A review of Orientalist Jones: Sir William Jones, Poet, Lawyer and Linguist, 1746-1794 by Michael J. Franklin
By Keerthik Sasidharan
In the 1830s, the first drafts of the pan-Indian criminal law codes were instituted by Thomas Macaulay. He remains a reference point for many, including the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his ideological opponents, the Hindu Rightist parties who protest the influence of Marx, Mullah aur Macaulay in Indian public life. The Indian Penal Code emerged from an inspired potpourri of the Napoleonic Code, English Common Law and the Louisiana Civil Code (which in turn was based on Spanish and Roman legal frameworks). Despite many drafts, between 1830-1860, the new Indian Penal Code left the civil code – relating to personal and family matters – untouched. Each community would govern itself as it had done over millennia. This was not a tactical retreat or a new approach to the law. As distant as Macaulay seems to us today, he too was a relatively recent entrant into the question of what legal framework ought to govern India. Nearly half a century before him, the issue found its way into the hands of Edmund Burke. If Hobbes was the Noah of modern political Conservatism, then Burke was the Abraham (the historian Edward Gibbon called Burke “the most eloquent and rational madman I ever knew”). To assist him in the matter of the Bengal Judiciary Bill, Burke turned to a young William Jones, a judge, translator of Persian, writer of maudlin verses, and future founder of the Asiatick Society in Calcutta, and now the subject of Michael Franklin’s excellent new biography, Orientalist Jones.
It is with Jones’ shadow, his tactical retreats, opinions, compromises, expedient interpretations and the monumental translation of the Manava Dharma Shastra (the Manusmriti), which was called the “Institutes of Hindu Law”, that much of colonial and modern India wrestles with to this day. Early on in that influential translation Jones writes: “the legislature of Britain having shown… an intention to leave the natives of these Indian provinces in possession of their own Law, at least on the titles of contracts and inheritances, we may humbly presume, that all future provisions, for the administration of justice and government in India will be conformable, as far as the natives are affected by them, to the manners and opinions of the natives themselves”. It is unlikely Jones could have foreseen the influence and the impress of his words on the debates of independent India. When Mayawati rails against the hegemony of the Manuvadis (the proponents of the Manusmriti), she is unknowingly pointing fingers at Jones’ willingness to grant primacy to a Brahminnical text of laws and give it a legalistic blessing in the 1780-90s; when the upper caste Hindu Rightists evoke the uniqueness and essence of Hindu civilization, they are relying on the essentialist arguments that made up the intellectual scaffolding of the Orientalist projects, which began in an organized manner thanks to Jones’ Asiatick Society; when the Congress party abandons its moral claims to appease obscurantist and fundamentalist mullahs in hopes of avoiding a law and order situation, they are simply following in the footsteps of Jones and Warren Hastings, who preferred an iniquitous calm that facilitated commerce and trade than any efforts to redress injustice.
Jones is now largely forgotten in India, except perhaps in a pejorative sense for being the founder of the Orientalist enterprise. But his influence is staggering, even if obscured. His works are no longer investigated despite the fact that his contributions to modern India’s understanding of justice and legalism, compromises and classicism, punditry and publishing, over the past 200 years, are virtually unrivalled. In more ways than one, William Jones is the phantom that India’s postcolonial mind seeks to fend off.
By 1782, while still in England, Jones would aid the creation of the East India Judicature Act in which we see the early signs of a conscious policy making decision (in a post-Mughal context) where they discussed what law India must have. In true Whig traditions, this conception of law was intimately tied to questions of property. Not justice, not emancipation, nor religion – simply, the law was first and foremost crucial simply in matters of settling property disputes.
Till then, most Europeans saw Asia as a vast hinterland owned by magnificent and cruel despots, with virtually no concept of private property. Jones’ contemporary Samuel Coleridge, in his famous poem “Kubla Khan” which was written in 1797, confirms the Orient’s reputation as a “savage place” that is “holy and enchanted”. To the sensibilities of the landed gentry of 18th century England, India was in a state of splendid social abomination. Jones, in contrast, as a self-styled ‘Republickan’, argued that private property did indeed exist in India to a sufficient extent to warrant an explicit policy towards this. On questions about how to adjudicate property disputes, Jones writes that on all issues pertaining to “inheritance and succession to lands, rents and goods, and all matters of contract and dealing between party and party, shall be determined, in the case of Mahomedans by the laws and usages of MAHOMEDANS’ (and in the case of Gentoos (Hindus) by the laws and usages of Gentoos).” It was an approach that followed the Mughals, and was in parts equally expedient and pragmatic, and one on which the edifice of India’s personal laws were built. In due course, after his appointment as a judge in Calcutta, Jones becomes critical in creating the legalistic infrastructure where improving commercial rules and private property rights remained the principal focus of law. Jones and his cohorts argued that if civil and criminal codes were likely to cause disruption to the business of the Company, then there would be no change. It is unclear to what extent such intellectual interventions by Jones facilitated the creation of the ‘permanent settlement’ agreements between the new Governor General Lord Cornwallis and the zamindars of Bengal – whereby the latter were ‘incentivized’ to collect and improve the lands (and presumably prevent a reprise of 1770s famine while enriching the East India Company’s coffers). These are the sorts of questions, tenuous connections – that are now obscured by time and distance – that Franklin in this admirable and engrossing biography often leaves tantalizingly unexplored. Perhaps that is unfair to expect of a sumptuous biography that tracks its polymathic subject, faithfully, across his life. As a judge on the Calcutta benches, and during the course of his stay, he became a student of India’s culture and its foremost English interpreter. Jones, in this sense, has his heirs in a wide variety of Englishmen down the centuries – from T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), St. James Philby and in our times Rory Stewart – who are partially compromised by their wilful participation in an imperial project, but through dint of their own imagination decidedly stand out from their colonialist peers. William Jones is, in many ways, the fountainhead of this class of men, who straddled continents, manufactured knowledge, translated untranslatable sensibilities, enriched themselves and legitimized other people’s hierarchies. In the case of Jones, he also unmistakably loved India, or at least a particular idea of India wherein he reigned supreme and ‘discovered’ its traditions for England, if not Europe.
