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Lecture Notes: On William Ward

“The Tuntrus are fabulously attributed by the Hindoos to Shiva and Doorga; and are said to have been compiled from conversations between these two deities; the words of Shiva being called Agumu, and those of Doorga, Nigumu. Narudu is said to have communicated these conversations to the sages. Through the inability of men to obtain abstraction of mind in religious austerities, yogu, &c. the ceremonies enjoined in the veda could not be performed; in compassion to the people, therefore, say the learned Hindoos, the Tuntras were written, which prescribe an easier way to heaven, viz by incantations, repeating the names of the gods, ceremonial worship, &c. &c.
At present a few of the original tuntrus, as well as compilations from them, are read in Bengal. Those who study them are called tantriku pundits.”
William Ward, A view of the history, literature, and mythology of the Hindoos

For this post I’m going to examine the work of the Reverend William Ward (1769-1823), who provided one of the earliest European accounts of tantric beliefs and practices, and was one of the most widely-read and influential observers of Indian life and religion throughout the nineteenth century.

The Civilising Mission
In 1792, Charles Grant’s privately circulated Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain (later published in 1813) addressed his fellow directors of the East India Company with the urgent need for radical reforms of Indian society, which was, in his view, “vile and exceedingly depraved”. Grant judged Hinduism as a “despotic” religion and entirely responsible for the degenerate state of Indian society and the characteristic traits of Hindus to be “selfishness” and “effeminancy”. Although Grant’s depiction of India is unfavourable, he stated that his desire is “not to excite detestation, but to engage compassion, and it make it apparent, that what speculation may have ascribed to physical and unchangeable causes, springs from moral sources capable of correction.” He proposed an extensive educational programme for India, managed by Christian missionaries, with English as the administrative language: “The true cure of darkness is the introduction of light. The Hindoos err, because they are ignorant; and their errors have never been fairly laid before them. The communication of our light and knowledge to them, would prove the best remedy for their disorders; and this remedy is proposed, from a full conviction that if judiciously and patiently applied, it would have great and happy effects upon them, effects honourable and advantageous for us.”

Grant’s vision was that India should assimilate to the ways of the British (but not vice versa) and that the Indian people would come to appreciate and feel bound to the British thanks to the benefits of civilisation. These proposals were key to shaping the justification for British rule over India as the “civilising mission” – that British rule would not only guarantee law, order and good government, but would morally and materially civilise and modernise the backward peoples of India.

But the “civilising mission” was also aimed closer to home. As Brian Pennington (2005) points out, the civilising mission in the colonies would also “elevate the poor and powerless in Britain”, and the late eighteenth century saw a profileration of missionary societies, sunday schools, and the distribution of religious tracts. As I noted in this post many of the same tropes which were used to describe Indians were also applied to the British working classes. Christianity, particularly amongst evangelicals, was seen as a uniting principle, not only in terms of faith, but also manners and morals, and also it would lessen the likelyhood of revolt, encouraging the labouring classes to be content with their lot.

William Ward
William Ward was a Baptist missionary associated with William Carey’s Serampore Mission, just north of Calcutta. Prior to becoming a Baptist, he had been a printer and later editor of the Derby Mercury. Inspired by the French Revolution, he wrote a series of editorials which were sharply critical of the government – and which, following their (anonymous) reproduction in London journals, led to charges of sedition by the Crown in two cases (both of which were successfully defended). He became a staunch advocate for the abolition of the slave- trade, and devoted much time to this issue in the Mercury – until, according to John Marshman (1859) “a large number of his subscribers informed him that they could no longer endure this weekly exhibition of horrors, and must give up the journal unless he discontinued it.”

In 1799 Ward left Britain for India, where he assisted William Carey at the Serampore Mission in producing translations of Christian scripture into various Indian languages. Serampore was, at the time, under Danish sovereignty, as the East India Company, at that time, did not allow missionaries to enter its territories. Ward and his fellows were, according to Marshman, threatened with arrest if they strayed into Company territory. This prohibition was not revised until 1813, following much popular agitation (in which Ward’s writings were to play a key role) and the support of the evangelical MP William Wilberforce.

