William Jones and Western Indology
Vishwanath Prasad Varma
Vishwanath Prasad Varma of Patna is a former president of
All-Indian Political Science Congress.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.