Another Look at India’s Books: Sanjay Seth’s “Subject Lessons: The Western Education of Colonial India”

March 17, 2022

In this column, Saikat Majumdar discusses books from India that haven’t received due attention.


Many disciplines that now seem primarily defined by progressive goals are often deeply problematic at their roots. Priya Satia’s ambitious book Time’s Monster: How History Makes History has recently persuaded us to see the fundamentally imperialist design behind the modern (particularly British) conception of the discipline of history. History is vulgarized by myth, Roland Barthes argued, to make certain histories look natural, concealing uneven relations of power. One example is the history of western education in India, which has become one of the most contentious subjects in the country. This education is often read as a site of historic and historiographic violence, whose legacy overpowers the nation to the present day. Educational reform in India has meant an attempt, not always successful, at undoing/unlearning colonial ways.

Sanjay Seth’s Subject Lessons: The Western Education of Colonial India is an invaluable book that helps to explain why this friction remains interminable. By far the most persuasive book I’ve read on education and cultural westernization of India, it shows us why education reform is such a challenge. It is unfortunate, then, that this powerful work of postcolonial studies that has not had the impact or readership that of, for instance, Gauri Viswanathan’s Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (1989).

Seth opens his study with a sobering claim: “Western knowledge is no longer seen as only one mode of knowing but as knowledge itself, compared to which all other traditions of reasoning are only Unreason, or earlier stages in the march toward Reason.” There is profound historical irony in this perception in the Indian subcontinent, where this brand of knowledge was neither indigenous nor evolved “through the centuries of industrialization and the emergence of new disciplinary matrixes of family, prison, school, and factory,” but was inserted through the violence of colonial rule. This, Seth argues, has limited the use of western knowledge primarily to the professional realm, leaving emotional, personal, and spiritual domains untouched.

But why has western education came to be seen as merely instrumental in the colonized nation? For Seth, posing the very question of purpose is unhelpful, as it assumes a modern understanding of human subjectivity non-existent in pre-colonial India. Notwithstanding its archival range, there is a fundamental qualitative unity in Western epistemology that contrasts with the messy plurality of pre-colonial Indian knowledge-systems. Hence, for example, the Hindu Right’s imagination of a singular India emerges as the perfect colonial project, an unconscious contradiction to the pre-colonial ideal they aim to realize.

A crucial element of pre-colonial knowledge values is recitation and memory — in connection to hymns and scriptures, but also to secular fields, such as arithmetic, grammar, and rhetoric. The physical utterance of such knowledge is inseparable from their “inner” meaning. A person reciting them, following the rules of enunciation, “understands” them differently from one who subjects them to hermeneutic interpretation — if indeed understanding is the right word for this relationship. This is a striking contrast to Enlightenment notions of knowledge. A.K. Ramanujan, likewise, pointed to the context-sensitive nature of pre-colonial Indian knowledge, as opposed to the universal, context-free aspirations of Enlightenment knowledge. The former shaped the rootedness of musical ragas in certain times of the day as well as the deeply constrictive yoking of life, labor, and caste. A self-stunting practice in the light of modern approaches, the Indian culture of rote-learning begins to make some historical sense.

Seth’s crucial point is that our very notion of self and subject cannot be rendered “into an empty form into which any content can be poured,” as that form always comes with a certain pre-filled content. Nor are other categories blank slates. One example is the understanding that religion is primarily a matter of “belief.” This understanding is the “product of a very specific European and Christian history.” “It is in the course of the history of Christianity,” Seth writes, “and debates around it in Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment Europe that ‘religion’ and ‘belief ’ emerge as mutually constitutive categories.” The result is a fundamentally flawed conception of non-western religions, as the very western notion of religion is a “modern invention” that gets globalized over the last two hundred odd years.

Practice, not belief. Utterance, not knowledge. For the West, what belief is to religion is what subjectivity is to education. The most triumphant success of Seth’s book is the way it takes apart influential epistemological categories. Such categories also include that of the modern Muslim and of woman, especially as a battleground of colonial struggle and its legitimacy. The moment of the symbolic initiation of postcolonial education came when the first education minister of independent India, Abul Kalam Azad, reminded the nation that our education system was founded and controlled by colonizers. Today, as a militant Hindu revivalist state poses absurd but strategically aimed threats to modern education, Seth’s book offers us vital context to explain and counter such threats.


Saikat Majumdar is the author of four novels, most recently, The Middle Finger (2022) — along with The Scent of God (2019), The Firebird (2015), published in the US as Play House (2017), and Silverfish (2007). He has also published a book of literary criticism, Prose of the World (2013), a work of nonfiction, College (2018), and a co-edited collection of essays, The Critic as Amateur (2019).