Ward’s twenty years in India gave rise to the works that he is most famous for – the four-volume Account of the Writings, Religion and Manner of the Hindoos. (1807-1811) and A View of the History, Literature, and Mythology of the Hindoos (1815). These works were highly influential, and were widely cited throughout the century, not only by orientalist scholars or missionary reformists, but also by politicians and policy-makers, and appeared in several editions throughout the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

Ward’s views were a counter to earlier views of Hinduism as (at least in its primordial form) a poetic and philosophical religion, a perspective which had arisen from Charles Wilkin’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita and William Jones’ romantic correspondences between Hindu and ancient Greek deities. His counter-argument was that it was actual religious practices, and their observable effects rather than philosophical abstractions, which were important. In contrast to orientalists who primarily worked on texts or linguistic comparisons, Ward’s books were concerned with charting the present state of of Indian culture and religion – with presenting a detailed account of beliefs and practices, making him, for Brian Pennington (2005), a “proto-ethnographer” who, by his own account “cultivated the habit of constant observation” and made use, in his books, of his own eyewitness accounts and those of other missionaries; information from Indian converts and, in support of his own translations and commentaries, drew on brahman pandits who were employed at the Serampore mission to aid the translation of scripture.

For Ward, the “civilising mission” of the British in India is a matter of “Divine Providence” – that “Great Britain is the only country upon earth, from which the intellectual and moral improvement of India could have been expected.” He had a firm commitment to the Enlightenment values of universal happiness, scientific rationality, the potential unity and perfectability of all mankind; and the reforming power of education. His method reflected these values – by giving a comprehensive and detailed account of Hindu religious practices, he hoped to demonstrate the folly and vice which he saw as endemic in Hindu culture – which stemmed from religion. He portrayed Hinduism as fraudulent and wicked, perpetuated by the brahmin priesthood on an ignorant populace. He saw the “baneful” caste system as a way of preserving the power of the priesthood, and paid a great deal of attention to the treatment of women, their lack of education, the “servitude” of child marriage, and the practice of sati – for which he gives eyewitness accounts, argues that it is sanctified by Hindu scripture, and assured his readers that “nothing equal to it exists in the whole work of human cruelty.” He was also incensed that the officials of the East India company were tacitly supporting such vice, by restricting missionary access to the territories they administered, and by their policy of non-interference in local customs (the activities of the Semapore Baptists was, in some quarters, thought to have contributed to the Vellore Mutiny of 1806).

“the last state of degradation to which human nature can be driven”
Like many of his contemporaries, Ward judges Indians as “the most effeminate and corrupt people on earth” and connects this to a predisposition for lying and dishonesty:

“…where a Hindoo feels that he is superior to a foreigner, in wealth or power, he is too often the most insolent fellow on earth. Connected with this defect in the Hindoo character, is their proneness to deception and falsehood. Perhaps this is the vice of all effeminate nations, whilst blunt honesty and stern integrity, are most common in climates where men are more robust. … An English sailor, however vicious in other respects, scorns to take refuge in a falsehood: but the Hindoos. imitating the gods. and encouraged by the shastru, which admits of prevarication in most cases of necessity, are notoriously addicted to falsehood, whenever their fears, their cupidity, or their pride, present the temptation.”
A view of the history, literature, and religion of the Hindoos (Vol1, p211)

Ward was widely quoted as proof that the Hindoos lacked any sense of natural justice and were unreliable witnesses. He also echoes the judgements of Charles Grant, who, in his Observations was at pains to point out that any presentation of the Hindus as an “innocent, suffering race”, or “from an admiration inspired by the supposed past state of the Hindus” (this latter being a dig at the views of romantic orientalists such as William Jones) are signs of those who have not had any real contact with them – “But let him enter into dealings with them; let him trust them; … – and he will then learn better to appreciate their true character.” (Mill, p324-325)

Indian (particularly Bengali) “effeminacy” was frequently held up in contrast to the manly or “virile” British, in producing a view of Hindus as being incapable of ruling themselves, and forever destined to be a subject people. Some thought that the climate was responsible, whilst others pointed to “early marriage” (which was said to encourage sexual licentiousness – addiction to masturbation and “unnatural vices” together with physical and moral debilitation). The Hindus were judged to lack any kind of self-discipline, rationality, and were dependent on their priesthood and idolatorous religion, views which would later contribute to the romantic perception of Hindus as other-worldly, mystical and irrational, in contrast to the masculine scientific rationality and vigour of the British.

