On first encountering India,
European and American scholars were
often deeply moved by the wisdom,
breadth, and eloquence of Vedic philosophy.
IN 1784 THE ASIATIC Society of Bengal was established in Calcutta, to publish and disseminate historical, linguistic, and literary studies. William Jones, Charles Wilkins, and Thomas Colebrook emerged as the pioneers of Western Indological studies. Charles Wilkins had been the first to learn Sanskrit, and he busied himself studying with pundits in Benares and translating Sanskrit works. In 1785 he published his rendition of the Bhagavad-gita.
Several of the scholarly inclined British colonizers began to intuit that perhaps they had stumbled upon the primeval religion, predating anything from the Middle East. In 1786 the linguistically brilliant judge Sir William Jones announced to the Asiatic Society of Bengal his famous discovery that Sanskrit was related to Latin and Greek, as well as Persian, Celtic, and Gothic.
To be precise, Jones was not the first to notice similarities. One hundred years earlier, a Florentine merchant in Goa, Filippo Sassetti, and an English Jesuit, Thomas Stevens, had independently de-tected the same phenomenon. Jones, however, was certainly the first to make a full scholarly presentation. And he forthrightly proclaimed heartfelt attraction to Vedic literature and philosophy:
I am in love with Gopia, charmed with Crishen [Krishna], an enthusiastic admirer of Raama and a devout adorer of Brihma [Brahma], Bishe [Vishnu], Mahiser [Maheshvara (Shiva)]; not to mention that Judishteir, Arjen, Corno [Yudhisthira, Arjuna, Karna] and other warriors of the M'hab'harat [Mahabharata] appear greater in my eyes than Agamemnon, Ajax and Achilles appeared when I first read the Iliad.
Jones described himself as "a devout and convinced Christian," and like modern scholars he viewed the Bhagavata Purana as "a motley story." Yet, remarkably ecumenical in his outlook, he did not hide his appreciation of the Vedic knowledge of reincarnation: "I am no Hindu but I hold the doctrine of the Hindus concerning a future state to be incomparably more rational, more pious and more likely to deter men from vice than the horrid opinions inculcated by the Christians on punishment without end."
The German Romance With India
The work of the Asiatic Society of Bengal became the highbrow talk of Europe. The Society's journal attained immediate fame, and the English translations by its Calcutta Sanskritists were rendered into German and French. German scholars, in particular, lost no time accelerating into this new intellectual frontier. Sanskrit and Vedic philosophy became a prime delight for many German romanticists. Whereas the British relationship with India quickly entered the mold of colonialism and conversion, the Germans with no economic or political interests in India to tend freely plunged into a lively intellectual and emotional attachment.
The first to incite the German passion for India was Johann Gottfried von Herder, a philosopher and writer whose advocacy of intuition over rationality greatly influenced the famed Goethe. From von Herder came many of the ideas that formed the basis of German Romanticism, and he fired the imaginations of his literary fellows to venerate Mother India. "The Brahmins [the spiritual intelligentsia of India] have wonderful wisdom and strength to form their people in great degrees of gentleness, courtesy, temperance, and chastity. They have so effectively established their people in these virtues that, in comparison, Europeans frequently appear as beastly, drunken or mad."
Friedrich von Schlegel, another philosopher and writer whose essays contributed to the intellectual basis of German Romanticism, took to studying Sanskrit. Beginning in 1805, he used his newfound knowledge to teach a series of lectures at the University of Cologne. "Everything, absolutely everything, is of Indian origin," he exulted. He attributed the Egyptian civilization to missionary seeds from India, and asserted that the Hebrew nation based itself on remnants of Vedic metaphysics. In 1808 Schlegel published his Essay on Language and Wisdom of the Indians. The first two sections of his book glorified the beauty and antiquity of the Sanskrit language, as well as its brilliance in conveying profound philosophical concepts. In another section he advocated that a migration of talent and intellect from northern India had introduced civilization to Europe.
