ON OCTOBER 10TH, 1926, Sir Jadunath Sarkar, vice chancellor of Calcutta University, presided over a meeting of scholars somewhat removed from his own specialisation. As the author of a five-volume study of Aurangzeb and an equally controversial historical biography of Shivaji, Sarkar was the foremost and best-known historian of India. The gathering, however, had a different focus from the explorations and contestations of medieval Indian history usually associated with Sarkar. Its intent was to establish The Greater India Society for the study of Indian culture in East, South East and Central Asia. The terms the Society used in its aims and objects to describe the vast geographical expanse of what it felt constituted ‘Greater India’ now are largely forgotten and perhaps sound somewhat archaic: ‘Serindia, India Minor, Indo China and Insulindia’ referring respectively to what corresponds now roughly to modern Xinjiang, India, South East Asia and North West Pakistan, Afghanistan and parts of Iran. Rabindranath Tagore was invited to be and became the ‘purodha’ or spiritual guide of the Society.
The scholars associated with this enterprise were predominantly Bengali, reflecting the status of Calcutta as the premier intellectual centre of India, notwithstanding the shift of the capital to Delhi in 1911. Many of them had, however, not followed the traditional route of intellectuals in colonial India acquiring higher degrees from the great universities of Britain. They had instead equally strong associations with the premier universities of Europe and in particular the University of Paris. This possibly had led to their wider exposure to Dutch and French scholarship about Indonesia and Indo-China respectively. Others, however, had their entire education in India, including their research degrees.
From 1934 to 1958, the Society published 18 volumes of the Journal of the Greater India Society , with a gap in the period 1947 to 1954. The topics in its articles through its two-decade existence cover a wide range—political history, literature, religion and philosophy, sculpture and iconography, architecture, etcetera. Their unifying theme was, of course, the historical connect with India.
Many of the authors featured in it were known names of the time in India in history, archeology, literature and linguistics. From the very beginning, the journal also had good representation from the leading scholars in Europe of Gandhara, Indo-China, Java and Malaya—present-day North Western Pakistan, Afghanistan and South East Asia. Possibly this was on account of the fact that many of the Society’s core group of founders had studied in Europe under them. This international flavour, however, came also from Rabindranath Tagore who had visited China and Japan in 1924 and South East Asia in 1927.In 1921, he had founded in Shantiniketan a university he named Vishwa Bharati and to which came many foreign scholars attracted to his ideas of universalism and pan Asianism.
The concept of an ancient Indian colonising but civilising force had always flirted dangerously close to political ideologies of a muscular Hinduism which saw the scholarship that informed The Greater Indian Society as no more than advocacy of its own cause
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Amongst Tagore’s followers and admirers was the young historian Kalidas Nag, one of the principal actors in the Greater India story. He himself moved in Calcutta’s leading intellectual circles—Ramanand Chatterji, the editor of the great journal Modern Review, was his father-in-law. Nag had earned his PhD at the University of Paris supervised by the great French orientalist Sylvain Levy who would later be one of Vishwa Bharati’s earliest visiting professors from Europe.
Kalidas Nag travelled to Switzerland in 1922—still then a young man of 30—to participate in a peace conference in Lugano. The paper he presented there is entitled Greater India: A Study in Indian Internationalism. Republished in the very first issue of the Journal of the Greater India Society in 1926, it spelt out many of the factors that had motivated a group of intellectuals to come together to promote the study of the spread of Indian culture across the rest of Asia. The paper outlined India’s links across Asia through the ages peaking around the 5th century CE, when ‘not only Champa and Cambodge were thoroughly Hinduised, but fresh Hindu colonies appear in the Malay Peninsula, in ancient Siam, in Loas, in Borneo, Sumatra and Java.’ Nag concluded that the ‘real secret of India’s success in her career of internationalism’ was its respect for the ‘individuality of the races and nations which came into contact with them, offering their best and evoking the best in others’.
This was evidently an implied comment on British colonialism in India, or even possibly its Islamic conquest, for as far as the ancient Indian colonies were concerned, while ‘political conquerors and economic exploiters might have been there too… they never played a dominant role in this grand drama of creative unity’. More directly in an age of rising nationalism and in the aftermath of the great intra-European bloodletting of World War I, the narrative of an ancient India that was a benign and civilising force for the world around it served the purpose of lifting national morale and consolidating its self-esteem. But neither explanation—as a nationalist enterprise or polemic against British imperialism—really provides a full explanation of the Greater India endeavour. That explanation will have also to be grounded in an appreciation of the scholarship of its historians as they sought to study faraway societies and cultures through the prism of Indian influence.
