Most of us grew up with the knowledge that India had been a British colony—the jewel in the crown of the Raj. Even those with slightly deeper knowledge who knew that France had once been a contender for the Indian empire consider it a romantic interlude between the Mughals and their self-proclaimed Anglo-successors. Yet our ideas about India, fundamentally wrought from the colonial recasting of knowledge in strictly ‘Western’ categories—religion, history, politics, economy, mythology, and even the modern self-conception of race (Aryan v/s Dravidian)—were drawn from the studies of French Indologists. So France, a failed temporal conqueror, had actually conquered ‘India’—the idea. This book traces the process by which France ‘claimed India’ by defining India through caste, history, race and religion. The obvious question is, of course, why? Why did France invest all this energy, time, and money into defining an area she no longer controlled politically? To challenge the British? To demonstrate her own commitment to the ‘civilizing mission’? This book demonstrates how France's fascination with India stemmed from all of these motives, as well as being a key component of her own national self-definition in the nineteenth century.

Recasting India in French Indology: Hinduism and the Caste System
Recasting india in french indology: Hinduism and the caste system

In sectarian India at present, and since the appearance of foreign proselytizing religions, caste is the express badge of Hinduism. The man who is a member of a caste is a Hindu; he who is not, is not a Hindu. And caste is not merely the symbol of Hinduism; but, according to the testimony of all who have studied it on the spot, it is its stronghold. It is this, much more than their creeds, which attaches the masses to these vague religions, and gives them such astonishing vitality.1

The influence of anthropology on Indic studies had begun by the mid-century. Indologists who continued to look ...

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