for primitive or undeveloped), races, and viewing them incapable of any development on their own without the Aryans: this is the case with the Dravidians in particular, what it refers to as the aborigines of India, and who with their own highly developed literatures, architecture, naval traditions, poetry, etc. would be an obvious rejoinder to the idea that only the Aryans were capable of civilizational development, but instead the book refers to the Aryans as stimulating and developing the Dravidians. Sometimes it completely overlooks various accomplishments that they achieved: it refers to Hinduism as never having achieved any architectural feats, but what about the great stone-carved temples of southern India, or some of their massive pagoda temples?

In intellectual terms, it is sometimes prone to an unfortunate laziness, perhaps romantically inspired, but certainly inaccurate. For example, it refers to the Aryans as having kept their hopes up during their centuries-long march into India by means of songs and poetry: there is a teleological belief that the Aryans were going to India, that this was their final destination, and their hopes needed to be kept up for it, when we don’t know why the Indo-Europeans were travelling there, if it was their destination, if they were being pushed there or going there by their own volition, etc. There is no real indication one way or another, and certainly the book doesn’t provide it. Furthermore it makes the connection between the idea of political unity and the emergence of some sort of monotheism: it routinely decries that the Aryans were unable to form a united people in India, and that this would presumably result in the emergence of a monotheistic spirit. Given that the only people that monotheism emerged in was the Jews, and arguably to a certain extent among the Persians with Zoastrianism and various derived cults, there’s no intellectual foundation to the idea that somehow political unity will lead to monotheism.

As equally bad as the rest of the book is the clear political bent that runs throughout what is ostensibly a literary history: it draws often a link between the British and the Aryans, justifying then-contemporary British rule in India on the basis of the Aryans, and one can clearly see the implication of Aryan segregation and racialized rule working as justifications for British treatment of the Indians. What it drew of Indian literature in its day is clearly centered around a pro-British and anti-independence, anti-Congress, perspective, extremely, excessively, transparently so. It praises British rule and refers again and again to the idea of the British reinvigorating the Aryan spirit in India. While this is as mentioned before interesting to see what the 19th century perspective was on India, there’s no need to read an entire book for this purpose.

This clear bias shows up in particular in the treatment of Hinduism, which at best is viewed as a necessary racial rampart to prevent racial mixing through a caste system, but more often has every single sin heaped upon it, of Hinduism as backwards, reactionary, unenlightened, irrational, savage, stultifying: the list goes on. The entire book feels like a constant lecture about the evils of Hinduism, which doesn’t belong in a literary history of India. It also terribly biases it against anything between the Aryan invasion of India to the 19th century: there’s almost nothing at all which is written in this period, even though there definitively were writers, such as Chanayka/Kautilya from the 4th/3rd centuy BC?. Also it excludes Islamic literature completely from its story, and while it has less to say about Islam, its perspective is almost equally denigratory, seeing Muslims as little more than fanatics. In doing so it ignores the products of Islamic regimes in India such as the Delhi Sultanate, or above all else the Mughal Empire: its history of India is that the Aryans arrived, elevated India to civilization, then decayed, Buddhism failed, and then India rotted until the British showed up and re-invigorated it, and nothing worthwhile happened in the meantime.

If the book had an inspiring writing style or was really able to bring what fragments of literature it has to light, then many of these sins could be forgiven. After all, some of the previously mentioned Myths and Legends books, either of the Polynesians or the Japanese, had some aspects of it which have become historically outdated. But they overcome it since they have a genuine joy in telling about the literature and beliefs of the people they study, and particularly in the case of Myths and Legends of Japan. There’s simply put, no similar spark or fire in A Literary History India. At times there is a romantic style of writing and technically it fulfills a degree of elegance, but it lacks any visible joy or admiration of the literature that it studies: rather it appears stuffy, uninspired, and detached. It doesn’t manage to give any real joy in India and its literature.

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Probably just a feature of my book, but there was also a very bizarre binding error, in that everything is fine until it gets to page 310, and then it suddenly skips back to page 279, and then it keeps on going ahead until it gets to page 310 again, at which point it suddenly changes to page 375: I’ve never seen an error like it in a book before and I’m extremely curious as to how this happened.

Frazer has written a quintessentially late 19th century book, as far as we understand this era negatively. It’s a real shame, given the richness of the Indian literary tradition. But he is a prisoner to extreme prejudices, lacking in style, intellectually lazy, and above all else does little to actually deliver an Indian literary history. The only potential remit of the book is in helping to understand British 19th century views on Indian and the Aryan invasion hypothesis, but this is scant reward for such a long and broadly useless book.

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