When he arrived in India, Jones knew neither Hindustani nor Sanskrit. His proficiency was in Persian, that too the poetry of Hafiz and the histories of Nadir Shah, and not Sharia’h law. His experience as a jurist was in English law. In India, circumstances were upside down. The law was “Mohammadan” and Hindu in temperament and practice; the language were Bengali, Sanskrit, Hindustani and Persian. Yet, within a decade, through the dint of his efforts and willingness to leverage his position, he became the most well known European scholar on India. It is this transformation that is the most interesting aspect of Jones’s career. Yet, it is precisely the second half of the book that is relatively weaker; in parts because the first part set in Wales and England is exceptionally well documented. In contrast, the latter sections suffer from the overwhelmingly strange and expansive canvas in which Franklin must portray Jones as thriving. This is a difficult task for any biographer. For Jones is an indefatigable workaholic, his interaction with rest of the British cantonments a graceful dance of participation-in and rejection-of their colonial, commercial and Christian evangelism; his impact on the cultural landscape amongst the British and the Europeans is worthy of a volume in of itself; his ideas and prodigious output about India so wondrously strange and unique that lesser biographers would have struggled to summarize them. Inevitably, writing about colonialism and Jones offers some easy targets. Yet in this handsomely produced biography, Franklin eschews the low hanging fruit of easy moralizing on the early and rapacious days of the East India Company. Instead, he aims for something higher but more difficult to achieve: to narrate the man into existence. He patiently uncovers Jones’s early years as a fatherless child, a precocious teenager, an ambitious young man, and an imaginative translator of Persian, and then slowly brings him to the shores of India where his life’s works would emerge.
Beyond the obvious advantages that such chronological telling bestows, this narrative method allows the reader sufficient imaginative space to become immersed in the England and Wales of the 1700s, to reverse the gaze and see the milieu and institutional arrangements out of which a Jones-like persona could emerge, to empathize with the compromises he made to further the Asiatick Society, to see through the moral complications that being a judge in Wales or Calcutta festooned upon the soul. Once we learn to see past the idiosyncracies of the age, its peculiarities and political compunctions, we find, thanks to Franklin’s detailed marshaling of evidence, a man who is singularly brilliant, supremely driven and willing to take a leap into the unknown. But none of this is unique, per se. Take such a man from the East India Company and put him on Wall Street, academia, the UN or in any government – he will bubble up, thanks to what Oliver Wendell Holmes called “a first class intellect and a first class temperament”. But neither of those two guarantees genuine greatness, like Burke, Goethe or Emerson. For posterity only values originality. Interpreters and translators, like Jones, are even more obscured and hidden as new generations and newer historical contexts arise. Yet, once we see him operate within the East India Company to further the Asiatick Society’s efforts and see past his stratagems of intellectual thrust and parry, we feel a certain empathy for a man who is evidently brilliant and yet lacks the courage to let his conclusions lead wherever they may. On one hand, the reader barely needs to strain to recognize Jones’ willful moral blindness, as he becomes an important cog in the East India Company’s machinery as it finesses the extractive mechanisms of the Mughal Empire’s tax collecting routines; yet, his enthusiasm for Sanskrit is palpable. His energies to communicate the findings, build an institution dedicated to knowledge dissemination, his efforts to include Indian voices (directly or otherwise) make him a unique person in the annals of British colonialism.
No conquest, of a lasting kind, is however possible without the knowledge about that which is conquered. Yet, any knowledge that is collected or discovered under such conditions of duress and implicit hierarchies is marked by an internal tension. Jones describes himself in a Sanskrit verse “as the thirsty antelope runs to a pool of sweet water, so I thirsted for all kinds of knowledge which was sweet as nectar”. The word he uses for “thirsted” was trishna, which, as Franklin astutely notes, is not thirst in the colloquial sense; but the mirage, the uninhibited desire that arises in the frenzied mind of a seeker. But what it is that he runs after? Ostensibly, it is knowledge. But, as a judge it is power that easily accrues, irrespective of whether he was after it. In other passages, it seems that power was simply the currency Jones sought to hoard so that he might transact freely in the market place of knowledge.
