Ancient History & Civilisation

Passages from India


In 1866, the transatlantic undersea cable was laid across the Atlantic Ocean, electrically linking the United States with England for telegraphic communication. In 1869 the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines were joined in Utah with a golden spike to complete the transcontinental railway across North America. That same year, the French Suez Canal Company opened its canal linking the waters of the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean, significantly reducing transportation time between Europe and Asia. In New York, Walt Whitman celebrated this confluence of human earth-spanning accomplishments in his poem of 1871, “Passage to India.”1

Singing my days,

Singing the great achievements of the present,

Singing the strong light works of engineers,

Our modern wonders, (the antique ponderous Seven outvied,)

In the Old World the east the Suez canal,

The New by its mighty railroad spann’d,

The seas inlaid with eloquent gentle wires

In Whitman’s embracing vision, these great feats of engineering also span time. They will bring the ancient worlds with their great fables and spiritual truths, embodied for Whitman in India, into his modern North American world, or enable his embodied soul to journey back to ancient India. He honors not just the works of modern science but also

myths and fables of eld, Asia’s, Africa’s fables,

The far-darting beams of the spirit, the unloos’d dreams,

The deep-diving bibles and legends,

The daring plots of the poets, the elder religions

Addressing his own soul, Whitman suggests that these great unifications of space and time are in fact God’s own plan.

Passage to India!

Lo, soul, seest thou not God’s purpose from the first?

The earth to be spann’d, connected by network,

The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,

The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,

The lands to be welded together.

Through such spatial and temporal passages, the ancient Indian “bibles” like the Bhagavad Gita with their “far-darting beams” can take on new forms, in new places, for new readers beyond India.

Whitman does not mention the Bhagavad Gita by name in “Passage to India,” but it certainly was one of those Asian bibles that he had in mind. He noted that in preparation for composing Leaves of Grass, he read “the ancient Hindoo poems,” and when the first edition of Leaves was published, Ralph Waldo Emerson commented that it read like “a mixture of the Bhagavat Ghita and the New York Herald.” When Whitman died, it was reported, a translation of the Gita was found lying under his pillow.2

The Bhagavad Gita did not have to pass through the Suez Canal or across the transatlantic cable to reach Whitman. It was already in New York well before the 1860s. We can trace some of the earlier earth-spanning actions that brought this ancient Indian work to the attention of Whitman as well as other US and European readers in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The first was an act of linguistic passage: the translation from classical Sanskrit to modern English. Once the Gita and other unfamiliar works from ancient India arrived in Europe, their new readers had to find ways to accommodate them within existing Western ways of knowing the world.

First translated into English in 1785, the Bhagavad Gita was repeatedly proclaimed to be the foremost work of Hindu religious philosophy and subsequently gained the title of the “Hindu Bible.” As a result, the Gita figured prominently in European discourse about Hinduism and India in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, often as a synecdoche for India itself. It was the Kurukshetra on which European intelligentsia battled over how to understand Indian culture and its deep past. In a period of European expansionism and the British acquisition of colonial control over South Asia, debates over this ancient text frequently took on a decidedly contemporary political valence.

The same globalizing processes that brought the Gita as an ancient Hindu text to Europe and the United States at the end of the eighteenth century also brought living Hindu teachers by the end of the nineteenth. Starting with Swami Vivekananda’s remarkable appearance in Chicago at the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893, Indian interpreters have exercised their powerful say to Western audiences about Hinduism, adopting the Bhagavad Gita as their central text. In this chapter we trace the Gita’s passages out of India, from its first English translation to Vivekananda’s mission to the United States.

Charles Wilkins and His English Gita

In the 1840s and 1850s, as he prepared himself for a career as a poet, Whitman spent a great deal of time “loafing” in the libraries of New York. In the Astor Library (an ancestor of the New York Public Library) during that period were several translations of ancient Hindu poems available to the young Whitman. Among them was the English translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Charles Wilkins, published in London in 1785. The Gita was in fact the first work of classical Sanskrit translated directly into English, and its appearance opened a Suez-like stream of works from ancient India on to the intellectual shores of Europe, including the Hitopadesha (1787), Shakuntala (1789), Gita Govinda (1792), the Laws of Manu (1794), and many others to follow. These works caused a sensation in European learned circles, and also reached across the Atlantic to make a powerful impact on North Americans like Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Whitman. But Wilkins’s work depended on other earth-spanning forces, most immediately the establishment of British colonial control in eastern India, which brought the young English administrator into contact with learned Indian Brahmins.

Wilkins sailed from England to Calcutta in 1770, at age twenty-one, to take up an appointment with the East India Company as a “writer” or junior clerk.3 A few years earlier, the British trading firm had gained administrative authority over a large portion of eastern India, and this was the starting point for its eventual colonial control over the entire Indian subcontinent. In 1772, Warren Hastings was appointed as the new governor-general for Bengal, charged with reforming corrupt Company practices. Soon after arriving in Calcutta, he issued his recommendation that the British colonial administration should seek to govern the territories under its control not according to British law but rather according to the laws and customs of the local residents. The first task forCompany officials, then, would be to determine what these laws actually were.

Hastings’s proposal was the founding event of the Western discipline of Indology, for it led the British administrators of Bengal to the study of Sanskrit. The administrators were informed that the laws of the Hindu population were contained in codebooks called Dharmashastras, composed long ago in Sanskrit and promulgated by erudite Brahmin teachers or “pundits.” (Another old Indic term adopted into modern English, the word pundit derives from the Sanskrit word pandita, “a learned person”). Hastings set about persuading the local pundits of Bengal to collaborate with British Company officials in compiling and translating the legal codes. This was not always an easy task, for many Brahmin pundits were rightly suspicious of the new foreign rulers. Others, however, found it profitable and perhaps stimulating to work with the new rajas, just as their forebears had adapted themselves to other regime changes in the past. The decision of some pundits to cooperate with the British opened the way for a few fortunate Englishmen to study Sanskrit.

