First Published in 1953
This Reprint 1993 (500 copies)
As this book has been out of print for some time, this reprint by The
Other Press, Kuala Lumpur, is intended to prepare the Asian
historians for the coming event in 1998 of the 500th anniversary of
Vasco da Gama’s arrival in Asia.
Printed in Malaysia
PREFACE TO THE 1993 EDITION
In a few years from now ‑ 1998 to be exact ‑ Asians will pause a while to reflect on the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Vasco da Gama (a native of Portugal) at Calicut on the west coast of India. Da Gama's 1498 voyage pioneered the direct sea route from Europe to Asia via the Cape of Good Hope.
(The South Americans have, already in 1992 itself, taken stock of the 500th anniversary of the intrusion of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. The Columbus quincentennial was marked by severe discord, division and protest. While the Spanish government brazenly exploited the occasion to attempt a grand re‑entry into the global market, those at the receiving end of Columbus fatal blandishments had already decided that the past 500 years constituted ‑ largely ‑a period hostile to the terms of their survival on the planet and for this reason, best relegated to memories of an unpleasant past, safely forgotten).
Between now and 1998, for those Asians who wish to prepare for the coming event, there is indeed no single historical or political work that would better instruct them than Sardar K M Panikkar's Asia and Western Dominance. The book was published in 1953. It has long been out of print. We are naturally excited and pleased to participate in the publication of a special edition at what seems obviously a most appropriate and propitious time.
When it was published forty years ago, Asia and Western Dominance created an enormous turbulence. It stunned the general literate public, generated hostility and resentment in western academic circles and also led to significant political consequences in India. For instance, it provoked the state government of Madhya Pradesh to install a ban on Christian missions in the state.
Today, on the occasion of the release of the present special Asian edition ‑ and as the quincentennial of the Vasco da Gama voyage draws near ‑ it becomes incumbent upon us to locate and understand the circumstances of the controversy associated with the original appearance of the book and also to examine its significance for events of the future.
Who was K.M. Panikkar and what was the nature of his scholarly and professional output? The man who would later become one of the country's leading diplomats, historians and thinkers was born at Kovalam in the south Indian state of Kerala in 1895. (Hence his full name, Kovalam Madhava Panikkar). He was educated at Madras Christian College and later at Christ Church, Oxford, where he earned a First Class in History and became a Dixon Scholar. On his return to India, he joined the Aligarh Muslim University in 1919. In 1922, he gave up teaching despite an offer of a Readership in History from Calcutta University.
In 1924 Panikkar became the first editor of the Hindustan Times in Delhi. He left the paper later to join the services of the Indian Princely States as Secretary to the Chancellor of the Chamber of Princes. He served as Foreign Minister of the states of Patiala and Bikaner where he also later became Prime Minister and given the title of "Sardar". He participated in the Round Table Conference in 1930‑33. After India's independence, Nehru prevailed upon him to serve as a diplomat and to evolve a pattern for Indian diplomacy. From 1948 to 1959 he held various diplomatic posts and became the chief architect of friendship between India and the People's Republic of China. He returned to education as Vice‑Chancellor of Jammu & Kashmir University in 1961 and died as Vice‑Chancellor of Mysore University on 11 December 1963.
Despite his forays into diverse fields, he remained essentially a scholar, publishing extensively and displaying as much interest in ancient Indian history as in more recent historical developments. While at Aligarh he wrote Sri Harsha of Kanauj (1992), and followed it with The Origin and Evolution of Kingship in India (1935). In the latter volume, he came to the significant conclusion that unlike in Europe, kingship in India never developed into an autocracy. These early writings reveal Panikkar's virtues and vices as a scholar. His Malabar and the Portuguese and Malabar and the Dutch (1931) are complementary works, but of uneven scholarship. His grasp of Dutch sources seemed quite tenuous.
Panikkar wrote much on the history of the Princely States and of their relations with the Government of India. His sympathy for the Princes
inhibited him from seeing them, as for instance Mahatma Gandhi did, as "British officers in Indian dress". His biographies of some of the Princes, like of those ruling Kashmir, Patiala and Bikaner are simple hagiographic pictures of the personalities he admired.
Panikkar's study on India and the Indian Ocean (1945) discussed the vital importance of control of the oceans for a country like India. He predicted rightly that "the Indian Ocean will be one of the major problems of the future." He made a strong plea for strengthening the country's industrial development and its naval capacity. The volume drew high praise from Captain Liddle Hart, one of the great military critics of this century.
