The British Empire’s Indian odyssey

British engagement with Indian thought had a profound impact on European literature and philosophy.

The dialogue between Lord Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.
The dialogue between Lord Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The summer of 1773 was an unhappy one for Robert Clive. Just a few years before, he had been a much-valued servant of the East India Company, helping to turn its trading station at Calcutta into control over the prosperous provinces of Bengal and neighbouring Bihar. Clive had become a very wealthy man in the process, and seemed set for the finest political career that money could buy back home in England.

It wasn’t to be. Jealousy among his political enemies and the ruinous condition into which the Company’s notoriously extractive rule plunged Bengal – exposing it to a famine in 1770 that killed up to a third of the province’s population – combined to put Clive in the dock. And not just any dock: he was required to account for himself before Parliament, responding to a select committee report accusing him and others of theft on a grand scale. Clive’s response, in May 1773, was that given the wealth in gold and jewels that had been his for the taking in Bengal he was, in retrospect, ‘astonished by my own moderation’.

A vote in the House ultimately exonerated Clive, but his spirits never fully recovered. He took his own life the following year. Meanwhile, the business of the House in that summer of 1773 turned to how the Crown might keep the East India Company on a tighter leash in India. The result was a Regulating Act (1773), under which the Company’s trade and expanding territorial control across India were brought under the auspices of a governor-general and his council in Calcutta.

The first governor-general was Warren Hastings. An altogether more sober and scholarly figure than Clive, he worried about some of the young men who came out to India in Company service. They were the wide boys of their day, willing to risk death from diseases like ‘pucker fever’ – two thirds of them never made it home – in return for some fast and relatively easy money. Their leisure time was spent largely in brothels and in punch-houses, where drinking, fighting, gambling and drug-taking absorbed most of their energies.

In Hastings’ view, this kind of thing risked piling yet more opprobrium on the East India Company back home. Nor could it be good for the Company’s reputation and relationships in India. Fluent in Bengali, Urdu and Persian, Hastings thought that some enforced language-learning might have a moderating effect on these young men. At the same time, now that the Company was making a transition from trade alone to rule and revenue-collecting it made sense for its employees to immerse themselves in a little more subcontinental culture.

The Regulating Act also provided for the establishment of a supreme court in Calcutta, and though much of its early work involved cases of criminality among Company men – to whom British law could straightforwardly be applied – it was soon recognised that some knowledge of Indian laws and culture was required, in order to administer justice in a fair and efficient way. Muslim and ‘Hindu’ law began duly to be explored – the latter word a colonial-era neologism used to refer to traditions in India other than readily-recognised faiths like Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

The stage was set for the exploration of some of India’s greatest literature, an enterprise in which cultured interest combined with raw politics. Hastings lauded Indian sacred literature as comparable with the Iliad and parts of Milton. He was clear, however, that the security of the Company’s position in India, which he believed was ‘founded on the right of conquest’, depended on having reasonably virtuous and well-informed personnel. As he once put it: ‘Every accumulation of knowledge is useful to the state.’

The stand-out early figure in this process of accumulation was one of the judges on the new supreme court. William Jones arrived in Calcutta with his wife Anna Maria in 1783. He had learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic while at school, and had moved on to Persian while at university. Persian poetry, alongside Chinese works in translation – made available by Jesuit missionaries who had laboured, largely in vain, among China’s elite – convinced Jones that European literature of late had become dull and derivative. He urged his fellow Westerners to stop idolising Greek and Latin, and to give Arabic and Persian the credit that they deserved. There was much, Jones felt sure, that these languages and cultures could do for the Western soul.

Jones’ initial plan in India echoed those of his younger, less classy compatriots: make some quick money, and return home to Britain with financial and career prospects much improved. His friend Benjamin Franklin – with whose revolutionary politics Jones shared a certain sympathy – drily expressed the hope that Jones would ‘return from that corrupting Country with a great deal of Money honestly acquir’d – and with full as much Virtue as you carry out [there] with you’. Jones was much taken with the culture that he encountered in and around Calcutta, and in 1784 he succeeded in establishing an ‘Asiatick Society’, whose members would be dedicated to the study of Asian languages, culture, architecture and sciences.

To this end, Jones managed to find someone willing to teach him Sanskrit. Regarded by many Indians as the language of the gods, it was not to be taught to any old person who came calling. It was said that Jones’s teacher, a man named Rāmalocana, insisted on tutoring him in a marble-floored room, so that water from the Ganges could be easily applied to it after each lesson, cleansing the place of Jones’s polluting presence.

One of the major achievements to arise out of Jones’s study was the accumulation of evidence to prove that Sanskrit was part of the same linguistic family as Greek and Latin. Just as important for Jones, however, was the imaginative world that the language unlocked. Not only did Sanskrit resemble Greek and Latin; India’s gods, too, seemed like family. Janus and Ganesha were strikingly similar to one another as gods of wisdom, as were Jupiter and Indra as deities of sky and thunder.

