“Therefore Orientalism is not a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by cultures, scholarship, or institutions; nor is it a large and diffuse collection of texts about the Orient; nor is it representative and expressive of some nefarious “Western” imperialist plot to hold down the “Oriental” world. It is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts…”
(Edward Said, Orientalism, 1978)

“…it would be more accurate describe Orientalism and Anglicanism not as polar opposites but as points along a continuum of attitudes the manner and form of native governance…”
(Gauri Viswanathan, The Beginnings of English Literary Study in British India, 1987)

In 1978, Edward Said published his deeply controversial and heavily debated book Orientalism where he described Orientalism as a system of knowledge developed by the West or the “Occident” to posit itself as racially, culturally and socially superior to the Eastern civilizations including those in Africa, the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent, the Far-East or China, Japan and Polynesian countries, the Caribbean, as well as those in South America. In the Introduction to Orientalism, Said claims that the Orient, a collective term used to refer to the lands unfamiliar and alien (and hence uncivilized) to the West, is a European invention, commonly described as “a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” To back this claim and accept it as a stark truth, one needs to look no further than the popular representations of the East made by literary masters like Shakespeare who describe it as a land of indulgences and decadence:
“Let witchcraft join with beauty, lust with both.
Tie up the libertine in a field of feasts,
Keep his brain fuming. Epicurean cooks,
Sharpen with cloyless sauce his appetite,
That sleep and feeding may prorogue his honor
Even till a Lethe’d dulness—” (Antony and Cleopatra, II.i.22-27)

Modern Orientalist advertising for luxurious products, emerging from the base notion that the Orient is a land of indulgences, squalor and decadence. 

According to Said, the Orient has helped define the West as its binary or its contrasting image. In other words, the West is everything that the East isn’t – cultured, civilised, rational. However, Said does not limit his definition of Orientalism to this frame of thought. To him, Orientalism could be the act of teaching, writing and researching the Orient and developing doctrines and theses on it, or the style of thought that ontologically and epistemologically distinguishes the East from the West, or even “the Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Literary scholar Gauri Viswanathan, in her essay The Beginnings of English Literary Study in British India (1987), has taken Said’s theories further and focussed primarily on the academic side of Orientalism which allowed for the physical and ideological colonisation of the Indians by the British. Her arguments in relation to those made by Said will be discussed in the latter half of this paper.

In Orientalism, Said discusses how European scholars grapple with the difference in ideology and culture between the West and the Orient because they have a scholar’s bias. They fail to accommodate Oriental languages and cultures into their own systems of knowledge as they are unable to come to terms with the fact that another civilisation, one which is entirely different from their own, is thriving in spite of not having its progress mapped out the European way. As a result, the Occident attempts to manipulate the Orient by imposing its own values and ideology and creating “rational” backing for its self-proclaimed superiority. Scientific proofs or explanations for the inferiority of the Orient are created to fill the meta-narrative of European culture. An example of this would be Hitler’s “scientific” Social Darwinism during the Nazi regime that allowed for the domination and extermination of one race by another supposedly superior one. One can say that the West has authorised views on the Orient and dominates over it by creating a self-authorised image of it, using only certain symbols to describe the Orient as a whole. Said’s work is largely influenced by the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s discourses on power relations. Foucault uses the term “power/knowledge” to indicate that power is constituted through accepted forms of knowledge, scientific understanding and “truth”:
“Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint.  And it induces regular effects of power.  Each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.” (Foucault, in The Foucault Reader: Michel Foucault, Paul Rabinow 1991).
As is illustrated by Foucault, “truth” manifests through the various power relations and so, the discourses of one group may become truer than another’s. This is exactly what happens in the case of the Occident and the Orient. The former’s culture and ideology have a greater truth attached to it due to the civilisation’s dependence on “rationality” and empirical thought, as opposed to the latter whose civilisation is built on a body of myths and fantasies. Viswanathan discusses these Foucauldian discourses in context of colonial India where for the British administrators and the East India Company, knowledge of the natives helped them exert power and domination by asserting their own values and making the natives accept those values as the real truth about the world.


