A single fir-tree, lonely,
on a northern mountain height,
sleeps in a white blanket,
draped in snow and ice.
His dreams are of a palm-tree,
who, far in eastern lands,
weeps, all alone and silent,
among the burning sands.
– Heinrich Heine
The unrequited longing of the incomplete soul for the fulfilling beauty; the unquenchable thirst for the ultimate escape- this is the kind of love Occident feels for Orient. The ‘eastern lands’, which was translated as ‘sunrise land’ by Emma Lazarus in 1881, actually refers to the Orient, the ‘Morganland’ in German. But does that ‘land of morning’, ‘the land of sunrise’ have any specific geographical location? Where does this Orient where a palm tree weeps among the burning sands, belong to? Is it somewhere near Morocco or Arabian
Peninsula? Or is it located in the imagination of the Romantic poet?
Wherever it was, India had not featured in this list till 19 th Century. Edward Said in his seminal book Orientalism, did not include India in his mapping of Orient. Though, according to Said, Orient was an ‘invention’ of the ‘West’, India was not a part of that imagined space. The Romantic painters of the late 18 th and the early 19 th century, only painted landscapes, streets and harems of imaginary West Asian and North African cities. Napoleon’s mission to Egypt in 1798 played a key role to shape up the idea of that Orient. Europe suddenly came across a culture which was there in the collective unconscious of their unachieved desire long before but not known to them. During the time of the formation of national identity, the invention of the Orient was crucial for Europe. The expansion of horizon of cultures compelled Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe to think beyond nationalism and state that “national literature has not much meaning nowadays, the epoch of world literature is at hand, and each must work to hasten its coming.”
But when did India come into purview of this new world? It was only after 1789, India started to be incorporated in the Oriental imagination. Robert Southey’s The Curse of Kehama, Byron’s “The Irish Avatar”, “Stanzas to a Hindoo Air”, Shelley’s “Zeinab and Kathema”, “The Indian Serenade”, Keats’s Endymion, Goethe’s East-West Diwans and many
more made numerous references to the existence of an Utopian Orient which was in India.
But from where did this notion of Oriental India come into being? From when did it become so impossible to ignore the literary achievements of India? The answer lies in the name of a single person. Sir William Jones (1746-1794). Yes, it is Sir William Jones who took the sole responsibility to expand the horizon of expectation of the European reader by introducing the new dimension of the ‘Orient’. It is him who guided the Romantic poets’ imagination towards the genesis of an ‘untouched’‘uncorrupted’‘sacred’ and‘pristine’ East. And it all began from 1789. 1789 witnessed the publication of Sacontala or the Fatal Ring.This practically changed Europe’s literary world.
Though, the first encounter between the European and the Indian civilization predates the foundation of the East India Company (1600 CE), William Jones was the first person to make the literature written/ composed in an Indian language familiar in Europe. Jones came to India as a member of the Judiciary. He was appointed as the judge of the Supreme Court of Bengal Presidency in 1783. Most of the people who came to India during this period had an intention to make a fortune. Jones was not an exception. As his profession did not bring in enough money for a newly engaged couple (he was engaged with Anna Maria Shipley in 1778), he asked for help from some of his influential friends to find a suitable place in Indian Court. This event, obviously, did not bring much change to the Indian jurisprudence, but altered the perspective of the Europeans on Indian civilization.
Primarily, Jones was not looking at Indian ‘literature’. Hardly any Europeans of his time did think that India had a separate literary tradition at all. According to most of the Accidentalists, India was a land of ancient savages lacking any form of historical documentation or literature. In fact, to them, it was the sacred task of the colonizers to enlighten a part of the world where ‘civilization’ was nothing but a hollow term. However, Jones’ mission was a bit different. He was well aware of the Asiatic cultures. He had already translated an account of Nader Shah from original Persian into French (1768), translated various Persian poems into Latin (1774) and English (1772) and had written a grammar of the Persian language (1771). Since Nader Shah had invaded India once and Persia had a long history of more than a thousand years of trading with India, Jones had a pretty good idea that India has a distinct culture (and literature as well). Therefore, his agenda was to find out an indigenous form of law and jurisdiction which could be applied to the contemporary Indian system. He formed Asiatic Society (1784) just one year after he came to Bengal (25 th September, 1783) and started collecting the documents on Muslim and ‘Hindu’ laws. Though Charles Wilkins, Nathaniel Brassey Halhed and Jonathan Duncan, after arriving India a decade before William Jones started working on Indian cultures and languages, Jones was the first one to propose a centre for Asian studies which will study “almost everything concerning man and nature within the geographical limits of the continent”. The website of Asiatic Society offers a substantial list of subjects that was a part of Jones’ memorandum that he had prepared prior to making his way to India. Indeed it was a huge project encompassing“the laws of the Hindus and Mohammedans; the history of the ancient world; proofs and illustrations of scripture; traditions concerning the deluge; modern politics and geography of Hindustan; Arithmetic and Geometry and mixed sciences of Asiatic; Medicine, Chemistry, Surgery and Anatomy of the Indians; natural products of India; poetry, rhetoric and morality of Asia; music of the Eastern nations; the best accounts of Tibet and Kashmir; trade, manufactures, agriculture and commerce of India: Mughal constitution, Marhatta constitution etc.” The Society started functioning having Warren Hastings, its main patron as its President and Jones as its Vice President. A few days later Hastings discontinued with the President post and Jones was appointed as the new President. He held this post till his death in 1794.
