The First Indologists

Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami

This article first appeared as a chapter in the 1977 book 'Readings in Vedic Literature: the tradition speaks for itself', which was published for use as a college textbook. This extract is an example of the depth of research and mode of presentation that is necessary if ISKCON wants to effectively communicate with an academic audience. The perspectives and conclusions presented show how Gaudiya Vaishnavism can find its voice and learn to speak for itself in the contemporary world.

The first Westerners to investigate the Vedic literatures were the British, in the last half of the eighteenth century. It is best to understand their work in the larger historical context of the British rule of India.

A brief history of the British in India

Early invaders of India included the Persians (600 BC) and the Greeks under Alexander the Great (300 BC). India's first great Hindu empire, the Maurya Empire founded by Candragupta (300 BC), expanded under Emperor Asoka to embrace the whole sub-continent, and it also fostered Buddhism. After Asoka, assorted northern tribes invaded India, until the reign of another Gupta dynasty, which united a section of the country for centuries. In the seventh century the Arab Muslims began conquering India, and various Muslim leaders developed empires up until the Mogul Empire, whose chief ruler was Akbar. During the reign of Akbar's son Jahangir (1605-1627), the British established their first trading station in India. The Portuguese had been the first Europeans to arrive, and they competed with the French and English for commercial control of port cities. Through treaties with local rulers, the trading companies became more powerful than the Mogul Empire. The companies received official monopolies from their governments and held huge armies of mercenaries. By defeating an Indian army at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British East India Company finally gained supremacy. Throughout the eighteenth century, the company made treaties or annexed areas by military campaigns; at last in full control of India, it ceded the country to the British government.

At first, the British government was careful not to force any change in religion upon the Indian people. This policy had always seemed most judicious for ruling the several hundred million Indian citizens without precipitating rebellion. Thus, under Lord Cornwallis (1786-1793, 1805) laissez-faire had dominated the East India Company's attitude toward the Indian way of life. Through the East India Company's regulations of 1793, the governor general had promised to 'preserve the laws of the Shaster and the Koran, and to protect the natives of India in the free exercise of their religion'. However, a year before these regulations went into effect, Charles Grant had written, 'The company manifested a laudable zeal for extending, as far as its means went, the knowledge of the Gospel to the pagan tribes among whom its factories were placed'. In 1808, the same author described openings of Christian schools and translations of the Bible into Indian dialects as 'principal efforts made under the patronage of the British government in India, to impart to the natives a knowledge of Christianity'.

Historian Vincent Smith describes three broad tendencies in Britain's policy at the start of the 1800s. The conservatives were interested in improving the Indian way of life, but recommended extreme caution for fear of violent reaction; they saw no easy overthrow of Indian tradition. The liberals felt the need to introduce Western ideas and values, but they hoped to integrate gradually. The rationalists, led by George Berkeley and David Hume, had a more radical approach. They trusted that reason could abolish all human ignorance. And since the West was the champion of reason, the East could only profit by the acquaintance.

To most eighteenth-century Englishmen (whether at home or abroad), religion meant Christianity. Naturally, racism played its part also. This attitude of Europeans toward Indians was due to a sense of racial superiority - a cherished conviction which was shared by every Englishman in India, from the highest to the lowest. Thus, upon arriving in India in 1813, the governor general, the Marquis of Hastings wrote, 'The Hindoo appears a being merely limited to mere animal functions, and even in them indifferent . with no higher intellect than a dog.'

Without governmental sanction or license, the Christian evangelists came to India and proselytised to undermine the 'superstitions of the country'. Alexander Duff (1806-1878) founded Scots College, in Calcutta, which he envisioned as a 'headquarters for a great campaign against Hinduism'. Duff sought to convert the natives by enrolling them in English-run schools and colleges, and he placed emphasis on learning Christianity through the English language. Another leading missionary, a Baptist, William Carey (1761-1834), smuggled himself into India and propagandised against the Vedic culture so zealously that the British government in Bengal curbed him as a political danger. On confiscating a batch of Bengali-language pamphlets produced by Carey, India's Governor General Lord Minto described them as 'scurrilous invective . without arguments of any kind, they were filled with hell fire and still hotter fire, denounced against a whole race of men merely for believing in the religion they were taught by their fathers.' Duff, Carey, and other missionaries gradually gained strength and became more aggressive; finally, they gained permission to conduct their campaigns without governmental license. The missionaries actively opposed the British government's attempt to take a neutral stand toward Indian culture and worked with optimism for the complete conversion of the natives. They did not hesitate to denounce the Vedic literatures as 'absurdities' meant 'for the amusement of children'.