The Spoils of Empire: The life of a British Army officer during the early days of British rule in India

For long, the West has assumed superiority and authority over the East, according to Said. Gustav Flaubert’s nineteenth-century description of the Egyptian courtesan Kuchuk Hanem is illustrative of the exoticisation and fetishisation of the Orient. Kuchuk Hanem never speaks for herself or expresses her emotions. Flaubert does that job for her as his European-ness grants him authority over her. As Said points out, Flaubert’s relation to Kuchuk Hanem is not an isolated instance, but one which is representative of the “pattern of relative strength” between the East and the West. Said goes on to explain that Orientalism, despite the assumptions it makes, is still not a European fantasy. It is a body of theory and empirical thought created by the Occident. And so, Orientalism as a concept has less to do with the Orient and more to do with the Occident.

While Said focuses only on the Occident’s “othering” of the Orient, previous literary text have demonstrated how this racial othering is part of the human experience and that any group perceiving another group as different may indulge in this activity. For instance, Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1899) proposes the idea that “otherness” is not an exclusive concept that the white men use against the black African men, but in fact a universal concept used also by the native men against the white imperialists. Conrad thus suggests that othering is not mutually exclusive between people of difference races or between two people where a power dynamic suggests that one is superior to the other.

Both Said and Viswanathan draw inspiration from the Gramscian concept of hegemony for explaining the Occident’s control of the Orient. Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks (w. 1929-1935), talked about how dominant class ideology took shape and exerted its influence through the manufacture of consent. According to Gramsci, the ruling class exercises the function of hegemony through the civil society. Hegemony in this case means the worldview, reality, and beliefs of the dominant classes coming to be accepted by the subordinate classes as “common sense”. There is a general consensus that the view of the dominant class is the only sensible way of seeing the world. As is evident, Orient has consented to the hegemony of the Occident. Viswanthan, in The Beginnings of English Literary Study in British India and also in her book Masks of Conquest (1989), notes that the British in India created a linguistic hegemony, ideologically forcing the natives to perceive English as superior to their vernacular. The intention was to homogenize the linguistic diversity that existed in the Indian subcontinent, and this was achieved through conscious language policy enforced with the help of law, education and administration. Viswanathan also points out that the British first befriended the elites of India, adopted their lifestyles and secured their trust in order to expand control. Once the dominant classes within India began seeing the British as intellectually and culturally superior, it was easy to reign over the middle and lower classes as well. For the Indians, it became “common sense” to want to be more like the British; it was “common sense” to learn to speak, read and write in English.


19th Century illustration of the English Babu (Native Indian clerk). This is an archetypal satirical caricature of an native Indian clerk (babu), a Bengali dapper dandy whose fashion sense combines British and Indian mores with dissonant results. Imitating his British masters, as a result of colonisation, he sits cross-legged on a Victorian chair, holding a hookah, sporting a Prince Albert hairstyle, and wearing European buckled shoes. 

Viswanathan begins her essay by talking about the “knowledge” which the British gathered about the natives’ customs, traditions, faiths and languages. This system of knowledge was developed as an Orientalist study, and was specifically used for pointing out the gaps in logic and reason that existed in the Indian culture. Knowledge, as we may now assert, is always understood through the perspective of the colonizer. The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe illustrates this point in the African context by saying:
“African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans, […] their societies were no mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value of beauty, […] they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity. It is this dignity that African people had but lost during the colonial period and it is this that they must now regain.” (Achebe, The Role of the Writer in a New Nation, 1964)
The same could be applied in the case of India. It is not that India did not have its own culture with its own set of belief systems that allowed people to thrive. But this notion was thwarted, and the European culture was posited by Anglicists as the ultimate way of life.

