India's Impact on Western Civilization

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INDIA'S IMPACT ON WESTERN CIVILIZATION India's impact on Western civilization has been sporadic and not always easily defined, in contrast to the great influence of Indian religious ideas on Central Asia, Southeast Asia, China, and through China to Japan and Korea, especially in the form of Buddhism. Indian influence in the West can be traced with reasonable certainty from the ancient Mediterranean world of Greece and Rome, through the European Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the age of European imperial expansion and decline, to the post-colonial world of the Indian diaspora of modern times.

Greece and Rome (600 b.c.–a.d. 650)

For the ancient Greeks and Romans, India had no definite boundaries, but it was thought of as all the territory beyond Arabia and Persia, the end of the habitable world. The first detailed accounts of what the Greeks knew about India appear in the great history of Herodotus (c. 480–425 b.c.), and these became part of the Western imagination for two thousand years. Some of it was factual, some of it was fantasy. India was thought of as a land of fabulous creatures as well as great wealth, an idea that was to lead Europeans through the centuries to seek to trade with India. Other Greek writers found a striking contrast between the Greek love of freedom and the servility of Indians and Persians, who they lumped together as "Asians."

Fascinating questions about Indian influence on the origins of Greek religion and philosophy arise in relation to the prominence of the idea of reincarnation, so central to Indian religion, in early thinkers including Plato. This connection, the subject of speculation in recent years, was also mentioned by early writers like Eusebius (c. a.d. 300–359), who relates a story of an Indian visiting Socrates. New information and new influences from India came to the Mediterranean world after Alexander the Great crossed the River Indus in 326 b.c.; his troops returned home from India with tales that were part myth, part fact. Indian religion probably influenced Manichaeism, one of the great heresies of the early Christian church, for Mani, its founder, traveled to India and included the Buddha alongside Jesus among his divine beings. Trade in material goods between India and the Roman world is less speculative than that in ideas, for it finds frequent mention in contemporary Roman writing. Rome imported exotica from India: spices, jewels, fine textiles, ivory, peacocks, elephants, and lions. In return, India wanted only gold from Rome, and the trade balance was very unfavorable to Rome.

The Middle Ages and the Renaissance (500–1500)

India was never unknown to the Western world, but direct communication was rare in the European Middle Ages, with the fantasies and facts of the Greeks and Romans remaining the principal base of knowledge about India. That a few scholars in the Christian West remained aware of the high civilization of India is attested by a seventh-century monk, writing in 662 of the Indians' "subtle discoveries in the science of astronomy ..of their rational system of mathematics and their method of calculation" (Basham, p. vi). There were persistent stories of a great Christian king somewhere in India, perhaps based on rumors of the ancient Christian church in Kerala. A curious development took place in the late Middle Ages, when the devil, demons, and monsters of the Christian tradition began to be identified with stories of the Indian gods, in all their multitude of forms, animal and human, many-headed and many-limbed. As "much-maligned monsters," Indian deities became a staple of the Western imagination right up to the present time (Mitter, p. 10).

Imperialism and Indian Influence on the West (1500–1947)

When Vasco da Gama reached Calicut on the southwest coast of India in 1498, he was able to report that India lived up to the expectations that Europeans had long held. They "found large cities, large edifices and rivers, and great populations, among whom is carried on all the trade in spices and precious stones" (Lach, p. 96). This was the beginning of European imperialism in India, and the Portuguese established themselves at coastal ports, notably Goa, which became the center of their great Asian sea-based empire. Attempts to evaluate the influence of its Indian possessions on Portugal itself are confused by the motivations for imperial activities, which were different at different times. In the case of Portugal, the motivations seem to have been a seamless mixture of politics, religion, and economics, that is, to strengthen its position in Europe; to win converts to Christianity; and to control as much of the Asian trade as possible.

The dominating motivation of British imperialism in India was economic, and the success of the British in controlling both external trade and land revenue made it possible for Britain to build one of the largest standing armies in the world. British possession of India prevented Russia, or so at least the British believed, from moving southward through Afghan territory into the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Indian soldiers were used to maintain British power in China and East Africa as well as in Europe and the Middle East in both world wars, and India was the key to the British navy's control of the sea passages to Southeast Asia and China. The Indian taxpayer, not the British, paid for this use of the Indian army. An argument is sometimes made that the wealth of India helped to fuel Britain's industrial revolution, but while this is dubious, exports of British goods to India certainly helped British trade balances. In the final years of British rule, however, India was of less economic importance, making it easier for the British to leave.

Other areas of Indian influence on both Britain and the West are more intangible but in the long run perhaps more enduring. One of these emerged as Europeans in the nineteenth century discovered the immense wealth of Indian learning in Sanskrit and the other Indian languages. German intellectuals were particularly open to the study of Indian thought and culture. G.W.F. Hegel, while celebrating the antiquity of Indian thought, believed its otherworldliness prevented change and progress, an idea that was taken up by both Karl Marx and Max Weber. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, on the other hand, exalted Indian religions, arguing that intolerance and fanaticism were known only in "the monotheistic religions," Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the United States, Indian religious thought found enthusiastic support from Ralph Waldo Emerson and the other Transcendentalists.