Nearly 1360 years after St. Augustine first wrote about such tensions, around the time William Jones was firmly ensconced in Calcutta’s literary and cultural establishment, Knowledge was explicitly subservient to Power. It is this extant hierarchy that Jones intuited throughout his life. He worked to accrue the blessings of the East India Company’s officials in London (using his friends to lobby actively for him to land the job as a judge), and in Calcutta enlisted his own efforts to improve the public relations of the East India Company. Jones convinced Governor General Lord Warren Hastings that the ongoing Sanskritic projects of the Asiatick Society could be used to bolster the image of the East India Company to impress upon the public and potentates in London that the East India Company was not just about plunder, theft, murder, Portuguese prostitutes and Indian bibis. It was critical to convince the English Parliament that, unlike in Robert Clive’s era, the debauchery of the Company was a thing of the past. In the campaign to inveigle out a positive public opinion, Jones’s Asiatick research papers would become the beachhead around which the early public relations war was to be fought. Warren Hastings envisioned to “free the inhabitants of this country (India) from the reproach of ignorance and barbarism”; and free Company servants from accusations of ‘moral turpitude’; and Jones convinced Hastings that the Asiatick Society was a useful tool. The assent from Hastings granted the Society respectability, approval and funding. This careful positioning between the moneyed whales of the East India Company who sought to expand their powers and the millennia old primary and secondary Indic texts that floated adrift in Brahminnical worlds allowed Jones to collect, collate, collaborate and create new institutions and publications that built his everlasting reputation as a scholar and influence luminaries like Goethe, Shelley, Hegel, Schopenhauer and ultimately even the Transcendentalists in America: Emerson and Thoreau. The long shadow of William Jones is now attenuated, but once upon a time he was Apollo himself, shining light on India, which was still, for most Europeans, terra incognita. It is to Franklin’s credit that he shows even this illustrious Sun, brilliant as he was, had crucial dark spots by virtue of his participation and tacit condoning of the most militaristic phase of imperial corporatism.
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On April 12, 1783 William Jones, an attractive looking 36-year-old, set out from England to India aboard a 24-gun frigate called “Crocodile” with Anna Maria, the wife whom he had married three days earlier. His reasons for leaving England were clear: like others, ten years in India would allow him to save sufficiently and be a country gentleman in England. Maybe, he could even buy himself a place as an independent Member of the Parliament. As a fatherless child (his father died when Jones was three) – the idea of security in society seems to have always prefigured in his calculations. His father figured prominently in the intellectual circles as a mathematician of his times with friends who included Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley (of the comet), Abraham de Moivre (of the de Moivre theorems in complex analysis) and the lexicographer Samuel Johnson. We, perhaps, most memorably and unwittingly rely on Jones Senior for his usage of the symbol p as we understand it today, and his invention of the formulae for annuities and compound interest. To wit, if the edifice of mercantilist capitalism stood atop the mathematical inventions of Jones the father, it is Jones the son who helped institutionalize the cultural consequences of colonial-era capitalism.
The early death of Jones’ father, an indifferent legacy of riches and a mother who pushed young William Jones harder blessed him with just enough insecurity, ambition and desire to excel. He sought to push the envelope of what is socially acceptable, but showed a willingness to abandon his principled stance at the precipice of any real confrontation with the powers-that-be. From his careful (yet undoubtedly sincere) affectations as a “Republickan” who sought the right to bear arms to fight against tyranny by any royalist government (note: this was during the age of the American Revolution), he had little hesitation in turning around and writing that: “I shall certainly not preach democracy to the Indians, who must and will be governed by absolute power”. This convenient jettisoning of ideals at the altar of self-advancement seems to be a recurring theme of his life. He cultivated close relationship with the Spencers (the ancestors of the late Diana Spencer) who provided him with employment, friendship and critical support in his bid to win the role in India. From the across the Atlantic, he had his role model in Benjamin Franklin who in turn took him under his wing and revealed to him that polymathic abilities need not be divorced from a taste of political intrigue and tactical compromises – on Jones’s appointment to India, Ben Franklin writes: ‘Wishes that you may return from that corrupting Country, with a great deal of Money honestly acquir’d, and with full as much Virtue as you carry out with you’. His careful choice of allies, the political flexibility of his view during the early parts of his life reveals a mind that is, by instinct, conservative in practice and radical in theory.
The first Indian city Jones arrived in, after a long journey with pit stops in the Madeiras and the Mozambique, was Fort St. George, in what is now Chennai, on September 2nd, 1783. The English cantonments were rife with talk about the campaigns of Hyder Ali, the usurper and ruler of Mysore, who had died the previous year and left behind a son, Tipu Sultan, with an even more terrifying reputation as a military strategist and innovator, thanks in parts to his tactical collaboration with the French. Amongst the Hindus of Malabar, Mysore and Madras, the armies of Tipu Sultan were a marauding force that defaced stone carvings of temples and inspired horror, a reputation which the Company relied upon as they encouraged local satraps to switch sides. Tipu Sultan of Srirangapattinam was the singular challenger to the English in the Deccan, but Jones doesn’t seem too beholden to the long extended campaigns against the ‘tiger of Mysore’. His battle was of a different kind. With the late summer winds at his back, Jones sailed on from Madras weeks later, and before long settled in a bungalow on the banks of the Hughli in Calcutta. As the only serving judge, on many occasions, the three-bench court was an onerous responsibility. A taxing work schedule awaited him. Later in life, Anna Maria would write to a friend: “his business is all day & every day…in a temperate climate it would be reckon’d hard duty (;) think what it is in this’. Jones himself recognized that he was the judge and jury in a country about which he really knew nothing about: “All the police and judicial power, therefore, of this settlement, where at least half a million of natives reside, are in my hands: I tremble at the power, which I possess; but should tremble more, if I did not know myself.” Other judges would fall ill, lose interest or simply just head back home at the first given opportunity. William Jones and Anna Maria, staying by the Hooghli, in contrast, enjoyed their ‘days in heaven’.
