‘Greater India’ and the Indian Expansionist Imagination, c. 1885–1965. The Rise and Decline of the Idea of a Lost Hindu Empire

Zabarskaitė, Jolita
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Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Yorim Spoelder, Freie Universität Berlin

‘Greater India’ refers to a civilizational sphere allegedly shaped by the transregional circulation of ancient Indic art, religions and culture. In the early twentieth century, a new awareness of and interest in the historical and cultural legacies of India abroad culminated in the Greater India movement and an eponymous Society, founded in Calcutta (1926). In this meticulously researched study, Jolita Zabarskaitė focuses on how the discourse of ‘Greater India’ fueled a revitalized Hindu nationalism and was used in “the public domain in contemporary arguments on (the Hindu) nation, culture, and identity” (p. 1).

The book follows a chronological approach, covering a period from c. 1885 until 1965, and is divided in five long chapters. The first chapter charts the first glimmers of an awareness of the legacies of ancient India beyond the subcontinent in a wide range of texts written by predominantly Bengali intellectuals in the wake of the Swadeshi movement. As Zabarskaitė shows, monthlies such as The Dawn and Dawn Society’s Magazine and The Modern Review played an important role in popularizing the more explicitly expansionist framing of ‘Greater India’. Many a page is devoted to well-known protagonists such as R.K. Mookerji and B.K. Sarkar, whose early polemical writings on the maritime and ‘colonial’ aspects of ancient Indian history anticipated the framing of Greater India in a strong diffusionist and Hindu nationalist-inflected register. The chapter also features a cast of lesser-known characters such as Ramlal Sarkar, a Bengali doctor based in China who penned a series of short essays on “Hindu influences in China”, and N.G. Sardesai, founder of the Oriental Book Agency in Pune, who travelled to Java and Bali to explore the Indianized heritage of the Dutch East Indies.

Chapters 2 and 3 zoom in on the institutionalization of ‘Greater India’ in the 1920s and 40s. As Zabarskaitė demonstrates, The Modern Review and the art-historical journal Rupam continued to play a crucial role in disseminating knowledge of this ‘glorious Hindu past’ and ‘forgotten chapter’ of India’s history. Rabindranath Tagore’s international university of Visva-Bharati became another important site with close links to the Greater India Society (GIS). Zabarskaitė engages at length with the writings of Greater India protagonists, including Kalidas Nag, O.C. Gangoly, and the aforementioned B.K. Sarkar, and the chapters are peppered with long citations that give a flavor of the pitch and substance of their claims. Although this study is primarily interested in showing how “‘Greater India’ was employed by cultural nationalists in mobilizing Indians around their vision of a Hindu nation” (p. 86), the book also pays attention to internal disagreements within the movement about the rendering of ancient Indian history.

Chapter 4 addresses variations of the ‘Greater India’ theme, ranging from the travel observations of a Hindu pilgrim visiting Southeast Asia and Tagore’s close associate C.F. Andrews, to the attempts of missionary organizations such as the Arya Samaj to draw Indian diasporic communities into the orbit of ‘national life’ and thus forge a ‘modern Greater India’. Another section foregrounds the ‘South Indian’ take on ‘Greater India’ which emphasized the role of Tamil and Dravidian agency in its historical formation. Chapter 5 charts the decline, revival and afterlife of Greater India during the period 1945–1965 through a discussion of the Akhand Bharat Conference (1944) and the Asian Relations Conference (1947), and the writings of the Indian diplomat and historian K.M. Panikkar. Although ‘Greater India’ lingered as a trope, Zabarskaitė suggests that the movement was muted as “the demands of an emerging independent Indian state came into conflict with a parochial and self-celebratory framing of the Hindu civilizing mission” (p. 326).