Of all the British administrators under Hastings, Wilkins proved to be the most adept and highly motivated in his pursuit of Sanskrit learning. Around 1778, he later recalled, “my curiosity was excited by the example of my friend, Mr. Halhed [Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, who had tried unsuccessfully to learn Sanskrit], to commence the study of the Sanskrit. I was so fortunate as to find a Pandit of a liberal mind, sufficiently learned to assist me in the pursuit.”4 Wilkins does not mention the name of this pundit, whose “liberal mind” consisted of a willingness to collaborate with an English colonial official like Wilkins.

By 1783, Wilkins had made enough progress in his Sanskrit studies to begin translating the epic Mahabharata. He requested a leave of absence from his administrative duties in Calcutta, on health grounds, to travel to Benares. No doubt he chose Benares not just for its healthful climate but more for the opportunity to work with Sanskrit pundits at the greatest center of traditional Hindu learning. Wilkins was “Sanskrit-mad,” as the Indologist Henry Thomas Colebrooke later described his affliction. With Hastings’s support, the Company granted the leave, and in early 1784 Wilkins relocated to Benares. There he met and worked with the pundit Kashinatha Bhattacharya, esteemed as a “master of every discipline of knowledge.”5


FIGURE 4. Sir Charles Wilkins, by James Godsell Middleton, engraved by John Sartain, ca. 1820.
© National Portrait Gallery, London.

At this earliest stage of Western Indology, British students of Sanskrit like Wilkins were altogether dependent on the vastly superior Sanskritic expertise of pundits like Kashinatha. There were no Sanskrit-English dictionaries, and no Sanskrit primers or grammars in any European language. There was none of the apparatus on which later generations of Western students have come to rely when learning Sanskrit. (Kashinatha himself compiled two such fundamental works for his British patrons Wilkins and William Jones: a list of Sanskrit verb roots and a ten-thousand-word vocabulary.) The British students also depended on the pundits for recommendations as to what texts to study and translate. Wilkins’s choice to translate the Bhagavad Gita portion of the Mahabharatareflects the high value that his Brahmin pundits placed on the work. “The Brahmans esteem this work to contain all the grand mysteries of their religion,” wrote Wilkins in his preface. Let us note that this statement represents the viewpoint not of all Hindus of all times but rather of a particular class of Sanskrit-teaching Brahmin pundits in northern India in the late eighteenth century. Generalizations of the Gita as the supposed bible of all Hindus would come later.

“Translation is treason,” goes the adage, and it is always useful to be reminded that no translation is transparent. A translation can never fully reproduce an original. The greater the linguistic and cultural distance between the original and target languages, the wider is the gap that the translator must try to bridge. Every translation involves judgment and tactical choices. What does the translator (like any commentator or interpreter) see as the most fundamental significance of the original work? What aspects of the original work does the translator seek to convey, and what will one leave untranslated?

Wilkins makes no attempt to reproduce the poetical form, the metrical verse, of the Sanskrit Gita in his translation. He renders it in prose dialogue, though with enough King Jamesian “thees” and “thous”” to suggest a bible-like authority. His aim is to convey the meaning of the text insofar as he is able. He recognizes that his translation will not be entirely clear to English readers. He blames this not on cultural difference or on any imperfection in his own understanding of the text but instead on what he sees as the obscurity of the original.

The reader will have the liberality to excuse the obscurity of many passages, and the confusion of sentiments which runs through the whole, in its present form. It was the Translator’s business to remove as much of this obscurity and confusion as hisknowledge and abilities would permit. This he hath attempted in his Notes; but as he is conscious they are still insufficient to remove the veil of mystery, he begs leave to remark, in his own justification, that the text is but imperfectly understood by the most learned Brahmans of the present times; and that, small as the work may appear, it has more comments than the Revelations.6

Already in this first translation by an English student of Sanskrit, Wilkins is criticizing his Brahmin teachers for their imperfect understanding, a custom that would persist through several generations of Indologists.

More interesting is Wilkins’s judgment of the broader significance of the Bhagavad Gita. He does not present the work as an argument for a particular yogic discipline—whether knowledge, devotion, or action—as its Indian commentators often did. He does not give any indication that he might see the application of Krishna’s teachings to his own life, as medieval Indian commentators had. Rather, Wilkins locates the intention of the author as one of religious reform within Hinduism.

It seems as if the principal design of these dialogues was to unite all the prevailing modes of worship of those days; and by setting up the doctrine of the unity of the Godhead, in opposition to idolatrous sacrifices, and the worship of images, to undermine the tenets inculcated by the Veds; … the design was to bring about the downfall of Polytheism; or, at least, to induce men to believe God present in every image before which they bent, and the object of all their ceremonies and sacrifices.7

He views the Gita, then, as a historical document, valuable for the insight that it may yield about the early development of Hindu religion. This in turn may help his compatriots in understanding contemporary Hindu beliefs and practices, as part of a larger British project to comprehend the practices of their new colonial subjects, in order better to rule them. For many British observers, ancient texts like the Gita would enjoy priority over contemporary Indian informants in determining what would qualify as Hinduism. As Jones, his fellow Orientalist, put it, “[Those who wish to] form a correct idea of Indian religion and literature” should start by forgetting “all that has been written on the subject, by ancients or moderns, before the publication of the Gita.”8

In October 1784 Hastings visited Benares on political business, and Wilkins took the opportunity to show his patron the Gita translation he had been working on. Hastings was delighted. As he wrote in a letter to his wife, “My friend Wilkins has lately made me a present of a most wonderful work of antiquity, and I am going to present it to the public.”9 By “public” Hastings meant not the local Indian one but rather the British public. He sent the manuscript by ship from Calcutta to London with a lengthy letter of recommendation addressed to his superior, Nathaniel Smith, chair of the East India Company board of directors. Hastings proposed that the Company publish this “specimen of the Literature, the Mythology, and Morality of the ancient Hindoos.” To justify publication to the Company directors, Hastings argued that such learning held great value for the exercise of British colonial rule. “Every accumulation of knowledge,” he wrote, “and especially such as is obtained by social communication with people over whom we exercise a dominion founded on the right of conquest, is useful to the state.”10 For Hastings and the East India Company, the translation of the Bhagavad Gita was a political act.