In 1757, 26 years before Jones set up home in Calcutta, the East India Company had won its first major military victory at the Battle of Plassey. And since then, like a poisonous mould that grows all too expediently, the Company had progressively expanded its area of operation and influence. Along the way, it had improved its organizational structure, military capacities, financial incentives for the officers, made provisions for their wives , fine-tuned the mechanisms of justice and most importantly, provided handsome returns to shareholders. Per data available, Clive may have earned or rewarded himself nearly £22million out of the £232million the Company earned during his years. Much of these earnings were made during the days of the great Bengal Famine, 1769-1773, that affected what is now West Bengal, Bangladesh, parts of Assam and Jharkand, and is estimated to have killed nearly 10 million. The tributes extracted by the Company were 40-50% of annual produce, compared to the 10-15% before. Predictably, as the stock price of the Company galloped upwards, the number of dead in Greater Bengal swelled. In the early years of their arrival, as cities were flush with impoverished and starving Indian farmers, Anna Maria had taken to riding her horse which cost £125 and a four-bay coach horses that cost £200. This disconnect between English fortune and the lives of Indians is best seen at Plassey, where Anna Maria went riding. Despite the battlefield’s presence as a symbol of colonialism, expropriation and racism, Plassey manages to evoke love and saccharine verses in William Jones:
‘Tis not of Jaafer, nor of Clive
On Plassey’s glorious field I sing;
‘Tis of the best good girl alive,
Which most will deem a prettier thing.
Barring a few notable exceptions, biographers are generally shy about the sexual lives and proclivities of their subject. That the great William Jones, father of British Orientalism, died childless despite a seemingly happy marriage somehow is left unexplored. Did they plan to go back to England and have children? Or, was it something else?
The public life into which Jones arrived was marked by socio-political instability; the Mughal Empire had been in a death spiral since the invasion of Nadir Shah in the late 1730s and the secession of the Maratha confederacy under Baji Rao I. Energy and resources progressively dissipated from the edges of its empire. Brigands and thugs ruled villages, society was deeply wrapped in ritual and superstition, landless laborers were the norm, the aftereffects of famines and wars were still felt, English profiteering and capital infusion upset the local equilibrium and the justice system was often arbitrary. Jones’s private life was, however, marked by domestic tranquility. He married late, and no woman had played up to his vanities, flirted with him as uninhibitedly as his wife did, offered herself freely while still retaining an independent mind , willingly sharing his professional commitments and ambitions and never (it seems) berating him about his lack of attention or time. Perhaps, most importantly, early on during their stay, she was blessed with as strong a constitution as he, and together they withstood the oft-inclement Bengal weather. The romantic idea of India as a land of poetry and literature consummated into a full time philosophic enterprise in the form of the Asiatick Society, thanks in parts to the steadying hand of Anna Maria and the tranquility she bestowed on the home front. She was also a minor essayist. She wrote about the lives of animals, social mores that she witnessed, the weather and the tyranny of heat in Bengal. Her metaphors and descriptions about India reveal more about how the ‘average’ European thought about India than perhaps the proceedings of the Asiatick Society tell us. To understand this new place she reached for imageries of the Orient she had read. That Bengal wasn’t Baghdad is besides the point when she writes about a typical night: “The fire flies or flying Glow-worms have a beautiful and extraordinary effect in a dark night. They remind me of Trees of Emeralds & flowers of diamonds you read of in the Arabian tales…”.
The real India, in more ways than one, was always an approximation for the Platonic ideal of India. In the passages that Franklin quotes she seems surprisingly incurious about the daily lives of Indians. Her life revolved around corsets, parties, Nature, weather, horse ridings. When she casually mentions that streets reeked of dead bodies abandoned by families who couldn’t afford a funeral pyre she barely wonders what lay at the heart of such destitution. What role did her husband’s Company play in this? If Franklin’s writings are any guide, she doesn’t seem to wonder or let herself be too worried about such matters. The disparity of wealth and the material conditions between the Joneses and the average Indian in Bengal has an element of the absurd. Her casual description of such human misery was neither new nor limited to the British colonial experience. It is not the plight of other people and their experiences that arouses her empathy, but the foreignness of her own experiences.
In fact, the idea of the East, the Orient, was still so new for the young women (and men) of Anna Maria’s generation, that often the reader must struggle to remember that Jones arrived in India before Bahadur Shah Zafar or Napoleon had even become adults. To the average European mind, or for that matter even an erudite one like Jones’s, major discoveries in Indology, geography and biology were decades away. In the early days of English expansion, when he was a judge in Calcutta, not much was known about India by Europeans, at least compared to what the Jones-generation would accumulate and disseminate. It was only in 1847, nearly 53 years after his death, that the politician-author Benjamin Disraeli wrote his famous lines in his novel Tancred that “The East is a Career”. It would take an unlikely group of English bureaucrats to slowly upend millennia old ignorance about India, with Franklin’s “Orientalist Jones” at the vanguard of this revolution of the mind. Yet, the consequent project was marked by the politics of their conquest, domination and extraction. It informed their representation of India, it validated hierarchies that suited their commercial and imperial interests, it seeped through and colored their efforts to read and portray India.
