By 1783, the year he was appointed judge in the Bengal Supreme Court, William Jones could read some two dozen languages. He had composed Latin poems, rendered pre-Islamic Arabic odes in English, and translated a biography of Nadir Shah from Persian into French. Jones received the lucrative judgeship because his accomplishments and genial personality deflected attention to a sufficient degree from his sympathy for the American side in that country’s war for independence from Britain. The post was worth 6,000 pounds a year, or about 9,30,000 pounds sterling in today’s currency, equivalent to a little over Rs 9 crore at current exchange rates.

Once his appointment was confirmed, the 38-year-old Jones could afford to marry his longtime betrothed, Anna Shipley. He planned to spend five or six years in India before retiring and returning to England. As things turned out, he continued to live in Bengal till his death in 1794, and it is for his Indian enquiries that he is chiefly remembered. Within four months of stepping on Indian shores, he founded the Asiatic Society, which was devoted to studying the culture of the largest continent. Apart from being white and male, prospective members needed only to express a love of knowledge to be admitted to the club, whose initial meetings were held in a jury room of the Calcutta court. He nudged his fellow Britons to welcome Indian members but only got them to accept the inclusion of native contributions in the society’s journal.

It was around this time that Jones began to study Indian languages in earnest, employing a group of Indian scholars to collect and translate Sanskrit and Persian manuscripts. In the weeks he had free from court duties, he would move upriver to a thatch-roof bungalow in Krishnagar, a centre of Sanskrit learning, discarding his judge’s robes for loose kurtas and spending more time conversing with pandits than with fellow-countrymen. Only a handful of Europeans before him had acquired a working knowledge of Sanskrit and none of them possessed anything like his command over numerous other tongues. Mulling over the structure of the language that had opened the doors of classical Indian learning to him, he came to a momentous conclusion, made public in his third annual address to the Asiatic Society, delivered on February 2, 1786:

The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a 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 them all three, without believing them to have sprung from a common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.

In the same passage, he perspicaciously included Gothic, Celtic and Persian in the list of languages which had sprung from the same root as Sanskrit, Greek and Latin. With a few cursory observations, he had inaugurated the field of comparative linguistics and the idea of what came to be called the Indo-European family of languages. Other philologists had previously produced analogous hypotheses, but his was the definitive statement. To put it another way, William Jones was the last person to discover the Indo-European language family, just as Christopher Columbus was the last to discover the Americas and Charles Darwin the last to discover the evolution of species.

Three Legends

In 1788, Jones translated into English the 4th century Indian playwright Kalidasa’s most celebrated drama, Abhijnanasakuntalam, giving it the title, Sacontala, or The Fatal Ring. His preface mentioned that Kalidasa lived “at a time when the Britons were as unlettered and unpolished as the army of Hanuman”, and described the play as “a most pleasing and authentic picture of old Hindu manners, and one of the greatest curiosities that the literature of Asia has yet brought to light”. The published translation was faithful to the original apart from a deleted description of Shakuntala’s breasts, considered too steamy for an increasingly conservative British public (The first edition of Thomas Bowdler’s Family Shakespeare was printed not long after Sacontala).

The action of Abhijnanasakuntalam commences with the great king Dushanta on a hunt. Pursuing a deer, Dushanta chances upon the hermitage of sage Kanva and is captivated by his foster-daughter Shakuntala. He courts Shakuntala, weds her, gets her pregnant, and leaves for his kingdom, promising an early reunion. Lost in dreamy memories of her time with Dushanta, Shakuntala fails to notice the arrival at Kanva’s hermitage of sage Durvasa, who feels affronted by her lack of hospitality. Most sages are quick with their curses and Durvasa is one of the tetchiest of the lot. He tells Shakuntala that she will be completely forgotten by the man whose thoughts kept her from doing her duty. After being mollified, he partially retracts the curse, allowing that Dushanta’s memory will return on seeing the ring he has left with Shakuntala as a remembrance. Unfortunately, Shakuntala loses the ring while bathing in a river, and is rejected by Dushanta when she appears in his court. The ring she has lost has been swallowed by a fish, which is snared by a fisherman, who finds the precious object in its belly. He recognises the king’s seal, and restores the ring, and thus the memory of Shakuntala, to Dushanta.

