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VEDANTA KESARISir William Jones and Western Indology  





               Sir William Jones and Western Indology


               Dr. Vishwanath Prasad Varma




               Dr. Vishwanath Prasad Varma of Patna is a former president of All-Indian Political Science Congress.




     Just as the migration of Greek scholars from Turkey since 1453 to the European countries led to the Western Renaissance in the 15th century, even so the studies of Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit by Western scholars during the last two and a half centuries have facilitated the entrance of Indian romanticism, classicism, transcendentalism, Vedantism and Buddhism into the Western lands. Nearly two hundred research scholars from the West have been devoted to the Vedic, Buddhist, classical Sanskrit and Prakrit studies. Although not an original Vedic scholar, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) most eloquently testified to the exaltedness and beneficent character of the Oupnekhat (the Latin translation by A. Duperron in 1800-1802) of the Persian versions of nearly fifty Upanishads. Earlier than Schopenhauer, Sir William Jones (1746-1794) declared Sanskrit to be more perfect than Greek and more copious than Latin. Max Muller's (1823-1900) printed Devanagari version of the text of the Rigveda with Sayana's Sanskrit commentary was a stupendous production and brought before the world the original form of the oldest of the Vedas. The German-Sanskrit dictionary in seven big volumes by Otto Bohtlingk (1815-1904) and Rudolf Roth (1821-1895) was another Indological landmark. William Jones' (born 28 September 1746, London, died 17 April, 1794, Kolkata) English translation of the Sakuntalam was a major contribution to Indology.

     Trading contacts on a limited scale between India and the Christian West began after 1600. But although some missionaries began to carry on their preaching activities in the period before the Battle of Plassey (1757), there was no systematic study of Sanskrit language and literature. Earlier than William Jones and Sir Charles Wilkins (1749-1836) who brought out one of the first English translations of the Bhagavad Gita, some missionaries had read some Sanskrit. Roberto de Nobili is said to be the first European Sanskrit scholar. Nobili had come to India in 1606. Peter Heinrich Roth, a Swabian Jesuist, studied Sanskrit for six years and collected materials for publishing a Sanskrit grammar. But he died in Agra in 1668. One person was, however, involved in producing a translation of the Yajurveda (Ezur Veda) which turned out to be forged and incomplete. The discovery of that forgery in 1782 dismayed people, and inquisitive souls lost hope of ever finding the Vedas. It was in this context that William Jones appeared in the field with immense enthusiasm and self-confidence in mastering this old language.

     Before coming to India Jones had acquired good knowledge of the Persian and Arabic language. He had full acquaintance with the classics and modern West European languages like English, French, German and Italian. He had some knowledge of Hebrew. But Jones' journey to India transformed this scholar into a Sanskritist of overwhelming influence. His wide literary culture made Jones a lover of India and the Hindus.

     William Jones took help from Hindu Pundits on pursuing his Sanskrit studies in India. When he came to India and was functioning as a Judge of the Supreme Court under the English East India Company, he had difficulty in finding a Brahmin Pundit as a teacher. Ultimately, he received training in Sanskrit from Ram Lochan Kavibhushana who was a Vaidya by caste.

     William Jones took great pains in publishing in 1789 an English translation of the greatest work of the Indian poet Kalidasa the Abhijnana-Shakuntalam. This influential translation was rendered into German by George Forster. This German translation of Jones' English version caught, through J. Hearider, the attention of Johann W. Goethe (1749-1832), the dominating figure of German poetic literature. Goethe was thrilled by the maturity and grey wisdom revealed in the character of Shakuntala. He found in Kalidasa's drama the junction of the terrestrial realism and the celestial bliss. Goethe wrote thus:


Would'st thou the young years blossoms
and fruits of its decline And all by which the soul is charmed
enraptured, feasted and fed Would'st thou the earth and heaven
itself in one sole name combine
I name thee О Shakuntala and all
at once is said!


     William Jones, however, was the pioneer in the introduction of this justly famous work to the western world and even to numerous Indian readers. He has also to his credit, an English rendering of Jayadeva's Gita Govinda and Kalidasa's Ritusamhara.

     William Jones was not a Vedic scholar although, he has translated a few Vedic and Upanishadic Mantras, including the Gayatri. His Vedic translations cover just four pages, out of a total of ten volumes of his complete works. Jones translated the eighteen stanzas of the Ishopanishad. He also translated one out of the seven sections on the Maitrayani Upanishad. Besides the Shakuntalam Jones was attracted to the Manusmriti, the law book of the Hindus. Colebrooke had written in a letter to his father (noted in Max Muller, Chips from a German Workshop, Vol. IV, p. 416) that William Jones had read the original Manusmriti three times through. In preparing his own translation Jones had indeed, laboured hard. His translation was published after his death. There is available now a version of Jones' work edited by W.E. Hopkins late of the Yale University, under the title The Ordinances of Manu.

