Heritage History & Culture

Charles Wilkins: He turned their gaze to Sanskrit

Notwithstanding their unprecedented economic exploitation in India, the British, at least during the early part of their rule, to an extent were responsible for researching into our ancient texts and translating them into English. Once these texts appeared in English, translations into other European languages like French and German became possible. Sir Charles Wilkins, a prominent Orientalist, one of the British Triumvirate with William Jones and James Prinsep, was a pioneer in the study of Sanskrit and his first ever translation of Bhagavad Gita into English opened up new vistas in translation into several European Languages.

All the three had come to India during the East India Company’s rule which the Victorian government superseded after 1857 Revolt. It is a great wonder that the East India Company, though interested in making commercial profits, had several officials who were good scholars, ones who were genuinely interested in India’s past, its heritage and its literary wealth. Sir Charles Wilkins was one such early Company official.s .

Multifacted scholar

Wilkins was a multifaceted personality. Being an avid typographer, he set up the first print -type for Bengali and came to be known euphemistically as “Caxton of India”. Wilkins was also the first to design Persian type script for printing in that language.

Born in 1749 in Somerset in England, Wilkins was trained as a printer in youth before arriving in Calcutta as a young man of 21 to work for the Company in 1770. He quickly learnt Bengali and Persian and acquired unusual fluency in those languages. He was soon appointed as a translator of Bengali and Persian into English in the Revenue Department. Warren Hastings the then Governor who noticed the acumen of Wilkins in Indian languages, sent him to Benares where he learnt Sanskrit under the tutelage of one Kalinath Bhattacharya, a renowned Brahmin Pandit. His association with other Benares scholars, induced Wilkins to take up translation of the Mahabharata into English. He was the first to translate the epic into English. However, he could complete only one third of the project before he embarked on the translation of Bhagawad Gita.

First Translation of Gita

Charles Wilkins is remembered for his translation of Gita considered as his most important literary contribution. Titled Bhagwat Geeta- or the Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjooon, Wilkins’ book was published by the prestigious Nourse printing press in Central London in 1785. It is said that Warren Hastings who keenly followed the translation work of Wilkins personally recommended its publication to the Company. In his lengthy introduction to Wilkins’ book , Warren Hastings wrote: “I hesitate not to pronounce the ‘ Gita’ a performance of great originality, of a sublimity of conception of reasoning and diction almost unqualified and a single exception among all the known religions of mankind.” Bhagwat Gita was the first Sanskrit text to be translated in to English.

Wilkins’ translation marked a watershed in the cultural history of India as it sparked translation into various European languages and attracted worldwide acclaim and attention. J.P. Parraud a renowned French scholar translated Wilkins’ English version of Gita into French language. The understanding of Gita as the quintessence of the Hindu philosophy and religion gained great currency throughout Western world only after Wilkins’ translation. William Blake, a famous British painter celebrated the publication of Gita in a painting titled, ‘The Brahmins’ in 1809 which depicted Wilkins and a few Brahmins engaged in the translation.

Explaining the difficulties he encountered in translating the Gita, Wilkins wrote, “The Brahmins esteem this work to contain all the grand mysteries of their religion and so careful are they to conceal from knowledge of those of a different persuasion and even the vulgar of their own, that the translator might have fought in vain for assistance.”

Charles Wilkins had a hobby of learning about various religions. He was also an accomplished scholar of Islam. During his long stay in India ( 1770- 86), he visited various shrines throughout India. He once went to Patna Sahib Gurudwara, the birth place of Guru Govind Singh and wrote a detailed account of that visit, titled, Sikhs and their College at Patna. As a close follower of William Jones, Wilkins was one of the founding members of the Asiatic Society. In 1784, Wilkins helped Jones in establishing the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which is still doing remarkable work in Kolkata.

Work in England

After Warren Hastings’ departure from India in 1784 to face an impending impeachment by the British Parliament, Wilkins lost a great patron. In 1786 Wilkins himself returned to England and in the next year married Elizabeth Keeble, settled down in London and continued his literary activities.

Wilkins had three daughters and one of them was married to the famous numismatist, William Marsden (1754- 1836).

He also took to translation of Vishnu Sharma’s Hitopadesa. In 1793, he published The Story of Shakuntalaa. In addition to his translation of various Sanskrit texts, and type designs, Wilkins published a new edition of John Richardson’s Persian and Arabic Dictionary He also brought out a catalogue of the large fund of manuscripts collected by William Jones, who acknowledged his indebtedness to Wilkins.

Many Honours

In 1788, for the commendable work he did, Wilkins was elected to the Royal Society as a member. In 1800 when the Company administration established the India House Library in London, Wilkins was elected as its first Director. This, over a time became the world famous India Office Library, now shifted from its original Blackfryers Road site, and is a part of the British Library- Oriental Collections , a Mecca for researchers in Modern Indian History.

In 1805, Wilkins became the examiner at the Hailebury College, established to train the East India Company personnel. He also taught Sanskrit for several years there. Wilkins devoted himself to the creation of a font for Devanagari, considered as the Divine script.

In 1808, he published the much-celebrated Grammar of the Sanskrit Language, for which he was honoured with the badge of the Royal Guelphic Order (RGO) by King George IV. In 1833, three years before he died in May, 1836 at 87, Wilkins was Knighted by the British government in recognition of his services to Oriental scholarship.

Wilkins was the first English man to gain a thorough grasp of Sanskrit. His mastery on the language was such that William Jones hailed it by acknowledging that “ But for Wilkins’ aid, I would never have learnt Sanskrit”. In Indian epigraphy, he was a pioneer being the first European to study Sanskrit inscriptions. He also published several scholarly articles on Indian History in Asiatic Researches

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 3:16:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/charles-wilkins-he-turned-their-gaze-to-sanskrit/article30298306.ece

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