In May 1785, the work was printed under the title The Bhagavat-Geeta, or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon; in Eighteen Lectures, with Notes, translated from the Sanskrit by Wilkins. There is no mention of Kashinatha in the publication. In the “advertisement” that followed the title page of the book, the work is set forward, by virtue of its esteem within India and antiquity, as “one of the greatest curiosities ever presented to the literary world.” The businesspeople of the Company board in London could not have anticipated how true this would prove to be.

Promise of the Primordial

Whitman was not the first person in the West to be thrilled by the Hindu poets or envision the possibility of finding some profound spiritual wisdom in the ancient bibles of Asia that could revivify the present. From the first appearance of Wilkins’s rendering of theBhagavad Gita in 1785, followed by other seminal translations from the Sanskrit, European savants looked to these newly available ancient works with avid excitement. Wilkins’s translation was quickly translated into Russian and French, and a few years later into German. It was the time when the romantic movement was taking form in Europe, and an exalted image of India would hold an important position in the romantic sensibility.

The most enthusiastic reception took place in Germany.11 Even before any Sanskrit works had appeared in Europe, the theologian Johann Gottfried Herder was portraying India as the cradle of civilization. Of the four ages of humankind, Herder speculated, the “childhood” of the human race took place in Asia, and he postulated that the inception of human culture must have occurred near the Ganges River. Inspired by Herder, the poet Novalis located the Garden of Eden somewhere in the Himalayas. India’s language was more ancient, its mythology was older than any other, and wisdom itself seemed to have arisen on the Indian subcontinent. As Friedrich von Schlegel exuberantly proclaimed to his friend Ludwig Tieck, “Here is the actual source of all languages, all the thoughts and poems of the human spirit; everything, yes, everything without exception has its origin in India.”12 All these metaphors situated the Orient, and more specifically India, as the site of the primordial, in contrast to the European modern. For the German romantics, the primordial held a positive and compelling promise. They valued it as natural and pure, as opposed to the fractured and disenchanted reality of their contemporary European culture. In this reverse teleology, true perfection lay not in a future but instead at the very infancy of human culture. The original state of things could offer a critical perspective toward the present, an antidote to European traditions that these romantics viewed as moribund.

As it traveled from Benares to Calcutta to London to Germany, Wilkins’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita landed in an intellectual field that was richly prepared for this old Indian poem. If the first stage of the human career took place in India, then Sanskrit works like the Gita could open a window into this ancient period of spiritual purity. The first incarnations of the Bhagavad Gita in the German language were secondary translations derived from Wilkins’s English version. Herder translated portions of the poem, along with two other Indic texts, identified as representations of Indian brahmanic thought, in his Zerstreute Blätter of 1792. These Sanskrit works confirmed his great enthusiasm for all things Indian. But in rendering the Gita’s thoughts, Herder extracted them from their textual setting and resituated them, along with excerpts from translations of theHitopadesha and Bhartrihari’s poetry, as epigrams in a topical scheme of his own devising.

The Gita, Herder declared, presents the great unitary premise of pantheism: One in all, and all into One. This is not simply a historical or culture-specific statement, as Herder sees it, but instead a universal theological principle with compelling ethical ramifications. All humans are quickened by the one World Spirit, and we should use our brief period of life to its best effect through reflection and conscientious actions. Humans ought to be led by reason, not by delusion or aversion. Truth, not error, should govern humanity. In contrast to Wilkins, Herder is not concerned with the history of Hinduism. Rather, in his view, Krishna speaks from the dawn of human culture to address perennial human concerns, just as applicable in late eighteenth-century Germany as in ancient India.

One of Herder’s followers, Friedrich Maier, rendered the entire Bhagavad Gita from Wilkins’s translation into German in 1802. While Maier located the Gita as one of the earliest expressions of the Hindu intellect, he also pointed to the analogies between many of its ideas and those of Plato, Benedict de Spinoza, and the Christian mystic Jacob Boehme. Other early European readers of the Gita similarly observed that the ancient Indian poet seemed to have anticipated and first articulated many tenets found in later Western philosophical or theological traditions. The French translator Jean-Denis Lanjuinais saw many such parallels. “It was a great surprise,” he remarked, “to find among these fragments of an extremely ancient epic poem from India, along with the system of metempsychosis, a brilliant theory on the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, all the sublime doctrines of the Stoics, the pure love which bewildered Fénelon, a completely spiritual pantheism, and finally the vision of all-in-God upheld by Malebranche.”13 If India was the birthplace of human civilization, as the early romantic vision had it, then the Bhagavad Gita as one of its earliest written expressions could serve as the original wisdom book, containing the seeds of ideas that would come to fruition in the West in centuries to come.

The Supreme Romanticism, Abandoned

“We must seek the supreme romanticism in the Orient,” declared the poet and literary critic Schlegel in 1800. Fired by his passion to discover a source of human wisdom that could restore European culture, Schlegel took up the study of Sanskrit in 1802. He was the first German to do so, and probably the first Westerner to learn Sanskrit without traveling to India or studying with an Indian pundit. His pundit was a retired British army officer and Orientalist, Alexander Hamilton, who had studied the language during his service in Calcutta. Hamilton was now in Paris cataloging the collection of Indian manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale. At the time, the Scotsman Hamilton was the only person on continental Europe who knew Sanskrit, and he generously aided the German Schlegel in the French capital.14

By 1808 Schlegel issued the conclusions of his Indological studies, Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier: Ein Beitrag zur Begrûndung der Alterthumskunde, a lengthy comparative study of Indian language and philosophy. As an appendix to his book, he included direct translations from Sanskrit into German of extracts from the Bhagavad Gita and other important classical Indic texts. We should note how, in the European quest for origins, “India” became confined here to its classical Sanskrit language and Hindu works of antiquity.


FIGURE 5. Friedrich Schlegel, painting by Franz Gareis, 1801.
Public domain work of art from Wikimedia.

In his preface, Schlegel honors Wilkins, Jones, Hamilton, and other pioneers in the Western study of the Orient, and envisions the immense role such research can play in reinvigorating European thought.

