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  • Collins, Colonial Crime, and the Brahmin Sublime:The Orientalist Vision of a Hindu-Brahmin India in The Moonstone1
  • Krishna Manavalli (bio)

Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, the popular mid-nineteenth century work of crime fiction which weaves into itself the tale of adventure of three Indian Brahmins, traces the journey of a precious yellow diamond from India to England as a part of colonial booty. Tellingly, the novel ends with the repossession of the gem by the Hindu-Brahmins. The Brahmins pursue the diamond with an unerring determination through to the end and, finally, escape with it from England to their native land. It is particularly significant that the novel concedes victory to the Brahmins over the English police and the nineteenth-century systems of Western scientific detection. Not only does this conflictual sense of poetic justice in Collins's work celebrate the heroism of the Brahmin priests, but these high-caste men are also idealized in various other ways. In forging his Gothic vision of a 'prehistoric' Hindu religion, Collins contrasts what I term the 'Brahmin Sublime' with English middle-class domesticity in order to question the latter's comfortable illusions of safety and its all too easy assumptions of moral superiority. At the same time, in its strong ethnographic fascination with the institution of caste the novel emphasizes the caste system as the 'essence' of Indian social formations and reinforces the idea of a hierarchical and Brahmin-centred model of caste. While it seems obvious that within the Gothic economy of Collins's novel the prehistoric and dark 'otherworld' of India should be depicted as a site of colonial terror, what is particularly noteworthy is the way in which Collins portrays this romanticized India as a predominantly 'Hindu-Brahminical' society.2 His vision of India reveals the degree to which he draws from then current Orientalist ideologies which defined India, as we shall see, largely in terms of its Brahminical traditions to the detriment, and hence silencing, of other ethnic and religious communities. [End Page 67]

Caste, Collins and the Raj

Published in 1868, The Moonstone was written in the years during which the Empire in India was formalized – India was assimilated to the crown in 1858 after the East India Company was dissolved in 1857. In his recent study, which examines the role played by colonialism in establishing the now-prevalent view of caste as the basis of social organization in India, Nicholas Dirks observes that the British held 'the belief that India could [best] be ruled using anthropological knowledge to understand and control its subjects'.3 Hence, in its policy of ruling India in 'accordance' with native customs and traditions, the British became increasingly preoccupied with ethnographic studies of this foreign culture, which led to a frenzied ethnographic activity of collecting 'material about castes, and tribes, and […] customs'. Caste soon came to be seen as the 'primary subject of social classification and knowledge'. Thus understanding caste allowed one better to control India. This became an obvious concern following the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, which was rumoured to have erupted in response to an outrage of native religious and caste sentiments.4 Dirks goes on to conclude that 'from the crisis around state security [and] sovereignty came the anthropological idea that caste could be seen as the colonized form of civil society'.5 Immediately after the Mutiny, the well-known contemporary German philologist and Orientalist scholar Friedrich Max Müller6 had advised governmental non-intervention in religious matters and recommended a respectful attitude towards Indian traditions. In line with this approach, but much against the missionary opposition to the Raj policy of religious tolerance, Queen Victoria reiterated this non-interference policy in India in 1858.7

The Sepoy Mutiny is arguably the single most prominent mid-nineteenth-century event that brought the 'horrors of […] the Empire' closest to home to the English middle class public.8 It should come as no surprise, therefore, to see it providing a major, albeit submerged context for Collins's novel – two critics of The Moonstone, Christopher GoGwilt and Jaya Mehta, have pointed out that the horror of the Mutiny is obliquely referred to in the image of the 'Shivering Sands...


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pp. 67-86
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Archived 2009
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