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.

The ‘Sublime’ Civilization of India: The Pre-Occupation of Philosophes
The ‘sublime’ civilization of india: The pre-occupation of philosophes

As India supplies the wants of all the world but is herself dependent for nothing, she must for that very reason have been the most early civilized of any country, and by a like consequence necessarily have had the most ancient form of worship. It is most probable the religion of India was for a long time the same as that of the Chinese government, and consisted only in the pure and simple worship of a Supreme Being, free from any superstition and fanaticism.1

By the middle of the eighteenth century, France was a contender for the Empire of India. The French East India Company, which had been ...

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