Indian Traditions and The Western Imagination Summary

Read this article to know about the summary of Indian Traditions and the Western Imaginations by Amartya Sen.


The essay deals with the image of India in the West and different kinds of approaches through which the West sees India. In the introductory part, the author describes the influence of colonialism on the self-image of India.

This influence is not straightforward but rather complicated. In the post-colonialism, separatist resistance has emerged against the western domination that has led to the creation of intellectual movement in the post-colonial societies.

The separatist resistance holds the view that the post-colonial societies are greatly influenced by the West and thus they try to distinguish the Indian Culture from the West. The modern translations, particularly the Hindu translations, that emphasize retaining the self-image of India have also contributed to the separation of Indian Culture from the West.

This difference has made the foreigners curious about India. This curiosity of the West to discover India has taken birth in the form of approaches.

The West approaches emphasize mostly on the religious and spiritual aspects of Indian Culture and thus many Western critics have found irrationality and defects in the culture of India. Amartya Sen tries to explain these approaches and their impact on the internal and external image of India.

Western Approaches to India

There are three main approaches through which the West has tries to interpret the culture of India:

  1. Curatorial Approach
  2. Magisterial Approach
  3. Exoticist Approach

1. Curatorial Approach

It is the most diverse approach of the three. This approach is related to the curiosity for the strange things. People have an interest in discovering the culture and living of people in other lands. This motivation has led the people from West to visit India and discover its cultural diversity.

  • Alberuni: He was an Iranian, who came to India with Mahmud of Ghazni. He studied Indian texts in various fields like mathematics, natural sciences, literature etc and wrote Ta’rikh al-Hind in which he tells about the traditions and customs of India. But he was not the first Arabian to write on India. Before him, a number of works, like that of Brahmagupta’ Sanskrit treatise on astronomy, were translated into Arabic. It was through Arabs that Decimal System and Numbrels of India reached to Europe.
  • Other Medieval Travellers: Xuanzang of China, Roberto Nobili of Italy and Father Pons from France were from those who visited India, read various subjects and translated into their respective languages and thus introduced the culture of India to the West.
  • British: Real interest to discover Indian culture arouse among Europeans with the establishment of East India Company. William Jones established the Royal Asiatic Society in Bengal which translated a lot of Indian Classics like Ramayana and Gita.

2. The Magisterial Approach

Amartya Sen quotes, “task of ruling the foreign country is not an easy one when its subjects are seen as equals.” This approach thus follows the ideology of inequality. James Mills’ “The History of British India” is a good example of a Magisterial Approach. Mill considered Indian Culture to be rude and primitive.

He showed the greatness of the British in order to expand and consolidate the White Rule. He criticised the admiration of Jones for India and his considering “Hindus to be a people of high civilization” while they have in reality made but a few of the earliest steps in the progress to civilization.

It should be noted that James Mill had never visited India and thus his knowledge of India was limited. He dismisses the claim of Arabs and some Europeans that decimal system and numbrels are invented in India. For him, decimal system and numbrels are so ancient that it is doubtful whether Indians created or borrowed them.

He even ridicules the discoveries of Aryabhatta and Brahmagupta and considers their achievements absurd. Macaulay has also adopted the Magisterial Approach. He rejected Indian Education System and introduced British oriented Education System so as to keep British Rule intact.

3. Exoticist Approach

Interest in India has often stimulated by observations of Exotic Ideas. Megesthenes’ Indika-was the first book to be written about India by some outsider. He came to India during the rule of Chandragupta Maurya.

His work is full of fantasy and it mostly seems to be the creation of his own imaginations. The figures of the Romantic Movement were influenced by reading Indian Culture.

Romantics considered the man of West to be a machine who cannot sink any deeper. On the other hand, they praised spirituality and depth in the Indian culture. But most of the Exorcists were shortly disappointed by Indian Culture and started criticising it.

Amartya Sen writes, “A wonderful thing is imagined about India and sent into high orbit and then it is brought crashing down.” E.g. R.N. Tagore was first appreciated but later his poetry was disregarded and denounced by West.

You may also like:

Interactions and Reinforcements

These approaches have had a very diverse impact on the understanding of Indian traditions in West. Curatorial approaches have played a great role in enlightening different aspects of Indian Culture, including its non-mystical and non-exotic features.

The focus is thus on those things that differ from the West. Magisterial Approach has tried to severely criticise the rationalist and humanist aspect of India whereas Exoticist Approach builds up the mystical and spiritual aspects. Thus these two approaches force to observe mystical and spiritual aspects rather than the rational aspects of India.

Impact of West

There is a great impact of Western perception on the self-perceptions of Indians themselves. There are three major influences:

  1. There were a lot of people appreciating the admiring statements from the European Exotics. Indians focus on those aspects of Western interpretation of India that concentrated more on the mystical and the non-rational elements.
  2. During the British Rule, the Indian fighters used this spiritual intellect of Indians to face and counter the imperial rulers. The strength of Exoticist admiration for the Indian spirituality has neutralized the critical views of the Magisterial Approach.
  3. The focus has shifted from the elites to the underdogs in writing of colonial history, concentrating more on the rural masses and the ‘Subalterns’.

This shift concentrating on the religious and spiritual elements of the Indians has achieved much praise and attention by Indian masses than the achievements in Sciences and Mathematics that require formal education. However, it cannot be denied that illiteracy is deprivation which has remained unsolved until today.


The perceptions and observations of the West have great impact-both positive and negative- on the self-image of India. The three approaches have different views on the culture of India but their overall impact has been to exaggerate aspects of Indian traditions.

Heterodoxy is an important feature of Indian religious subjects. E.g. Buddhism, which is of Indian origin is agnostic. Even in Ramayana, we find the influence of heterodoxy on the life of Rama, the hero of epic. In India, though mysticism and spirituality are in ample yet many other intellectual activities also exist in abundance.