King Dushanta proposes to Shakuntala with a ring. Credit: Raja Ravi Varma/Wellcome Trust/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license].

The earliest extant version of the Shakuntala legend is found in the Mahabharata. The son born to Shakuntala and Dushanta is, after all, Bharata, the ancestor of the Indian nation, whose domain is the location of the great Bharata war. But the story of Shakuntala as presented in the epic is rather different from Kalidasa’s version. In the Mahabharata, Dushanta recognises Shakuntala immediately but refuses to acknowledge their connection fearing public censure. It takes a voice from the heavens confirming Shakuntala’s story for her claim to be accepted. There’s no lost ring, no fish and no recognition scene.

There are, however, two other places in the epic where a fish plays an important intermediary function. These narratives of piscine transmission, along with the one of Shakuntala’s lost ring, can be read as parables of Orientalism, defined as the European study of eastern cultures during the colonial epoch, of which William Jones was among the foremost pioneers.

Near the beginning of the Mahabharata, we find a king hunting, as was Dushanta when he came upon Kanva’s hermitage. This monarch, Uparichara, feeling tired after a long ride, falls asleep in the shade of a tree. On waking, he realises he has had a wet dream and is upset at having expended his spirit fruitlessly. He summons a hawk, gives it a leaf on which some of his semen has spilled, and instructs the bird to take it to his wife in the palace. However, another hawk attacks Uparichara’s carrier bird, mistaking the semen-spotted leaf for juicy prey. The leaf falls into the river Yamuna, where it is swallowed by a fish.

When the king of fisherfolk catches this fish, he finds a baby girl inside, and adopts her. His foster daughter, Satyavati, grows into a beautiful maiden, who plies a ferry across the Yamuna. Unfortunately, there is a strong odour of fish about her. One day sage Parashara crosses the river in her boat. Enamoured of the girl, he offers to replace the smell of fish with a pleasant fragrance if she sleeps with him, a bargain she accepts. She gives birth to Parashara’s son on a riverine island, calling him Krishna Dvaipana, the Dark Islander, because of his complexion and the place of his birth.

A while later, Satyavati, her hymen restored by Parashara, marries the king of the realm, Shantanu, and has two sons by him. The first dies while single, and the second, Vichitravirya, succumbs to tuberculosis soon after his wedding. Seeing King Shantanu worried about leaving behind no successor, Satyavati tells him about her natural son, the Dark Islander. They summon Krishna Dvaipana, requesting him to impregnate Vichitravirya’s two wives. The young women, who expect to share a bed with a handsome king, are faced instead by a fearsome-looking mendicant. One blanches at the sight of Dvaipana, while the other shuts her eyes in fear during sex. He informs them that their reactions have determined the fate of their progeny. One son will be a pale weakling, and the other will be blind from birth.

These two sons, Pandu and Dhritarashtra, father the Pandavas and Kauravas respectively, who go on to fight the Mahabharata war. Dvaipana retires to the mountains, where he perfoms the extraordinary task of dividing Brahma’s singular Veda into four. He later chronicles the story of the calamitous war his grandsons fight, and acquires the title Vyasa, the Compiler. King Uparichara, whose dream began this sequence of misbegotten births, of Satyavati, and Vyasa, and the brothers Dhritarashtra and Pandu, plays no further role in the epic.

Vyasa on a throne. Credit: Gitapress/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Near the conclusion of the Mahabharata, years after the great war has ended, things in Bharatvarsha are going to seed, and the Kali Yuga is imminent. Youngsters among the Yadu families, the clan of Krishna, are a ragged, boisterous bunch. One day, a group of sages comes visiting, among them Kanva, in whose hermitage Shakuntala lived all those generations ago. A few Yadus disguise their companion Samba as a pregnant woman, with a mace providing a bulging belly. They take Samba to the visiting sages, and ask whether the baby will be a boy or girl. Their impertinence invites the inevitable curse. The sage’s prophesy that Samba will give birth to an iron mace which will destroy the entire clan. The panicked Yadus grind the mace to a powder which they throw into the sea. However, the particles are washed ashore and absorbed by reeds that grow at the water’s edge. One chunk of iron, which has been left intact, is swallowed by a fish. Years later, the Yadus are picnicking on a beach when a drunken quarrel breaks out over incidents from the great war. Past hatreds resurface, leading to armed combat. The sharp, iron-stiffened reeds prove handy weapons in the ruinous internecine fighting. The fish which swallowed the unground bit of iron has, meanwhile, been caught. The hunter Jara fashions an arrowhead out of the metal, and kills Krishna with it, having mistaken him for a deer.