Some Indians – the so-called “martial races” such as the Sikhs, Pathans, Rajputs and Gurkhas, escaped the stigma of effeminacy due to their martial traditions and being associated with masculine vigour, as opposed to the effeminate life of the urban centres.For Ward though, the source all social vices was clearly religion, rather than the kind of hereditary or racial difference theories that became popular later in the nineteenth century, such as those of the phrenologist George Combe, for example, who stressed that mental constitution, determined by the physical structure of the head, was the vital factor in racial differentiation – stating in the Phrenological Journal (1846) that “we conclude that among nations, as among individuals, force of character is determined by the average size of head; and that the larger-headed nations manifest their superior power, by subjecting and ruling their smaller-headed bretheren – as the British in Asia, for example.”

In recounting an account of a festival from his diary of 1803, Ward reports: “The people of about twenty villages, more than 2,000 in number, including women and children, were assembled to throw their images into the river, this being the termination of the Doorga festival. I observed that one of the men standing before the idol in a boat, dancing and making indecent gestures, was naked. As the boat passed along, he was gazed at by the mob ; nor could I perceive that this abominable action produced any thing beside laughter. Before other images, young men dressed in women’s clothes, were dancing with other men, making indecent gestures. I cannot help thinking the most vulgar mob in England would have turned with disgust from these abominable scenes. I have seen the same abominations exhibited before our own house at Serampore.”

“Abominable” is one of Ward’s favourite descriptors for all that he finds objectionable in Hinduism – such as “linga worship”, which he calls “the last state of degradation to which human nature can be driven”, and he states that “nor can it be ground of wonder, that a chaste woman, faithful to her husband, is scarcely to be found among all the millions of Hindoos, when their very temples are polluted with filthy images, and their acts of worship tend to inflame the mind with licentious ideas.” The festivals he recounts, in honour of various gods also feature “women of ill-fame and filthy songs and dances … which were so abominable that no person could repeat them out of the temple”. He is particularly incensed by the public nature of the “licentious intrigues” of the gods. Noting that “Many works of a pernicious tendency in the European languages are not very hurtful, because they are too scarce and expensive to be read by the poor” he bemoans the fact that “the authors of the Hindoo mythology have taken care, that the quarrels and revels of the gods and goddesses shall be held up to the imitation of the whole community. … In some of these histories and pantomimes, Shiva is represented as declaring to Lakshmee, that he would part with all the merit of his works for the gratification of a criminal passion; Bramha as burning with lust towards his own daughter ; Krishna as living with the wife of another”. In surveying the worship and legends of the various Indian gods and goddesses, Ward mentions “Kalee … a truly horrid figure” and links the worship of her to human sacrifice, quoting the Kalika Purana as saying: “men are pointed out, amongst other animals, as proper for sacrifice. It is here said that the blood of a tiger pleases the goddess for one hundred years, and the blood of a lion, a reindeer, or a man, a thousand. But by the sacrifice of three men, she is pleased 100,000 years!” (NB: The Kalika Purana does contain a lengthy chapter on human sacrifice.)

Ward declared unequivocally that Hindus knew nothing of science – and although he did concede that the Hindus had formerly some knowledge of medicine, astronomy and mathematics, this knowledge had stagnated over time – “they have almost lost the knowledge their ancestors bequeathed to them” – and they were way behind Europeans. Ward more-or-less accepted the “degeneration” thesis which proposed that India had once been a noble civilisation, but that it had degenerated into polytheism and “orgiastic cults” (see this post). He does, at one point, admit that “no person of learning will deny to the Hindoos of former times the praise of very extensive learning”. Much of what Ward says about the Hindu’s lack of development in the sciences was taken up by James Mill (1773-1836) in his influential History of British India (1817). Mill argued that India – mired in superstitious and irrational beliefs and lacking any scientific knowledge, had never been really “civilised”. Whilst he allows that India had some knowledge of astromony and mathematics, he stated that this knowledge was entirely used for “wasteful” and “irrational” pursuits such as astrology:

