Part II : Sir William Jones
Founder, Royal Asiatic Society
The real pioneer of European Indology was Sir William Jones (1746 – 1794), reputedly a scholar, gifted linguist, founder of the Royal Asiatic Society and, by all accounts, a man of superior intellect. He was a judicial officer in the East India Company and, it appears, a confidante of Warren Hastings (1732-1818.).
Jones ostensibly became an ardent admirer of India. He wrote, “I am in love with Gopia, charmed with Crishen (Krishna), an enthusiastic admirer of Raama and a devout adorer of Brihma (Brahma), Bishen (Vishnu), Mahisher (Maheshwara); not to mentionthat Judishteir, Arjen, Corno (Yudhishtira, Arjuna, Karna) and the other warriors of the Mahabharataappear greater in my eyes than Agamemnon, Ajax and Achilles appeared when I first read the Iliad.”
The truth of the matter is that the proto-historical thought prevailing in entire Western world until 18th Century was circumscribed by the Biblical premise : God’s creation was begun about 4000 BC ! Nobody was without this limiting perspective while interpreting historical evidence – written, oral or archeological. Jones remained true to the Biblical dogma of Genesis, which he took to be a literal account. His chronology for ancient India, including the dating of Chandragupta Maurya to the period of Alexander’s invasion of India was dictated at least in part by the Biblical dogma.
Jones may not have had an ulterior motive in doing this, since these were the times prior to advent of Charles Darwin. All the same, his disinclination to apply a more critical eye while setting up a dateline benchmark on rather flimsy data gives us a reason to recall his prejudice for the deep Biblical, which in turn belief renders his intent suspect. In 1786, while delivering his third lecture, Sir William made the following statement which aroused the curiosity of many scholars and finally led to the emergence of comparative linguistics. Noticing the similarities between Sanskrit and the Classical Languages of Europe such as Greek and Latin he declared :
“The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine all three of them, without believing them to have sprung from some common source which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family…”
There is cognitive dissonance in this stance of Sir William who, on the one hand, praises the Sanskrit language and its significance while, at the same time, not inviting a single Indian to participate in the deliberations of the Royal Asiatic Society. In fact, Indians were effectively barred from such participation. He had a good understanding of Vedanta and its the fundamental nuance between existence and its perceptibility : that, matter cannot be denied but had no essence independent of our mental perception of it; that “existence and perceptibility are convertible terms.”
But we rushing ahead. We must understand the milieu of the times, to fathom the motivations of the individuals on the stage then, who took momentous decisions on our behalf. Who were these people who came to India so eagerly ? What motivated them to do so ? Prodosh Aich has documented the real story behind the study of Indology, the subject that Sir William was credited with initiating. There are many questions that he answers in the book Lügen mit Langen Beinen (Lies with Long Legs).
For example, individuals who served in upper echelons of the British East India company were awarded the title Sir (or a Knighthood) before being sent to India, presumably to impress the Indians. A gentleman with the title “Sir” was a Knight of the British Empire, reminiscent of the Knights of King Arthur. A Knight did not belong to the hereditary nobility, except on rare occasions. In order to become a Lord and sit in the House of Lords, one had to own a substantial estate; but land was scarce in England and hence, while it was possible to impress the Indian by awarding a Sir, it rarely resulted in their elevated to Peerage.
We mention this to emphasise that the vast majority of officials who came to India were from modest circumstances and only became wealthy after their stay in India. In other words, the instances were rare when the individual was already famous as an achiever or was a scholar of some repute before he came to India. So it was in the case of Sir William, whose primary motivation in coming to India was to attain wealth, at an accelerated pace than he could hope for in his own country.
As to his mastery of languages, it appears to be considerably exaggerated. He is credited with knowing 32 languages ! He apparently knew Greek and Latin, and had learned Arabic and Persian. But so great was his ignorance of Indic languages that he was unable to distinguish any of the languages spoken in Bengal when he arrived in Calcutta, in 1782. He was advised by Charles Wilkins to learn Sanskrit, upon which he is quoted as saying ‘Life is too short and my necessary business too long for me to think at my age – he was 38 then – of acquiring a new language, when those which I have already learned have such a mine of curious and agreeable information.’ Thus began the study of Indo European languages as one family. Such a study falls under the rubric of a field known as Philology.
Philology is the study of ancient texts and languages. The term originally meant a love (Greek philo-) of learning and literature (Greek -logia). In the academic traditions of several nations, a wide sense of the term describes the study of a language together with its literature, historical and cultural contexts, which are indispensable for a complete understanding of the literary works. Philology thus comprises the study of the grammar, rhetoric, history, interpretation of authors, and critical traditions associated with a given language. Such a wide-ranging definition is becoming rare nowadays, and “philology” tends to refer to a study of texts from the perspective of historical linguistics.