The study of Indian literature requires to be embraced by such students and patrons as in the fifteenth and six-teenth centuries suddenly kindled in Italy and Germany an ardent appreciation of the beauty of classical learning, and in so short a time invested it with such prevailing importance, that the form of all wisdom and science, and almost of the world itself, was changed and renovated by the influence of that re-awakened knowledge. I venture to predict that the Indian study, if embraced with equal energy, will prove no less grand and universal in its operation, and have no less influence on the sphere of European intelligence.15

Just as the rediscovery of Greek and Latin classics had provoked a renaissance in European intellectual life, so Schlegel predicts the study of Indian classics can catalyze a second and more profound rebirth—an “Oriental renaissance,” as it would be later termed by Edgar Quinet and Raymond Schwab.

Expanding on the suggestions of Halhed, Jones, and others as to the lexical parallels between Sanskrit and other languages, Schlegel examined the grammatical systems of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Persian, and German, and demonstrated striking similarities among them. Ever in search of the primordial, he postulated that Sanskrit was the earliest form or source for the other languages. His linguistic work would inspire others like Franz Bopp, who went on to establish the discipline of historical philology, one of the seminal intellectual fields of the nineteenth century. His study of Indian languages also inspired his older brother, August Wilhelm von Schlegel, to move to Paris and study Sanskrit.

In the appendix to Sprache und Weisheit, Schlegel rendered about one-fifth of the Gita in metrical German. The pattern of his selections and omissions is significant. Schlegel avoids Krishna’s instructions to Arjuna about work and duty, and also omits the teachings pertaining to the yoga of devotion. Much of the battlefield landscape drops out, as does Arjuna’s vision of Krishna in his all-encompassing form. Instead, Schlegel highlights passages concerning the intellectual concept of the godhead and the human quest to find union with the divine. In short, Schlegel’s abbreviatedGita is oriented around a jnanayoga interpretation, uncluttered by conflicting perspectives.

Despite the great impact that his work would have on others, Schlegel’s own initial enthusiasm for ancient Indian literature as a direct source of wisdom waned over the course of his studies. During his writing of Sprache und Weisheit, Schlegel gradually came to believe that Christianity was not just one mythology among many in the world but rather provided the preeminent wisdom. He joined the Catholic Church in 1808, the same year that Sprache und Weisheit was published. From then on, he did not pursue any further studies of Sanskrit or Indian philosophy.

Within his newfound Catholicism, Schlegel had to find a way to locate the lesser wisdom of Indic works like the Gita. The earliest Indians, he proclaimed, had possessed knowledge of the true God. A primordial “glance” of revelation had fallen on India. In the course of time, however, this original wisdom had been overlaid with “a fearful and horrible superstition.” Thus Indian religious thought followed a downward trajectory: the initial diffusion of the pure revelation degenerated in the direction of idolatry, astrology, and other Hindu abominations. In an early text like theBhagavad Gita, Schlegel believed, glimmers of that ancient light of divine wisdom still could be glimpsed amid the unwieldy growth of erroneous mythology that had come to constitute Hinduism. The virtue of the Gita resulted from its antiquity along with its proximity to an original revelation, and Schlegel’s selective translation highlighted the remnants of that divine manifestation. Yet unlike Hinduism, Catholicism had managed to preserve this revelation in its true form.

The 1808 work of Schlegel marks a significant moment of transition in the European study of the Bhagavad Gita and other classical Sanskrit works. Several divergent pathways proceeded from his studies. The romantic impulse with which Schlegel commenced his Sanskrit study continued, despite his own disappointed abdication. It took on a lively new incarnation across the Atlantic among the postcolonial transcendentalists in the United States like Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott (all enthusiastic readers of Wilkins’s translation of the Gita), and Whitman. Thoreau took a borrowed copy of the Wilkins Gita with him to Walden Pond, where he imagined himself communing with a Brahmin priest on the Ganges as he sat reading at the pond bank.16

The nineteenth-century scientific study of Sanskrit and ancient Indic literature, in which German savants like Bopp and brother Wilhelm excelled, developed from Schlegel’s comparative linguistic work and pioneering efforts at translation. In 1818, Wilhelm became the first academic professor of Sanskrit in Germany, at the University of Bonn. In 1823, he issued his own complete translation of the Gita, not into German, but into Latin, to give the old Indic text the aura of a proper classic. Wilhelm, not Friedrich, is often considered the real founder of Sanskrit studies in German. Between 1800 and 1823, the “supreme romanticism” that inspired the younger Friedrich had been supplanted by a new disciplinary ethos of the scientific study of Indian languages and texts. Even if India was not the source of a pure primordial revelation that Herder had envisioned, its ancient literature could still offer scholars an exciting new object for philological research.

Finally, with his Catholic resituating of the Gita as the corrupt residue of an original revelation, Schlegel pioneered the kind of critical reading that nineteenth-century Christians and especially missionaries working in India would give to the text: find the “good parts” that cohered with Christian doctrine, and dismiss the remainder as myth and superstition foisted by priests on a credulous native audience.17 This fit with a broader narrative of India’s historical degeneration, which would take firm root especially in British colonial discourse.

The Colonial Politics of Gita Reading

Nowadays, we readily accept that no reading of a work of religious literature is entirely innocent. Every reading draws on a reader’s own presuppositions, values, and purposes. But some readings are less innocent than others. In late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain, those who read the Bhagavad Gita—as mediated through Wilkins’s translation—did so in a political context. The broad issue was how the British were best to govern the new colonial territories on the subcontinent they had acquired by right of conquest. This debate rested on an evaluation of the society and institutions of the Indians. To what extent were Indians capable of self-governance? How directly and deeply should the British intervene in Indian society? Was Hinduism a positive or negative influence in the civilization of India? The Bhagavad Gita and other classical works translated from Sanskrit were taken as evidence for forming British judgments about contemporary India.

