Lovers of the East
HENRY THOMAS COLEBROOKE
Oriental Department, June, 1895
A satirical critic of our orientalists once said that their capacity, like the Word divine in the heavens, had three grades: they could edit a text supremely well; they could translate it indifferently well; they could elucidate it quite the reverse of well; or, in other words, their elucidations brought not light, but rather darkness visible.
The same critic went on to compare these grades of capability with the three vestures of the Self; the text was the physical vesture, hence they of the waking, physical world were supremely competent to deal with the text; the translation required a reflecting of the text in the mirror-world, the world between earth and heaven, to which these hardened students had but faulty access: the elucidating of the text required something more, it required an assimilating of the thought and inspiration that had brought the theological or scientific or material crystallization, which is the most hopeless of all conditions of life, however great be the beauty of the crystal. We are far from agreeing with this view in its totality, as a great many of our scholars are by no means so competent to edit a text as this critic supposes, while some of them in rare and high moments, do really rise to the full inspiration of the original.
But broadly, and applied to scholars of the better sort, this criticism is very just. They are infinitely more competent to edit a text than to understand it, if it deals with high aspirations and inspirations; for the scholar’s nature,—profound appreciation of the letter,—is the very opposite of inspiration which is of the spirit. And the followers of inspiration generally seek it at first-hand, in the divine things of to-day, not at second-hand, in the records of the divine things of long ago. The real path of safety combines both of these ways. Gain wisdom, inspiration, for yourself; compare it, complete it, by a study of the wisdom of others, of the whole human race,—the best that has been thought since the world began.
To do this, one must first know accurately what the long ago world did think; for this, we must search its records, edit its texts, and gain a very precise knowledge of the meaning and value of its words; in other words, we must thoroughly master the letter, before we can really enter into the spirit. Here is the value of Colebrooke’s work in Oriental, and especially in Sanskrit studies: he was the first student to apply to Sanskrit a really sound, scholarly, honest and accurate method; the first to seize, with vivid force, the idea of seeing the texts as they really are; of finding out what their words actually mean; of ascertaining the real values of forms, technical phrases, turns of expressions, grammatical changes and the like.
Hence no one can neglect Colebrooke and his work, when speaking of a really sound study of Sanskrit. Brahma is called the grandfather of the universe; Colebrooke has an equal right to be called the grandfather of Sanskrit dictionaries and grammars.
Like Anquetil Duperron and Sir William Jones, Colebrooke opened the door of the East with the key of the Persian language, which was then, far more than now, the tongue of Asiatic diplomacy and intercourse. It was only in 1793, after eleven years’ residence in India, that he began to study Sanskrit. And, from the very first, the outward forms of things seemed to have interested him far more than the spirit; he studied almost everything Indian but the one thing supremely worth studying, the sane and high philosophy of old Vedic days, with its lofty inspiration and profound intuition.
A critical Grammar and dictionary of Sanskrit, learned studies of Hind law, of the algebra of the Hindus, and a series of miscellaneous essays touching on numberless subjects of curious and interesting research, as well as an account of Hindu religious ceremonies, are set to his credit; but far the most valuable part of his work is the ascertaining of the exact forms and meanings of Sanskrit words, so abundantly contributed to by his dictionary and grammatical labors. The true work of understanding the texts and drawing out their real value for our own use, only begins where this dictionary and grammar work ends; but without this clearing and measuring of the foundations, no inhabitable house of eastern knowledge could be built. Here is Colebrooke’s translation of a famous Vedic hymn:
“Then there was no entity nor nonentity; no world, nor sky, nor ought above it; nothing anywhere in the happiness of anyone, involving or involved; nor water deep and dangerous. Death was not; nor then was immortality; nor distinction of day or night. But THAT breathed without afflation, single with her who is within him. Other than him, nothing existed which since has been. Darkness there was; for this Universe was enveloped with darkness, and was undistinguishable like fluids mixed in waters; but that mass, which was covered by the husk, was at length produced by the power of contemplation. First, desire was formed in his mind, and that became the original productive seed; which the wise, recognizing it by the intellect in their hearts, distinguish in non-entity. Did the luminous ray of these creative acts expand in the middle? or above? or below? That productive seed at once became providence (or sentient souls) and matter (Or the elements): she, who is sustained within himself, was superior. Who knows exactly, and who shall in this world declare, whence and why this creation took place? The gods are subsequent to the production of this world; then who can know whence it proceeded? or whence this varied world arose? or whether it upholds itself or not? He who in the highest heaven is the ruler of this universe, does indeed know; but not another can possess this knowledge.”