“…the astronomical and mathematical sciences afford consclusive evidence against the Hindus. They have been cultivated exclusively for the purposes of astrology; one of the most irrational of all imaginable pursuits; one of those which most infallibly denote a nation barbarous;”

History was, like Ward’s works, highly influential – becoming required reading for East India Company employees, and Mill was appointed Assistant Examiner at the East India Company. But whilst Mill’s tome became a textbook, Ward’s views had a much more widespread dissemination, through populist missionary publications, such as the Missionary Papers and the Missionary Register. It was through these organs that the British public first heard Ward’s accounts of festivals of the goddess Kalee, replete with human sacrifice, “hook swinging”, and “indecent dancing” – although his more sober discussions of scripture and Hindu texts were omitted, in favour of his more sensational reports.

In 1813, when the East India Company’s charter was up for renewal and missionary societies were calling for increased access to India, the Missionary Register published an extract of Ward’s Account dealing with sati – reproducing Ward’s most horrific tales of widow burning (together with his estimation that “thousands of widows” were murdered every year) and interspersing them with calls for action and sympathy: “Let every Christian Woman who reads the following Statement, pity the wretched thousands of her sex who are sacrificed in India to a cruel superstition, and thank God for her own light and privileges, and pray and labour earnestly for the salvation of these miserable fellow subjects” (Dirks, p303). These papers also presented accounts of heroic Christians in Britain – such as widows or schoolchildren, who had made some kind of sacrifice (often monetary) for the redemption of pagans in the distant colonies. In presenting an image of Hindoos as cruel and addicted to carnal vices, Christians were by contrast compassionate and generous. Also, presenting and recounting the deluded beliefs of Indians afforded an opportunity for spreading the message of Christian piety. By 1820, the Missionary Papers had attained a circulation of nearly half a million copies. These papers invited all sections of British society to participate in the debate on how the government should manage India.

Ward on tantra – a “most diabolical business”
Thanks to the work of Hugh Urban (2003), William Ward is now well-known for his pronouncements on the tantras, in particular, this section from A View of the History, Literature, and Mythology of the Hindoos:

“Many of the tuntras, and particularly the Roodruyamfilu, the Yonee-tuntri and the Neelu tuntri, contain directions respecting a most extraordinary and shocking mode of worship, which is, understood in a concealed manner amongst the Hindoos by the name of Chukra. These shastrus direct that the person must, in the night, choose a woman as the object of worship. if the person be a diikshinacharee, he must take his own wife; and if a vamacharee, the daughter of a dancer, a kupalee, a washerwoman, a barber, a chundalu or a Musalman or a prostitute; and place her on a seat or mat: and then bring broiled fish, flesh, dried peas, rice, spiritous liquor, sweetmeats, flowers and other offerings; which, as well as the female, must be purified by the repeating of incantations. To this succeeds the worship of the guardian deity; and after this, that of female, – who sits naked.

Here things too abominable to enter the ears of man, and impossible to be revealed to a Christian public, are contained in the directions of the shastru. The learned brahmun who opened to me these abominations made several efforts – paused again, began again … before he could mention the shocking indecencies prescribed by his own shastrus.

As the object of worship is a living person, she partakes of the offerings, even of the spiritous liquors, and flesh, though it should be that of a cow. The refuse is eaten by the persons present, however different their castes; nor must any one refuse to partake of the offerings. The spiritous liquors must be drank by measure; and the company while eating must put food in each other’s mouths. The priest then – in the presence of all – behaves towards this female in a manner which decency forbids to be mentioned; after which the persons present repeat many times the name of some god, performing actions unutterly abominable: and here this most diabolical business closes.”