Governor-General Hastings and others in his early circle of Orientalists, enthusiasts for the products of Indian culture, believed that active British engagement in learning about India would aid the colonial enterprise by conciliating differences between rulers and ruled. As he wrote to the Company chair when advocating the publication of the Gita translation,

It is not very long since the inhabitants of India were considered by many [in England], as creatures scarce elevated above the degree of savage life; nor, I fear, is that prejudice yet wholly eradicated, though surely abated. Every instance which brings their real character home to observation will impress us with a more generous sense of feeling for their natural rights, and teach us to estimate them by the measure of our own. But such instances can only be obtained in their writings: and these will survive when the British dominion in India shall have long ceased to exist, and when the sources which it once yielded of wealth and power are lost to remembrance.18

It was the British attitude toward India that needed to change, according to Hastings, in order to ameliorate differences between the two peoples. He argued that reading the Gita would help a British public overcome its previous prejudice about Indian savagery, and acquire a more generous and true estimation of native dignity as well as accomplishment. Shifting to a broader historical perspective, Hastings closed with a prescient estimation of the relative duration of British colonial rule and the life of Indian writings like theBhagavad Gita.

Hastings’s generous outlook and conservative ruling strategy soon generated fierce opposition. The most formidable attacks came from two directions. Evangelical Christians like Charles Grant and secular utilitarians like James Mill found common cause in opposing the Orientalist orientation. Both began by emphasizing a profound difference between Indian and British societies on an evolutionary “scale of civilization.” In the estimations of Grant and Mill, Indian society was indeed (as Hastings had put it) scarcely elevated above the savage level. The cause of Indian backwardness was not racial but rather cultural. Indians had been oppressed by their own political and religious despotism. Therefore, the great ruling task for the British in India, their moral duty, was “assimilation.” For evangelicals and utilitarians, assimilation was not required of the British, as Hastings had suggested; it was up to Indians to become more like their new rulers. A profound transformation of Indian society was needed. Evangelicals and utilitarians differed on the instruments of transformation. Evangelicals naturally advocated a much greater role for Christian missionary activity on the subcontinent, while utilitarians put their faith in a more secular process of modernization. While both Grant and Mill gained influential positions within the East India Company, Mill exerted his greatest impact on the ethos of British colonial rule with his magnum opus, the History of British India, published in 1818.19

Mill was a thirty-two-year-old freelance journalist from Scotland living in London, trying to support a growing household that would eventually swell to nine children, when he began work on his History of British India in 1806. It might not have seemed the most obvious route to economic security for Mill to undertake a three-volume historical monograph that would take twelve years to write. Mill lacked any experience of living in India and had no training in any Indian language. Nevertheless, the project worked for him. When the History appeared in 1818, it was a great financial success, and the earnings helped sustain his family. Even better, the book established Mill as an authority on India, and he obtained a position with the East India Company in 1819, which he kept for the remainder of his career.

Mill calls his History a “critical history,” by which he means a “judging history.” In the preface he likens himself to a courtroom judge, sifting all the written evidence impartially to render judgment. His lack of any residential or linguistic expertise in India is a virtue, he argues, since it enables him to avoid any partisan perspective. One of the primary things this judge wishes to evaluate is the civilizations of the “Hindoos” and “Mahomedans” over which the British have acquired dominion. The items of evidence presented in Mill’s historical court are the classical Sanskrit works translated into English by the Orientalists as well as various reports from travelers and missionaries in modern India. All are taken to represent a single Hindu civilization. The primary question to be decided is where these Hindus fit on a scale of civilization, an evolutionary continuum from the rudest savagery up to the most refined and exalted stages of humanity. Mill has no qualms in claiming the latter for the utilitarian judge himself.

Mill was certainly not an easy person to appear before. His eldest son, John Stuart Mill, who was subjected to his father’s radical methods of home schooling during the years that Mill was working on the History, described his father’s temper as “constitutionally irritable.”20 In the History, one can hear Mill bringing that same paternal impatience and irascibility to his evaluation of Hindu texts. In this case, though, his irritation was directed toward a clear political purpose. By demonstrating the childish backwardness of Indian society, Mill sought to persuade his British audience of the need for more forceful, transformative colonial intervention in native life.

Mill claims that religion plays a dominant role in Hindu civilization. “Every thing in Hindustan,” he facetiously asserts, “was transacted by the Deity…. The astonishing exploits of the Divinity were endless in that sacred land.” Accordingly, Mill’s account of religion forms a central portion of his lengthy book 2, “Of the Hindus.” The Bhagavad Gita figures significantly as a witness in this section of the History, along with the Laws of Manu, the Puranas, and missionary descriptions of contemporary Hindu practices. But none are allowed to appear as unified textual wholes. For Mill, the Gita does not exist as a narrative or part of the Mahabharata, and he does not bother with any attempt to comprehend Krishna’s complex teaching as a whole. Rather, the Gita is a source of passages to be excerpted and juxtaposed with passages from other sources, other centuries, and other schools of thought. Let us take two examples from among the many where Mill deploys the Bhagavad Gita in his portrait of Hinduism.

In Mill’s view, religion ought to provide a depiction of the cosmos as a connected, perfect system governed by general laws and directed toward benevolent ends. The Hindus fail grievously on this scale. “No people, how rude and ignorant soever, who have been so far advanced as to leave us memorials of their thoughts in writing, have ever drawn a more gross and disgusting picture of the universe, than what is prescribed in the writings of the Hindus.” Indulging his irritation with the childish Hindus, Mill continues, “All is disorder, caprice, passion, contest, portents, prodigies, violence, and deformity.”21 On what evidence does the judge base this assessment? Mill quotes the entire account of Arjuna’s vision of Krishna’s all-encompassing form at Kurukshetra as a “monstrous exhibition” of a guilty cosmology. He does not mention to his readers that this is a soldier’s vision on a battlefield at the onset of a cataclysmic war, at a moment when those general laws of a perfect system have gone completely awry.

Hindu yogis come in for special contempt in Mill’s account. Along with Manu’s prescriptions for the renunciatory stage of life, Mill cites the Gita description of the sthitaprajna, the person whose wisdom is firm, as a proof text. These are the tortures that the religion of the Hindus requires. Moreover, he tells his readers, these Hindu yogis are required to renounce all moral duties and moral affections. Mill fails to notice that Krishna’s depiction of the sthitaprajna is explicitly directed toward persons living in the world who wish to employ yogic techniques of self-mastery within their worldly activities. Nor does Mill mention the strong advocacy in Krishna’s teachings to that worldly warrior Arjuna to observe dharma—that is, moral duty and moral affection—as a basis for proper impartial social action.