These three legends – the stories of Shakuntala, Uparichara and Jara – provide varying perspectives on the Orientalist enterprise. In the first instance, Orientalism is like Dushanta’s ring, a benificent force returning a precious memory to India and reconnecting the nation with its forgotten history. In the second, it is like Uparichara’s seed, being transmitted to another land where it has significant consequences, both good and evil. Finally, British Orientalism can be likened to Jara’s arrowhead, a weapon used consciously or otherwise towards an evil end. Each of these three perspectives relates to a facet in the personality of the polymath William Jones: Jones the historian, Jones the literary humanist and Jones the jurist.

Jones The Historian

William Jones’s investigations of the past were hobbled by the imperative, commonly felt by European intellectuals of his era, to synchronise events with Biblical timelines. He did, however, make one crucial contribution to the study of Indian history by providing the first accurate dating for the reign of an Indian sovereign who had ruled before the common era. Greek chronicles mentioned that Seleucus Nicator, who succeeded to Alexander the Great’s eastern dominions, had sent his ambassador Megasthenes to the court of an emperor named Sandrocottus at Palibothra. Historians had speculated that Palibothra was the same as Pataliputra, the city known as Patna in modern times. However, that theory had a fatal flaw. Megasthenes described the capital of Sandrocottus as standing at the confluence of two rivers, the Ganges and the Erranaboas, but only the first of these flowed through Patna. Jones unearthed the fact that Patna used to be the site of the confluence of the Ganga and the Son, before the latter changed its course. He found, further, that another name for the Son was the Hiranyabahu, which matched the Erranaboas of Megasthenes’ account. Finally, he discovered a play which told of a usurper king called Chandragupta, who had a court at Pataliputra and had welcomed foreign ambassadors to it. Marshalling all this evidence, Jones could confidently state that Chandragupta was the same as Sandrocottus, whose reign had to have commenced between 325 BCE and 312 BCE.

Following Jones’s proof, the story of the dynasty Chandragupta founded, known as the Mauryas, was pieced together. The most important part of this history related to Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka Maurya. It was unravelled by James Prinsep, who came to Calcutta in 1819 as Assistant Assay-Master in the Mint and was later posted to Benares. Where the humanist Jones had delved into literary works, the scientifically-oriented Prinsep studied indecipherable inscriptions in two scripts, Brahmi and Kharoshti. Officials in far-flung areas of the burgeoning British empire in South Asia had come upon pillars and rocks bearing similar-looking messages in these scripts. After years of painstaking collation of data from edicts and coins, Prinsep succeeded in the late 1830s in decoding them.

It was revealed that the pillar and rock inscriptions had been commanded by a king referred to as Devanampiya Piyadasi, Beloved of the Gods. They expounded the ethical principles on which his kingdom was run and were clearly Buddhist in inspiration. Prinsep was informed by a colleague posted in Ceylon that a great Indian king called Ashoka, also known as Piyadasi, had converted to Buddhism and sent a religious mission to Ceylon. The mystery of the inscriptions was thus resolved and Ashoka returned to his rightful place in Indian history alongside Chandragupta/Sandrocottus. The pillars on which Ashokan inscriptions were carved often had lion capitals atop them. A perfectly preserved specimen was excavated in Sarnath in 1904, and was adopted as one of India’s national symbols after independence. The chakra from Ashokan pillars was incorporated in the Indian flag. Thanks to the efforts of British Orientalists, two emperors who had been completely forgotten in India were established among the greatest rulers the subcontinent had seen. It was as if Dushanta’s lost memory had been returned to him.

Jones The Literary Humanist

Sacontala, or The Fatal Ring, caused a sensation in Europe when it was published and opened the floodgates of translations from Sanskrit. The romantic movement, then in its infancy in Europe, found a kindred spirit in Kalidasa, and even the classically inclined Goethe was moved to write:

If you want the bloom of youth and fruit of later years,

If you want what enchants, fulfills, and nourishes,

If you want heaven and earth contained in one name,

I mention Shakuntala and everything is said.