Historian Arthur D. Innes writes, 'The educators had hardly concealed their expectations that with Western knowledge the sacred fairy tales of the East would be dissolved and the basis of popularly cherished creeds would be swept away.' The suspicion of religious coercion disrupted British-Indian relations and in 1857 helped touch off the Sepoy Rebellion (of Indian mercenaries).

The first scholars

Such was the setting in which the first Indologists appeared. These first Vedic scholars did not form a unified political or academic party; they were variously conservative, liberal and radical. Sir William Jones, the first Englishman to master Sanskrit and study the Vedas, drew fire from the eminent British historian James Mill for his 'hypothesis of a high state of Civilisation'. Typically, Mill believed that the people of India never had been advanced and that therefore their claim to a glorious past (which some of the early Indologists supported) was historical fantasy. However, by translating the Vedas for the Western reader and thus evincing the ancient Vedic genius, the scholars increased India's prestige in the West. On the other hand, as Aubrey Menen has said, 'It should be remembered that they (the English of the seventeenth century) were not the almost pagan English of today. Every man was a Christian, and it was a Christian's duty to wash the heathen in the blood of the lamb.' Nonetheless, some of the early scholars rather admired the Vedic culture they were investigating, even though they initially conceived of themselves as bearers of Christian light to the sacred darkness of the heathens.

Sir William Jones (1746-1794), Charles Wilkins (1749-1836), and Thomas Colebrooke (1765-1837) are considered the fathers of Indology. Jones was educated at Oxford and there began his studies in Oriental and other languages; he is said to have mastered a total of sixteen. In addition, he wrote a Persian grammar, translated various Oriental literatures and practised law. After his appointment as judge of the Supreme Court, Sir William went to Calcutta in 1783. There he founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal and was its president throughout his life. He translated a number of Sanskrit works into English, and his investigations into languages mark him as one of the most brilliant minds of the eighteenth century. Sir William was not prone to invective against another's religion, particularly the Vedic, which he admired. In his view the narratives of the East, like those of Greece and Rome, could enrich both the English tradition and the human mind. Notwithstanding, Sir William's stance was that of 'a devout and convinced Christian'. Thus, he described the Bhagavata Purana as 'a motley story', and he speculated that the Bhagavata came from the Christian gospels, which had been brought to India and 'repeated to the Hindus, who ingrafted them on the old fable of Cesava (Kesava, a name for Krsna), the Apollo of Greece'. This theory has since been discredited since records of Krsna worship pre-date Christ by centuries. H. H. Wilson (1786-1860), described as 'the greatest Sanskrit scholar of his time', received his education in London and journeyed to India in the East India Company's medical service. He became secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (1811-1833), and medical duties notwithstanding, he published a Sanskrit-English dictionary. He became Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford in 1833, librarian of the India House in 1836 and director of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1837. Titles credited to his name include Vishnu PuranaLectures on the Religious and Philosophical Systems of the Hindus and Rig Veda, among others. He also contributed to Mill's History of India and edited several other translations of Eastern literatures. In addition, he proposed that Britain restrain herself from forcing the Hindus to give up their religious traditions. Compared to the evangelists, he appears to have been a champion of the preservation of Vedic ideas.

Yet we may be a little startled by his stated motives:

From the survey which has been submitted to you, you will perceive that the practical religion of the Hindus is by no means a concentrated and compact system, but a heterogeneous compound made up of various and not infrequently incompatible ingredients, and that to a few ancient fragments it has made large and unauthorised additions, most of which are of an exceedingly mischievous and disgraceful nature. It is, however, of little avail yet to attempt to undeceive the multitude; their superstition is based upon ignorance, and until the foundation is taken away, the superstructure, however crazy and rotten, will hold together.