In reaction to a Chinese scholar's claim that Indian history, with its lists to apparently unconnected names and facts, looked more like a telephone directory, Panikkar published A Survey of Indian History (1947) to prove otherwise. The Foundations of New India (1963) confirms his revivalist outlook already seen in germinal form in an early booklet entitled Problems of Greater India (1916) in which he defended India's obligation to help Indian emigrants to British colonies overseas to retain their Indian‑ness.
But it was Asia and Western Dominance that eventually brought Panikkar wide publicity. For it not only shook the academic world, it was noticed by some of the country's new political elite as well. An Indian scholar, Professor Barun De, branded it "an angry book". The reactions it indeed provoked are testimony to the enormous irritation it engendered. Asia and Western Dominance marked a significant departure from the Anglo‑Indian historiography in vogue in India. Panikkar approached the impact of the 450 year period as an Asian (even though by Asian he meant India and East Asia and failed to notice West Asia!). It is not easy therefore to categorize him either as a pro‑imperialist or liberal historian.
Panikkar himself was quite conscious of the pioneering nature of his book. He notes in his introduction that "this is perhaps the first attempt by an Asian student to see and understand European activities in Asia for 450 years." In fact, until Asia and Western Dominance gatecrashed into the academic arena, it had universally been taken for
granted that the only historians competent enough to write histories of Europe‑Asia relations would be people teaching or trained in Oxford or Cambridge car their chelas, the latter increasingly brown‑skinned. Panikkar's monumental work dealt that assumption a mortal blow, proving that Indians could reconstruct history using their own categories and order facts following their own assumptions, evaluations and judgements of events.
But this was not all. Panikkar's wide ranging scholarship actually overshadowed European attempts at similar history. Certainly no conventional historian could have produced a work of equivalent historical detail and range. A few works by Western historians, like G.B. Sansom's The Western World and Japan, limited themselves to single areas. Many were weakened by questionable facts and more often by a congenital incapacity to understand elementary ideas about human beings outside Europe.
Seen in this context, the achievement of Asia and Western Dominance is all the greater and, to a certain extent, even grand. In edition to its unprecedented qualities, it also proved to be an immensely readable book, written with verve and flair, never flagging or basing: Here was an historian writing with perfect self‑confidence, calling Europeans names, correcting errors in leading Western scholars, unafraid to use extremely harsh language where necessary.
In his conclusion to the book, Panikkar states that "the Europe expansion tower the East began as a crusade . It was the beginning of one of the great Crusades, the Eat Crusade we might call it." We may say that Panikkar's intellectual response as it emerges in this volume is no less crusading in the substance as well as efficiency of his argumentative fire‑power.
One can also say with a great deal of certainty that in the forty year period since Asia and Western Dominance appeared, there has emerged no historical work which examines the same events and the same period with such scholarly finesse, clarity and perspective. The book remains a pioneer in its class and it is not certain whether its effort will ever be bettered by newer historians.
The principal themes of Asia and Western Dominance are easily enumerated. In Panikkar's own words, "the four hundred and fifty years which began with the arrival of Vasco da Gama in Calicut (in 1498), and ended with the withdrawal of British forces from India in 1947 and of the European navies from China in 1949, constitute a clearly marked epoch of history." He accordingly dubbed the period, "the Vasco da Gama epoch".
"The period of European control of the States of Asia," he wrote, "is a dividing line in their history, for both by resistance and by adaptation they have had to call forth new vitality and consciously adapt themselves to new ideas by which alone they were able gradually to recover their independence anti strength."
According to our historian, the unifying features of the period are briefly steed as "the dominance of maritime power over the land masses of Asia; the imposition of a commercial economy over communities whose economic life in the past had been based not on intentional track, but mainly on agricultural production and internal trade; and thirdly, the domination of the peoples of Europe over the affairs of Asia"
Of all these three, the imposition of a commercial economy and the gradual revolution it brought about in almost every aspect of life constitute the dominant fete of the relationship. This, together with the first, made the third (the political domination of European peoples over almost the entire territory of Asia) inevitable. Cumulatively, they led to feelings of racialism and of European solidarity as against the Asians as a whole.
