Skip to main content

First translation of the Gita

By November 13, 2017No Comments

Source :The Hindu


On wages of a rupee a day, the pundits’ job was to check Wilkins’ translation

For a very long time, Sanskrit was a fiercely guarded turf. Even the recital (let alone study) of sacred Sanskrit compositions was considered a privilege so mighty that ‘unfit’ persons — such as women and those belonging to low castes — who even accidentally overheard any of it would be in danger of painful punishment. All in god’s name.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Mughals who patronised Sanskrit scholars were met more than halfway by Hindus who not only learnt Persian but composed poetry in it. Two generations later, even after Aurangzeb had stopped funding Sanskrit scholars, the multilinguality of the court continued. But without patronage, Sanskrit suffered long years of decline. It made a brilliant comeback when the British ‘discovered’ the language in which the antiquities of their newly acquired lands lay locked.

Imperial entry

With the English came their language, trailing bits of Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian, Arabic and Anglo Saxon, besides echoes from all those smaller countries the British had visited to plunder (Latin) and conquerre (Old French). They were just beginning to extend their loot (Hindi).

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, English became the donor language for translations into Indian languages in Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Meanwhile, Philosophy, Religion and Literature moved in the opposite direction, with Sanskrit playing the donor-language role for translations into European languages. A detail which is usually forgotten is that before the English learnt Sanskrit, it was scholars of Arabic and Persian who mediated between Europe and India. In such a context, can any language in our midst be labelled alien or seen as a threat to another language community? We should hope not.

The 70th year of our Independence is a good time both to acknowledge the imperishable empire of the English language which will forever link our countries, and to look at the first direct translation (without mediation) into English of a Sanskrit work — all 700 verses of that stupendous cosmological poem, the Bhagavad Gita.

In the 1780s, Governor General Warren Hastings decided that, in all fairness, efficient administration in India should rest on an understanding of the ‘shasters’ (shastras). There began a policy of reverse acculturation whereby British officials were trained to fit into the native environment so as to better assimilate Indian ways of thinking. The goal was two-way: to introduce the West to the grandeur of Sanskrit literature and to reintroduce to Indians their own forgotten treasures buried under foreign conquests. Yet another ‘ology’ came into being — Indology.

Listening in

Though there had been earlier translations of the Bhagavad Gita, they had been carried out with the help of interlocutors and joint scholarship. Typically, a Maulvi would explain in Persian what he had understood of the Sanskrit. The receiving Englishman transferred into English what he had understood of the Maulvi’s Persian presentation. But in November 1784 came the first direct translation of it from the Sanskrit into English.

Charles Wilkins, senior merchant to the East India Company, sought the help of a group of Bengali pundits. On wages of a rupee a day, their job was to check his translation of the Gita. Step one.

Step two: Support for publication because then, as now, translators needed patrons and promoters. In a letter dated November 19, 1784, written from ‘Banaris’, Charles Wilkins submitted his translation of his Bhagvat-Geeta to Warren Hastings. The translator’s preface mentions that the dialogue contained the grand mysteries of the Hindoo religion, going on to state that ‘the doctrines of Kreeshna’ were at variance with the ignorance of the kind of worship that the translator saw around him. A few pages later: “Small as the work may appear, it has more teaching than the Revelations.” Need one wonder at the bitterness of missionary and evangelical attacks that followed?

In a letter to Andrew Fuller dated April 23, 1796, the Serampore missionary, William Carey, wrote that if only the Mahabharata could, like the Iliad, be viewed as a work of poetic genius, it would be all right; but to know that it was, unlike the Greek epic, “the ground of faith for millions of men” made it abhorrent.

“Like (ow) in bow” is one of Wilkins’ guides to pronunciation in his translation; and the cast of characters will make any Indian smile: Bhaurut, Nekool and Sahadeo, Yoodishteer, Dooryodun — all of whom underwent a series of adventures “with a wonderful fertility of genius and pomp of language in a thousand sublime descriptions.”

Shall we end with what the patron of this translation wrote about the Gita to his Court of Directors? “… it will survive when the British dominion in India shall have long ceased to exist, and when the forces which it once yielded of wealth and power are lost to remembrance.” Did this add to the anger against him at his impeachment?

Though the Gita has seen hundreds of better English translations since the one commemorated in this article, this November deserves a pranaam to its first translator in another November more than two centuries ago.

Mini Krishnan edits translations for Oxford University Press, India.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.