Of Orissa, Idolatory, and Superstition

I have previously written about foolishness of the British variety in Odisha. This time, when I was in Cuttack, I managed to get my hands on a book by the name of Orissa – The Garden of Superstition & Idolatory. It is mostly written by William F.B. Laurie and goes about in a good-natured way pointing out the evils of Jagannath worship and wishing that Hindoos learn the error of their way and embrace the enlightenment of Christianity. Here is an excerpt from one of its chapters:

Perhaps the time is not very far distant when every Hindu in India shall be a truly enlightened being — when he shall view this land as a country in which have been reared the germs of a great moral revolution — as a country in which every thing noble and great is capable of being embodied. He will then probably ponder over the memorials of his country’s greatness, and those of her ancient supposed magnificence — view the huge masses and buildings of a comparatively rude, but, in many respects, extremely skilful antiquity, and say, “And could not our grand temples, raised to the glory of the gods, have given us civilisation without the assistance of England?” “No!” the conscience will answer; “in every thing we did there was a repugnance to the plan which nature had formed us to act upon; we *were* skilful, but wanted the light of Christianity which we now possess, that degree of mental cultivation which we have now attained, to form the master mind.”

And here is another gem from a chapter on the state’s present-day capital Bhubaneswar. As above, I have changed nothing — not even the British period spellings of places or the emphases by capitalisations.

Bhobaneser seemed to us a poverty-stricken place, and its religious occupants, even the Pundahs, a lean beggarly-looking set of people; which is never the case when idolatory is in a flourishing condition. So much, then, for Bhobaneser, which must once have been a most wonderful and celebrated city of Orissa. And, strange to say, in our own times this one of Art’s wonders is scarcely known at all by our countrymen. But soon may the time come, when places of Christian worship shall rise upon the ruins of the temples of Siva; when the Hindu shall spring from the darkness into a marvellous and lasting light, and learn to venerate himself, and be venerated, as one who can distinguish between beast and man: this state of civilisation can only be brought about by the exertions of zealous and DISCREET missionaries, aided by the zealous co-operation of our countrymen generally.

We get worked up about this stuff these days. But I think that these words, more than exposing the saviour complex that lived in the hearts of many who thought of the British Raj as a civilising force, also show the dangers of power in the hands of those who bear their delusions for the best of reasons. Laurie’s book was not the only document published in those times that bore the mark of the White Man’s Burden.