There is a core to the Greater India project which retains relevance for us today and that is of historians and scholars working against great odds to write histories of places and times far removed from their own to discover and highlight long-lost connections
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While there are other examples, RC Majumdar illustrates this commitment to scholarship. In 1927, he published Champa: History and Culture of an Indian Colonial Kingdom in the Far East 2nd-16th Century AD. Nine years later appeared the first volume of Suvarnadvipa: Ancient Indian Colonies in the Far East, volume two of which came out another two years later. Unlike some others in the Greater India movement, all his degrees and his PhD were from the University of Calcutta and he spent most of his teaching life in Dacca. For the Champa volume, he had to teach himself or otherwise acquire sufficient command of French, and for Suvarnadipa, Dutch. These were the languages in which the inscriptions from ancient Vietnam and Indonesia were printed by scholars from their governing colonial powers. Majumdar has described, with some understatement, ‘the difficulty of working on the subject in India, without any possible help or advice from any competent authority and without any adequate library’. When he began his work ‘on writing a series of studies on Indian colonization…there was no book on the subject in English’. In remote Dacca, as Majumdar struggled with Dutch and French and in the absence of a helpful eco-system of supportive research, and with numerous teaching and administrative responsibilities, he nevertheless left a somewhat stirring legacy of how much of his scholarship was self-inspired and motivated. There is something terribly moving as we read of his encouraging in remote 1930s Dacca a student named Himanshu Bhushan Sarkar in his endeavour to publish a Collection of Javanese Inscriptions. Sarkar was subsequently to emerge as a leading historian of ancient India and of its links with South East Asia.
To an extent, both the Journal as also the Society saw its function as disseminating knowledge of the research being carried out in Europe on Indic influences in Asia to those who could not access it in French and Dutch. If ‘Greater India’ comprised the whole of South East, East Asia, Afghanistan and Central Asia, clearly it was the areas now falling in Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia that were the most exciting for the Society. Borabadur, Angkor, Bagan, Bali, and the numerous other sites that dot this region represented its colonisation by the civilising force of ancient India— a force that was spiritual and philosophical in essence although it also had commercial and political elements. Kalidas Nag’s seduction by this idea is captured in his account of a tour of South East Asia in 1922:
‘[H]ow the great naval empire of Srivijaya…with Sumatra at its base, wove India, Indo China and Java into a great scheme of cultural harmony, connecting the imperial architects of Borobodur with the Palas of Magadh and Bengal and the Cholas of South India; lastly how the Hinduized Majapahit empire of Java continued to shape the destinies of the Malaya Archipelago down to the very end of the fifteenth century….claiming the vast expense from Malay to the Polynesian world as the cultural domain of India, naming in Insulindia. All thee questions, together with the dim visions of the faroff empires of Champa and Kamboj which I had just left behind…haunted me while I landed in Singhapura the gateway to Java.’
The international flavour of the Society came also from Rabindranath Tagore who had visited China and Japan in 1924 and South East Asia in 1927. In 1921, he had founded in Shantiniketan a university he named Vishwa Bharati and to which came many foreign scholars
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WHAT HAPPENED TO the Greater India Society from the late 1940s and why did it fade away and the Journal cease after 1954? Decolonisation clearly was one factor and Indian independence meant a shift in interests of historical enquiry. Whatever may have been the attraction of the idea of a ‘Greater’ India in colonial times, its connotations were different once India became independent and a champion of the freedom of other colonies. The narratives emerging from South and South East Asia were also somewhat discordant from the idea of India as the ‘mother country’. In Ceylon, Burma and elsewhere, the large Indian diaspora was viewed with resentment rather than seen as the agents of a civilising force. In some cases, weakening rather than strengthening links with India seemed politically desirable. There were also other problems—the concept of an ancient Indian colonising but civilising force had always flirted dangerously close to political ideologies of a muscular Hinduism which saw the scholarship that informed The Greater Indian Society as no more than advocacy of its own cause. The general disfavour with which the Hindutva idea was regarded therefore affected the scholarship behind the Greater India project too.
But most of all, perhaps more detailed research in South East Asia had cast doubt on the basic core of the ‘Ancient Hindu colonies’ thesis. Was it the political, economic and intellectual colonisation of these lands by Indian rulers, traders, ideologues and priests? Or was it a process whereby the main agents and drivers were more indigenous to these societies and coming in contact with different regions and cultures of India they imported its priests and scholars and adopted some of its ideas to their own circumstances? In this thesis, and for which the evidence mounted, the agency for change and adaptation did not pass out of the societies of South East Asia to India: whatever may have been the nature of the links between ancient and medieval India with kingdoms in South East Asia, colonies the latter were not.
As the scholars themselves and The Greater India Society have faded from memory, our relations with the constituent parts of the ‘Greater India’ they imagined have not. Whether with Afghanistan or with South East Asia, they are closer today than perhaps at any time in modern history. So, is that project now totally defunct? Perhaps it is in large part. To look upon the modern societies of ancient Champa, Kamboja, Java, Gandhara as an adjunct to India would be a grave error. Equally, to see the grand structures of Borabodur, Angkor and so on as remnants of an ancient Indian expansionist or colonial impulse would be simplistic, and we need more nuanced understandings of how ideas, literature, iconography, rituals and material things travelled, were adopted and changed in this region in pre- modern times. Certainly, there is a legitimate pride to be taken in the ancestry of the ideas and concepts that travelled outside India in the past, but that is different from positing an imperial outreach. There is, however, a core to the Greater India project which retains relevance for us today and that is of historians and scholars working against great odds to write histories of places and times far removed from their own to discover and highlight long-lost connections and influences. If we can recreate just that scholarly impulse, the legacy of a Greater India will remain with us.
TCA Raghavan is completing a book on the three historians Jadunath Sarkar, GS Sardesai and Raghubir Sinh tentatively titled History Men: Friendship and History in Modern India (HarperCollins, 2019). He is the author of Attendant Lords: Bairam Khan and Abdur Rahim, Poets and Courtiers in Mughal India (2016) and The People Next Door: The Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan (2017)