To their intense appreciation of India, the German Romanticists grafted a love of Germany as the first European recipient of civilization. "If the regeneration of the human species started in the East, Germany must be considered the Orient of Europe," said Friedrich von Schlegel's brother, August Wilhelm von Schlegel. An insuential scholar in his own right, August Wilhelm became the first professor of Sanskrit at the University of Bonn. In 1823 Julius von Klaproth coined the term "Indo-Germans," and many German writers picked it up. Naturally, non-German intellectuals of the time quickly began to prefer the term "Indo-Europeans," and Franz Bopp, in 1833, established that preference even east of the Rhine.
The Prussian minister of education, Wilhelm von Humboldt, began studying Sanskrit in 1821. Also renowned as a founding father of linguistics, Humboldt published an extensive study of the Bhagavad-gita. He described the Bhagavad-gita as "the deepest and loftiest thing the world has to show." The rampant fascination with India affected also the famed composer Ludwig van Beethoven. His manuscripts contain fragments of selections from the Upanishads and the Gita.
The philosopher Georg Hegel compared the discovery of Sanskrit to the beholding of a new continent. He felt it established "historic ties between the German and Indian people." Though the complex Hegel admitted to no great love for India, and criticized Romantics for idolizing it, nevertheless in his classic Lectures on the Philosophy of History, he eulogized the Indian subcontinent as the "starting-point for the whole Western world."
Another famous German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, became completely enchanted by the Upanishads. Upon reading a translation into Latin, he called them "the production of the highest human wisdom." Considering the Upanishads to contain almost superhuman conceptions, Schopenhauer said, "It is the most satisfying and elevated reading (with the exception of the original text) which is possible in the world; it has been my solace in life and will be the solace of my death."
So internationally known was the magnitude of the German immersion in Vedic studies that, when in 1871 the various German states finally consolidated into the German Empire, some British authorities in India attributed the unification to the pervasive German love for Vedic knowledge. Though an exaggeration for sure, the notion does indicate Germany's reputation then for relishing ancient India. Sir Henry Maine, a scholarly member of the Viceroy of India's council, dramatically declared, "a nation has been born out of Sanskrit."
The energetic German commitment to Indic studies continues to this day. Almost every serious German library features a special collection of books on India. Every university maintains a departmental library of Indology. Chairs of Sanskrit are maintained at six universities: Bonn, Tubingen, Hamburg, Munich, Marburg, and Gottingen. Almost every university offers Sanskrit instruction in its department of comparative linguistics. Three German universities publish their own magazine on Indology.
Other Nations Jump Aboard
The French were not to be left out of the rush to embrace India. Voltaire, the quintessential Enlightenment thinker, became fascinated. In 1775 he asserted, "I am convinced that everything has come down to us from the banks of the Ganges: astronomy, astrology, metempsychosis, etc." He too seemed to think everything about Adam and Genesis actually derived from India. Diderot, the French philosopher and writer famed for his work on the Encyclopadie, suggested in his article on India that the "sciences may be more ancient in India than in Egypt." In Paris, the first university chair for Sanskrit was established in 1816. Quickly French scholars translated the works of India-loving Germans. Jules Michelet, the French histor-ian known for his spirited seventeen-volume Histoire de France, felt certain that India was "the womb of the world."
The Slavic peoples also wanted in. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, questions of Slav roots concerned scholars of the various Slavic regions. Some would publish works comparing words in Sanskrit and Slavic languages. The Czech scholar Pavel Shafarik wrote that the Slavic peoples originated in India. A Polish scientist, Valentin Mayevsky, elaborately described the connection between the Slavic peoples and ancient Indians. Russia published its first Sanskrit text in 1787. N. I. Novikov translated Charles Wilkins's rendition of the Bhagavad-gita from English. An Asian Academy was established at St. Petersburg in 1810, with a Sanskrit professorship. Russia would go on to produce famous nineteenth-century Indologists such as V. P. Vasilyev and V. P. Minayev. The Hungarian Csoma de Krsna (1784-1842) visited India and studied language and literature there.
