Indology ( Indological Perspective ): Meaning, History and Founders

Indology: As one of the most diverse places on the planet, there have been numerous attempts at examining the history and culture of India. The study of Indology uses an academic approach to dive deeper into the complex structural framework within which the people of India live, and which creates the base of their history. This article provides a compact breakdown of what the subject matter of Indology encompasses. The article tries to define Indology, explores its history and development, defines how Indology varies from Orientalism and explores the schools of Indological thought as well as scholars and their works which focus on Indology.

What is Indology?

A subgroup under the more overarching topic of Asian Studies or Oriental Studies, Indology, otherwise known as ‘Indian Studies’, is the scholarly examination of the Indian society, its culture, languages, history, philosophy, and literature. In other words, an inquiry into the current and past details of the Indian society – its people, traditions, values, background, etc. – which is sustained and corroborated by the exploration of written work of Indian languages is called Indology. It is often mistaken for South Asian studies, which includes the study of the broader Indian subcontinent, consisting of Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Maldives, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka alongside India, rather than the singular country of India.

As a branch of knowledge, Indology assimilates self-evaluative assessment and introspection, de-localization and redistribution of social practices (disembedding), increased global interaction and interdependence, and engagement with the reconstruction of socio-cultural knowledge from sources. The scholarship of Indology takes account of the study of literature in the Sanskrit and Pali languages, and the cultures of the religions believed to have originated in the Indian subcontinent (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc.). Academics engaged with the discipline of Indology often divide the field into Classical – with a focus on old India and ancient languages of Sanskrit and Pali, and Modern – attending to the political and sociological aspects of contemporary India.

Indology, or Indian Studies, has helped to highlight the rich cultural heritage of the people of India, and the country’s history and diversity. It has also allowed for the creation of a space where literature and knowledge on the country can be appreciated, discussed and debated, thereby spreading an understanding of India’s culture to the rest of the world.

A Brief Historical Background of Indian Studies:

Indology (or Indian studies) emerged as a field of academic investigation during the time of British rule in India. However, Indian culture, languages, and literature were taken up by scholars even before that. Several ancient literary texts, recorded material, and documents can be called upon to trace and understand how far back in time engagement with the Indian society reaches. People of all cultural backgrounds and from all over the world have immersed themselves into understanding and analyzing the vibrant and vivacious culture and people of India. Turkish people, Arabs, Persians, and Afghans (beginning from around 1000 AD and beyond), and, even earlier than that, the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Byzantine, Jews, etc., all have enquired into the rich cultural structure of India.

Perhaps the earliest records of efforts to study Indian society can be traced back to Megasthenes (c. 350 BCE to c. 290 BCE). He was an ancient Greek historian, explorer, and, more importantly, an Indian ethnographer (a person who studies and describes the culture of a particular society or group is called an ethnographer). He was the military attaché to India on behalf of the Seleucid Empire, which existed during the Hellenistic period, in the court of Chandragupta Maurya (ruling period: 322 to 298 BCE), the founder of the ancient Maurya Empire. In accordance with the duration of his stay in India and his experiences during that period, Megasthenes composed the famous work, ‘Indica’, a four-volume account of India as he saw then. In the books, Megasthenes explored the existence of the caste system, which he accorded to illiteracy prevailing in the country. Although a large part of the books no longer exists now, a few remnants have been restored. Classical geographers Diodorus of Sicily, Strabo, and Arrian of Nicomedia have been highly influenced by these works.

Others include Chinese Buddhist monk and translator, Faxian, studied Buddhism in India around c. 399 CE to c. 412 CE, accounts of which are present in his book ‘A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms’ (Foguo Ji 佛國記). Muhammad ibn Ahmad Al-Biruni (also known as Abu Rayhan al-Biruni), an Iranian scholar and polyhistor, was an author during the Islamic Golden Age (8th century to 14th century) who wrote extensively on India. In his comprehensive work, ‘Taḥqīq mā li-l-Hind min maqūlah maqbūlah fī al-ʿaql aw mardhūlah’ (“A Critical Study of What India Says, Whether Accepted by Reason or Refused” or Kitāb al-Hind), Al-Biruni explored more or less every possible dimension of life in India. His account was all-encompassing and consisted of the geography, religion, history, science, mathematics, and geology of the country. Al-Biruni’s work is considered an Indological piece because it focused on the people and their lives of then-India – the cultures, religious practices, and science. Other famous works on India include the accounts of the Tughlaq Dynasty in India by Ibn Batuta, a Moroccan explorer, in his travel memoir called ‘Rihla’; Chinese Buddhist traveler Xuanzang’s accounts recorded in the narrative ‘Great Tang Records on the Western Regions’; ‘Descriptio Indiæ’ by European geographer Joseph Tiefenthaler; and Kashmir’s reports by Kalhana in ‘Rajatarangini’.