If there is one weakness in Franklin’s narrative, it is the absence of a back-story of the pre-Jonesian days of Indology and Orientalism. The biographer, separated by two centuries, is limited by archival research. Franklin, one feels, also underplays the contributions of Jones’s peers: particularly, Charles Wilkins, a lower ranked officer, but one who first translated the Bhagavad Gita into English, and H.T. Colebrooke, who wrote an astoundingly long-lasting text on Indian philosophy. Perhaps, such excisions are inevitable. The Jonesian generation was to stand on the shoulders of liars, forgers, adventurers, sailors, priests and rationalists; and the organization they built disseminated newly translated works in an organized way, backed by capital and military prowess. There seems to have been no handwringing in European quarters about the quality of translation, the legitimacy of their claims or the complicated nature of the act of translation itself. Jones himself seems to have never theorized on the nature of translation or wondered aloud about the transposition of the aesthetic worlds of Sanskrit into European languages.
By 1798, the cognoscenti in England and Europe were awash in a series of translations that turned their views on philology, poetics and geography upside down. In 1784-5, the Bhagavad Gita was translated into English; between 1784-1802, nearly 50 Upanishads made it into French and Latin (they were called “Oupnek’hat”); in 1787, La Bhaguat-Geeta, contenant un précis de la morale et de la religion des Indiens made an appearance in French; in 1787, the Hitopadesha was translated into English; in 1789, the most momentous of translations came, in the form of Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam; in 1792, the Gita Govindam made it into English; in 1794, the Manusmriti (or Manava Dharma Shastra) in English ensured caste got a permanent colonial imprimatur. Despite the prodigious efforts at translating Sanskrit into English or French, fundamental questions still were unanswered. For example, even after the death of Jones, there was no consensus amongst the Europeans on what ancient India exactly did speak or write. Raymond Schwab provides a list of what the language itself was called by Europeans: Samscortam (by Abraham Roger, the Dutchman), Hanscrit (Francois Bernier & Voltaire), Sahanscrit (in the Lettres Edifiantes), Samscroutam or Samcretam (Abraham Anquetil-Duperron, Jones’ eminent precursor), Grandon (after Grantham, by Pierre Sonnerat ) and so on. It is useful to remember that James Prinsep, the decipherer of Brahmi and “discoverer” of the lives of Emperor Ashoka was born in 1799, five years after Jones’ death; Mohenjo Daro and Harappa were dusty and obscure mounds of dust for another 130 years. Jones, in a sense, was to the Orientalism project what Thomas J. Watson of IBM was to the computing industry: the organizer of people, the collaborator with authoritarian regimes, builder of institutions and creator of new markets.
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Three hundreds years after Vasco da Gama, India had markedly changed with the European conquest of its large cities and countryside. Yet, in a Karmic twist, the philological studies and linguistic researches of Sanskrit had unintended consequences. The idea of common source between India’s Vedic past and the European Romance language had an intellectual lure and bravado that would reanimate the opinions of the intellectual classes in the salons in Paris and the debate halls of Oxford. Jones summarized his findings from a six-month long study of Sanskrit on February 2nd, 1786. His findings launched not just academic careers, but also furthered the imaginations of political, social and chauvinistic programs for more than two centuries. The debate continues to this day with geneticists and cultural recidivists making claims that seek to upend or confirm the implications of Jones’ original and striking claim that:
The Sanscrit 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 some common source, which perhaps no longer exists: there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.
Jones’s argument implied not just the evolution of human languages, but the evolution of human societies themselves. From there, the next step was inevitable. His claims percolated through the perspicacious readers of the Asiatick Society’s proceedings and the progressively wider readership across Europe. The corollary to the idea of evolution of languages was the possibility of a common origin: of peoples as different as the “martial” castes of India, the shephards in Germany and the royalist bureaucracies of Iran having one beginning. The conclusion inescapably smacks of heresy: that if the dark, uncouth masses of India were somehow related to the white, civilized worlds of Europe – be it through the accident of language or biology – how much further back could human origins go? In a sense, Jones had simply provided more evidence to his father’s rationalist claims in early 1700s that he had recognized humanity in an orangutan! The touchingly sincere and precise claim by Bishop James Ussher, in 1625, that the Earth was created by God on October 23rd’ 4004 B.C. , was suddenly untenable, as alternate claims by the Hindu almanacs proffered theories of Creation in terms of millions of years. The good Bishop may have padded up well and practiced his front foot strokes, but the Hindus had queered the pitch and then bowled a googly. Within a century, further evidence mounted: Charles Lyell discovered that Earth’s antechambers beneath the soil indicated geological changes over time; and by 1858 the exquisitely observant peregrinations of a young Charles Darwin took Jones and his colleagues leaps further and presented evidence for the evolution of species itself through the mechanism of natural selection. William Jones in a sense was a philological Darwin, arguing for evolution of societies and races, and letting evidence guide him. The progressive erosion of the Church’s hold on the European mind, that had begun in earnest since the Reformation, had found an unwitting ally, before biology and geology took the argument further, in poetry and literature suffused with a different aesthetic sense and moral imagination. Ironically, it was propelled by a rapacious form of imperial capitalism managed by ardent followers of the Church. The historical ironies are unmistakable.
