Etonian, “Broadway Afghan,” “British intelligence officer,” writer of Oriental tales and other pulp, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, or simply “a Turk,” it’s hard to know who exactly Achmed Abduallah was. Born—they say—in Yalta in 1881 as Nadir Khan-Romanoffski, Abduallah was a naturalized British citizen, who after studying in the finest schools of Britain and France and a career in the British army, made his way to the United States where he became a professional writer.
Below, a review of the New Cambridge History of India by Abdullah in The Nation from 1922. “Post-Orientalist” avant la lettre, Abdullah’s stinging criticism of the Cambridge volume and its forms of knowledge prefigures the critiques of colonial historiography and epistemology— and the “Aryan theory” in particular—scholars would make many decades later. Indeed, Abdullah’s evaluation of the West is akin to those made by other prescient “Easternists” of the early twentieth century.
New Cambridge History of India. Vol. 1—Ancient India. Edited by E.J. Rapson. Macmillan Company. $7.
There exists a type of academic mind which soaks itself in facts as a sponge drinks water. Press the sponge, and the water squirts out, a little more muddy, a little more stale. Press the academic mind, and we have for instance the first volume of the “New Cambridge History of India,” dealing with ancient India from the pre-Vedic twilight to the end of the Pahlava suzerainty. If you look for data and facts—and facts, without correct interpretation, are often synonymous with lies—neatly marshaled and labeled, you will find them here, every last one of them, excellently printed, superbly indexed, soberly bound in chaste bottle-green. You will be able to look up these data and facts as you would a proper undertaker's name and number in the Telephone Red Book. Both books are valuable for the “trade.”
This History of India is as platitudinously impressive as a Methodist bishop. It reaches that apex of good breeding: a complete vacuity of soul. It is filled to the brim with the common-school logic in which all the truths stand one behind the other, holding each others’ trails. It is studded with great and shining jewels of Chautauqua Kultur. It is as inspiring as the rule-of-three, a little less so than a problem in abstract dynamics. No miracle of Indian achievement—achievement in the days when the Anglo-Saxons painted their bodies blue and confessed to a penchant for human flesh, cooked plain—can stand up before its withering patronage, unless in some way, more often back to Arya influence. The influence may be that of early Arya infiltration in Vedic days or that of the latter-day Arya invasion under Alexander the Great, that alcoholic and vainglorious Greek highwayman, the direct spiritual ancestor of all the latter-day European philanthropists who believe in carrying the White Man’s Burden as a hundred per cent profit on the investment, with assurance of having heaven thrown in as a stock bonus. There is nothing its writers, a dozen of them under the supervision and guidance of Professor E.J. Rapson, M.A., have not read, reread, examined, indexed, and cross-indexed, from Lüders and Wackernagel to Oxford-Muller, from Crooke to Winternitz, from Elphinstone to Ramprasad Chandi, from the Rig-Veda to the driest reports of the Honorable John Company. It follows safely, if not sanely, in the footsteps of a half hundred similar Indian histories and cyclopedias.
It may be lèse-majesté to speak unfavorable of anything conceived at Cambridge, Oxford, or Harvard. I realize perfectly that I should be investigated by the American Legion, the Ku Klux Klan, the Ellis Island authorities, the Attorney General’s office, the Near East Relief field agents, and the Brooklyn Board of Fire Underwriters. Still to me the very title of the book sounds too respectable, too well bred. Dealing with ancient India, with one of the most glorious pieces of Asian civilization, it is too Anglo-Saxon. It is not so deliberately, but instinctively, which is the more naive, therefore the more dangerous, form of prejudice. It looks at the great peninsula through blue spectacles. These spectacles are eminently well-fitted, eminently practical. But they focus wrong when used to look beyond Boston, Regent Street, and the pleasant Downs of Sussex-by-the-Sea. The psychology of the writers remind me of ancient Begari proverb: “God made wisdom of three parts and a half, of which the half went to the world, the rest to one man.” And, where the book makes reference to the Vedas, I might quote another Behari proverb: “Little was written by the poet Tulsidas, but a great deal was added by the commentators.”
