Mountstuart Elphinstone (6 October 1779 – 20 November 1859) was a Scottish statesman and historian, who later became the Governor of Bombay. He is credited with the opening of several educational institutions accessible to the Indian population. Besides being a noted administrator, he wrote books on India, notable among them being “The History of India’ in two volumes, in the year 1841.
In a chapter ( page 323) dealing with the manners and character of Indians, he makes the following observations:
…All persons who have retired from India think better of the people they have left after comparing them with others even of the most justly admired nations.
These considerations should make us distrust ur own impressions, when unfavourable, but cannot blind us to the fact that the Hindus have, in reality, some great defects of character.
Their defects, no doubt, arise chiefly from moral causes; but they are also to be ascribed, in part, to physical constitution, and in part to soil and climate.
Some races are certainly less vigorous than others ; and all must degenerate if placed in an enervating atmosphere.
Mere heat may not enervate : if it is unavoidable and unremitting, it even produces a sort of hardiness like that arising from the rigours of a northern winter. If sterility be added, and the fruits of hard labour are contested among scattered tribes, the result may be the energy and decision of the Arab.
But, in India, a warm temperature is accompanied by a fertile soil which renders severe labour unnecessary, and an extent of land that would support an almost indefinite increase of inhabitants. The heat is moderated by rain, and warded off by numerous trees and forests : every thing is calculated to produce that state of listless inactivity which foreigners find it so difficult to resist. The shades of character that are found in different parts of India tend to confirm this supposition. The inhabitants of the dry countries in the north, which in winter are cold, are comparatively manly and active. The Marattas, inhabiting a mountainous and unfertile region, are hardy and laborious ; while the Bengalese, with their moist climate and their double crops of rice, where the cocoa-nut tree and the bamboo furnish all the materials 'for construction unwrought, are more effeminate than any other people in India. But love of repose, though not sufficient to extinguish industry or repress occasional exertions, may be taken as a characteristic of the whole people.
Akin to their indolence is their timidity, which arises more from the dread of being involved in trouble and difficulties than from want of physical courage: and from these two radical influences almost all their vices are derived. Indolence and timidity themselves may be thought to be produced by despotism and superstition without any aid from nature; but if those causes were alone sufficient, they would have had the same operation on the indefatigable Chinese and the intrepid Russian: in the present case they are as likely to be effect as cause.
The most prominent vice of the Hindus is want of veracity, in which they outdo most nations even of the East. They do not even resent the imputation of falsehood ; the same man would calmly answer to a doubt by saying, " Why should I tell a lie?" who would shed blood for what he regarded as the slightest infringement of his honour.
Perjury, which is only an aggravated species of falsehood, naturally accompanies other offences of the kind (though it is not more frequent than in other Asiatic countries) ; and those who pay so little regard to statements about the past, cannot be expected to be scrupulous in promises for the future.
It is in people connected with government that deceit is most common ; but in India, this class spreads far; as, from the nature of the laud revenue, the lowest villager is often obliged to resist force by fraud.
In some cases, the faults of the government produce an opposite effect. Merchants and bankers are generally strict observers of their engagements. If it were otherwise, commerce could not go on where justice is so irregularly administered.
It is probably owing to the faults of their government that they are corrupt; to take a bribe in a good cause is almost meritorious ; and it is a venial offence to take one when the cause is bad. Pecuniary fraud is not thought very disgraceful, and, if against the public, scarcely disgraceful at all.
It is to their government, also, that we must impute their flattery and their importunity. The first is gross, even after every allowance has been made for the different degrees of force which nations give to the language of civility. The second arises from the indecision of their own rulers : they never consider an answer final, and are never ashamed to prosecute a suit as long as their varied invention, the possible change of circumstances, or the exhausted patience of the person applied to gives them a hope of carrying their point.
Like all that are slow to actual conflict, they are very litigious, and much addicted to verbal altercation. They will persevere in a law-suit till they are ruined; and will argue, on other occasions, with a violence so unlike their ordinary demeanour, that one unaccustomed to them expects immediate blows or bloodshed.
...Their great defect is a want of manliness. Their slavish constitution, their blind superstition, their extravagant mythology, the subtilities and verbal distinctions of their philosophy, the languid softness of their poetry, their effeminate manners, their love of artifice and delay, their submissive temper, their dread of change, the delight they take in puerile fables, and their neglect of rational history, are so many proofs of the absence of the more robust qualities of disposition and intellect throughout the mass of the nation.
But, their freedom from gross debauchery is the point in which the Hindus appear to most advantage. It can scarcely be expected, from their climate and its concomitants, that they should be less licentious than other nations ; but if we compare them with our own, the absence of drunkenness, and of immodesty in their other vices, will leave the superiority in purity of manners on the side least flattering to our self-esteem.