Ultimately, Wilson felt that the Christian culture should simply replace the Vedic culture, and he believed that full knowledge of the Indian tradition would help effect that conversion. In his modulated conservatism he seemed to echo the East India Company. Aware that the people of India would not easily give up their tradition, he made this shrewd commentary:

The whole tendency of brahminical education is to enforce dependence upon authority - in the first instance upon the guru, in the next upon the books. A learned brahmana trusts solely to his learning, he never ventures upon independent thought; he appeals to memory; he quotes texts without measure and in unquestioning trust. It will be difficult to persuade him that the Vedas are human and very ordinary writings, that the Puranas are modern and inauthentic, or even that the tantras are not entitled to respect. As long as he opposed authority to reason, and stifles the workings of conviction by the dicta of a reputed sage, little impression can be made upon his understanding. Certain it is, therefore, that he will have recourse to his authorities, and it is therefore important to show that his authorities are worthless.

Wilson also warned that the Vedic adherents were likely to show 'tenacious obstinacy' about their 'speculative tenets . particularly those regarding the nature and condition of the soul'. But he was hopeful that by inspired, diligent effort the 'specious' system of Vedic thought would be 'shown to be fallacious and false by the Ithuriel spear of Christian truth'. As the first holder of Oxford's Boden Chair for Sanskrit, H. H. Wilson delivered public lectures to promote his cause. He intended that the lectures 'help candidates for a prize of two hundred pounds . for the best refutation of the Hindu religious system'. Wilson's writings are full of similar passages, including a detailed method for exploiting the native Vedic psychology by use of a counterfeit guru-disciple relationship. Now, in Wilson's case, the charge of bias has become aggravated by charges of invalid scholarship. Recently, Natalie P. R. Sirkin presented documented evidence that betrays Wilson as a plagiarist: his most important publications were collected manuscripts by deceased authors whose works he credited to himself, as well as works completed without research (such as writing an analysis of the Puranas without reading them).

Another renowned pioneer Indologist was F. Max Muller (1823-1900), born in Dessau and educated in Leipzig. He learned Sanskrit and translated the ancient Hitopadesa before coming to England, in 1846. Commissioned by the East India Company to translate the Rig Veda, he lived in Oxford and wrote many books on mythology and comparative religion. Muller is best known for his series Sacred Books of the East, a fifty-volume work which he devoted himself to editing in 1875.

In 1876, Muller wrote to a friend, 'India is much riper for Christianity than Rome or Greece were at the time of Saint Paul'. He added that he would not like to go to India as a missionary because that would make him dependent on the government. His preference was: 'I should like to live for ten years quite quietly and learn the language, try to make friends, and then see whether I was fit to take part in a work, by means of which the old mischief of Indian priestcraft could be overthrown and the way opened for the entrance of simple Christian teaching.' Muller regarded Vedic philosophy as 'Aryan legend' and 'myth', and he believed that Aryan civilisations had simply helped bring about the evolution of Christianity: 'History seems to think that the whole human race required gradual education before, in the fullness of time, it could be admitted to the truths of Christianity' adding, 'The ancient religions of the world may have but served to prepare the way of Christ by helping through its very errors.'

H. H. Wilson's successor in Oxford's Boden Chair was Sir Monier Monier-Williams (1819-1899). Born in Bombay, Monier-Williams attended the East India Company's college and later taught there. After his appointment as a professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, in 1870, he delivered an inaugural lecture entitled The Study of Sanskrit in Relation to Missionary Work in India. Monier-Williams also wrote a book called Hinduism (1894), which was published and distributed by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. He is best known to twentieth-century Indology students for his Sanskrit-English Dictionary. In addition, he spent twenty-five years founding an institution at Oxford for disseminating information about Indian literature and culture. He succeeded, and the Indian Institute formally opened in 1896. Monier-Williams disapproved of Muller's evolution-to-Christianity view of the Vedic sastra:

There can be no doubt of a greater mistake than to force these non-Christian bibles into conformity with some scientific theory of development and then point to the Christian's Holy Bible as the crowning product of religious evolution. So far from this, these non-Christian bibles are all developments in the wrong direction. They all begin with some flashes of true light and end in utter darkness.

Monier-Williams further wrote,

It seems to me that our missionaries are already sufficiently convinced of the necessity of studying these works, and of making themselves conversant with the false creeds they have to fight against. How could an army of invaders have any chance of success in an enemy's country without a knowledge of the position and strength of its fortresses, and without knowing how to turn the batteries they may capture against the foe?

