An imagined India of virtue, temperance and moderation

A 17th C satirical pamphlet by Englishman Thomas Tryon serves as a reminder that not too long ago England and Europe looked to India for models of communal harmony and religious tolerance

The British merchant, writer and advocate of vegetarianism, Thomas Tryon wrote the 1683 pamphlet, A dialogue between an East-Indian brackmanny or heathen-philosopher, and a French gentleman concerning the present affairs of Europe, as an imaginary dialogue between a Brahmin (referred to as a heathen philosopher!) and a Frenchman who is Catholic.

The Brahmin is portrayed as an urbane and wise person, who expresses great astonishment at the political chaos and religious strife in Europe. India itself is viewed as an affluent, tolerant and wise society and State that is populated by vastly more diverse peoples than Europe, and the difference between the two is decidedly marked.

Discussing the European and Turkish Wars, the Frenchman describes how certain Germans felt more comfortable living under the Muslim Turks, because they enjoyed greater religious freedom there, than under the Christian Emperor. The Brahmin does not find this strange, and asserts that though he lives under a Muslim King, he has “free Egress and Regress through their Dominions, and unquestioned Liberty for the Exercise of our Religion and manner of Living. They do not endeavour to peep into our Breasts, and examine our Opinions, or punish us for not thinking as they do” (emphasis in original). This is perhaps creative license, or simply a paraphrasing of the famous statement by Elizabeth I (Queen of England, 1558-1603), who famously stated “I would not open windows into men's souls.

The Brahmin is also made to state that in European countries, where it is insisted upon that all the people be of one mind and one religion, there are more “rebellions, insurrections, plots and conspiracies” than in others.

As the historically fractious Europeans merge, we in South Asia are convinced into believing that divisions are best. And as we plunge headlong into dividing and fractionating ourselves along religious, caste, language and other imaginary partitions, based upon what news commentators discover or invent as ‘historical enmities’, it should be remembered that these are created myths

He goes on to add that there is no greater evil than for “Men to Contend, Hate, Envy, Oppress, Fight and Destroy one another, because they are not in all particulars like himself: For Men naturally are as various in their Intellects, as in their Shapes, Forms and Complexions; for the Shape and Form of Everybody is according to the Nature, Equality or Inequality of the Spirit. The Lord had made all things to differ; there are not any two things in the four Worlds alike in all particulars; therefore one who is offended by another, because he is not persuaded, or does not understand just as he does, is in truth offended with his Maker, who is the author of that Variety.” A more specific description of the values of diversity in thought and ‘persuasions’ can hardly be imagined.

The virtue, temperance, and moderation in all things, in this imagined India, is contrasted unfavourably with the acquisitive and destructive behaviour of native Europeans. The Brahmin also chastises the Frenchman for paying greater obeisance to objects created by the hands of man (fashions) rather than those created by the hands of God and Nature. He ends by hoping for good future for his homeland, because the children of India are ‘naturally Sober and Temperate, for they have not Tippling-Houses, nor spend their Patrimony in drinking Wine, Debauchery and Gluttony.” Contemporary India would, perhaps, have disappointed the Brahmin greatly!

We are often trapped in contemporary stereotypes of the progressive and liberal West, in contrast to the chaotic, strife-ridden, Hobbesian rest of us. And tend to forget that not too long ago, England and Europe looked to India for models of communal harmony and religious tolerance.

The East India Company, established by Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth, at the turn of the 17th C (January 1 1600), ultimately became an important player in English politics, because of the fabulous wealth it acquired. However, the Elizabethan restoration soon gave way to the religious fervour of James 1. This period in Europe was marked by significant religious conflicts, that resulted in the nationalisms and migrations that created the ‘West’, in as much as it also paved the way to colonial exploitation of the rest of the world.

The above pamphlet, set as it is in the frame of a dialogue between Catholic Frenchman and a Hindu Brahmin, would also have served as a gentle dig at the Catholic religion, in Protestant England. At the same time, it served as a reminder of the Elizabethan virtues of tolerance, which were diminishing in contemporary politics of England, and Europe. This degree of religious strife did not feel too comfortable to men of letters. The growing familiarity with India, which by the mid 17th C was the home to several English ‘factories’, which existed under the munificence of the Mughal Empire, would have underscored this distinction.

The view of the East, and India, as advanced societies persisted for quite a while. As John Martin Honigberger, the European doctor at the Court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, at Lahore, wrote in the frontispiece of his book as recently as 1852 (in Devanagri Urdu/Persian and English): “From the East, by the power of the Merciful One/ Lights of Science, Religion and Culture have shone.

The satire, turned around, is uncomfortably turning into a tragedy in our times. As the historically fractious Europeans merge, we, in South Asia, are convinced into believing that divisions are best. And as we plunge headlong into dividing and fractionating ourselves along religious, caste, language and other imaginary partitions, based upon what news commentators discover or invent as ‘historical enmities’, it should be remembered that these are created myths. And partitioning of souls and bodies, as this little book of 450 years ago reminds us, is not only politically stupid, but also morally wrong.

(Pamphlet frontispiece courtesy Sanjeev Jain and Wellcome Library /EEBO)

(Sanjeev Jain is a professor of psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru)

Are tube wells precipitating an agrarian crisis in Andhra Pradesh?
Glimpses from INSV Tarini’s historic all-women circumnavigation
Philip Jones Griffiths: Picturing the war within & without
Editor’s Pick More