Inadvertently, Sir William set in motion a chain of events beginning with the search for a Proto Indo-European language (PIE). What puzzles us is that it never occurred to him, as far as we are aware, that possibly Sanskrit itself could be the grand ancestor to all Indo-European languages. Untill then, Europeans had assumed that the oldest language related to the European languages was Hebrew. Given the anti-Semitic feelings that simmered underneath the surface in European hearts, there was a general relief among all when Sir William’s study informed them that the roots of their heritage lay elsewhere than in Hebrew. But even as it did, the pioneer realised that transferring that origin onto the “unwashed millions” of a subject people would perhaps be equally unacceptable. Indeed, it would have been prohibitive and preposterous to even think, much less admit, that India possessed the linguistic technology (in Panini’s Ashtadhyayi) to explain the grammar of their own languages.
As may be the case, there are two major disservice that Jones did to the Indic Civilisation. One was the possible misdating of Chandragupta Maurya by several centuries and the other was postulating the assumption of a PIE, which implied an Urheimat (ancestral home) from where the Indo Europeans fanned out to the four corners of the Eurasian landmass. By so doing, he laid the seeds for a fractured historical narrative for the Indics, which was not supported by any Indian legend, tradition or folklore. In short, he saddled the Indics with perpetually having to refute dual falsehoods : a false chronology and an imposed ‘Aryan Invasion’ or what has been light heartedly called the “Aryan Tourist theory.”
When it came to synchronism, the only significant data that Sir William could utilise was the Greek invasion under Alexander. This was the earliest date that he could come up with, and the data he had was the notes kept by Megasthenes, the ambassador sent to India by Seleucus Nikator, one of the generals of Alexander who broke away from the main Alexandrian empire to set up his own Satrapy.
We will assume for the moment that the accepted date of the invasion, when Alexander was in the Indus valley, is indeed 326 BCE. There are severe difficulties with this dating. At the outset, the name “Alexander” rings no bells in India; it does not appear in any Indian literary text and is therefore, from Indian perspective, a “manufactured” event … hardly a judicious choice for historical synchronism pertaining to this land. Sir William however is delighted with his discovery, of Megasthenes being the ambassador of Seleucus Nikator to the Maurya Empire. We quote Sir William from his discourse on February 28, 1793, while marking the tenth anniversary of the Asiatic Society :
“I cannot help mentioning a discovery which accident threw in my way, (I) thought my proofs must be reserved for an essay which I have destined for the fourth volume of your Transactions. To fix the situation of that Palibothra which was visited and described by Megasthenes, had always appeared a very difficult problem.”
“…but this only difficulty was removed, when I found in a classical Sanscrit book, near 2000 years old, that Hiranyabahu, or golden-armed, which the Greeks changed into Erannoboas, or the river with a lovely murmur, was in fact another name for the Son itself, though Megasthenes, from ignorance or inattention, has named them separately. This discovery led to another of greater moment; for Chandragupta, who, from a military adventurer, became, like Sandracottus, the sovereign of Upper Hindostan, (and) actually fixed the seat of his empire at Pataliputra, where he received ambassadors from foreign princes; and was no other than that very Sandracottus who concluded a treaty with Seleucus Nicator; so that we have solved another problem, to which we before alluded, and may in round numbers consider the twelve and three hundredth years before Christ.”
Jones’ speech informs us of his fancies : that he has found a classical but nameless Sanskrit book of about 2,000 years before; that, Chandragupta Maurya was no other than the very Sandracottus who is described by Megasthenes to have made a treaty with Seleucus around 312 BC; and, to establish that Chandragupta belonged to the Maurya dynasty, he mentions about some poem by Somdev which speaks of the murder of Mahapadma of the Nanda dynasty and his eight sons by Chandragupta in order to usurp the kingdom.
In this way Jones created an arbitrary and fictitious connection between Chandragupta Maurya and Sandracottus. He says in his speech, “A most beautiful poem by Somadev, comprising a very long chain of instructive and agreeable stories, begins with the famed revolution at Pataliputra, by the murder of King Nanda with his eight sons, and the usurpation of Chandragupta; and the same revolution is the subject of a tragedy in Sanscrit, entitled the Coronation of Chandra.” (p. Xxviii) These were the basic points of his speech that was called “the Discovery” of the identity of Chandragupta Maurya as Sandracottus.
But the problem is that such a formulation was completely erroneous in all historical aspects and there are several hypotheses that he makes that are no longer valid. What are these ?
… to be continued
- Indian History And Its Historians (vamadevananda.wordpress.com)
- God Language Sanskrit (godlanguagesanskrit.wordpress.com)
- Proto Indo-European Homeland, first in the series … https://vamadevananda.wordpress.com/2012/11/17/alternate-history-4/