The prologue from Goethe’s Faust, which is influenced by the sutradhar who speaks in the first scene of Abhijnanasakuntalam, is only the first of many examples of the influence of Indian thought on Europe. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that, “Sanskrit literature will be no less influential for our time than Greek literature was in the fifteenth century for the Renaissance.” His greatest book, The World as Will and Idea, is profoundly marked by Vedantic and Buddhist thought. At the end of the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence, clearly echoing Indian notions of cyclical time, demonstrated the continuing hold of India on the German imagination.

Indian idealistic thought penetrated Russia and Romania, it crossed the Atlantic and was taken up by the American Transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings, most conspicuously his poem Brahma, expounded an Upanishadic conviction in the Oversoul. Transcendentalism laid the foundation for the success of Swami Vivekananda in North America.

While translations from Sanskrit had an entirely beneficial impact on the West, the same could not be said of the discovery of the Indo-European language group. The first speakers of Sanskrit, the Vedic people, referred to themselves as aryas, as did the Achaemenid kings of Iran. The family of languages discovered by Jones came to be called the Aryan family. Scholars reasoned that the speakers of this group of languages must originally have stayed in a circumscribed area, speaking the original Aryan tongue, and must have resembled each other more than did a 19th century Norwegian and Bengali. Thus, the idea of an Aryan language family mutated into belief in an Aryan race.

The prolific 19th French writer Arthur de Gobineau popularised the idea of a master race of Aryans, superior in form and intellect to all other ethnic groups. He claimed that all great civilisations had been formed by Aryans, but that these noble invaders had sullied themselves in nations like Iran and India by mixing with other races. The closest thing to living inheritors of the pure Aryan strain were, in Gobineau’s view, modern Germans. Unsurprisingly, his ideas were well received in Germany, notably within the influential circle of the composer Richard Wagner. Members of the Wagner circle adopted the theory of a Germanic master race and gave it a specifically anti-semitic emphasis.

Like Uparichara’s seed, the research of Jones and his successors had unforseen consequences in far-off lands, playing a part in a war as catastrophic as that fought by the Pandavas and Kauravas.

Jones The Jurist

William Jones announced in his preface to Sacontala that it would be his last literary translation and that he would henceforth concentrate on his professional studies. The ambitious goal he had set himself was to translate into English the Laws of Manu and create a Digest of Indian and Arabian Laws. He believed that Indians under British rule ought to “enjoy their own customs unmolested”, but neither colonial judges nor ordinary Indians had access to the sacred languages of Hindus and Muslims. They depended on the interpretations of pandits and maulvis, most of whom appeared eager to please the highest bidder.

William Jones’s tomb in Kolkata. Credit: Jayantanth/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Jones’s codification of religious laws made the process of delivering justice far more transparent, but also removed the need for any input by Indians. After absorbing the knowledge provided by native scholars, he had made their ilk redundant. All power now rested in the hands of Britons. A similar process played out in the field of Indology. Beyond the first close contacts between British Orientalists and local teachers, the discipline became an almost exclusively European preserve. In effect, Orientalism served to divest Indians of what little power they had within the colonial system.

The sponsors of Orientalist learning understood that the study of colonised cultures was both valuable in itself and an instrument of dominance. The first British Governor-General Warren Hastings, who became a good friend of Jones, personally backed the earliest translation into English of the Bhagavad Gita. In a letter to the director of the East India Company recommending publication of Charles Wilkins’s translation, Hastings lauded the power of the great works of Indian literature and philosophy, which he wrote would “survive when the British dominion in India shall have long ceased to exist and when the sources which it once yielded of wealth and power are lost to remembrance”. However, he also underlined that “every accumulation of knowledge, and especially such as is obtained by social communication with people over whom we exercise a dominion founded on the right of conquest, is useful to the state”. In this light, the Palestinian author Edward Said, who gave a new and pejorative meaning to the term Orientalism, argued that the aim of William Jones’s studies, and that of Orientalism in general, was “to gather in, to rope off, to domesticate the Orient and thereby turn it into a province of European learning”.

Following Jones’s founding of the Asiatic Society, a series of institutions were set up in England and the European continent dedicated to gaining a deeper understanding of the East. The last of these was the School of Oriental and African Studies, which opened its doors to prospective imperial civil servants in 1917, its purpose clarified by the motto: Knowledge is Power.