Mill’s method of juridical interrogation has the desired outcome. “No coherent system of belief,” he concludes, “seems capable of being extracted from their wild eulogies and legends.”22 Judgment is rendered. And since Hindu religion plays such a dominant and oppressive role in India, according to Mill’s portrait, the sentence must call for radical change. Mill did not seek the widespread Christianization of India, as Grant had, but rather a secular advancement in alignment with his utilitarian values. His position at the East Indian Company later allowed him to enact this agenda within Company policies. For the promise of ancient India to provide a primordial wisdom for benighted Europe, as the romantics hoped, Mill substituted the new nineteenth-century faith in universal progress, by which the rude Indian civilization would be led through Anglicization toward a more exalted destination.

Mill supplied an influential framework for those reading the Bhagavad Gita. If Indian commentators often highlighted especially powerful statements in the Gita for special attention as mahavakyas (great utterances), Mill sought out and isolated passages from the text that best supported his overarching pejorative vision of Hinduism. His History of British India became required reading for British personnel training for service in colonial India. Mill’s selective decontextualizing method of reading set the horizon of expectations for other colonial period English readers approaching the Gita and other classical works.

The Gita and the Geist

Meanwhile in Germany, the Bhagavad Gita provided the field for a different kind of combat. As Wilhelm von Schlegel recognized, Germans did not have the same political and administrative motivation to learn about India that the British did. He maintained, though, that Germans did have a “special call to get to the bottom of Indian antiquity.”23 They could do this through the application of philological method and superior scholarly rigor. In the 1820s, Schlegel’s Devanagari edition and Latin translation of the Gitaprovoked a series of arguments among German savants that would determine just where this bottom of Indian antiquity should be located. At stake in the debate were where India would fit in world history and where works of classical India like the Gita would be placed in a universal history of ideas that nineteenth-century Europeans were seeking to construct.

In explaining his choice of the Bhagavad Gita as his first Indic publication, Schlegel described the work as “a famous philosophical poem, praised in the whole of India, whose wisdom and sanctity can hardly be surpassed by any other.” Whether true or not, Schlegel’s comment reflected the European desire to find a single key to Indian religious thought, and reinforced the identification of the Gita as supplying it.

When Schlegel’s work came out in 1823, it evoked some of the same fervor that had greeted Wilkins’s English translation nearly four decades earlier. Wilhelm von Humboldt, the wide-ranging diplomat and linguist, wrote to Schlegel of his gratitude not just to the editor but also to destiny itself for giving him the opportunity to listen to the Gita in its original language. Like Whitman in the United States a few decades later, Humboldt was cognizant of the world-historical changes that enabled this ancient Sanskrit work to reach him in Germany. Not all shared the excitement, however. The French Sanskritist Alexandre Langlois published a strong criticism of Schlegel’s translation in the new Journal asiatique in 1824. At issue was Schlegel’s failure to find single translational terms in Latin for certain crucial Sanskrit terms in the Gita, such as yoga, dharma, and brahman.

Humboldt rushed to the defense of his friend Schlegel. In two lectures delivered in 1825 and 1826 at the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin, and later published in the academy’s Proceedings, Humboldt proclaimed the Gita “the most beautiful, presumably the only real philosophical poem of all known literatures.”24 On the translation front, Humboldt observed that languages are not structured similarly. Consequently, an important Sanskrit word like yoga or dharma may have a semantic range that does not correspond precisely to any single term in Latin, German, or any other language. Translators, Humboldt contended, must leave themselves open to the multiple meanings inherent in the original and seek to render that fully. Moreover, he asserted, a work rich in philosophical ideas like the Gita must be approached as an integral whole, not by fitting it into a preexisting doctrinal category. “I furthermore hold,” he continued, “that there is hardly another means to elucidate the numerous dark spots that still remain in Indian mythology and philosophy than to excerpt, one by one, each of the works which can pass as their main sources, and to investigate it completely and separately before comparing it with other works.”

Humboldt, who was instrumental in establishing the University of Berlin (later renamed Humboldt University), was here setting out an agenda for the scientific, empirical, and philological approach to the study of Indian antiquity that his allies like Schlegel and Bopp were pioneering in the new German universities. The course of history, he believed, should only be investigated by means of a subtle, detailed study of the various peoples and nations of the world. The direction of history would be a matter of empirical inquiry, not a priori preconception. In this Humboldt was rejecting the reverse teleology of Herder and the romantics, who had looked to ancient India as a source of universal wisdom. At the same time, he was challenging the conception of history as the progressive self-manifestation of the Weltgeist or World Spirit, advocated by the Berlin professor of philosophy Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel rose to the challenge with two lengthy reviews of Humboldt’s lectures on the Gita, which he published in his Jahrbücher für wissenschaftliche Kritik in 1827.25

Hegel’s grand vision was centered on the movement of the remarkable Geist throughout human history. He viewed this as a single world-historical passage across time, connecting all human civilizations both East and West. Hegel shared the romantic premise that civilization had originated in the East. Yet he thought that this was not a privilege, for the East had remained mired in the early stages of the Spirit’s movement. The primordial did not hold a promise of renewal, as the earlier romantics had imagined. As the Spirit spread from East to West, finally reaching Berlin, it had superseded its own earlier forms. In the temporal manifestation of the Spirit, as Hegel envisioned it, what is earlier comes to be encompassed and integrated into what succeeds those prior forms. The philosophy of the present already includes those of the past, and surpasses them. But why had the Spirit stopped in its tracks in India?

The task of Hegel’s reading of the Bhagavad Gita, accordingly, was to demonstrate how its premises had contributed to the stultification of the Spirit in India. Following Wilkins, Schlegel, and Humboldt, Hegel portrays the Gita as expounding the basic essentials of the Hindu religion. By now, four decades after Wilkins’s translation, Europeans had conferred a scriptural centrality on the Gita by repetition. Hegel further identifies the doctrine of yoga as “the essence of their religion as well as its most sublime concept of God.” Hegel’s depiction of yoga, however, is much narrower than the multifaceted explication that Krishna provides in the text. For Hegel, yoga requires a withdrawal and isolation from the world, leading to a passive immersion into the brahman. As the Hindu term for God, the brahman is a decidedly inert conception. Unlike the Christian God, Hegel contends, the Hindu brahman abdicates its divine obligation to engage in the world process. Somewhere along the line, Hegel has managed to neglect the fact that the interventionist Krishna proclaims himself the brahman, personally embodied on a real Indian battlefield, in order to persuade a warrior to engage in worldly combat. For Hegel, the introverted and static aspirations of Hinduism articulated in the Gita have consigned India to a backward status, lacking the dynamic agency of the West. India’s political failure, its seemingly easy conquest by the British, is one consequence of its spiritual inertia.

