Orientalism

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Orientalism may refer to a range of perceptions and attitudes evinced by the western scholarship towards the Indian civilisation in the 18th and early 19th centuries and since then to a wider intellectual exercise at global level to study and interpret the Eastern civilizations in relation to those of the West. The term 'Orientalism' first came into currency in France in the 1830s, and since then has been employed in a variety of ways to refer to Oriental scholarship, to represent a certain genre of romantic-fantasy literature, architecture and painting and most importantly, to mark out a certain kind of ideological understanding of the East by the West.

The father of orientalism was Sir william jones (1746-1794), a judge of the Calcutta Supreme Court, who initiated a systematic study of Indian classical languages. Nathaniel halhed, Charles wilkins, Henry T colebrooke joined up with him with their skill in Indian languages. The platform of their intellectual activities was the asiatic society, Calcutta which Jones had founded in 1784. William Jones's discovery that Sanskrit had an evolutionary connection with the European group of languages astounded the classicist and romantic scholars of Europe, who, in response, had started a new inquiry embracing all the languages of mankind with the probing assumption that the languages of mankind were inter-linked in the distant past. This was the origin of the modern science of linguistics and philology.

The inquiries of William Jones and his colleagues had at first inspired many of the east india company servants to study Indian languages, literature and history. By the 1820s, the company had a band of civilian and military officers who were committed to the study of the Indian civilization. Among them particular mention may be made of william carey, john herbert harrington, HH Wilson, WB Bayley, Hold Mackenzie, WH Macnaughten, George Swinton, Thomas Fortesque and HT Prinsep and James prinsep.

William Jones and his group conducted their research in the spirit of the 18th century European Enlightenment' which disseminated the idea of inter-racial tolerance and cultural relativism. Like the Enlightenment philosophes, they also believed that the map of mankind was dotted with inter-relating cultures which deserved study and fostering in the interest of human civilization. This spirit of universality of human culture that led the 'orientalist' servants of the company to dig into the Indian past and discover its heritage imbued orientalism. A series of textual, literary, archaeological, numismatic and paleographic discoveries made by them and their interpretations had deeply influenced the philosophes who by then perceived the need for renewal of enlightenment for a vision of wholeness, a yearning for a unity of mankind and a oneness with nature and for a reunification of religion, philosophy, and art that had been thought to be lost in the western world. The monistic and idealist philosophy of the vedanta captured the mind of the European intellectuals until the Great sepoy revolt of 1857. The horror stories of the event had a shattering effect on the mind of the orientalists who had been hitherto stressing on the pacific and philosophical nature of the Indian people.

In the nineteenth century, a new class of orientalists emerged. The Christian missionaries in India and Europe were also studying Indian past and present, but with a different motive. The intention of the missionary orientalists was to expose the weaknesses of the Indian civilization in relation to the western. Charles grant, once a company servant and later chairman of the East India Company, was the leader of evangelical group of orientalists. The rationalist and romantic mind of the age of Enlightenment was gradually replaced by an imperial outlook, which began to consider the oriental civilisations as imperfect and inferior to western civilisation. Keeping this ethnocentric assumption in view the neo-orientalists of the early 20th century began to re-interpret the interpretations of the Enlightenment orientalists. According to them, orientalism was 'a system of ideological fictions'. The purpose of 'imperial' orientalism was to reinforce and justify Western power over the Orient as a moral obligation.

Orientalism as an exercise in the West has now two realms- one political and the other philosophical and academic. Orientalists of the second realm, most of whom are the members of the academia, do argue that orientalism is not a mask for racialism, as the 'imperial' orientlists tend to believe, but an equal standard for understanding the whole mankind as a single unit of existence. However, it must be admitted that 'orientalism' of all brands is a western construct and its intensity and purpose changed with the change of the world situation. [Sirajul Islam]