….At present the persons committing these abominations (vamacharees) are becoming more and more numerous ; and in proportion as they increase, the ceremonies are more and more indecent. They are performed in secret ; but that these practices are becoming very frequent among the bramhuns and others, is a fact known to all. Those who abide by the rules of the shastrus are comparatively few : the generality confine themselves chiefly to those parts that belong to gluttony, drunkenness, and whoredom, without acquainting themselves with all the minute rules and incantations of the shastras.
Ward, A View of the History, Literature, and Mythology of the Hindoos

In the same volume, after giving a a long list of “tuntru shastrus” (including the “Koolarnuvu” and the “Yoginee-tuntru”) Ward continues:

“The tantrus, though more modern than the vedu, have in a great degree superseded, in Bengal, at least, the ancient system of religion. … The tantrika prayers, even for the same ceremony, differ from those of the vedu; and in certain cases they dispense with all ceremonies, assuring men that it is sufficient for a person to receive the initiatory incantation from his religious guide, to repeat the name of his guardian deity, and to serve his teacher. They actually forbid the person called poornabhishiktu to follow the rules of the veda. This person is first anointed as a disciple of some one of the goddesses; after this, by means of another ceremony, he embraces the perfect way, that is, he renounces the law of the veda, and becomes an eminent saint, being placed above all ceremonies, according to the tuntras, but an abandoned profligate, according to the rules of christian morality. He is guided by the work called Poorna-bhiseku-Puddhutee, which allows him to be familiar with the wives of others, to drink spirits, &c.”

For Ward, there is no sense that tantra is seperate to a concept of “mainstream” Hinduism (this distinction would be made later in the nineteenth century) – it is just one further example of Hinduism’s general immorality and degeneracy. Ward’s presentation of Hinduism is as one, overarching, “system” – although he does occasionally mention “regular and irregular sects”. According to Geoffrey Oddie (2006) Ward’s journals show that he was aware of non-brahminical movements such as the Khartabhajas of Bengal, yet he downplayed their significance in his published works as they did not fit into his model of Hinduism as a single, unified system controlled by brahmins, and keeping the rest of the population in thrall. Although Ward is clearly alarmed by the sexual practices – the “things too abominable to enter the ears of man” he has heard about, this is, for him, just one further example of the general licentious nature of Hindu religion and its polytheistic idolatory. His assertion that tantric practices were becoming more numerous acted to underscore his belief in the necessity of Christian intervention in India, a call which he both directed to the general public and the British government. Doubtless “the things too abominable” left much unsaid, allowing Ward’s readers to fill in the blanks, as it were, themselves. Interestingly though, in his zeal to place before his readership the full facts about Hinduism, Ward provides some early glimpses of tantric practices – he summarises, for example, the contents of the Tantrasara (“Tuntru-Saru”), explaining the importance of initiation; the relationship between disciple and “gooru”; the kinds of “incantations”; the various forms of nyasa; the homa sacrifice, and “ceremonies” for the removal of sickness, dominating an enemy, killing an enemy, etc.; as well as the postures to be adopted; the benefits derived from repeating the thousand names of the gods, and the importance of “purifying the twelve parts of the body and mind”.

Ward’s depiction of a general Hindu licentiousness and the “midnight orgies” of the bramhin “before the image of Kalee” played a key role in the portrayal of India as a site of sexual excess and chaos – and of the representation of tantra as an exemplar (and source) of the contemporary debasement of Indian culture.

Jeffrey Cox The British Missionary Enterprise Since 1700 (Routledge, 2009)
Nicholas Dirks The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain (Harvard University Press, 2008)
Harald Fischer-Tiné and Michael Mann (eds) Colonialism as Civilizing Mission: Cultural Ideology in British India (Anthem Press, 2004)
Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India (University of California Press, 1998)
John Marshman The Life and Times of Carey, Marshman and Ward (Longman, 1859)
James Mill The History of British India (3 vols, Baldwin, Cradock and Joy, 1817)
Geoffrey A. Oddie Imagined Hinduism: British Protestant Missionary Constructions of Hinduism (Sage Publications, 2006)
Brian K Pennington Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2005)
David Spurr, The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration (Duke University Press, 1999)
Sharada Sugirtharajah Imagining Hinduism: A Postcolonial Perspective (Routledge, 2003)
Hugh B. Urban Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion (University of California Press, 2003)

Some illustrations from the period, including portraits of Ward, and engravings which appeared in his works, can be viewed at the portrait gallery of William Carey University along with Volume II of Ward’s A View of the History, Literature, and Religion of the Hindoos scanned as jpegs and the text of Charles Grant’s Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain