A Passage to India is a critique of British rule of India. The British are not shown as tyrants, although they do fail to understand Indian religion and culture. They are also convinced that the British Empire is a civilizing force on the benighted “natives” of India, and they regard all Indians as their inferiors, incapable of leadership. And yet, in their own way, the English try to rule in a just way. Ronny, for example, the City Magistrate, is completely sincere when he says that the British “are out here to do justice and keep the peace” (chapter 5). And there is no trace of satire in the passage that shortly follows this, which describes Ronny’s daily routine: “Every day he worked hard in the court trying to decide which of two untrue account was the less untrue, trying to dispense justice fearlessly, to protect the weak against the less weak, the incoherent against the plausible, surrounded by lies and flattery.” Ronny is also aware of the hostility between Hindus and Moslems, and believes that a British presence is necessary to prevent bloodshed. Even Fielding, the most sympathetic of the English characters, does not argue that the British should leave India. However, the British lack any ability to question their own basic assumptions about race and Empire, and as such they become the objects of Forster’s biting satire.
The economic consequences of British imperialism are hinted at only briefly in the novel. This occurs when Fielding mentions to Godbole and Adela that mangoes can now be purchased in England: “They ship them in ice-cold rooms. You can make India in England apparently, just as you can make England in India” (chapter 7). This hints at the economic exploitation of India. The British claim to be in India for the good of the Indians, whereas in fact, they are there to increase their own wealth by setting up a system of trade that is entirely beneficial to themselves.
Twenty-three years after the publication of A Passage to India, Aziz’s prediction at the end of the novel came true. He tells Fielding that the next European war will lead to the liberation of India. That war was World War II, and Britain, economically exhausted and facing a nonviolent nationalist movement in India led by Gandhi, granted India independence in 1947. An attempt to pacify the simmering hostility between Moslem and Hindu resulted in the creation of the mostly Moslem state of Pakistan.
The English, schooled in a fairly simple version of Christianity, are unable to understand the mysterious spirituality of India. Mrs. Moore shows some interest in the topic when she first arrives in the country. She likes the idea of “resignation”-being passively resigned to the will of God-which she associates with Indian thought. She is also attracted to the unity of everything in the universe, another idea she associates with India. But the incident in the caves, when she hears the echo, unnerves her. The echo annihilates all distinctions in the name of the unity of life, and also annihilates distinctions between good and evil. This is far from the Christian view of life, at least in Mrs. Moore’s view, and leads her into despair and apathy.
But this is merely a Westerner’s point of view. Against the negative portrayal of Indian spirituality implicit in the “echo” incident is a more positive vision that occurs in Part 3 of the novel. There is no mistaking the joy and affirmative value of the Hindu festival conducted at Mau, in which the birth of Lord Krishna is enacted. Once again, this is rendered largely from the outsider’s point of view, since neither Aziz nor Fielding understands it, but it well represents the “mystery” of Indian spirituality that cannot be penetrated by Westerners.
The clash of cultures can be seen not only in Mrs. Moore’s response to India but also in Fielding’s. Fielding does not believe in God and therefore has no interest in the contrast between Eastern and Western spirituality, but nonetheless, as chapter 32 shows, he feels far more at home with the forms of Western architecture he encounters in Venice than with the temples of India. The temples represent to him merely the “muddle” of India, whereas Western architecture presents him with a view of “the harmony between the works of man and the earth that upholds them, the civilization that has escaped muddle, the spirit in a reasonable form, with flesh and blood subsisting.”