The Charter Act of 1813 marked, as Viswanathan points out, the beginning of the blurring of lines between Anglicanism and Orientalism. The Act was issued by the British Parliament for the introduction of English language, literature, religion and consequently culture and ideology in India. The British had previously accumulated a vast body of knowledge about the native subjects as part of their Orientalist study. A new responsibility towards “educating and civilising” the natives was assumed. Although on the surface the act of imparting education seems a most benevolent, altruistic gesture, the assumption that the Indians needed this education so as to rid themselves of their savage origins was a highly problematic scheme of thought. Anglicanism then grew out of Orientalism. Anglicans studied and meticulously attacked the Indian culture as a whole for being inferior. The ultimate aim of both Orientalism and Anglicanism was that of control and domination, of keeping the Indian subjects loyal to the British. And domination was achieved by superimposing the European culture over the Indian culture through language. Viswanathan elaborately describes the various language policies that were taken up by the British to inculcate the English language among the natives. Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in his book Decolonising the Mind (1986), has discussed how language communicates the culture of its users. According to Thiong’o, written, spoken, and “real life” or body-language are all used in harmony to define different cultures. Language conveys a culture’s standards and values, something that can’t be picked up by someone who doesn’t understand the language. When English was imposed into Thiong’o’s Kenyan culture (as in the case of Indians), textbooks and teachings made his culture look inferior. Viswanathan has similarly noted how the mythological texts of Indians were dismissed and more “rational” forms of thought were introduced, merging Orientalism and Anglicanism in the process.

Viswanathan has also pointed out how the Indian religious texts were perceived as not being civilised enough for “moral and intellectual improvement” of the natives. She gives the example of Thomas Macaulay, a member of the Supreme Council of India, whose Minute on Education (1835) completely denounces Indian literature. He says, “[…] we must at present do our best to form a class of persons Indian in blood and colour and English in taste, opinions in morals and in intellect.” Macaulay maintained that his low estimate of the value of Indian learning was shared by his adversaries in the Orientalist camp. “I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia,” he claimed. Macaulay’s words are representative of Occident ideology as a whole. Colonial administrators considered it appropriate for the Indians to be taught European morals and Christian doctrine first, and liberal thought later so that they could be submissive. Going the other way round, attaining liberal thought without moral supervision, could dangerously backfire and pose the threat of Indians defying British authority.  The same policy had been adopted by the British in their own nation for the controlling the poor, uneducated class and so they felt certain that the system could be replicated in the Indian territory.

Flyers advertising India for elite British Holidayers

Criticism on Viswanathan has called attention to the fact that her work excludes actual responses from the upper class natives on how these policies were received. According to critics, one needs greater evidence of the effects rather than only the intent of the imposition of British language and culture. Viswanathan’s rebuttal, however, claims that if the natives were seen as nothing more than a conceptual category by the British, then their responses go out of the scope of study.

Despite the various responses to Viswanathan and Said, however, one thing can be said for sure – both these scholars aptly illustrate the Occident psyche that treats the Orient as the subject of its authority, giving rise to both ideological and physical colonisation and imperialism and creating racial otherness in terms of “white” and “not white”.


  • Said, E. Orientalism. 1978.
  • Viswanathan, G. The Beginnings of English Literary Study in British India. 1987.
  • Viswanathan, G. Masks of Conquest. 1989.
  • Shetty, S. Review of Masks of Conquest. 1990.
  • Antony and Cleopatra.1606.
  • Foucault, M. The Archaeology of Knowledge. 1991.
  • Rabinow, P. The Foucault Reader: Michel Foucault.
  • Conrad, J. Hear of Darkness. 1899.
  • Gramsci, A. Prison Notebooks. 1929-1935.
  • Achebe, C. The Role of the Writer in a New Nation. 1964.
  • Thiong’o, N. Decolonising the Mind.
  • Macaulay, T. Minute on Education. 1835.