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Hindus seen through foreign eyes


Describing the character of an entire group of people is difficult. And, it is almost impossible to describe the character of Hindus—divided by region, language, caste and sect. Nonetheless, foreign observers have attempted the task based on their personal experience.  The following is an account of some of these over time.

Ktesias, the Greek Physician of Persian King Artaxerxes [404-358 BC] has a special chapter “on the justice of the Hindus” in his Indica.  Megasthenes [c.350–c.290 BC] states thefts were extremely rare, and the people honoured truth and virtue. Arrian [c.86-160 AD] on officials: “They oversee what goes on in the country or towns, and report everything to the king, where the people have a king, and to the magistrates, where the people are self-governed, and it is against the use and wont of these to give a false report; but indeed no Hindu is accused of lying.”

The Chinese Buddhist Hiuen-Tsiang, who travelled in India between 629 and 645 AD made nearly 30 specific comments on the “disposition”, “nature” and “manners” of the people of the various regions he visited. We can put these comments into five groups. The first group: “active and impetuous; lively and courageous; brave, true and upright; brave and impetuous; hard and fierce; regard justice and bravery; simple and honest, resolute and fierce, ardent and courageous”. The second: “timid and soft; soft and agreeable; docile and virtuous; soft and complacent … contended and peaceful; light and frivolous, weak, pusillanimous”. The third: “sincere and truthful (mentioned three times); pure and honest and honest and sincere”. The fourth described many negative qualities but combined them with positive ones: “soft and effeminate, and somewhat sly and crafty; fierce and value highly the quality of courage, given to deceit; no refinement; hard and rough … cold and insincere”. The fifth group described the unpleasant elements: “rough and rude; quick and violent; savage kind; violent and headstrong; quick and hasty”

Marco Polo [1254-1324] says: “… these Abraiaman [of Mysore] are the best merchants in the world, and the most truthful, for they would not tell a lie for anything on earth”.

Muslim chroniclers also wrote of their Hindu subjects. Idrisi, in his Geography [11th century] summed up his opinion of Hindus: “The Hindus are naturally inclined to justice, and never depart from it in their action.  Their good faith, honesty, and fidelity to their engagements are well known, and they are so famous for these qualities that people flock to their country from every side.” In the 13th century, Shems-ed-din Abu Abdullah [1320–1380] (quotes Bedi ezr Zenan): “The Hindus are innumerable, like grains of sand, free from all deceit and violence. They fear neither death nor life.”[36]

In the 16th century, Akbar’s Minister, Abul Fazl [1551–1602] states: “The Hindus are religious, affable, cheerful, lovers of justice, given to retirement, able in business, admirers of truth, and grateful and of unbounded fidelity; and the soldiers know not to what it is to fly from the field of battle.”

British comments of their Hindu subjects are interesting. Warren Hastings [1732-1818]: “They are gentle and benevolent, more susceptible of gratitude for kindness, and less prompted to vengeance for wrongs inflicted than any people on the face of the earth; faithful, affectionate, submissive to legal authority.” Bishop Heber [1783-1826]: “The Hindus are brave, courteous, intelligent, most eager for knowledge and improvement; sober, industrious, dutiful to parents, affectionate to their children, uniformly gentle and patient, and more easily affected by kindness and attention to their wants and feelings than any people I ever met with.”

Sir Thomas Munro [1761-1827]: “I do not exactly know what it means by civilizing the people of India. In the theory and practice of good government they may be deficient; but, if a good system of agriculture, if unrivaled manufactures, if the establishment of schools for reading and writing, if the general practice of kindness and hospitality, and, above all, if a scrupulous respect and delicacy towards the female sex denote civilized people; then the Hindus are not inferior in civilization to the people of Europe.”

About the working people, H H Wilson [1786-1860]: “always found amongst them cheerful and unwearied industry, good humoured compliance with the bane of their superiors, and a readiness to make whatever exertions were demanded from them: there was among them no drunkenness, no disorderly conduct, no insubordination …There was considerable skill and ready docility… I should say that where there is confidence without fear, frankness is one of the most universal features in the Indian character.”

Wilson of the Pundits: “In them I found the similar merits of industry, intelligence, cheerfulness, frankness, with others peculiar to their avocation.”

Of the higher classes, Wilson found “polished manners, clearness and comprehensiveness of understanding, liberality of feeling and independence of principle that would have stamped them gentleman in any country in the world”.

Sir William Sleeman [1788-1856]: “They adhere habitually, and I may say religiously, to the truth; and I have had before me hundreds of cases in which a man’s property, liberty, or life has depended upon his telling a lie, and he has refused to tell it to save either … I believe there is no class of men in the world more strictly honourable in their dealings than the mercantile classes of India.”

If this is how some foreigners especially those important ones who exercised power over the people and ruled over the land felt about their Hindu subjects, how then had character of the Hindus changed—if at all?

Gautam Pingle

Former Dean of Research at Administrative Staff College of India, Hyderabad

Email: [email protected]

Courtesy: New Indian Express