If Mill and Hegel had had their way, the life of the Bhagavad Gita in the West, which had begun so optimistically with Wilkins’s translation, Hastings’s promotion, and the German romantic adoption, might have been squelched. For these influential writers, theGita was best seen as a remnant of an earlier, obsolete stage of human development. But perhaps the Geist was moving in new directions that Hegel had not anticipated. Here and there the Gita was kept alive through the attentive readings of latter-day European romantics and US transcendentalists. Meanwhile, European scholars collecting and editing the works of the Indian past began to supply a fuller picture of the history of Indian religious thought and the place of the Gita within it. New versions began to appear by the latter half of the nineteenth century. The second English translation came in 1855, by J. Cockburn Thomson. The Bhagavad Gita reappeared twice in 1882, translated by John C. Davies and the erudite Indian jurist K. T. Telang, in the fifty-volume Sacred Books of the East, edited by F. Max Müller, the German Sanskritist and Oxford professor of comparative philology.

The Gita’s most popular new incarnation was Edwin Arnold’s 1885 poetic rendering, The Song Celestial, which helped rescue its integrity for a new generation of readers. Although Arnold intended his work for an English audience, it had its most profound effect on the young Gandhi, studying law in London in the early 1890s. In that same decade, the first of many Hindu holy men made a passage to the West and began to present the Bhagavad Gita in a new, compelling framework to Western audiences.

A Hindu Swami at the World’s Parliament

In his 1871 poem, Whitman imagined that the new technologies of transportation and communication would bring ancient bibles and legends to the United States. He did not envision in “Passage to India” that the same modern achievements might also bring living exponents of those still-living “elder religions” from India and Asia to his country. Yet in 1893, invited by transoceanic cables, and conveyed by canal, ocean liner, and transcontinental rail, came Buddhist, Jain, Hindu, and Parsee religious speakers to Chicago, where they represented their faiths to large and enthusiastic audiences at the World’s Parliament of Religions, part of the World’s Columbian Exposition. Whitman had died a year earlier, but it is pleasing to imagine how the poet might have lauded these dramatic Asian delegates, striking in their robes and turbans, sharing the great platform in the aptly named Hall of Columbus with the more familiar Christian reverends and priests. Of interest for us among these delegates was Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu delegate who created a great impression at the Parliament. The Bhagavad Gita served as a core text for his presentations there.

The Parliament of 1893 was itself a world-historical event in the history of religions.26 Organizers saw it as an opportunity to display for American audiences the universal truth to be found in religion, and sought to identify and invite leaders from all the world’s major religions to meet each other and present their doctrines in Chicago. Through articles in the Madras English-language newspaper the Hindu, word of the upcoming gathering reached Vivekananda, a follower of the Bengali saint Shri Ramakrishna. At the time he was living as a wandering mendicant in southern India. Somehow or other the swami developed the idea that traveling to the distant United States and speaking at this parliament might enable him to raise resources to aid in a plan he was formulating to alleviate poverty in India. Without any organizational affiliation, but with the encouragement of many friends in India and the material support of the Maharaja of Khatri, Vivekananda made the long voyage.

The itinerant Indian monk relied on new world-spanning technologies for his journey.27 He sailed on a new trans-Pacific ocean liner, the RMS Empress of India, out of Bombay by way of Hong Kong and Japan to disembark in Vancouver, and from there he traveled across the North American continent on the newly completed Canadian Pacific Railway to Winnipeg, then on the Great Western Railway to Chicago. Arriving six weeks before the Parliament, Vivekananda journeyed to Massachusetts and then briefly reverted to his homeless mode of life on the streets of Chicago after his money ran out, until he was found sitting on a curb on North Dearborn Street, in an exclusive residential neighborhood. By miraculous good fortune, the Indian swami was spotted by Ellen Hale the day before the Parliament was to begin. “Sir, are you a representative to the World’s Parliament of Religions?” she asked the exotic-looking visitor, and hustled him off to the home of Reverend John Barrows, the chair of the event.28 Though Vivekananda arrived without any official invitation, several fortuitous chance meetings and his own persuasive personal qualities enabled him to gain admission as one of the delegates representing Hinduism. So it was that the young Hindu emissary marched in procession into the hall on September 11, 1893, with over sixty other delegates and seated himself on the dais. The first afternoon of the Parliament, he gave his opening remarks.

As soon as Vivekananda greeted the audience, “sisters and brothers of America,” the crowd responded with a tumultuous ovation. The aim of the Parliament was to bring together representatives of the great religions of the world, and here in Chicago was a real Hindu holy man dressed in exotic orange robe and turban. The Parliament was not exactly an egalitarian assembly, however. The organizers were confident in the superiority of Christianity, especially in its liberal American Protestant form. One mark of this superiority, they supposed, was its tolerance of other faiths, as exemplified in this gathering. They expected the representatives of other religions, grateful to be included, to fit themselves into an evolutionary scale with Protestantism as its culmination. In his opening remarks, Vivekananda immediately laid claim to the virtue of tolerance on behalf of Hinduism. “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance,” he declared. “We believe not only in universal tolerance, but we accept all religions as true.” This Parliament, he went on, could be seen as a fulfillment of Krishna’s statement in the Bhagavad Gita: “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to Me.”29 The Gita was not a remnant of Indian backwardness or failure, as Mill or Hegel would have it, but rather a work of prescient modernity, anticipating the parliament. The swami had turned the tables on the organizers. Perhaps this parliament was not a demonstration of Christian superiority but conversely a new pathway by which North Americans too could struggle toward Krishna.

