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The story of Indian eugenics #2 – Aryan supremacy and (most importantly) the caste system

Here's an extract from a nice little summary. Note the links between the superman and Aryan invasion of India. Aryan supremacy and caste system basically merged in the minds of some. Many Hindus eugenists thought that Hindus had degenerated by mingling with local Indians (Dravidians).

An article of 1927 strongly links eugenics with the discriminatory practices of the Hindu caste system and concludes: Hindus' downfall was due to their trying to march in advance of their times, to their exclusivenes and to their onesidedness.if the caste distinction did them any harm it did so because it was not observed well enough.

Extract from: Yoga, Eugenics, and Spiritual Darwinism in the Early Twentieth Century by Mark Singleton, International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2 (August 2007), pp. 125-146

Social Darwinism, evolutionism, and the eugenic fervor took an unprecedented grip on the Western psyche in the early twentieth century and quickly spread beyond the boundaries of Europe. As Carey Watt has noted, "The discourse of the period was in fact rife with references to race, eugenics and a type of international Darwinism which saw relentless competition between communities, nations or races" (1997: 340) and India was no exception to  this trend.

Popular Social Darwinism, usually combined with the Nietzsche cult, promoted the notion that human beings could modify their own heredity through programs of selective breeding, hygiene, and physical culture. Instead of the hereditary degeneracy that was perceived to afflict modern nations and races, a new stock of Supermen would emerge as the products of this eugenic religion. These fantasies of voluntary evolution (commonly of a Lamarckian bent) struck a chord with certain sections of the Indian psyche, often via the Aryan supremacy narratives of writers on India such as Arthur Avalon (John Woodroffe). Social Darwinist discourses underpinned the rhetoric of the nascent nationalist movement, and Indian Eugenics societies sprang up from the 1920s onwards in response to the raging sentiment of national degeneration: physical, moral, and spiritual.

Evolutionism infiltrated Yoga writing to the extent that it became naturalized. Through figures like Annie Besant and Aurobindo Ghose, the Nietzschean faith was transplanted into "Eastern" philosophy and made to seem like its truest expression.

As Dan Stone points out, early writers on Nietzsche "took for granted the fact that Nietzsche and eugenics were synonymous" (2002: 92), and his ideas were revered by prominent eugenicist writers such as Maximillian Mugge who raised them to the status of a cult. Mugge asserted that Nietzsche had "founded a Eugenic Religion" (1907) based on the superman and that if Francis Galton had instigated a science of Eugenics, it was the Teutonic philosopher himself who had realized "the Religion of Eugenics"

As Sarah Hodges has argued, Eugenics was taken up with such "remarkable vigour" by the educated Indian middle classes that during the early twentieth century, "Most social and political debates in India were informed and energized by eugenic thinking" (2006). While this may overstate the case, it is certain that the degeneration topos which gave European Social Darwinism its particular elan was all the more pronounced in India, where the longstanding colonial stereotype of Indian effeteness and debility festered in the nascent national consciousness.

Eugenics seemed to offer "an elegantly simple and totalising system for the improvement of society" and "captivated the imaginations of well-read, idealistic and scientifically inclined Indians who were inspired to start societies of their own on an international model" (Hodges 2006: 118-19).

The Indian societies, moreover, regularly corresponded with their British and American counterparts, as well as receiving and occasionally sending donations.

The Indian movement, however, developed a distinctive character of its own and, as Hodges points out, "indigenised eugenics for India by using the ancient Hindu literary tradition to claim that India's cultural heritage was inherently eugenic" (2006). Thus authors like M. V. Krishna Rao could invoke "our ancient laws of Eugenics" (1928) and K. C. Bose could assert that "The Science of Eugenics is a part and parcel of the Sacred Literature of the Land" (1915).

Although Hodges insists that Indian eugenicists generally took little interest in the "race question" (2006: 149), Susan Bayly has convincingly demonstrated over the course of several works (1995, 1998, 1999) that "as of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, 'Aryan' caste Hindus were widely said by both Indian and British race theorists to be 'awakening' in evolutionary terms" (1999). Figures like Shiv Kishan Kaul, "a leading proponent of so-called Aryan Hindu regeneration" (Bayly 1999), vociferously proclaimed the greatness of Hindus and Hinduism and offered a distinctly Social Darwinian worldview (see Kaul 1937), while others such as Justice C. Sankaran Nair simultaneously invoked " 'modern' Eugenics…on the one hand, and the key principles of Brahmanical varna theory on the other" (Bayly 1999) to promote the myth of Hindu ascendency.

Eugenic Orientalism Accounts of the former glory of the ancient Aryan race proliferated among Orientalist scholars in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on the basis of evidence that the Sanskritic languages of India were of the same "Indo-European root stock" as those of Europe (Bayly 1999; Havell 1918; Ihering 1897; Leopold 1974). It is not difficult to see why the resultant myth of an Indo European or Aryan people would be attractive to the educated elites within India. Social Darwinism and Eugenics offered a way to reverse the "rule" of degeneration and regain the nobility of the past, and cultural nationalists like Nair and Kaul rode the tide of this narrative.

While some Orientalists had tended to present ancient India as a battleground of the noble conqueror and the degenerate native, it is the Nietzschean-eugenicist narratives of scholars like Kennedy that provide the clearest examples of the intersection of Indology, Eugenics, and Nietzscheanism at the fin de-siecle. As well as a scholar of India, Kennedy was a "vociferous member of the Nietzsche movement" (Stone 2002) and a staunch right-wing eugenicist. His writings on India predictably project the towering racial pride of the colonizing British onto the ancient past, envisioning an epic Nietzschean battle between the noble warriors on the one hand and the priests and aborigines on the other (Kennedy 1910).

The ascendency of the Aryan superman inevitably entailed "the elimination of those who were unfitted to stand the ruthless competition: the weak, the degenerate, the crippled, the physically weak and mentally defective" (Kennedy 1910: 5). Without denying the distinct possibility, as Sheldon Pollock (1993) has suggested, that a current of "deep Orientalism" ran through precolonial Indian history itself, it seems evident here that Kennedy's dark narrative is part of a specifically European, Nietzschean fantasy regarding India's past.

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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One thought on “The story of Indian eugenics #2 – Aryan supremacy and (most importantly) the caste system
  1. Krsna

    Great article sir, have you read N. D Mehta’s Hindu eugenics- if not do read! I am also trying to access that. Meanwhile, could you share the article you have listed above with me. Shall be great.


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