In 1767, a 21 year old Charles Grant, like many other twenty year olds traveled to India to join the East India Company’s military service. Arriving in Bengal, he was offended by the corrupt activities of the company and the officers. Soon a personal incident changed him forever and his life went in a new direction. He became an evangelical and argued vehemently for the introduction of Christianity — which was against company policy — to enhance the morality of Indians. In the process he coined the word “Hinduism” and redefined the way how the world viewed the traditions of India.
When Grant arrived in Calcutta, a decade after the Battle of Plassey, the company was in charge of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Robert Clive had left and the company officers we indulging as best as they could. Corruption was rampant and the famine had reduced the Bengal population by a third. Though he argued that the company had done quite a lot, he was troubled by the suffering. But interestingly, in his letters written during this period, there is no mention of religion or God.
After the famine he got a severe fever and had to return to England to recover. He returned in 1773 with his new bride – the 18 year old Jane Fraser. The young Mrs. Grant did not take to Indian climate very well and this worried Charles, but those worries went away with the birth of his daughter Elizabeth. He got promoted as the Secretary of the Board of Trade, but that did not prevent him from criticizing the Warren Hastings’ administration.
By then he had a secure life: good friends, great family, terrific salary. If you have watched any non-Adoor Gopalakrishnan Indian movie, you will know that usually there is a song here and then it all goes downhill. What is true now, was true in the year of American Independence too; Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret died of small pox, just nine days apart.
A devastated Grant took refuge in Christ and became a sincere believer; he became an evangelical and few missionaries in the area helped him overcome his pain. He became a new man, renounced vices like gambling, and letters written during this period contain references to God and salvation.
After taking a position as the Commercial Resident of Malda, Grant took an interest in the moral nature of Indians. He rejected the argument that Hindus were people in whom mild and gentle qualities dominated; he thought that they were morally depraved. He wanted to bring in social and economic reform and the way for that, not surprisingly, was to make people acquainted with the truth of Revelation and free them from the ‘false religion’.
In his words
With the argument for the introduction of Christianity and Western education in India, Grant was years ahead of Thomas Macaulay and Alexander Duff. The charter of the East India Company did not officially permit missionary activity, but Grant was convinced that it had to change. This social revolution, Grant argued, would promote the well being of the population and in turn protect the company’s interests.
In 1787 Grant wrote a letter to one Mr. Wilberforce which contained the following paragraph.
This is important for one reason: it is the first time the word Hindooism is ever used; it replaced descriptions like “Hindoo religion” and “Hindoo creed”. By coining this new term and advocating it, Grant’s label made it convenient to refer to the various religious traditions of India.
This was a time when there were apparently four religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Paganism. Now the Paganism of India had a name and a comparison to Christianity could be done. For example what was the religious structure and accepted scriptures of Hinduism? How similar or how different was it from the Protestant religion?
He had answers for this: Hinduism was Brahmanism and Brahminism was Hinduism. These crafty priests had enslaved the population — people who did not have a mind of their own — through rituals and the caste system. These slaves, enslaved through fear and ignorance practiced barbaric rituals like sati, hook swinging and the devadasi system. Also unlike in his religion, only those crafty priests could read the sacred texts.
Though he despised the Brahmins, he thought they were the descendants of Noah and were blessed in the Garden of Eden. These Brahmins who once held belief in a rational Supreme Being, had now fallen from grace into the ignorant ways of polytheism and idolatry.This belief, that Brahmins were descendants of Noah,was nothing new and was prevalent in India at that time. While Grant was in Bengal, the French-Catholic missionary Jean-Antoine Dubois who was working in South India, too connected Brahmins to Noah
After the flood, the whole world was repopulated again. For this, Noah and his sons dispersed around the world. One group went West, while the others under the guidance of Magog, Noah’s grandson, went to the Caucasian range. From there they came via the North into India and populated it. He even has a date for this migration – nine centuries before Christian era. Thus the Brahmins, according to Dubois, were descendants of Magog’s father Japheth.[The Biblical Migration Theory]
Grant wrote all these ex cathedra pronouncements in Observations on the State of Society among Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain, but initially showed it only to a few evangelical friends. Grant later became a member of the Board of Directors of the EIC, but still then the pamphlet was not released publicly. Even other missionaries had not seen it. So why should these comments by a delusional missionary matter?
His work, along with the work of others, influenced the British perception of India. This was the beginning of the establishment of a dominant paradigm — defining Hinduism for Indians and rest of the world. Since the colonial power was in the control, their representation of the traditions became the accepted norm, which we continue to use even today.
Also in 1813,the Charter of the company came up for renewal and by then the Evangelicals had gained strength. People like Zachary Macaulay, father of Thomas Macaulay, had become influential and wanted the ban on missionaries to be removed. On the eve of that debate, Grant’s work was printed as a parliamentary paper.
The evangelicals won in 1813.
- Dr G A Oddie, Imagined Hinduism: British Protestant Missionary Constructions of Hinduism, 1793-1900 (Sage Publications, 2006).
- Henry Morris, The life of Charles Grant (J. Murray, 1904).
- Image from Wikipedia