chapter  3
18 Pages

The Gita goes global

The third stage began with the direct translation of the Gita from the Sanskrit original into English by Sir Charles Wilkins (1749-1836), at the instance of Warren Hastings (1732-1818), the then Governor General of India, published in London in 1785. It was titled: Bhagavad Geeta or the Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon, in Eighteen Lectures; with Notes. Hastings, who encouraged and supported it, had to justify its printing and publication before the Court of Directors of the East India Company. Though he may have done so on the grounds of the need to know the culture and religion of the people who were ruled by the British, Hastings had a genuine interest in India’s cultural heritage

and was sure that the Gita ‘will survive when the British in India shall have long ceased’ (quoted by Desai 2014: 10). Hastings argued that ‘reading the Gita would help a British public overcome its previous prejudice about Indian savagery, and acquire a more generous and true estimation of native dignity as well as accomplishment’ (Davis 2015: 94). He also believed that the British should govern the Indian territories under its control, ‘not according to British law but according to the laws and customs of the local residents’ (Davis 2015: 76). Knowing their religion was a part of this policy. The choice of the Gita was because, as Wilkins wrote in his preface to his translation, ‘The Brahmans esteem this work to contain all the grand mysteries of their religion’ (Davis 2015: 79). Wilkins had located himself at Benares (Varanasi) to study Sanskrit and Sanskrit texts. The translation of the Gita was a result of collaboration between him and Sanskrit pundits there, particularly with the pundit Kashinatha Bhattacharya. Davis notes that there were no Sanskrit-English dictionaries then, and Kashinatha prepared a 10,000-word vocabulary and a list of Sanskrit verb roots to help Wilkins and William Jones, who was also deeply interested in translating Sanskrit texts (Davis 2015: 79). A flood of translations of other texts followed Wilkins’s Gita (1785) – Hitopadesha (1787), Shakuntala (1789), Gita Govinda (1792), the Laws of Manu (1794) with many more to follow (Davis 2015: 76). William Jones took a sustained interest in Sanskrit, founded the Asiatic Society in Calcutta in 1784 and, apart from translating several Sanskrit texts, published a critical edition of Amarakosha in 1808. Jones is considered as the father of Indology, which emerged as a separate discipline by itself devoted to Indic studies. It interested many in Europe particularly in Germany. It gave rise to the idea that ancient Sanskrit could well have been the source of Indo-European languages. Wilkins’s Gita was thus a trendsetter.