Saturday, 17 August 2013
The Man Who Rediscovered an Ancient Civilization
India celebrated its independence from Great Britain on 15th August. It is an occasion for celebration and introspection for every Indian to celebrate her rebirth or perhaps her birth as a nation 67 years ago. On this occasion, here is a small piece on once celebrated Briton who is neither celebrated much in India nor in Britain, but whose contributions to both is immense.
The 17th and 18th centuries were very interesting times. For the first time, mankind was witnessing one particular race dominate the world not on the basis of warfare, but on the basis of innovation and industry. Those times are now called as the industrial revolution. In roughly 300 years , a small island nation and technically the southern part of a small island nation called England was building capacity for production of goods never seen before and using the world as a stage to source raw material and a market for finished goods. During those heady times, the conventional wisdom in the island nation was that all other nations were inferior in intellect and learning and there was little wisdom in going beyond some poorer European nations to gather any knowledge.
During those days, a genius was born to the gentleman who gave the symbol of pi to the world and Mary Nix Jones. This genius was named William Jones after his father. Early in his childhood, young Wiliam lost his father. Without his fathers’ source of income from patronage, there was acute shortage of money in the household. This loss of patronage was to influence key decisions in Jones’ later life. However, his mother thought him to read and he was able to read by the age of 4.
His mother managed to enrol the young William to Harrow. Here, his genius was identified by the Shipley brothers who played an important role of influence throughout his life. He went on to Oxford at age 17 in 1763 where he was recognized as a brilliant student. The Shipleys helped him land job in the influential Spencer family household at Althorpe. Oxford and Althrope became cradles for learning his first foreign languages – Italian, Spanish, Portuguese which were fashionable and Arabic and Persian which were exotic.
His level of competence in languages soon started earning him plaudits and he was first commissioned by the King of Denmark to translate the life of Nadir Shah. He went on to translate Asian poems, took up learning music and also wrote on Persian grammar and went on to work on Persian poetry.
Remembering the pangs his family had to go through with his fathers loss of patronage, Jones broke free from the Spencers and took up law. He also qualified at the Oxford . He took up law and qualified for the bar at the Temple . More plaudits followed. He was admitted to the Royal society.
It was the time of American war of independence and Jones, a person who stood for world learning and liberty in the early years cultivated deep friendship with Benjamin Franklin and was not popular for his sympathy for the American cause. While Jones was trying for an embassy job in Turkey for which he was definitely eminently qualified, his sympathy to the American cause scuttled his chances.
His breakaway from the Spencers and his sympathy to the Americans was to have a huge beneficial impact to India. In 1783, after the dust had settled down on the American war, Jones was appointed as one of the judges in East Indies and he came to Calcutta. He was also knighted and married his long time love Anna Maria Shipley.
On his voyage he saw the ancient lands of Persia, Arabia and India surrounding his frigate and he conceived what became the famous Asiatic society. This is from where his contributions became immense to India, Britain and mankind. While it was fashionable for his country of birth to denounce contributions of her colonies, this genius chose to investigate and learn from the country he adopted.
Here was a pioneering Briton who believed that he would function better as a judge if he studied the local laws and customs. He put himself to the task and set up the Asiatic society with the purpose of “Asian studies including almost everything concerning man and nature within the geographical limits of the continent” . He envisaged this to reach the same scale as the Royal society during the innaugral speech of the society in 1784. In his first speech at the Society, Jones was just talking about Asia having imagination and Europe being scientific. But his relentless pursuit had vastly changed opinion by the time his last speech came about in a decade.
He quickly identified the study of local languages as essential to study the advances made by ancient India. He studied these and was able to relate dates of the Gupta empire. He also studied and dated Budhism. He pursued studying Indian monuments and their influence elsewhere. It was an age when some of the best Indian monuments today were in a obscure state of utter neglect and complete disrepair that had lasted centuries. He saw India’s maritime laws centuries before their codification in Europe. He acknowledged advances in dyeing and its possible beneficial impact on the then sunrise British textile Industry.
He deciphered ancient Indian texts and was able to understand the advances made in metallurgy, the decimal scale , chess, astronomy (which was far superior to what Galeleo and Copernicus discovered many centuries later) and logic. He aso saw the commonalities with the ancient culture of India with other ancient cultures much before the ancient alien advocates stringed multiple controversial theories.
In literature and art, he is acknowledged as the pioneer of comparative philology. He had studied ancient Art forms. He was the first European to translate Kalidasa, acknowledge Panchatantra, Hitopadesha, the Upanishads, Vedas, Vyasa’s Mahabharatha and Puranas. He translated Firdausi, Abulola and the Koran. In his lifetime, he had known more than 20 languages
His followers later went on to form the Archeological Society of India which went on to discover and protect monuments – an activity that it continues to this day. In Europe, he transformed the impression of India in particular and Asia from an ignorant aborigine land to a society of ancient culture learning. He made Asian studies fashionable.
It has to be remembered in the context of history that India was largely plundered and ruled by migrants from Central Asia and Persia for six centuries before the British and some of the ancient works, languages and monuments were ignored or neglected. But, Jones was someone without any prejudice and immense curiosity. He systematically befriended learning and assiduously studied the customs ,traditions and more importantly the main languages used. While his health in India was always letting him down, his sense of purpose was always propping him up. He finally succumbed to liver inflammation in India in 1794 leaving his adopted country and his country of birth much richer. It is sad that the Indian school textbooks have little mention of this Briton who led the rediscovery of ancient India. Here is respect to this great man when India remembers its independence from Britain.