Lovers of the East
SIR WILLIAM JONES
Oriental Department, May, 1895
We have seen how Anquetil Duperron, a Lover of the East, brought to Europe the first seed of Indian Wisdom after years of toil and painful sacrifice and privation; how, through obscurity and poverty, he labored to give to the modern world ‘the key to the Indian Sanctuary’.
No greater contrast to his whole life and work could be found than the life and work of Sir William Jones. If Anquetil’s mission was to gather precious things through years of toil and hardships, then the mission of Sir William Jones was to touch Oriental studies with prestige; to gain for them public recognition and acclamation; to make them tastefully acceptable to the world of the elegant and learned; and, one fears it must be added, to overlook altogether their real and lasting value.
For this mission of his, this opening up of the East for the amusement and instruction of the polite, his early life and education had admirably prepared him. On leaving Harrow, he was well grounded not only in Greek and Latin, but also in Hebrew and Arabic, the only Oriental tongues then seriously studied in Europe. When at Oxford, he learned one other Oriental language—Persian,—as well as Spanish, Portugese, and Italian. Then, becoming tutor to Lord Althorpe, he spent his leisure in composing a Persian grammar and dictionary; and, a few years later, translated a Persian life of Nadir Shah, for the King of Denmark.
Taking up the profession of Law, he was called to the bar in 1774; and eight years later published an Arabic treatise on the Mohamedan law of succession, with an English translation. This book seems to have determined his destiny; for, in 1783, in recognition of his double knowledge of law and oriental languages, he was appointed one of the supreme judges in Calcutta, and at the same time was knighted. In the words of his biographer:
“In December 1783, he entered upon his judicial functions, and, at the opening of the sessions, delivered his first charge to the grand jury. The public had formed a high estimate of his oratorical powers, nor were they disappointed. His address was elegant, concise, and appropriate; the exposition of his sentiments and principles was equally manly and conciliatory, and calculated to inspire general satisfaction, as the known sincerity of his character was a test of his adherence to his professions.”
Sir William Jones seems himself to have been conscious of his destiny as the polite populariser of the East; for, during his voyage, he drew up a list of what he meant to achieve in the field of Oriental research. In this list we find as subjects for study: the laws of the Hindus and Mohamedans; the history of the Ancient World; proofs and illustrations of scripture; traditions concerning the deluge; modern politics and geography of Hindustan; best mode of governing Bengal; arithmetic and geometry and mixed sciences of the Asiatics; medicine, chemistry, surgery, and anatomy of the Indians; natural products of India; poetry, rhetoric, and morality of Asia; music of the eastern nations; the three hundred Chinese Odes; the best accounts of Tibet and Kashmir; the trade, manufactures, agriculture, and commerce of India; the constitution of the Moguls and Mahrattas—the two powers from whom the English actually wrested India.
And, as though this were not enough, Sir William Jones further proposed to himself to translate the third gospel into Arabic; the Psalms into Persian; to compose essays, histories, epics, orations, philosophic dialogues, and letters, on the model of Aristotle, Thucydides, Homer, Demosthenes, and Plato. Had he added dramas on the model of Sheakspeare, his plan would have been complete; and we might have had “imitations of all the greatest works in the world: by Sir William Jones, Knight”!
One is struck by the fact that, in all this wonderful series of projected studies, one thing is wanting; and this one lack is more important than all the rest that was projected and fulfilled. It is the ideal of Eastern wisdom, to which Anquetil Duperron so entirely devoted his life.
After arriving at Calcutta, Sir William Jones in due course founded the “Asiatick Society, for the purpose of enquiring into the history, civil and natural, the antiquities, arts, sciences, and literature of Asia.” This was in January, 1782; and, in his opening discourse, Sir William Jones, as President-Founder, said:
“When I was at sea last August, on my voyage to this country, which I had long desired to visit, I found, one evening, on inspecting the observations of the day, that India lay before us, and Persia on our left, whilst a breeze from Arabia blew nearly on our stern. A situation so pleasing in itself, and to me so new, could not fail to awaken a train of reflections in a mind which had early been accustomed to contemplate with delight the eventful histories and agreeable fictions of this Eastern world. It gave me an inexpressible pleasure to find myself in the midst of so noble an amphitheatre, almost encircled by the vast regions of Asia, which had ever been esteemed the nurse of sciences, the inventress of delightful and useful arts, the scene of glorious actions, fertile in the productions of human genius, abounding in natural wonders, and infinitely diversified in the forms of religion and government, in the laws, manners, customs, and languages, as well as in the features and complexions of men. I could not help remarking how important and extensive a field was yet unexplored, and how many solid advantages unimproved: and when I considered with pain that, in this fluctuating, imperfect, and limited condition of life, such inquiries and improvements could only be made by the united efforts of many who are not easily brought, without some pressing inducement or strong impulse, to converge in a common point, I consoled myself with a hope, founded on opinions which it might have the appearance of flattery to mention, that if in any country or community such a union could be effected, it was among my countrymen in Bengal; with some of whom I had already, and with most was desirous of having, the pleasure of being intimately acquainted.
“You have realized that hope, gentlemen, and even anticipated a declaration of my wishes, by your alacrity in laying the foundation of a Society for enquiring into the History and Antiquities, the Natural Productions, Arts, Sciences, and Literature of Asia.”
Thus, amid wreaths of eulogy, and garlands of eloquence, the Asiatic Society of Bengal was founded; the methodical study of Oriental subjects was formally inaugurated. And the President-Founder helped to carry out these objects by publishing a translation of Manu’s Laws, full of instructions to the learned, and a version of the drama Shakuntala, destined to gratify the taste of the polite.
Yet Sir William Jones and his colleagues had hardly a dawning presentiment of their true work. They talked, rather at random, of useful knowledge, of natural products, of researches into chirurgy, anatomy, astronomy; of arts, literatures, and sciences; but said not a word of philosophy, not a word of the high idealism, with its broad sanity and perfect lucity, which is the East’s most perfect gift to the West.
Like the nomads of Gobi, they roamed hither and thither, dreaming of buried treasures, and of finding them, but utterly uncertain where their search should begin, and not less uncertain of the true nature of the treasures they might be destined to find.
Their spiritual and moral attitude was anything but calculated to call forth the deep and high message of ancient India; was anything but tuned to the iron chords of intuition and divinity that are beginning to resound through the heart of the modern world.