Indigenous Knowledge and Colonialism

Indigenous knowledge has never been given the credit it deserves. For centuries indigenous peoples have come up with cures for all ailments that were plaguing them. However, it is not considered as “science,” at least not comparable to western science. Why is it that western science is considered science whereas indigenous knowledge, especially that of women, is not considered science? Why is there such a lack of information and knowledge on the subject of indigenous knowledge? The lack of unbiased information about colonial India has helped in lack of interest in the indigenous knowledge and advancements of the Indian people. Many authors and historians had biased views of India which has led to the lack of information about the Indian people before and during colonialism. The misrepresentation of colonial India has bled into today, making Indians seem backwards and not advanced.

The current views of the Indian subcontinent are derived from people who did not have first hand experience with India. During the colonial times, there were not many historians or anthropologists that visited India to accurately document its people and culture. James Mill was not one of these authors. Mill wrote The History of British India, and he never actually visited India, he just wrote about his opinion of India. Mill’s book was the staple for every British officer that went to govern there. His bias tainted the vision of so many people sent to rule India. He described the people of India as feminine and gentle, therefore demoting even the men in standing.“The gentleness of Hindu manners has usually impressed their European visitors with a high conception of their progress in civilization” (Mill, 323) Mill compares Hindus to Europeans stating that Europeans were once violent and now they are calm and gentle, making them more advanced. He goes on to state that this was a misconception with the Hindus because they were not as advanced as the Europeans, and that they were just feminine and soft and not advanced. Mill does not give any credit to the Indian civilization for their feats in architecture or in science because of his bias, and this bias flowed into the hearts and minds of every single officer that went into India to rule.

In Bernard Cohn’s Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge, Cohn describes how the Europeans viewed 18th and 19th century India. “India was seen by Europeans as not only as exotic and bizarre but as a kind of living museum of the European past,” making India seem old and antiquated (Cohn, 78). This in turn led to the Europeans not giving any credit or attention to the indigenous people’s knowledge, because why would they want to document the present of the Indians when they were considered the past of the Europeans? Cohn describes how the Europeans saw themselves as superior and were therefore just trying to save the savage natives and give them new technology instead of learning about their native techniques. Although Cohn offers a lot of detail about the European’s views of India, he does not provide his commentary, making his book nothing more than facts without a real deep understanding of the facts.

In the book Machines as the Measure of Men, Michael Adas goes on to describe the work of Mill, and other authors of the time, in greater detail. Adas states that “In Mill’s view, the Indians had advanced beyond the first and lowest stage of social development but have never been “truly” civilized” like the level the Greeks and Europeans had reached (Adas, 169). This perception of Indian people has held back India and Indians in many ways, because people think of them as rural and uncultured. William Ward, another author of Mill’s time, “declared categorically that the Hindus knew nothing of anatomy, surgery, chemistry, pharmacy, physics, and botany,” just making them seem more uncivilized than they actually were (Adas, 168). The lack of any mention of women from the works of Ward and Mill, make indigenous knowledge seem nonexistent or unimportant. Although Adas does write about these authors, like Cohn, he offers no commentary outside of stating their opinions on any of the topics discussed. Although Adas mentions French sociologist Gustave Le Bon, he does not go into nearly enough depth about Le Bon’s views on the Indian people. Ada merely states that “his [Le Bon’s] views were a good deal more generous and often more sensitive to Indian values and aesthetics than those of Mill and many earlier writers” (Adas, 176). But he also mentions that Le Bon thought “that Indian scientific thinking had not advanced beyond “vulgar mediocrity”” and that “he found it far inferior to the pioneering work of the Arabs and too crude to be compared with that of the Europeans” (Adas, 176).

Overall, these views of India and Indians have survived until today. Indians are not given the same credit and consideration when coming up with new technologies. Even the technology and science of the indigenous people was not documented properly because of the fact that the Europeans thought that it wasn’t important enough to be documented. The Indian civilizations had survived for generations before being introduced to “western science” and technology. Until this day home remedies and homeopathy are used widely in India because they are believed to work, and not everyone has access to “modern” medicine or can afford them. Grandmothers teach their daughters and granddaughters about basic home remedies for the most basic of ailments, how was that not important enough to document? Why have the questions surrounding India not included science and technology? It is interesting to see how the top down version of history leaves out so many important details of the people of the bottom. The most important facts known about India in the world today are the caste system and the poverty, but why is that? Why isn’t information about science and technology in ancient India or colonial India discussed?

Further Research:

I have used several different resources to try and obtain more information about women and technology and indigenous knowledge. I used Google, and Antpac (an online database offered by my university), and even Melvyl (also offered by my university). Phrases such as “women and indigenous knowledge” and “India, women, and technology,” do not have a lot of articles or books with these phrases in them. Although there are several articles pertaining to “indigenous knowledge” and “technology and India,” they are all about the works of men and modern India, which was not the focus for my post. Although there are some authors like Vandana Shiva who have works relating to women and their advancement, she does not cover all the topics I discussed earlier.

Works Cited

Adas, Michael. Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989. Print.

Cohn, Bernard S. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge .Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996. Print.

Mill, James. The History of British India, Vol 1. New York: Chelsea House, 1968. Print.