“Visions of Greater India: Transimperial Knowledge and Anti-Colonial Nationalism, c 1800-1960” by Yorim Spoelder

Prambanan, Indonesia (1850s) Prambanan, Indonesia (1850s)

It is not uncommon for auto rickshaws and trucks in India to proudly proclaim “Mera Bharat Mahaan” (My India is Great) in decorative signage. While the statement (among other didactic notes about traffic safety) has kept bored or exhausted fellow commuters engaged, Yorim Spoelder points out in his new book Visions of Greater India: Transimperial Knowledge and Anti-Colonial Nationalism, c 1800-1960 that that talk about India’s “greatness” has a long history. The abstract greatness of the kitsch signage stems from another notion of “great”, that of a geographical entity that is not bounded by the Himalayas, but overflows into Central Asia on one side, and Southeast Asia on the other.  

Through a detailed study of archaeology and art history as practiced by European scholars, Spoelder points out such sloganeering is rooted in the notion of “Greater India”, an entity of cultural geography that sees India as wielding power over Chinese Turkestan (formulated as ‘Serindia’ by Aurel Stein, the archaeologist of Central Asia) and Southeast Asia. He argues that the work of Austro-Hungarian archaeologist Aurel Stein (on excavations in Serindia), Dutch Sanskritist Hendrik Kern (on the Khmer language), Paris-based Indologist Abel Bergaigne (on manuscripts from Tibet, China, Burma, Siam, Cambodia and Champa), and to some extent, French Indologist Sylvain Lévi (on the town of Kucha in today’s Xinjiang) informed the imagination of this Greater India. In this imagination, Prambanan and Borobudur in Java and Angkor Wat in Cambodia became examples of Indian art (rather than the epitome of regional art), and evidence of India’s “colonization” of these regions. It did not take really long for the Indian elites to stretch the idea of cultural influence to political might.


Visions of Greater India: Transimperial Knowledge and Anti-Colonial Nationalism, c 1800–1960, Yorim Spoelder (Cambridge University Press, November 2023)
Visions of Greater India: Transimperial Knowledge and Anti-Colonial Nationalism, c 1800–1960, Yorim Spoelder (Cambridge University Press, November 2023)

The idea that India was a civilizational fountainhead for a large part of Asia influenced Calcutta-based intellectuals who went on to form the Greater India Society in 1926. Many historians (who are now seen as belonging to the Hindu nationalist school because of their focus on ancient India while discounting its Islamic past) were also members of the Society and the ideological standpoint that India was a colonizer in her own right informs their history-writing projects. They saw evidence for India’s prior status as a great maritime power in, to put it simplistically here (rather than get into the intricate details systematically exposed by Spoelder in the book), the similarities between art and architecture in India and these other regions. They argued that Funan, Champa and the Khmer were extensions of the various Hindu Empires of India.

A much stronger force behind the dissemination of the idea of Greater India was the Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore who was an advisor to the Society. He waxed poetic about the Big Brother (to put it in contemporary lingo) that India, he thought, was to Southeast Asia. Addressing a gathering in Saigon (today’s Ho Chi Minh City) in 1929, he said:


The heart of India once throbbed under the sunny skies of these shores and dreamed its dreams in beauty and scattered its thoughts for a rich harvest of culture in an alien land. I feel that the India of these days has come in my person to visit once more her forsaken home which has such association of years of achievements and growth of civilization. I am a messenger from her past, I stand by your door, seek a sear in your heart and ask you to recognize me, even now, when that history had grown dim and the lamp that was lighted in the first festival evening of union bears no flame.


One consequence of all the talk about Greater India was that a great many things came to be appropriated as Indian. For instance, Tagore once famously christened Indonesia, known as the Dutch Indies, as the “Vyasa Indies” (Vyasa is the sage poet to whom the Indian epic Ramayana is attributed).

Such cultural appropriation was only a softer strand of the vision of Greater India. Its rough-edged interpretation materialized with the regional masons being seen as mediocre artisans in desperate need of the brilliance of Indian designers and architects to produce their architectural masterpieces. Despite later Dutch and French Indologists’ theories on the agency of Southeast Asian art amid cultural exchange with India via religion and commerce, the Greater India Society refused to relinquish the older paradigm of seeing India’s neighbors as offshoots of India.

Spoelder ties this selective reading of archaeological or art historical theories to the self-image Indians, or at least those associated with Greater India Society, wanted to cultivate. One, it helped them resist the British Empire by posing themselves as fellow colonizers, as super powers, albeit from another era. Two, it helped them create heroes in the spitting image of the great men of the West. Here is the historian RK Mookerji writing about the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka:


In his efforts to establish a kingdom of Righteousness after the highest ideals of theocracy, he has been likened to David and Salomon of Israel in the days of its greatest glory; in his patronage of Buddhism, which helped to transform a local into a world religion, he has been compared to Constantine in relation to Christianity; in his philosophy and piety he recalls Marcus Aurelius; he was a Charlemagne in the extent of his empire and, to some extent, in the methods of his administration, too; while his Edicts, ‘rugged, uncouth, involved, full of repetitions,’ read like the speeches of Oliver Cromwell in their mannerisms.


The “overt assertions or subtle assumptions of Indian civilizational superiority and exceptionalism”, Spoelder suggests, have reawakened in India’s foreign policy as well as internal politics, especially by the right wing ruling party in power since 2014. For instance, Angkor Wat has been deemed as the fifth dham, or site of pilgrimage, for Hindus, making it the only site outside of Indian territory. For the Hindus who cannot afford to make this pilgrimage, the world’s greatest temple is being constructed in Bihar: it is imagined as a replica, albeit twice as high, of Angkor Wat. Per the Government of India’s Panchamrit foreign policy framework, India seeks to, as Spoelder puts it:


convert India’s cultural, religious and historical ties with the wider region into geopolitical currency. Undergirding this soft power strategy is the global projection of the Republic as a great civilizational actor, as opposed to a territorially bounded nation-state, and the reframing of “Asian civilization” in a Greater India register. This historical imagination identifies the vaguely defined Hindu-Buddhist tradition as a crucial cultural thread connecting the different Asian peoples and projects India as Asia’s spiritual linchpin.


Visions of Greater India is a compelling treatise on the way hypotheses and theories about the past get internalized as narratives of national pride in the present. The example of India as “great”―geographically, spiritually, and culturally―is a case in point and is likely to become a model for analyses of how other nation-states construe their greatness.


Yorim Spoelder is a regular contributor to the Asian Review of Books.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.