Having stated this, it is decidedly surprising to discover that Panikkar actually then went on to ignore the Weird expansion of Europe
across the Atlantic in its entirety. The exclusion is one of the startling features of this book. In fact, the book does not mention Christopher Columbus even once by name. Columbus also set out to discover a direct sea route to India. Indeed, till almost the final years of his life,
he himself remained quite convinced that he had indeed landed in "the Indies".
Now Panikkar could well have argued that he had his rights as an historian to demarcate the limits of his inquiry, that he was concentrating on the eastward expansion alone. However, as he himself would have known and conceded, the European thrust westward across the Atlantic eventually met and overthrew the eastward movement when the Americans dislodged the Spanish from the Philippines. In any event, the initial Spanish expansion westward was driven by the same set of motives that fuelled the eastward thrust of Portugal. It is impossible to disassociate one from the other.
Though Panikkar devoted a major section in Asia and Western Dominance to the history of the Christian missions in Asia and recorded their abysmal failure in detail, he refused to see the proselytization effort as an essential characteristic of Europe's relations with Asia. However, it is paradoxically this section that generated the greatest heat when the book was published.
For the Europeans, nothing has been more depressing that the wholesale rejection by Asia of Christianity, their prize civilizational offering. In this context, Panikkar's elaborate documentation of the failure of the missions was probably more painful and offensive to his European readers than his charge that missionaries were nothing but agents of imperialism.
In fact, the scholar‑administrator‑diplomat branded the Christian missionaries the West's "collaborators" in what he termed was an attempt "to effect a mental and spiritual conquest as supplementing the political authority already enjoyed by Europe." He was referring particularly to the members of the Society of Jesus or the Jesuits.
Predictably, Panikkar soon got a response from that quarter in the form of Jerome D'Souza's Sardar Panikkar and Christian Missions (Trichinopoly, 1957).
This Indian Jesuit (a senior member in fact of the Society of Jesus) was nominated by the Madras Government to the Constituent Assembly (1946‑49) and also formed part of India's delegation to the General Assembly of the United Nations as well as of its several Committees (1949‑57). In his review, he set out to appreciate Panikkar's
"exceptional talent, his wide learning, unusual powers of narration, and his liberal outlook." He could not, however, resist questioning what he saw were the author's glib generalizations ignoring the seriousness of the Catholic-Protestant divide in the midst of European "unity", or the many instances of intra‑Asian aggressiveness that were not always a result of the Western influence.
Fr. Jerome D'Souza attempted to root Panikkar's hostile stance towards the missions in the new ambience in which Panikkar lived, particularly the euphoria that had erupted in the wake of the decolonization drive then in progress in Asia. However, the end of his critique is rather trenchant: "(Panikkar's) approach to the missions", he wrote, "is biassed, his knowledge insuffcient, and his judgement harsh." fine concluding part of his judgement may be worth recording: "A fine narrative Mr. Panikkar, but you must not call it history."
This is not the place to examine what' Fr. Jerome D'Souza meant when he used the word "history", since it has been adequately proved that a large part of what passes for western or academic history is itself polemical, Eurocentric, and often downright mythical.
The incident however revealed as much about Fr. D'Souza's feelings of hurt and defensiveness as it did about the inadequacies of Sardar Panikkar's own uncritical assessment of some basic Hindu cultural institutions and attitudes. The basis of the anti‑missionary and anti-Christianity attitude that had emerged in Northern India was an exaggerated type of cultural patriotism that often concealed feudal interests. The Nyogi Committee (Cf. Truth Shall Prevail: Reply to Nyogi Committee, Bombay 1957) appointed by the Government of Madhya Pradesh in 1954 can be considered a political after‑effect of Sardar Panikkar's cultural patriotism as authoritatively set out in his Asia and Western Dominance.
In this context, it is instructive to pit Panikkar's attitude against that of a few other individuals. The several outstanding virtues of M.K. Gandhi, for instance, could keep in check his negative feelings about the Christian missionaries (M.K. Gandhi, Christian Missions: Their Place in India, Ahmedabad, 1941). Likewise Jawaharlal Nehru was too much of an agnostic and secularist to be obsessed with the Christian
missionaries. In his Glimpses of World History he displays his critical understanding of the issue: "Christianity is the dominant religion today, because it is the religion of the dominant peoples of Europe. But it is strange to think of the rebel Jesus preaching nonviolence and ahmisa and a revolt against the social order, and then to compare him with his loud‑voiced followers of today, with their imperialism and armaments and wars and worship of wealth". (Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1962, p. 89).
But bereft of leaders with a wider vision that could enable them to balance their contradictory feelings, the country is today experiencing a further flowering of some of the early concerns of Sardar Panikkar, including what he called in his book, "the new interpretations of Buddhism and Hinduism" reflecting in a large measure the influence of modern ideas, mostly arising from contact with Europe.
India, for instance, has been witnessing a press of "semitization" of Hinduism through which dominant Hindu groups are seeking to establish a priesthood and institutional centralization of the type that Christianity and Islam brought to India. The Ayodhya issue is the final culmination of a trend that Sardar Panikkar had forecast and even perhaps nurtured in his heart. However, his determined conviction that "the new Asian states can no longer revert to a policy of isolation or pretend ignorance of the existence of other countries" is also being confirmed in the new economic planning and development of his country.
This brings us to an assessment of the value, appropriateness and permanence of some of Europe's contributions to Asia as Panikkar saw them. For him the most abiding influence was in the sphere of law. The main feature of the imported legal system according to him was "the establishment of the great principle of equality of all before law in a country where under the Hindu doctrines a Brahmin could not be punished on the evidence of a Shudra and punishments varied according to caste and where according to Muslim law, testimony could mat be accepted against a Muslim." From this, Panikkar went on to conclude that the Indian Penal Code installed by Lord Babington Macaulay was a great improvement on the previous systems.
No one would hazard such an evaluation today and indeed, thinkers more influential than Panikkar ‑ like Mahatma Gandhi ‑ writing much before he did, came to a diametrically opposite and uncompromising view. In his perception of the benefits of the imported legal system, Panikkar proved to be as much off the mark as when he claimed that "as a result of the contact with the West, untouchability has been abolished and caste no longer is king in India."
Part of the reason for this must surely be Panikkar's facile assumption that once the principle of equality before the law was proclaimed, society would automatically become equality‑based. If this were so, anyone two hundred years from now seeking to assess Indian society by looking at the Indian constitution, could claim that Indian society in the latter half of the twentieth century was a model society indeed.
If we of course summarily reject such a method of evaluation, we ought to be ready to similarly abuse efforts to judge or evaluate ‑ as Panikkar tried to do ‑ Indian society in the past on the basis of what was said in the Manusmriti. Actual social and legal practices could have been of a different category altogether, conceivably more just, democratic and humane.
On the other hand, the system allegedly based on equality before the law has also turned out to be one of the most unequal systems of justice ever installed. Its results have led to the cramming of Indian jails, prisons and lock‑ups with millions of people belonging mostly to the poorer class including unprivileged tribals arid low castes.
It is therefore not surprising that within ‑50 years of India's independence, the imposed legal system is in a state of complete paralysis with its credibility largely eroded. In fact, the system has become completely disassociated in the public mind from every notion of justice, especially social justice.
Surprisingly, Panikkar had no such confidence in the permanence of other social and political institutions instant during the period of European rule including forms of government, the nature of political rights, democracy in its widest sense, local and municipal administrations. These, he conceded, could all disappear, change their character
and survive only in attenuated and unrecognizable forms in certain areas.
Much of this has indeed come to pass. Most European institutions including Parliament remain alive now in form, but enfeebled in spirit and substance, waiting for some new forms to emerge from the soil of society. Here Gandhi's perceptions were quite radical: he rejected the entire edifice of bourgeois civil society, its organization of social life and its institutions and calculatedly worked towards a form of social and political organization that would not only suit the genius and temperament of the Asian people, but would provide indicators and directions for European civilization as well.
As the Vasco da Gama quincentennial draws near, Asians will soon have to make several key decisions: whether to remain within the bounds of the institutions imposed by Europe and be further dragged into the vortex of re‑emergent imperialism as executed by the World Bank and IMF or decide on a conceptual or spiritual break with the Vasco da Gama epoch and all it has come to symbolize.
In this, Sardar Panikkar may still be seen as a genuine spokesperson of Asian people struggling to face the hard and diverse challenges of reality, even if not always willing to concede their historical‑cultural weaknesses.
Claude Alvares and Teotonio R. de Souza
March 3, 1993