This study views the Greater India movement primarily through a Hindu nationalist prism and sheds new light on the overlapping networks of the GIS and the Hindu Mahasabha. As Zabarskaitė convincingly expounds, ‘Greater India’ was, at least on one level, a figment of the Hindu expansionist imagination and a “framing idea in the formative years of Indian nationalism and state-building” (p. 1). However, the label ‘Hindu nationalist’ remains an undifferentiated, catch-all term that seems to apply to most Indian protagonists in this study. Furthermore, it does not capture the versatile interwar politics of Greater India, and especially its strong anti-colonial, pedagogical, and Asianist dimensions. The book’s take on Tagore’s ambiguous role in the movement points to the limits of this approach. The poet, it is argued, steered clear of Hindu nationalist rhetoric, and its concomitant language stressing colonization, political sovereignty and an Indian civilizing mission, and it is suggested that GIS-members instrumentalized Tagore to bolster their political agendas. Yet even though Tagore cannot be labelled a ‘Hindu nationalist’, he often spoke about the legacies of ‘Greater India’ in his own peculiarly poetic register and never distanced himself from the GIS of which he was an honorary advisor. In the 1920s, Tagore embarked, in the company of the prominent GIS-member S.K. Chatterjee, on a much-publicized trip to Siam and the Dutch East Indies to search for the legacies of ancient India. He also established close rapport with Sylvain Lévi, a French Indologist who played a crucial role in establishing ‘Greater India’ as a field of studies. Tagore’s ‘Greater India’ was both a veiled critique of western imperialism and a claim to Indian exceptionalism that framed Indian civilizational agency, past and present, as benevolent, peaceful and cultural/spiritual rather than political/colonial. In this vision, the ancient Buddhist connections linking India to Asia became a template for Indian internationalism and Asianism in the present.

However, according to Zabarskaitė, “‘Greater India’ was neither a ‘global history’ phenomenon nor a pan-Asian idea, remaining a parochial description and celebration of the history and future of a Hindu-Indian civilization” (p. 1). Greater India, with its overt claims of superiority, had indeed very limited traction abroad. As an Indian strand of Asianism, it all too easily shed its Pan-Asian veneer and was often perceived, not unlike Japanese Asianism, as a projection of nationalism. Yet even if this ideological scheme was ultimately flawed and failed, it held appeal among a circumscribed but influential cast of international actors moving in the orbit of Tagore in the 1920s. In sharp contrast to the rhetoric of hardliners such as B.K. Sarkar, this ‘soft’ strand of the Greater India discourse was fully invested in the interwar discourse of civilization. Although this Tagorean strand soon lost momentum, its residue can be found, as the book in fact shows, in Nehru’s writings and speeches.

The book’s somewhat puzzling take on global history serves as a justification to focus primarily on the legacies and impact of the Greater India movement in India. However, this seems a less compelling and productive approach to explain the movement’s emergence and heyday in the mid-1920s. Transimperial knowledge networks, cross-cultural historical comparisons, and the quest for international scholarly legitimation and recognition were at the heart of the Greater India movement. The book does not completely ignore these aspects, but only offers occasional glimpses of the interwar ideological ferment underpinning divergent visions of ‘Greater India’, the broader international institutional landscape in which the GIS operated, and the transimperial French/Dutch dimension of Greater India studies (which was informed by a politics of its own).

Drawing on a truly impressive array of Indian texts, Zabarskaitė shows that Greater India was an omnipresent trope taken up by Indian intellectuals from different regional and professional backgrounds. However, a less text-centered approach could have made the book more accessible. Furthermore, a more thorough engagement with recent scholarship on aspects of the Greater India discourse (especially the work of Marieke Bloembergen and Arkotong Longkumer)1, and the substantial literature on Indian (anti-colonial) nationalism/internationalism more broadly, would have been helpful in flagging and contextualizing the books’ interventions. Since this study reads the Greater India movement primarily in connection to Hindu nationalism, it would also have been interesting to learn more about the author’s take on the political mobilization of its legacies in contemporary India. These caveats notwithstanding, this is a valuable contribution to a new wave of studies that critically probes the genealogy, intellectual formation and legacies of Indian nationalism from a refreshingly original and often neglected angle.

1 Marieke Bloembergen, The Politics of ‘Greater India,’ a Moral Geography. Moveable Antiquities and Charmed Knowledge Networks between Indonesia, India, and the West, in: Comparative Studies in Society and History 63:1 (2021), pp. 170–211; Arkotong Longkumer, The Greater India Experiment. Hindutva and the Northeast, Stanford 2021.

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