If languages can evolve then, as Franklin astutely notes, so can they become extinct. A language can suffer dilution and new tongues can be born of miscegenation. It was a strange new idea in the late 1700s; and that Jones saw past the mists of cultural chauvinism that permeated the English cantonments is a testament to his willingness to take a lead in shaping the popular opinion despite the flak he got from his Christian peers. Over the course of the past two centuries, the relatively technical debate launched by Jones about the evolution of grammatical clusters and philological hierarchies has taken on new forms. Old anxieties have found new modes of expression. Given the material difference between the average European and the Indian in the 18th and 19th century, the claims of a common source led to the widespread conclusion that Europeans as a racial category had somehow elevated themselves over the Indians who as a ‘race’ had fallen behind. None of this was Jones’ intention or creation: but nearly a century after his death, racial theory had found a certain scientific respectability thanks, in parts, to inferences made from philological discoveries. Why did Asia fall back? Weather? Was it the Protestant ethic? Despotic governments? Beginning of a mini global cooling? Culture? Whatever the reasons, the lessons however seemed clear: if one ‘race’ can move forward, like language, it can also fall back. Fears of pollution now seemed scientifically justifiable. Interracial commingling was an old paranoia. Pollution of the blood it turns out was not just an Indian obsession, but a pernicious European fear as well. This fear of defilement was not just about caste, but also extended to cohabitation and children between the Englishmen and their Muslim and Hindu mistresses. Over time, as more Englishwomen arrived in India – the fears and sexual psychosis inspired by the Indian male turned itself on the head – and found its way into the Marabar Caves of E.M.Forster’s A Passage To India. The long history of European suspicions about the ‘ravenous Moor’, the ‘violent Muslim’, the ‘crafty Hindu’ all find some kind of intellectual respectability in the Victorian era.
Ironically, the inferences made from Jones’s text were seen by the anti-Slavery abolitionists as the essence of their movement: the brotherhood of man. “Blessed then are those who by painful researches, tend to remove those destructive veils which have so long concealed mankind from each other, and occasioned this destructive estrangement” writes a political scientist in the 1800s when describing Jones’ work. Elsewhere, Jones’s translation of Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam, published as “Sacontalá, or the Fatal Ring” which cost, as Franklin wonderfully notes 12 sicca rupees or 30 shillings at its first printing, has the heroic king Dushyanta regret mournfully about mistreating his wife Shakuntala. This lament, inspired by the recognition of Dushyanta’s own cruelty despite his wife’s innocence and beauty, is used as an exhortation by anti-Slavery activists who sought to eke out the possibility of redemption for slave traffickers. Says Dushyanta: ‘O my darling, whom I treated with disrespect, and forsook without reason, when will this traitor, whose heart is deeply stung with repentant sorrow, be once more blessed with a sight of thee.’ And quoting this, the writer of the anti-abolitionist piece writes: “Dost thou, O reader, recognize the savage in these features? Is he not a man? Is he not thy brother?” So Kalidasa’s monarchist and caste conscious play written in around 4th century was used in service of anti-slavery campaigns in the 1800s.
Just as one begins to admire the scholasticism and energies of Jones, we see his slipperiness, yet again, vis-à-vis the question of the day: slavery. Jones was vocal about his opposition to plantation slavery as an economic institution elsewhere in the British dominion and the world. However, when villagers in Bengal came together as anti-Company rioters, led by a unique combination of Fakirs and Sanyaasis, Muslims and Hindus, and were subsequently arrested – they were declared as “slaves to the State”. The Supreme Court bench, on which Jones sat, argued that in the Indian context, slavery was acceptable, in parts because “(H)ere slaves are treated as the children of the families to which they belong, and often acquire a much happier state by their slavery.” Jones further equivocates and argues that “domestic slavery” could actually be beneficial since starvation lies outside. It is an all too familiar position, and was even heard across the American South where an iniquitous economic system was cited as a reason for sustaining despotic personal arrangements. Living and working in this colonial system leads to consistent challenges to Jones’ moral life: as a jurist, when people forced into poverty, thanks to famine and rapacious feudalism, end up stealing, he is forced to award lashings, other corporal punishments and eventually even banishments. To his credit, he argues against wanton amputations as a punishment, despite Hindu and Muslim support for decapitation. As a jurist he thought the only crime that deserved physical dismemberment was perjury! To wade his way through the courts and the burgeoning demand for justice, Jones found an unlikely ally in the centuries old Manava Dharma Shastra, or the Manusmriti. This Brahminnical text of laws had the blessings of the upper castes amongst the Hindus, which it unduly favored, and an implicit support of the Muslims and lower castes, partly out of their own traditional worldview of their place in society. The import of such interventions was the institutionalization of Hindu legalisms, wherein the Mitakshara and Dayabhaga schools of law found their place in the evolving canon of British laws for Hindus.
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If one glances through the complete works of William Jones — it is hard to overstate the scope of his interests and contributions as a translator, explicator and cultural czar of his times: mathematics, grammar, poetry, mythology, astronomy, ecology and most famously, linguistics – everything seems to have interested him. Perhaps it was possible in the 18th century to span all these fields and still have something interesting and new to say about each; unlike today where, even the study of Orientalism is, as Edward Said noted ruefully, “at the threshold of fragmentation and specialization, which imposes their own parochial dominations and fussy defensiveness”.