More by inference than by direct statement the book, here and there, makes once more of the Arya a wonderful demi-god and a noble and high-minded conqueror. And may I, in this connection, remind Professor Rapson that the Sanskrit word for war means literally a “desire for more cows”? I never realized that the desire for more cows could be interpreted as high-minded nobility.
Again, by inference, the book tries to prove that these “more-cows-desiring” Aryas (and how history does repeat itself! Consider the Occident’s recent and less recent cow-desiring Oriental policy) were the Lord's own anointed, the original vessel of everything fine south of the Himalayas, that, while they put the brand of their hegemony upon the aborigines, they “civilized” them, straightened them out spiritually, financially, and sartorially, and left a lasting impression upon them for all time to come.
Now, what is the truth of this? Is it not a fact that the very Vedas, those chronicles of ancient and lying Arya conceit, speak of intermarriages between the invaders and the original lords of the soil of India? The caste system was not a bright invention to put a stamp of inferiority on the conquered aborigines, but it is the outcome of a low, evolutionary process, helped by the machinations of Brahmin priests who wished to preserve the profits arising from their sacerdotal profession within a restricted circle of families, and who increased their ranks and influence by drawing recruits from the priests of the aboriginal tribes, although the latter worshiped a different brand of idols from those of the invaders. Is it not, furthermore, a fact that the Aryas were absorbed as completely by the “inferior” races whom they conquered as the Normans were by the Saxons, the Saxons and Normans in Ireland by the Celts, and the Mongols of the Horde and later on the Machus by the Chinese?
Yet the book is labeled “New.” It is not. It is a mere rehashing and redigesting of old fallacies and prejudices. A new history of India would, basing itself on facts, interpret these facts truthfully and fairly, without racial or “civilizational” prejudice swinging one way or the other. To choose an example, it is useless to state, as does the Cambridge Volume, that to the Greek the beauty and intellect of man was everything, that the apotheosis of this beauty and this intellect remained the keynote of Hellenic civilization even in the Orient, and that these ideals awakened no response in the Indian mind. Now, why should these Hellenic ideals awaken a response? Will it ever dawn on the Arya mind, of Cambridge and elsewhere, that its standards are not necessarily the standards for all the world? To me, for instance, and to a great many other Oriental artists and scholars, Hellenic civilization, Hellenic art, is the apex of soulless, fleshed stupidity; to us the Venus of Milo is a rather ugly and vulgar mass of female meat without brains¹, without beauty of any sort; to us the Apollo Belvedere seems like a highly-glossed and brainless Regent Street shop-walker; to us there is more beauty and more intellect in a pair of Fo dogs of the Kang-he dynasty and in a sang-de-boeuf vase of the Yung Ching period. It is all a viewpoint; and history should not be a viewpoint, but a truthful interpretation of a variety of viewpoints.
The Cambridge History in its account of India in Arya and pre-Arya days bases itself largely on Arya monuments and Arya chronicles. Would it be fair to write a history of the Roman Catholic Church in America by basing it on the reports and pamphlets of the A.P.A., a history of Charles Parnell by basing it on the contemporary files of the London Times, or a history of the I.W.W. by basing it on the recent comic articles in the Boston Transcript? The Vedas were biased, quite naturally. The Vedas call the earlier Indian tribes dasyus, which is the Sanskrit for enemies. They abound in scurrilous epithets for the aborigines, calling them “disturbers of sacrifices,” “gross feeders on mean,” “raw-flesh eaters,” “lawless,” “godless,” and “without rites.”
Yet, later on, when praising the prowess of their own race, they make much of the pluck and shrewdness and warlike achievement of those aborigines, speaking of their “seven castles” and “ninety forts.” The Vedas are filled with stark racial prejudice and conceit. So is the “New Cambridge History of India.”
Achmed Abdullah, “Misrepresenting India,” The Nation (November 15, 1922). For a cogent and thorough scholarly treatment of this same question, see: Romila Thapar, “The Theory of Aryan Race and India: History and Politics,” Social Scientist v. 24 n. 1/3 (1996)
¹Like other men of his time, even in the most lucid moments of anti-colonial critique, a latent misogyny loudly announces itself.