Another early Indologist was Theodore Goldstucker (1821-1872), born in Konigsberg and educated there and in Bonn, where he studied Sanskrit, philosophy and Oriental languages. After settling in England, in 1850, he received appointment as a professor of Sanskrit at London's University College, a post he held until his death. Goldstucker wrote a number of books on Sanskrit literature and founded the Society for the Publication of Sanskrit Texts. He also participated in a number of writing and research projects concerning India. The Dictionary of Indian Biography describes him as 'an authority on ancient Hindu literature'. Goldstucker regarded the people of India as being burdened by Vedic religion, which had only brought them worldwide 'contempt and ridicule'. Thus, he proposed to re-educate them with European values. Goldstucker wrote, 'The means for combating that enemy is as simple as it is irresistible: a proper instruction of the growing generation in its ancient literature.' In his book Inspired Writings of Hinduism, Goldstucker assailed the validity of Vedic literature. His aim was to demonstrate to the new generation of Vedic followers that he had scholastically annihilated their scripture and that they should show their appreciation by adopting European values and improving their character.

It is lamentable that this sectarian raison d'etre clouded the early study of Vedic literature. When reading the theories or analyses of these early Indologists, therefore, the student would do well to bear in mind the bias behind the brilliant scholarship.

Their influence on modern scholarship

College Sanskrit departments no longer award prizes for 'the best refutation of Hinduism'. Indeed, in the current selection of books by Vedic scholars, the authors describe themselves as 'sympathetic outsiders', 'friends of India' and 'admirers of the tradition of tolerance in Indian religion'.

Nonetheless, some of the missionary Indologists' main theses still crop up as time-honoured facts. Simply by being pioneers, Wilson, Monier-Williams, Muller and others have left a lasting impression of how one should study the sastras. 'The foundations for the recovery of India's past were laid by certain eminent classical scholars, including Sir William Jones, James Prinsep, H. T. Colebrooke and H. H. Wilson . the debt owed these men is great.'

Modern Vedic scholars are hardly missionaries; however, largely from academic habit, they give tacit approval to many of the first Indologists' conclusions. For instance, the early researchers portrayed Vedic literature as a hodgepodge of disharmonious texts. Sir Monier Monier-Williams wrote, ' . after a lifelong study of the religious books of the Hindus, I feel compelled to publicly express my opinion of them. They begin with much promise amid scintillations of truth and light and occasional sublime thoughts from the source of all truth and light, but end in sad corruptions and lamentable impurities.' Like their predecessors, today's scholars discredit the Puranas, although the Vedic acaryas themselves have accepted the Puranas as equal to the other Vedic sastras. One scholar recently commented that Muller attempted to change Hinduism to a 'new and purer form' and failed, but that 'his conception of the history of Hinduism, which presented an antithesis between its Vedic form and the so-called Puranic form . still survives in a modified version'.

In addition, many of today's scholars still teach that the Vedas are essentially mythological and that the Puranas are not even consonant with the Vedic mythology. In other words, they disavow what the acaryas affirm - namely, that the Vedic literatures form a coherent whole, and that the Puranas are the culmination. But since it is the Puranas that substantiate monotheism, if these are dismissed we ignore part of the Vedic picture of the Absolute Truth.

As might be expected, many of today's students see Vedic literature as lacking clarity and conclusiveness. More often than not, as one begins his Indological studies, he hears that Vedic authority is dubious, that eternal existence is simply a wish for self-perpetuation and that God and the demigods are ipso-facto myths. Indeed, the compiler of the Vedas, Vyasadeva, often receives no mention. Moriz Winternitz writes that the names of the authors of Vedic literature are unknown to us and that sometimes 'a mythical seer of primitive times is named as author'.

Yet Vedic evidence confirms Vyasadeva as the literature's actual compiler: 'Thereafter, in the seventeenth incarnation of Godhead, Sri Vyasadeva appeared in the womb of Satyavati, wife of Parasara Muni, and he divided the one Veda into several branches and sub-branches..