As an academic discipline, Indology began to be practiced during the eighteenth century marked by the establishment of associations such as the Asiatic Society of Bengal (Calcutta, 1784), and journals including Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute and Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Indology vs. Orientalism:

Most scholars agree on examining India and its society, cultures, languages, and people from a historical and documented point of view and using mainly a comparative approach. Most scholars of Indology engage in the analysis of literary publications such as books, articles, etc., in the languages of Sanskrit and Persian, and develop their understanding of the Indian society from them. Indology is also somewhat different from the Orientalist view of Indian society. On one hand, Indology focuses on bringing out a more positive and appreciative understanding of the Indian society, while Orientalism shifts towards a more adverse and critical view of the same.

Indology stems from a general admiration of the Indian life by Non-Indian people, whereas Orientalism originates from a theoretical need of the British Empire. In general, Indology highlights the merits and good characteristics of the culture of India, almost always in an exaggerated manner, while Orientalism, in an agenda to promote the positive effects of British rule and as a way of justifying colonialism in the country. Among Orientalists are Max Mueller, James Mill, etc.

Principles of Indology:

By identifying the differences between Indology and Orientalism, we can arrive at the few basic postulates in Indology:

  1. India’s past was filled with grandiose. In order to be able to fully comprehend it, it is important to refer to the literature written in the early times. These texts are imbibed with the philosophical and cultural traditions of India.
  2. The books of ancient India reveal the real nature of the Indian culture and society to a large extent. To get an understanding of the future development of India, these books hold an important position as a repertoire of knowledge.
  3. To ensure that the study of Indian texts from the older periods of time (mostly those written in Sanskrit and Persian languages), the establishment of institutions and associations must be arranged.

Schools of Indological Analysis:

According to Devdutt Pattanaik, Indian mythologist and writer, there are four broad classifications into which Indological schools can be divided:

  • The Indian School of Indology: This school of thought aims at incorporating the perspective of non-Indian people as well as people from within India into the study of Indian culture, and maintaining a good balance between the two. A majority of the academic undertakings, training, research and financial backing are supported by Western countries (mainly from Europe and America). As a result, renouncing or dissociating the Western views has been a difficult job. Rejecting Western perspectives means to incorporate a greater focus on the culture as has been and is being encountered by the people living within the country instead of simply putting all the vitality and essence of examining the culture into text analysis.
  • The Diasporic School of Indology: This school has developed from a necessity of Indian diasporas living in Western countries. People who had migrated as first or second-generation members from Indian families due to economic reasons have to make teaching their children the culture of India an important point as a response to any judgments people of other cultures may enforce on them. Yet another reason is the need to feel connected to their motherland and their cultural and traditional roots. Within this school, there are both those who put the Indian culture on a high pedestal and those who analyze the culture, traditions, history, and practices of India critically.
  • The American School of Indology: Emerging as a criticism of and against the European understanding of Indology, the American school focused a great deal more on the section of people subordinated in the Indian society, such as the tribal people or Adivasis, women, people belonging from the transgender community, and Dalits. The American school was extremely critical of India, especially of Hinduism in the practices and rituals of which emerge problems such as caste discrimination. In a contrast, Buddhism and its principles were applauded as being less bigoted. Such critical examination allowed for a broadening of the understanding of Indian society.
  • The European School of Indology: This school was one of the oldest (and most probably the first) schools of Indology. Focusing mainly on Hinduism, and on making a comparative analysis of the religion with Christianity whereby the latter was shown as superior, the main aim of the scholars under this school was to legitimize British rule over Indians by showing the people of the country as undeveloped ‘savages’ who required to be controlled to be able to evolve. Almost all British Indologists found a negative aspect to the art, literature, architecture, languages, practices, and other cultural aspects of the people of India.

It is important to note that none of these schools are without their own set of criticisms. While some exaggerate the positive aspects and engage in excessive glorification of India’s culture and history, yet others try to lower the country’s status. Current Indological undertakings usually aspire to provide a better understanding of the country’s culture through reclamation of the often incorrect (i.e., either hyperbolizing the good parts or considering the people to be culturally backward) conceptions.