For Vivekananda, the Bhagavad Gita was a central text in the capacious living Hindu tradition. A few days later he sketched his view of this tradition for the Parliament audience in his “Paper on Hinduism.” The foundation of Hinduism, according to Vivekananda, is the revelation found in the ancient Vedas, and the Bhagavad Gita is the most authoritative commentary on the Vedas. The Vedas proclaim that the spirit, which lives in the body, will go on living after bodily death, through transmigration into another bodily form. The central problem is that the pure and perfect spirit is imprisoned in matter. The aim must be to burst the bondage of matter and thereby enable the spirit to reach its divine perfection. This is the core of the Hindu system.

All this is taught by Krishna, Vivekananda continues, who Hindus believe to have been God incarnate on earth. Krishna is not just another parochial Hindu deity. As Krishna himself states in the Gita (according to Vivekananda’s rendering), “I am in every religion as the thread through a string of pearls. Wherever thou seest extraordinary holiness and extraordinary power raising and purifying humanity, know that I am there.” As Krishna is present in all religions, so salvation is available through many religious paths. One of the Gita’s main achievements, according to Vivekananda, is its reconciliation of different paths in classical India. Krishna’s original insight, he observes, was that all these various spiritual disciplines could be seen as valid means to a common end. The same reconciliation could be applied, at the end of the nineteenth century, on a worldwide basis. Among the topics of debate before parliament delegates was the possibility of a future “universal religion.” Vivekananda closes his lecture by endorsing the concept of a universal religion, but suggests it may already exist in the form of ancient Hinduism.

Vivekananda enjoyed tremendous success at the World’s Parliament of Religions, and stayed on in the United States to become a traveling lecturer. A bureau organized a speaking tour for him. The exotic swami was a gifted orator as well as a curiosity, and attracted large audiences in cities in the United States, such as Iowa City, Des Moines, Minneapolis, Memphis, Detroit, and others. He promulgated his version of Hinduism, simplifying and adapting it for the American audience. From the Gita, he stressed two main themes he believed that most people in the United States needed. First is Krishna’s tolerance of multiple paths toward spiritual attainment to counter the doctrinal rigidity he perceived in American Christianity of the time. Second was Krishna’s principle of nonattachment to the fruits of action in order to temper the acquisitive materialistic ethos of the American gilded age. Along the way he made some strong criticisms of Christianity for its missionary practices in India. This embroiled Vivekananda in controversies with organizations in the United States that staunchly supported Christian missionaries in India. Finally he came to feel like “the chief attraction of a circus” and cut his ties with the lecture organizers.30


FIGURE 6. Swami Vive Kananda, the Hindoo Monk of India, poster, unknown artist, 1893.
Published by Goes Lithographic, Chicago. Reproduction courtesy Vedanta Society of Berkeley, CA. This poster was probably sponsored by Henry Slayton, organizer of Vivekananda’s lecture tour.

Rather than addressing crowds of the curious, Vivekananda turned his attention to attracting and instructing smaller groups of earnest seekers. For these select disciples, in the United States he taught private classes on the Gita and the Upanishads, and gave instruction in meditation. In 1894 he established the Vedanta Society of New York, and a similar society in San Francisco in 1900. These groups of American seekers, instructed by Vivekananda and other swamis from the Ramakrishna Order in India, became the first continuing Hindu organization in the United States.31

The swami returned to India in 1897. Thanks to Indian newspaper coverage of his exploits abroad, Vivekananda was welcomed as a hero who had achieved a great victory for Hinduism and India. But he brought back a message that India also had much to learn from the energetic West. In colonial India, he proclaimed, people had become lethargic and needed to recover the virtue of work. As he lectured an assembly in Madras, the Bhagavad Gita already contained this message in its emphasis on socially engaged action or the path of karma yoga. “First of all, our young men must be strong. Religion will come afterwards,” he began. “You will understand the Gita better with your biceps, your muscles a little stronger. You will understand the mighty genius and the mighty strength of Krishna better with a little of strong blood in you.”32 Vivekananda approvingly quotes Krishna’s admonition to Arjuna, as a directive to young India: “Yield not to unmanliness, o Partha” (2.3). During Vivekananda’s cross-cultural career as a public speaker, the Gitaconveyed differing messages to different audiences, depending on the swami’s sense of the needs of his American or Indian listeners.

Through Vivekananda’s direction (no doubt influenced by the organizational practices of the Christian missionaries he otherwise disdained), the Gita’s this-worldly orientation took institutional form in India in the Ramakrishna Mission. The monastic followers of Ramakrishna would devote themselves not to meditation or devotional worship but instead to alleviating poverty and suffering by establishing hospitals and schools as well as organizing relief during famines and natural disasters.

Vivekananda died suddenly in 1902, at age thirty-nine. The organizations that he initiated in the United States and India, however, continued his work. Moreover, his successful passage from India to the West set an itinerary for other Hindu swamis and gurus to journey westward. From Vivekananda’s first remarks in Chicago, the Bhagavad Gita served as a key reference for his lectures, but the swami never completed a sustained translation or commentary on the work. Other swamis of the Ramakrishna Order serving in Vedanta Centers in the United States did publish translations and commentaries, including swamis Abhedananda, Nikhilananda, and Prabhavananda. Many other Hindu gurus have utilized the Gita as the fulcrum in their efforts to translate Hindu teachings—of widely differing types—for American and Western audiences. Some like Swami Parthasarathy present the Bhagavad Gita as a philosophical argument for strict Advaita nondualism. Others like Bhaktivedanta portray the Gita as a fervent devotional poem. Still others represent it as a foundational work for the physical and mental practices of integral yoga, transcendental meditation, or many other varieties of yoga. They have exercised a powerful say in how these audiences receive and understand the Gita as a still-living Hindu scripture.

Through his passage, Vivekananda brought some of the “far-darting beams of the spirit” that Whitman celebrated from a land of an elder religion to the New World. (Vivekananda in turn praised Whitman as “the sannyasin of America.”33) At the same time, his success in the United States and effort to establish a more activist form of Hinduism in India, using Krishna’s presentation of karma yoga, contributed to a vital conversation in colonial India. The debate was political and cultural as much as religious: how to create a new, more assertive national ethos as part of the growing movement to gain independence from British control. The Bhagavad Gita would play a major role in this discussion.

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