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Vedanta in the West; Thesis of Dr Binod Tiwari

"If I were asked under what sky human mind has fully developed some of its choicest gift and has deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life and has found solutions of some of those which well deserve the attention of even of those who have studied Plato and Kant, I shall point out to India."1

It’s a fact widely accepted that European countries visited India not for her learning and scholarship, but with an eye for the trade of spices and for spreading their faith Christianity in this country. In Europe India was a land known for its riches and prosperity. It was also known for its ‘nawabs’ and ‘mughal monarchs’. The ‘nawabs’ and the ‘mughals’ were the sarcastic comments used for the European white- callers.  The Europeans believed that the civilization started in Greece and Philistine. India in their confined notions was a land semi-civilised and that of reptilians.

“If I were asked under what sky human mind has fully developed some of its choicest gift and has deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life and has found solutions of some of those which well deserve the attention of even of those who have studied Plato and Kant, I shall point out to India.”1

I would like to begin with these very lines of Prof. Fredrich Maxmuller from “What India Can Teach Us” that he usually uttered in most of his speeches in a very declamatory manner. The introduction of the modern European thoughts in the curriculum of our Universities was an eye opener for our age. This brought an intellectual and cultural Renaissance in our society creating a national confidence. It established the fact that India is the greatest nation of the world; its civilization is the oldest one, and its Literature and philosophy are beyond comparison.

But when Christian missionaries landed here they learnt its native languages for their convenience. They made efforts to learn Sanskrit. According to the “Modern India and the West”2 one of the missionaries in Pondicherry translated Yajurveda into French with the title ‘L Ezour Vedam’. It is said that Voltaire viewed and warmly appreciated the work. For the convenience of the European scholars a Sanskrit Grammar was prepared and it was published from Rome in 1732. A Handbook of Indian scripture was published in 1740 that contained six systems of Indian philosophy including Bodhism and Jainism.  A comprehensive study of Indian life titled “Hindu Manners: Customs and Ceremonies” was published in 1817 by AB Duboy.3 But all these minor efforts could leave no impact of European minds.

European intelligentsia was moved when a book on Upanishads appeared with the title “Oupnekhat”4.The author Anquetil Duperon was a French scholar who is said to have visited India in 1760. When he returned he carried with himself a set of 80 manuscripts of the Indian scriptures that included the Persian translation of Upanishads done by Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Shahjahan. Duperon published Latin translation of Upanishads in two volumes. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer happened to get a copy of this translation. He thoroughly read it and was so exhilarated that he kept the book on his head and started dancing. To quote his warm impressions:

“The divine ideas thrill our souls to the very depth. Each verse has a unique and enlightening idea creating an aura of Indian atmosphere; it seems that these are our own ideas as that of our forefathers. The centuries old Jewish dogmas are washed in a moment by mere touch of these ideas. There is no study so beneficial and as elevating as that of Upanishads are. They are the solace of my life and will be the solace of my death.”5

The study of Upanishads brought an intellectual renaissance as it was brought in entire Europe in the age of renaissance when Europe came in contact with ancient Greek literature. Immanuel Kant, who is credited to have brought reconciliation between two opposite streams of Western Philosophy observers:  “I was fond of teaching Geography and Astronomy. Before teaching the Geography of India, I studied her cultural background. I was deeply impressed. The French translation of Upanishads and Bhagwad Geeta, that I studied, kept me charmed throughout my life.”6

Jaun Fichte and Paul Dussan acknowledged Vedanta as the best philosophy of the world. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, another German philosopher studied Manusmriti and described many times greater than the holy Bible:

“A work, which is spiritual and superior beyond comparison, which even to name in one breath with Bible would be a sin against the holy ghost.”7

Romain Rolland, the great pacificist from France, who wrote biography of Ramkrishna Paramhamsa, Swami Vivekanand and Mahatma Gandhi moved with the noble ideas of Sanatana Hindu Dharma. He observes:

“I have studied all religions of Europe and Asia. Hinduism appears to be the best of all. I have conviction that one day, the whole world would have to bow before the Hindu Dharma.”8

After Germany and France, England was not left untouched with these renaissance waves. Warren Hastings, who was a Governor General of British Government in its opening years came to realize that the Hindus in India must be governed by their own theology. So he got majority of the Sanskrit scriptures translated into English. But it was not sufficient. Knowing Sanskrit was made mandatory for the British barristers. These scholars moved to Sanskrit for their judicial requirements, but here they found an ocean of infinite knowledge and emotions. They were deeply moved. In this way a new door was opened between India and Europe for interaction. Charles Wilkins translated Bhagwad Geeta with the title “The Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoona” in 17759. In the very preface of the book Sir Warren Hastings writes:  “……..even thousands of years after the collapse of British rule in India the flag of Bhagwad Geeta will keep unfurling into the firmament”10. He was so deeply impressed with the ethos of Bhagwad Geeta that he got thousands of copies of this book published on company’s cost and ensured it’s distribution in the entire Europe including America.

Sir William Jones, who was a justice in Kolkata (then Calcutta) founded “Asiatic Society” in 1884. He translated Abhigyansakuntalam of Kalidas in English11. The translation of other works of Kalidas e.g. Meghdootam and Ritusamhar etc. appeared very soon. William Jones wrote “Hymns to Narayana” in 1785 and translated ‘Manusmriti’ with the title “Human Theology” in 1894.12

Sir William Jones was an unexcelled devotee of Sanskrit. In the Annual Conference of Asiatic Society held in his presidentship in 1786, he declared:  “Sanskrit is the most perfect languages of the world, more perfect than the Greek and richer than Latin.”13 William Jones strongly advocated that the Gothic, Celtic and the Sanskrit languages are the members of the same family. Ramdhari Singh Dinkar writes:

“The edifice of modern comparative linguistics built by Lord Bope, Max Muller and Grimm, the foundation of which was laid by William Jones only.”14 Here it deserves to be stated that before cultural interaction with India, no one in Europe was aware with linguistics. After having acquaintance with Indian ‘nirukt’ and ‘vyakaran’ European could write on linguistics.”15

Henry Thomas Colebrooke has been another great Indologist after William Jones. He deeply studied ‘Hindu Theology’, ‘Dharma’, ‘Darshan’, ‘Vyakaran’ and ‘Jyotish’. In 1805 he released a comprehensive study of Vedas.16 All his works were published in Asiatic researches. In those days a sayings prevailed in Europe that the wise Britishers are turning into Brahmins. One unprecedented event that gave a jolt to the Sanskrit teaching compaign in Europe deserves to be mentioned. It was 1802, Alexander Hamilton, an officer in East India Company and a renowned pundit of Sanskrit was on tour to Paris. A bitterness cropped up between England and France and the officials staying in each other’s country were arrested. Hamilton was also arrested and was kept in the Central jail of Paris. He was so dedicated to Sanskrit that he started Sanskrit teaching classes in the jail itself. There he met Chezi, a French orientalist. The meeting turned into friendship and the two scholars started Sanskrit teaching campaign in France. Schlegal brothers, about whom we shall talk in detail, had learnt Sanskrit from Hamilton and Chezi.

In the hierarchy of the French scholars of Sanskrit Euziene Burnoff is a cellebrated name. The credit goes to him that he taught Sanskrit to Friedrich Maxmuller and urged him to work on the profound study and research of Vedas. The greatness of Maxmuller lies here that he spent thirty prescious years of his life on the Vaidik studies, and when his great commentary on Vedas appeared, the intellegentia of the entire Europe was deeply enlightened. It was a climax of the Indian Renaissance in the Europe. It was a digvijay of Indian wisdom in the West. Born in Germany, resided at University town of Oxford, Prof. Maxmuller published thesis on Vedas. It’s aptly said about Maxmuller:

“sharmanya desh jaten, gotirth washinam,
mokshmuller bhattena , vedoayampaditaha” 17

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