It was the character and ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, the most famous of modern Indians, however, more than the great systems of Indian religion and thought, that became for many people in the West the great symbol for the meaning of India. His message of nonviolence had a profound influence on the way that Westerners thought about India's struggle for freedom and independence, and this reaction, particularly in the United States and India, made it more difficult for the British rulers to oppose his demands for Indian freedom. This message was used with telling effect in the 1960s by Martin Luther King Jr., in the struggle by black Americans for equal civil rights in the United States.

Independence and the Indian Diaspora (1947–2017)

The reason for choosing the beginning date—the year when India gained political independence—is obvious enough; the ending date, seventy years later, is often suggested by observers as the time when India will not only be the world's most populous country and its largest democracy, but a political, economic, and military world power. Some of the factors that have contributed to making such influence possible—although all are problematic—can be noted as follows: internal political and economic strategies; shifting international situations; academic studies of Indian history and culture; and the remarkable influence of its migrant people, its "elite diaspora," especially throughout the English-speaking world.

Although Indian culture had influenced Western civilization in a variety of ways since ancient times, remarkable changes that took place after India became independent in 1947 and assumed its place in the comity of sovereign nations; the new Indian nation was widely respected for having achieved not just independence but a mature and stable civil society. Unlike many other newly decolonized nations, India had the seasoned leadership of a political party, the Indian National Congress, which enjoyed widespread support from all levels of society for moderate political and economic strategies for change. There was a general consensus that the future of the nation depended upon commitment to a number of goals, one of which was a commitment to national unity against the tensions of regional, linguistic, and religious differences that had been exacerbated by the partition of the subcontinent into two nations, India and Pakistan. Such tensions continued, but foreign observers were impressed by the success of the authorities in moderating them. Observers were also impressed with the success, against great odds, of the commitment to a democratic polity that permitted free elections, free speech, and the unfettered operation of rival political parties. The government also impressed foreign observers by its decision to industrialize in order to raise the low standard of living of vast numbers of its people. There was less widespread approval, however, for its decision that this could only be done through a socialist pattern of society, which entailed limitation on foreign investment and governmental control of many aspects of economic life. Many critics, especially in the United States, associated this with India's foreign policy, which was one of attempted neutrality between the two great hostile blocs of the United States and the Soviet Union. There is no question that this policy led to a loss of Indian influence in the West, as dominated by the United States. At the same time, many friendly foreign observers believed that India was following a course that was good for the Indian people. Shifting political international relations, signified by the political disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, made it possible for India and the United States to move toward more fruitful relations built on the influence India had gained through the years.

Some credit for this influence must go to an important aspect of American academic life: beginning in the 1950s, as part of a movement to broaden the curriculum, universities and colleges began to include the study of Indian cultures and languages. Not only did this increase an appreciation of the richness of Indian culture, it also provided government officials with a new understanding of Indian political life. It was largely among the college-educated that Indian religions found a surprisingly enthusiastic response, not only in converts to such neo-Hindu groups as Hare Krishna but also in a more dispersed receptivity to Hindu spirituality in general, with many Indian gurus finding large followings. Indian classical music became popular for the first time in the West. So did Indian food, with Indian restaurants becoming commonplace.

One of the most striking causes of increased influence of India on the West after 1947 was the migration of large numbers of Indians to the English-speaking world. There had been large-scale migrations of Indians in the nineteenth century, but these were poor laborers, who often went as indentured labor. This new migration came from the educated elites, comprising an "influential diaspora." Many came as graduate students and stayed to occupy prominent places in the professions and business, most famously in information technology. The high point of this particular area of influence came with the sudden growth of "outsourcing," when many U.S. businesses found it more economical to transfer much of their information processing to India. This practice became so extensive that it led to demands, from both British and U.S. governments and workers, for legislative steps to halt the loss of jobs to highly qualified but far less expensive Indian workers, an ironic comment on the growth of Indian influence, precisely in the area of technology long dominated by the West.

Ainslie T. Embree


Basham, A. L. The Wonder That Was India. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1963. Standard scholarly work, with many references to India and the West.

Bayly, C. A. Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire, vol. 2:1 of The Cambridge History of India. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Embree, Ainslie T., and Carol Gluck, eds. Asia in Western and World History. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1995. Essays on many aspects of interaction.

Halbfass, Wilhelm. India and Europe. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988. How Indians and Europeans understood each other.

Lach, Donald F. Asia in the Making of Europe, vol. 1, bk. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965. Very detailed scholarly work.

Mitter, Partha. Much Maligned Monster: History of European Reactions to Indian Art. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

Pearson, M. N. The Portuguese in India, vol. 1:1 of The Cambridge History of India. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Singhal, D. P. India and World Civilization. 2 vols. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1969. Encyclopedic survey of references.