Amongst his great virtues was his ability to let evidence change his mind. Early on, Jones was dismissive that the “Hindoos” could be mathematically sophisticated or that they could have arrived at proofs to theorems that Europe had recently discovered. (“The Asiaticks, if compared with our Western nations, are mere children”, he writes.) It is hard to say whether Jones’ dismissal was because he believed Indians were incapable mathematicians as a ‘race’ or more simply, that they were yet to develop the infrastructure to promote mathematical thinking in a European style. Franklin, in his scrupulous adherence to facts, glosses over such questions of interiority. Jones’ ideas about India’s mathematical naïveté were not new. In fact, as the great establishment figure he was simply a spokesman for the conventional wisdom of his times. Europe itself was still coming to terms with the staggering contributions of Newton and Leibnitz, and the possibility that Indians may have had a mathematical legacy at par was simply unthinkable. There were, however, a perspicacious few who saw mathematical skills amongst Indians, and also that they had deeply original insights that rivaled European discoveries. This validation, in light of postcolonial pride might seem trite and besides the point. Who, after all, are the Europeans to accredit Indians with or deny genius? But such responses are perhaps just politicized angst. The real question is “European” mathematics, for lack of a better word, provided a benchmark in terms of prediction and proof – the question was did the Indians invent or traffic in such ideas. Jones thought, at first, Indians didn’t. In contrast, Reuben Barrow, the mathematician employed by the East India Company, writes that “…near six years ago, when no European but myself, I believe, even suspected that the Hindoos had any Algebra”. It is important to note that men like Barrow were heard in the outside world thanks to the papers edited by Jones. Irrespective, as the ‘Hindu’ mathematical texts gradually came trickling in – through incredible and mundane routes – it undermined any claims of a priori supremacy of the European mathematicians.
It was in 1665 that Isaac Newton had written out the generalized form of the binomial theorem; not to be left out, the French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, had a more intuitive representation of it that school children even now call Pascal’s triangle (and both were preceded by the Italian Girolamo Cardano, who invented complex numbers). Mathematics, it seems, was nationalism by other means. Yet, later when Barrow publishes a paper in the Asiatick Researches with a header that bristles with, some incredulity: “A Proof that the Hindoos Had the Binomial Theorem”, it revealed not just ancient knowledge, but also a different aesthetic and method to pose questions and arrive at the underlying mathematical truth Newton had discovered. A typical “Hindoo” way of presenting the problem was: “A Raja’s palace had eight doors; now these doors may either be opened by one at a time, or by two at a time, or by three at a time, and so on through the whole, till at last all are opened together. It is required to tell the numbers of times that this can be done?” The solution to this problem reveals the binomial theorem. The key to learning, to translation was to “see” past extant European paradigms and find the underlying mathematics of the problem posed. Once the translators and mathematicians saw past the cultural references, a gradual change ineluctably followed. The “Hindoos”, it turned out, had thought and written at length about gravitation, longitudes and infinite series expansions with considerable sophistication. By 1794, the year of Jones’ death, Jones seems to have gone native: “…without meaning to pluck a leaf from the never fading laurels of our immortal Newton, – that the whole of his theology and part of his philosophy may be found in the Vedas and even in the works of the Sufis.” Notwithstanding the well meaning but barely concealed exaggeration, Jones typified the progress of new converts: from denial to extreme reverence.
From mathematics, astronomy (and astrology) is a just a stone throw away – and Jones predictably follows course. He investigates, aids translations and publication of texts that tackle Aryabhatta, the treatises that inform the calculations at the Jantar Mantar observatory. All the while he is struck by the similarity between Greek and Hindu astronomical systems – and again to his credit, despite his vast erudition, he doesn’t seek to create explicit hierarchies of sophistication between systems of thought. What this similarity between cultures adds to is his intuitive suspicion that there might be a “common source” to the great wisdoms and traits within cultures. This simultaneity has a romantic ring to it that appeals to Jones, who by the mid-1780s has now taken upon himself, and the English civilization, to represent India in Europe (or at least India’s Sanskritic traditions). In the great imperial game in Europe, if the Dutch represented Arabic, the French lit the way for Persian, how could the English be left behind? Jones’ greatest success was his own translation of the play Abhijnana Shakuntalam. It arrives in Europe and it is an unexpected sensation in the salons and libraries. The greatest littérateur of his age Johann Goethe writes:
If you want the spring’s blossoms and the fruits of the maturer year,
What is seductive and creates joy, or what is satisfying and nourishing,
If you want to encompass Heaven and Earth in one single name,
Then I name you, Sacontala, and everything is said.
What is it that attracts the Europeans to the Shakuntalam? Franklin doesn’t explore this angle – but hints it was Europe’s nostalgia for pastoral, for the confluence of the exotic and erotic that Shakuntala represented, the virginal charms of the heroine that Jones was able to communicate effectively. Shakuntala would find admirers in Herder and Schiller who would go on to write that “in the whole world of Greek antiquity there is no poetical representation of beautiful love which approaches even afar.” In 1820, Franz Schubert wrote parts of a musical opera that was an interpretation of Shakuntala translated by Jones. What the entire composition was to be, we will never know since he never finished it. In 1977-78, the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra filled in the score, and completed the project. Jones’s translation had yet again found itself a new audience and a new generation found in his works something to wrestle with. This seems to be an eternal theme of his life: obscurity followed by rediscovery.