Indological Scholarship:

Several pioneers of Sociology in India had Indology as their foundation. Among the various scholars who fall under this category, the most prominent ones are Indian Sociology professor G.S. Ghurye; anthropologist and sociologist Irawati Karve, and French anthropologist Louis Dumont.

  • G. S. Ghurye: Often bestowed the name of ‘the father of Indian Sociology’, Ghurye was a professor and a renowned author on the sociology of India. Ghurye was famous for using a multitude of methods in his sociological analysis of Indian society and its culture. In doing so, he utilized both empirical and recorded text-based analytical methods. The works of Ghurye give attention to a wide range of themes in the context of Indian society and culture. These include, but are not restricted to, caste, religion, family, and kinship. ‘Caste and Race in India’ (1932) is his most perused work (other writings include ‘Social Tensions in India’ (1968) and ‘Indian Sadhus’ (1953)).

For analyzing caste, Ghurye uses a symbolic interactionist perspective within sociology to explain one form of social stratification in the Indian context. In providing an Indological perspective to the broader issue of social stratification, instead of justifying the functions of caste in Indian society or strongly disapproving the caste system, Ghurye tries to understand caste from the viewpoint of the roles it plays, or the symbols it represents in daily lives of people, in the context of the society of India. He highlights six facets of caste: “Segmental division of society”, “Hierarchy”, “Civil and religious disabilities and privileges”, “Lack of unrestricted choice of occupation”, “Restriction on food, drinks and social intercourse”, and “Endogamy” (Ghurye, 1969), each of which upholds certain symbols (which, if broken, result in social sanctions which are often most harsh) by which the caste system is sustained in the Indian society. His interpretations of tribes and the urbanization of rural India follow a similar method.

Criticisms of Ghurye’s works often concentrate on the glorification of the culture of India instead of accounting for the discrimination, oppression, and bigotry that exists within it.

  • Irawati Karve: Considered one of the first female Anthropologists and Sociologists in India, Irawati Karve was a pioneer in studying Indian society with the help of Indology. Finding her footing in a primarily male-dominated field, Karve found a large part of her inspiration in Ghurye’s work (she also completed her Master’s in sociology under the guidance of Ghurye). She was associated with the group of classical Orientalists under Indology. The primary focus of this category of Indologists was engaging with and interpreting ancient texts written in Sanskrit, which, they believed, formed the basis of the solidarity of Indians despite their caste distinctions. Her major works includeKinship Organization in India’ (1953), ‘Yuganta: The End of an Epoch’ (1969), and ‘Hindu Society — an interpretation’ (1961).
  • Louis Dumont: Most renowned for his book ‘Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications’ which deals with the caste system of India, Louis Dumont was an anthropologist who is also accorded the title of Indologist due to his works on the Indian society. The book, which was published in 1966, provided a novel perception of the caste system and was equipped with both ethnographic data and the ideology behind the hierarchical arrangement of the caste system. His other works include ‘Homo Aequalis’ (1977) and Religion, Politics and History in India: Collected Papers in Indian Sociology (1970).

Other scholars of Indology include Radhakamal Mukherjee, B.K. Sarkar, and K.M. Kapadia.

More Resources of Indology:

The Calcutta School of Indology, American Institute of Indian Studies, Bhishma School of Indic Studies, the Institute of Indology, and the School of Indological Studies, Mahatma Gandhi Institute, are a few organizations and institutions that deal with Indological pursuits. Books on Indology include ‘Dictionary of Indology’ (2009) by Dr. Vishnulok Bihari Srivastava and ‘A Peep at Indology’ (1994) by Shantaram Ganesh Moghe.

Although Indology has gained much exposure in today’s world, needless to say it is still quite an unpopular choice within scholars. However, in an era of globalization, Indology can be useful to understand India’s position in world history and how it has shaped the country as it exists today. Further, India’s culture and diversity can be effectively revealed to both India’s own people and those outside it through Indology.


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Soumili is currently pursuing her studies in Social Sciences at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, focusing on core subjects such as Sociology, Psychology, and Economics. She possesses a deep passion for exploring various cultures, traditions, and languages, demonstrating a particular fascination with scholarship related to intersectional feminism and environmentalism, gender and sexuality, as well as clinical psychology and counseling. In addition to her academic pursuits, her interests extend to reading, fine arts, and engaging in volunteer work.