Winternitz comments: 'The orthodox . believe the same Vyasa who compiled the Vedas and composed the Mahabharata, who also in the beginning of Kali-yuga, the present age of the world, was the author of the eighteen Puranas. But this Vyasadeva is a form of the exalted God Visnu Himself.' Thus, without further ado, Winternitz rejects the possibility of Vyasadeva's authorship and goes on to discuss other possible authors: since the Puranas present Vyasadeva as an avatara, he obviously could never have existed. In this way, Vedic personalities and statements become suspect, even 'mythological', simply because they are supra-mundane.

The student of the Vedas should understand plainly that they do describe the supra-mundane, and that to reject their statements on this basis is really self-defeating. One should approach the Vedas with an open mind and let them speak for themselves. Otherwise, they will remain a hodgepodge of 'sad corruptions and lamentable impurities'.

For the most part, modern scholars continue to minimise the existential and transcendental validity of the Vedas, often without so much as an explanation why empiric knowledge should take precedence over sabda, knowledge from authority. Thus, subtly but surely, the indological scholars of the present day have inherited the pioneers' bias, and though today's bias is not 'evangelist' but 'empiricist', it slants just the same. With all deference to the laudable efforts of the empiricists, we suggest that the student try to take a fresh look at Vedic literature, through the eyes of the Vedas themselves. Momentarily setting aside the legacy of the British Indological pioneers, the new student of Vedic literature will benefit from returning to the primary sources - the original sastras and the commentaries of the acaryas. In this way, without preconceived notions, the student may better appreciate the coherent and many-faceted knowledge that the Vedas offer.

1.�W.H. Moreland et. al., A Shorter History of Indian Tradition.

2.�J. Allan et al., The Cambridge Shorter History of India, p. 557.

3.�H.H. Dodwell, ed., The Cambridge History of the British Empire, vol. five, p. 122.

4.�House of Commons, ed., Observations on the State of Society, p. 1.

5.�Robert Chatfield, The Rise and Progress of Christianity in the East, p 367.

6.�Vincent A. Smith, The Oxford History of 1ndia, p. 579.

7.�R.C. Majumdar et al., eds., History and Culture of the Indian People, vol. 10, p. 348.

8.�Ibid., p. 337.

9.�George Smith, Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 6, p. 126.


11.�H.G. Rawlinson, The British Achievement in India, p. 53.

12.�Christian Literature Society for India, Idu Series: Epic Poetry incl. Puranas, pp. 140, 142.

13.�Arthur D. Innes, Shorter History of The British in India, p. 303.

14.�T. Walter Wallbank, India: A Survey of the Heritage and Growth of Indian Nationalism, p. 27.

15.�Majumdar, History and Culture, p. 33.

16.�Aubrey Menen, The Mystics, p. 118.

17.�A.L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India, p. 5.

18.�'Jones Tradition in British Orientalism', Indian Arts and Letters 20 (1946): 10.

19.�Sir William Jones, The Works of Sir William Jones, p. 395.


21.�Richard Garbe, India and Christendom: The Historical Connection Between Their Religions, trans. Lydia J. Robinson, pp. 214-7.

22.�C.E. Buckland, Dictionary of Indian Biography, p. 455.

23.�H.H. Wilson, Works, vol. 2, pp. 79-80.

24.�Ibid., pp. 80-1.

25.�Ibid., p. 114.

26.�Ibid., p. 115.

27.�'Horace Hayman Wilson', Eminent Orientalists, pp. 71-2.

28.�'H.H. Wilson and Gamesmanship in Indology', Asian Studies 3 (1965): 303.

29.�Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Scholar Extraordinary, p. 325.


31.�Vivekenanda Rock Memorial Committee, India's Contribution to World Thought and Culture, pp. 167-8.


33.�Sir Monier Monier-Williams, Religious Thought and Life in India, p. 10.


35.�Buckland, Dictionary of Indian Biography, p. 169.

36.�Theodore Goldstucker, Inspired Writings of Hinduism, p. 115.

37.�Wm. Theodore de Bary et al., eds., Approaches to Asian Civilisations, p. 29.

38.�Monier-Williams, Religious Thought and Life in India, pp. 34-5.

39.�Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Scholar Extraordinary, p. 327.

40.�Moriz Winternitz, A History of Indian Literatures, vol. 1, trans. S. Ketkar, p. 26.

41.�A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Srimad-Bhagavatam, First Canto, vol. 3, p. 57.

42.42.�Moriz Winternitz, A History of Indian Literatures, vol. 1, trans. S. Ketkar, p. 527.