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In late 1793, Anna Maria left for England. Months later, ten years after arriving in India and taking the world of Indology by the scruff of its neck, William Jones died in Calcutta at the age of forty-eight. Separated from Anna Maria, his work schedule was punishing: he spent long hours at the courts, corrected proofs of his various publications and guided other researchers. Without the usual care and admonition she would dispense, he returned to his grueling working habits. The level of intimacy they shared was understandably extraordinary and without her, he was adrift. A tumor, ostensibly, killed him. His last words on his deathbed, per Franklin, were: “I must not now be disturb’d, a few minutes will probably convey me into the presence of the Almighty.” What exactly was his conception of the Almighty, we will never know. He was never a fundamentalist Christian and protested the razing of Hindu temples to build cathedrals. Towards his last days, Jones had in private expressed misgivings regarding the evangelical zeal of his fellow Britons in Calcutta: ‘I am no Hindu, but I hold the doctrine of the Hindus concerning a future state to be incomparably more rational, pious, and more likely to deter men from vice, than the horrid opinions inculcated by Christians on punishments without end.’ Even to his end, he seems one caught between worlds, one who enjoyed the fruits of material comfort that the East India Company provided yet progressively intuited that there was something to the anti materialist Hindu philosophies that he studied and translated. He was not a man given to mysticism or philosophizing about life – but it almost seems that the rationalist in him had been gradually worn out after sustained enquires and engagement with centuries of Hindu experiments with Truth and the monistic notions of Reality.
This inbetweeness, the compromises and the moral cul-de-sacs he found himself in, his own curious and careful dance to extricate himself without upsetting the status quo make him an all too familiar a figure in our world. Precisely because we live in an age when men with white sleeves and pin-stripes are forced to come to terms with the amorality of the capitalist enterprise they serve, where activists who rail against mining corporations in Africa text each other on smart phones that contain minerals from war zones in Congo or Uganda, where writers who protest capitalism live off royalties from global corporations, everybody is compromised, everything is tainted. Yet just as the global capitalist system induces moral queasiness, our narratives prefer heroes and villains who play their ascribed roles with numbing tedium. Moral complexity, like body odour, is anathema. Men like Jones evoke unease. His life’s conditions are an ancestor to the modern man, a corporate warrior who progressively finds meaning elsewhere, an academic who genuflects to the powers that be.
Towards the end of his life Jones seems to have thought more about spiritual transcendence but remained mired in the tedium of professional life. Like us, he was too weak to break away from the commercial interests that grew stronger with each passing day. The politicized academic world in our universities has little use for men like Jones, except as figureheads of movements they seek to bolster or tear down. To some, he is a symbol of how Empire building ought to be done – philosopher kings – as these arm chair experts advise us on how to do reprises of past conquests. The past is still the present, for them. For others in the same academic world, he is the symbol of the coarsening venality that justified colonialism and the self-deluding duplicity that capitalism imposes on all. For both sides, however, he remains a symbol. A vessel into which they pour their anxieties and ardor. The peril of such an approach is that it reduces the man himself into a cipher. This manner of reading responds to Jones, a complex man, in the same way the Orientalist project responded to the complexities of societies like India. It reaches for evidence that assures an a priori ideological worldview instead of a contingent search for a truer picture of the man himself, despite knowing very well such quests are limited and tentative. On the other ends of our society, the commercial spirit of our times prefers farce to tragedy, entertainment over elucidation, the convenient fictions on social networks about a worldwide humanity and brotherhood rather the reality of the gross structural inequalities of power and wealth. Men like Jones are of little interest to their representations of colonialism, for he is neither a villain like General Dyer of Jallianwala Bagh nor a lovelorn White Mughal. He is simply unmarketable. Perhaps that is why, few in India or elsewhere have bothered to republish or write about Franklin’s efforts to chronicle him.
It is the bane of democratic politics that the brutalities of the conservative ideology are met with an equally unthinking and reactionary response by the previously oppressed. The in-between space is progressively squeezed away by strategic extremism. Both sides use words like Orientalism as pejorative or praise. Often to be called an Orientalist is a slur, rightly so, but the dedication and personal sacrifices the Orientalists made in pursuit of knowledge is easily forgotten when our readings become politically charged. We fail to see the man for his worth, and rely on catch all descriptors. This is no different than to accuse somebody of being Brahminnical or Capitalist – it means everything and nothing. As time passes, the goal of our language ought to be to uncover subtler shades of reality, to see men for who they are, not what they represent.
What animates a man like Jones, or for that matter any person, we will never fully know. But Jones’s life contains many of the same themes that continue to us affect today – ambition, expedience, power, colonialism, mercantilism, love and the love for language. We may recognize variations of these themes in those who govern us, teach us, speak on our behalf and claim to represent us. Jones’ magnificent life is a wolf-whistle to an era that is now forgotten but, as we trudge our way through the forests of global capitalism, his life’s themes and resonances may be all too real. To say that his was an extraordinary life is to state the obvious. But it is the warts and disfigurations of his life that interest us and portend our own dilemmas. Willian Jones’s life narrated, of course, is not what he lived. But to understand it better, and thus perhaps our own inflected anxieties, reading about it carefully is probably a good start.
Keerthik Sasidharan manages risk on credit derivatives for an investment bank. He occasionally contributes to newspapers and magazines. Michael J. Franklin’s new book Orientalist Jones: Sir William Jones, Poet, Lawyer and Linguist, 1746-1794 is published by OUP USA, 400pp., Hardcover $60.66, Kindle $35.75 & Nook $55.25.