Across the Atlantic the Americans kept up with the Vedic bonanza. Formal Indic studies began there at Yale University in 1841. Elihu Yale, a former governor for the British East India Company at Madras, had funded the university in 1718, with the help of gifts brought over from India. The new university, rewarding his patronage, took on his name. At Harvard University, in 1836, a group of authors and poets gathered to found the Transcendental Club of America. The cream of America's literary world Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and others studied the Vedic texts available, as well as ideas from Goethe, Kant, and the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Persians.
The American transcendentalists, as they are now called, located and studied English translations of the Bhagavad-gita, Upanishads, and the Vishnu and Bhagavata Puranas. Emerson issued forth his classic praise of the Gita: "I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad-gita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spake to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions that exercise us."
Henry David Thoreau, the still venerated author of Walden, is on record expressing intellectual euphoria: "What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like the light of a higher and purer luminary, which describes a loftier course through a purer stratum." Also, "In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial."
Anointing the Gita as the best intellectual treat, Thoreau said, "The reader is nowhere raised into and sustained in a bigger, purer or rarer region of thought than in the Bhagavad-gita." For an American of his very conservative and Christian time, he made a bold evaluation: "The religion and philosophy of the Hebrews are those of a wilder and ruder tribe, wanting the civility and intellectual refinements and subtlety of Vedic culture."
Other giants of the American literary world who acknowledged influence from Vedic philosophy were T. S. Eliot, Paul Elmer, and Irving Babbitt. They had all studied at Harvard under the renowned Sanskritist Charles Rochwell Lanman, who taught for over forty years and published books on Sanskrit and Vedic philosophy. Another factor contributing to Vedic interest in America was the founding, in 1842, of the American Oriental Society.
Certainly amid all the nations cited above, scholars with negative and even racist perceptions of the Vedic texts could be found. What is monumental, though, is the unique freshness and headiness that the very first winds of Indology blew through most academic chambers in the first half of the nineteenth century. "India, yes! The Vedas, yes!"
Especially at the junction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European intellectuals expected an "Oriental renaissance." The idea was that, just as the study of Greek had paved the way for the first Renaissance, so the study of Sanskrit and the Vedas would launch the second. The older Orientalism based on European studies of Arabic, Persian, and Hebrew had given way to India and the Vedas as the standard bearer.
Unencumbered by biases, the original reactions of European scholars are a testimony to the intellectual joy a fair-minded approach to the Vedas can bring. But the breezes of profound appreciation that swept the European continent did not last. After all, the British Crown had serious business to tend in India with immense consequences for the study of India's past.
Mainly the Calcutta-based British intellectuals had sparked Europe's enthusiasm for India. In their homeland, however, the boom was modest. Some intellectuals in the British Isles were charmed by the ancient wisdom of India its Sanskrit, astronomy, and geography. Some even sought to find a connection between ancient India and the Celts. The enthrallment did not last, in the downpour of realpolitik.
But the fire in England was soon damped. Great Britain could not, or would not, be the hearth for such a renaissance. Thereafter…the Victorians procured their best workers only by appealing to the German universities. . . . It was, above all, the case with Max Muller, who was born in Dessau in 1823 and died a professor of comparative linguistics at Oxford in 1900. Ultimately, England was to welcome many more Orientalists than she gave birth.
By the time the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, almost all the benign attitudes spurring Western scholars' unbiased appreciation of Vedic knowledge had turned into ice. No independent India would be born of Sanskrit knowledge. The British goal, stated and unstated, was to eradicate any notions that India had knowledge in remote antiquity.
His Holiness Devamrta Swami is based in Australia and Los Angeles. He travels regularly throughout South America and Russia.