When the British arrived in India, they wanted to learn about the region they are in, its geography, history, culture, environment etc. Because they wanted the British officers who will be administering the land to know everything about the region. And so many British scholars ended up learning several Indian languages including Tamil, Sanskrit, Bengali etc.
Before they arrived, they had heard legends about India that this is a country of faith and spirituality, and is in stark contrast to the Western ideology of materialism. That is when modern writing of Indian history began and it had a colonial lens.
As spirituality is more related to Hindu faith, as per the legends they had heard, they thought of India as a Hindu nation and all other religions like Islam, Buddhism, Jainism are alien to it.
Their potential bias against Islam may have been influenced by their knowledge of the historical conflicts such as the Crusades, which were fought between Christians and Muslims. It is with this bias they started learning Indian history and the result was a distorted view of ancient India, in which multiple cultures mingled and co-habited together, not always harmoniously.
Borrowed from British
They were surprised to learn that the most dominant religion in India is not monotheistic, and has several deities, unlike Christianity where there is one Son of God. In their attempt to formalize and categorize different religious groups in India, they used the term “Hinduism, for ease of administration.
What is investigated and understood as the Indian history and culture by the British became the perspective of Indians about their own culture.
When the muscular nationalists of India argue that the human civilization originated from today’s India and it traveled to different parts of the world including Europe, they are giving life to a myth, a fervent and unverified patriotic notion.
While learning several languages, they found out that Sanskrit has a lot of commonalities with many European languages like Greek, and Latin and hence they considered Sanskrit as one of the oldest languages, only until 1920s when the Harappan civilization sites were unearthed.
The Proto-Dravidian languages used by the inhabitants of the Harappan Civilization, during 7000 BC, were found to be one of the ancient languages.
Ravan and the other Demons
What the British could lay their hands on were Vedic texts and scriptures written by the Brahmanical sect about the popular kings who ruled India. They wrote only about the large kingdoms and people who live within the boundaries of the kingdom. Those who live outside the kingdom and far off forest regions were portrayed in these writings as living a more primitive or less civilized way of life.
This throws light into the reason for the abduction of Sita, the wife of Lord Rama, by the demon king Ravana in the Vedic epic Ramayana.
The present-day Indian nationalists have an antipathy for the British. But their imagined view that Aryan civilization, is the cradle of all civilizations and was born in India before it branched out to different continents was also held by a few English men after their investigation. Colonel Olcott was one among them and these learnings inspired a few socio-religious theosophical movements in India like the Arya Samaj.
Today’s muscular nationalism wants the world to believe that only Hindus are the aboriginal population of India and people from other faiths are only immigrants is partly inspired by the biased views and learnings of the British, in addition to their interpretation of Vedic scriptures which was written by multiple authors over a long period of time.
These scriptures document only the rituals, hymns, and philosophical aspects patronized by the ancient rulers and conveniently ignore other belief systems that were also an integral part of this land.
Reference: The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300