     In the middle ages, extensive digests of Hindu law were prepared. The two most voluminous are Laxmidhara's Kaitya-Kalpataru and Hemadri's Chaturvarga Chintamani. Such digests help the preservation of a mass of literary pieces and stanzas that would have been lost otherwise. In the early years of the East India Company two important legal digests were prepared. The one was prepared under the instructions of Governor General Hastings and this Sanskrit digest called Vivadarnavasetu was first translated into Persian and then again translated from Persian into English by N. Halhed and is called the Laws of the Gentoos which deals with problems of family law. This work was published in 1776 by the East India Company. A German translation of this work was also published in 1778. I also remember to have seen a manuscript copy of Jagamah's Digest in Sanskrit in the Sanskrit University Library at Varanasi in December 1986. Most probably this second Digest was translated by Т.Н. Colebrooke (who finished the translation on 13.1.1777) and was published after the death of Jones in 1797-98 in Kolkata under the title 'A Digest of Hindu Law on Contracts and Successions' with a Commentary by Jagannath Tarkapanchanan in four large-sized volumes. While Halhed's translation was of the Persian version of the Vivadarnavasetu, Colebrooke translated the second digest under Jones' guidance directly from Sanskrit itself. Colebrooke also published a translation of Jimutavahana's work Dayabhaga with extracts from Vijnanesvara's Mitakshdra and it was published in two volumes in 1810 under the title Two Treatises on the Hindu Law of Inheritance.

     To provide a solid institutional base to his creative intellectual endeavours Jones established The Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784. He nursed this society for ten years as its president till his premature death in 1794. A very large number of outstanding Sanskrit texts have been published by the Asiatic Society during its over two centuries of existence. Some of these texts are Aitareya and Tandya Brahmanas, the Prajna Paramita and the Bhamati. The Saduktikarnamrita edited by Ramavatara Sharma was published by the Asiatic Society. These and very many other publications of the society have helped in the restoration and advance of Sanskrit learning.

     The West, certainly, produced many outstanding Sanskrit grammarians. Whitney of Yale, Goldstucher in London, Bopp (1791-1867), Bohtling and Jacob Wackernagel (1853-1940) (Swiss) in the Germanic countries and Macdonell of Oxford, were path-makers of a superior stature. Hindu Pundits are reluctant to acknowledge the scholarly eminence of a person unless he has mastered the Ashladhyayi, Mahabhashya and the Siddhanta-Kaumudi. Generally people like Jones and Griffith (1826-1906) have a pragmatic approach to the study of Sanskrit grammar. They studied it in a functional way to facilitate comprehension of the Sanskrit language. But cultivating the difficult treatises of Sanskrit grammar like the Shabdakaustubha and Shabdendushekhara which sometimes require decades of precious labour-power does not appeal to the Western Sanskritists. The latter want to do some creative work. William Jones cannot be rated as an eminent Sanskrit grammarian. Some critics rate H. T. Colebrooke (1765-1837) as a sounder and more comprehensive Sanskrit scholar than William Jones because of the former's command over Sanskrit grammar and the astronomy of Bhaskara. The pioneering significance of Jones must, nonetheless, be recognized.

     In the middle ages the fables of the Panchatantra were translated in some of the language of West Asia and Europe, and these renderings had been immensely influential in the development of the fable literature in these countries. Al-beruni and Abul Fazl were eminent scholars who had adequate knowledge of the Sanskrit treasures. In the Ain-i-Akbari, Abul Fazl gives adequate evidence of his Sanskrit learning. But these Muslim Sanskritists could not produce any outstanding work showing mastery of the difficult branches of the Sanskrit language and literature. No parallels of William Jones and Max Muller were produced in the medieval non-Hindu world. The translations of parts of the epics - the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in Persian could not have any recognizable impact.

     William Jones was a pioneer in the pursuit of the comparative methodology. He had the keenness to find some common features of Sanskrit with Greek, Latin and the modern languages of Europe. He found equal literary eminence in the work of Kalidasa and Shakespeare. He boldly declared the presence of parallel features in the Indian logic and ontology of the Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Samkhya and Vedanta and the Speculation of the Greek Ionics, atomists, Milesians and the Pythagoreans. He did not carry on advanced researches in the comparative philosophy, comparative mythology and comparative metaphysics and political thought. He died too early and he did not have the necessary competence for these erudite researches. But his enthusiasm and wide-ranging literary interest were sufficient to inspire thoughtful students. His ever-expanding theoretical pursuits make him a source of inspiration.

     It is said that Jones used to walk for four miles on office days from his residence to the office of the Supreme Court near the Kolkata Maidan. It is really unfortunate that this noble son of humanity should have met with death prematurely. On the stone epitaph on his Kolkata grave, it is inscribed that Jones would say that he was a person who was afraid not of death but only of God. Reminding one of the Ishopanishad, it is written that there lay buried the mortal remains of that man (Jones) who acknowledged the doctrine of equality.

     Although trained in the atmosphere of the Christian monotheism tempered with trinitarianism, Jones composed or translated hymns in honour of many Hindu deities and gods. The conception of the Vedic Pushan, the nourishing sun-god, appealed to him. Narayana, who is imminent in water, also fascinated him. He had come to India as a Judge of the East India Company's Supreme Court at Kolkata in 1783 and there is no adverse remark against his character and judicial integrity.

     People like William Jones, Paul Deussen and the Russsian Buddhologist Stcherbatsky (1866-1942) had genuine and boundless admiration for the comprehensiveness, subtlety and brilliance of the Hindu mind. Theirs and of many others, slightly less generous than they, eloquent testifications to the Hindu creative eminence have added to the national pride of the Indian intelligentsia.



     Prabuddha Bharata

     Vedanta Kesari

     Vedanta Mass Media


International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015








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