The basic purpose of forming Asiatic Society was to probe into Indian culture. In the introduction of his translation of Abhijnanasakuntalam, he wrote: “In the north of India there are many books, called Nátac, which, as the Bráhmens assert, contain a large portion of ancient history without any mixture of fable; and having an eager desire to know the real state of this empire before the conquest of it by the Savages of the North, I was very solicitous, on my arrival in Bengal, to procure access to those books, either by the help of translations, if they had been translated, or by learning the language in which they were originally composed, and which I had yet a stronger inducement to learn from its connection with the administration of justice to the Hindûs.” (Preface, Sacontala or the Fatal Ring)
Hence he began his journey with Sanskrit. He kept a tutor called Radhakant and started picking up the language so well that within the next five years he translated several Sanskrit books. Though he was not the first European to learn Sanskrit, he was the first one to find out that Sanskrit has a strange resemblance with Greek, Latin and Persian. In the time long before the idea of Comparative Philology, Jones discovered that all of these languages had a common root. They can be studied together. The process of translating Abhijnanashakuntalam was an interesting one. He did not translate it directly into English. At first, he translated each word into Latin and then from Latin he rendered the expressions into English.
To a philologist like Jones, who knew at least twenty eight languages (and Wikipedia says, other than these twenty eight languages, he knew thirteen languages ‘reasonably well’), it was not a big deal to learn a new language and start translating from it. But here, the thing which interests us most is the thesis of selection. He did not choose Abhijnanashakuntalam for the sake of literary interests; rather he was more eager to study the ancient past which he found helpful to have control over the Indians. And that is why he did not stop after translating Shakuntala. Though he mentioned in the preface that he would not take the endeavour to translate the other Sanskrit texts accessible that time, he translated some portions of Hitopodesha and Manu Smriti (Institutes of Hindu Law or the Ordinances of Menu, 1796) as well. In the beginning of the colonial era, when there was no proper well- structured legal system available, the then Governor General Warren Hastings insisted that India should be ruled by her own rulebook. The translation of Manusmritiserved the purpose.
The British Laws for the Hindus were designed according to the translation of Manusmritiby William Jones.
But obviously, his contribution does not end here. Shakuntala had a major impact in the West. During the outbreak of French Revolution, when West Europe was gradually building up colonies in different parts of the world, Sacontala got published. Jones proposed a new place to take refuge in, to the Romantics. The West suddenly discovered a new culture and civilization in the form of a drama (William Jones labeled Abhijnanashakuntalam as a drama, not a Nataka) which did not go in accordance with the definition of Aristotelian Tragedy and Comedy. It marked a new beginning. Abhijnanashakuntalam has been translated forty six times in twelve European languages till date. Among these translations, the second one (the first one being William Jones’) was a German Prose translation by Georg Forster (1791), which the translator directly sent to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the father of German Romanticism. Spellbound Goethe, immediately after reading Shakuntala, composed a couplet praising its unique structure and the ‘Romantic’ storyline. The publication of Forster’s translation had a considerable effect on German literature. Goethe derived the idea of ‘Vorspiel auf dem Theater’ (Prelude on the Stage) from the preface of Abhijnanasakuntalam. Johann Gottfried Herder published an essay on the Eastern Drama. Heinrich Heine got influenced by the literature from the east. Camille Claudel created a sculpture called Shakuntala.
The Orientalist approach of Jones to find out and translate anything related to Hindu customs took a new turn after his encounter with Abhijnana Shakuntalam. Jones developed an inclination towards Sanskrit literature. He translated Jaydev a’s Geetha govindam (1789) and supervised the translation of Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara. It was easier for him to relate to these texts as his literary experience helped him to read the texts in the light of Romanticism. These texts could not have the same impact as Shakuntala but it directed Europe to recognize the Indian culture in a more holistic way.
Not only Sanskrit literature, Europe was indebted to Jones for his contribution to the treatises on Indian musicology. Even before the publication of Abhijnana Shakuntalam in 1789, while the process of translation was going on, Jones wrote his essay on Indian Classical Music, ‘On the Musical Modes of the Hindus’ in 1784 (though it was published in 1792, eight years after it was written). He got fascinated by the use of music in those Sanskrit texts he was translating. His growing penchant for Indian music led the Europeans to explore numerous manuscripts of musicological treatises written in Sanskrit. Jones’ friend Richard Johnson, influenced by him, commissioned the ‘discovery’ of several series of Ragamala paintings. It is said that Jones’ view on Indian Music was prejudiced. He was doubtful about the contribution of the Muslim authors during the Sultanate and Mughal period. He found Abul Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari and the Persian translation of Sangeetha Darpana by RasBoras Khan less authentic; rather he concentrated more on treatises written in Sanskrit such as Somanatha is Raga vibodha, Damodara’s Sangita Darpana And Narayana Deva Sangita Narayana.
‘On the Musical Modes of the Hindus’ may be of little academic value in today’s world but we must keep in mind, it was the first treatise on Indian musicology written in English. Jones Translation from the Sanskrit and his works on Indian culture played a significant role in colonial India. He was successful to rejuvenate the sense of cultural nationalism among the Indians. He, somehow, rediscovered Kalidasa. From Raja Ravi Varma to Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, all found Shakuntala a very important text to project the cultural antiquity of India. Jones was the first one to show the common ancestry of India, Europe and Persia. It paved the way to Comparative Philology. He revived the study of Sanskrit which gave birth to a new discipline called Indology. Though Jones’ translation was guided by the Victorian sense of morality which did not permit him to translate the direct sexual references, the world literature will always be indebted to him for bringing an ancient ‘Orient’ in the European light.
– Dr Gourab Chatterjee
(The author Dr. Gourab Chatterjee works as Assistant Professor (English), School of Languages, KIIT Deemed to be University, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India)