More intriguing still, for Jones, were some of India’s great philosophers, prime among them Śankara (eighth century) and his Advaita Vedānta system of thought. In Śankara’s view, the world can be known from two distinct standpoints. In our everyday ignorance – māyā, or ‘illusion’ – we see distinct people and things. From the standpoint of true knowledge, the world is in fact a single, unified consciousness: Brahman, unconditioned and free. Jones was a Christian, but his faith rested to a degree on poetry and Idealist philosophy. He was both struck and consoled by what looked like parallels between Śankara, Plato and the Idealist philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753).

Some of this Jones expressed in scholarly pieces for the journal of his new society, whose readership back in Britain included the king, George III. He also took the extraordinary step of composing hymns to some of India’s deities as a way of conveying in poetry the great metaphysical insights upon which he had stumbled. Among these gods was Náráyena, one of the forms of Vishnu, often depicted in Indian art as floating on or under celestial waters. Taking his cue from philosophies both East and West, Jones imagined the divine as intimate and present in all things – at least to those with eyes to see:

Omniscient Spirit, whose all-ruling pow’r

Bids from each sense bright emanations beam;

Glows in the rainbow, sparkles in the stream,

Smiles in the bud, and glistens in the flow’r

That crowns each vernal bow’r;

Sighs in the gale, and warbles in the throat

Of ev’ry bird, that hails the bloomy spring,

Or tells his love in many a liquid note,

Whilst envious artists touch the rival string,

Till rocks and forests ring

Delusive Pictures! unsubstantial shows! 

My soul absorb’d One only Being knows,

Of all perceptions One abundant source,

Whence ev’ry object ev’ry moment flows:

Suns hence derive their force,

Hence planets learn their course;

But suns and fading worlds I view no more:

God only I perceive; God only I adore.

William Jones

A Hymn to Náráyena

Jones also discovered, while in India, work by a fifth-century poet and playwright named Kalidasa. Jones declared him ‘India’s Shakespeare’ and set about translating one of his plays, publishing it as Shakuntalā, or the Fatal Ring. Another Company man, Charles Wilkins, meanwhile published the first English translation of the Bhagavad Gita – the first translation into any European language, in fact – after studying Sanskrit while on sick leave in Varanasi.

Part of a much larger epic poem, the Mahābhārata, the Gita takes the form of a dialogue between a great prince, Arjuna, and his charioteer, who turns out to be Lord Krishna. In his prefatory letter for the translation, when it was published in 1785, Hastings likened some of the spiritual disciplines taught by Krishna to those found in Catholicism. ‘Even the most studious men of our hemisphere’, he added, would find it difficult to rid themselves, when meditating, of what Krishna called ‘the distraction of thought’.

The impact of these translations on sections of Europe’s literary and philosophical establishment was profound. Across much of the 18th century, interest in Asia had focused mostly on China. For the likes of Voltaire, here was a country where highly-educated administrators, selected on merit, ruled in place of kings and clergy – where, in other words, people like Voltaire called the shots. For wealthy Europeans in need of inspiration for decorating their homes and designing their gardens, Chinese wallpaper and rainbow bridges were all the rage, among both old money and disreputable new, Robert Clive included.

Yet as European opinion hardened against China, and its ancient civilisation was reimagined as a failure to progress, India’s stock began to rise. Here was a land, people began to say, of remarkable purity and insight. The British cliché of the ‘gentle Hindoo’ had much to do with this: the standard reading of the subcontinent’s recent history involved dastardly Mughal invaders disrupting Indian life, followed by its steady restoration under the protection of hardy Brits. Jones’ talent for poetic translation, alongside the intrinsic merits – however poorly understood, at this point – of Indian philosophy and literature, provided an enormous boost for India’s reputation.

For Goethe, Shakuntalā in particular was a revelation. The play tells of a young girl by that name, who marries a king but is later cursed by a great sage and has to struggle to regain her lover’s affection. In Goethe’s view, the subtle emotions and characterisation of the play left European literature looking like a mess of ‘caricatures and stupid priests’ by comparison. He later borrowed the opening scene from Shakuntalā as the model for his prologue to Faust. Goethe was attracted, too, to Advaita Vedānta and to the idea, as he put it, that ‘external appearances and sensations are illusory, and would vanish into nothing, if the divine energy, which alone sustains them, were suspended but for a moment’.

Many others in Europe and North America began to develop a taste for Indian literature and spirituality in the early 1800s, thanks to Western translators alongside Rammohun Roy, an influential Bengali intellectual and activist. Roy, too, saw connections between texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads on the one hand, and Christian and Platonic thought on the other. One of the first Indians to adopt the term ‘Hinduism’ to describe their religious inheritance, Roy became popular among both Deists and Unitarians. Both groups sought, in their differing ways, to preserve what they regarded as the essentials of religious faith without some of the doctrines that divided or even repelled Westerners.

Two of the best-known Unitarians to fall in love with Indian thought were Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Ralph Waldo Emerson. A political radical in his youth, Coleridge dismissed Robert Clive as a ‘rice-contracting Governor’ who, in the process of causing ‘a Million’ people to perish, had shown the ‘English Nation [to be] practical Atheists… professing to believe in a God, yet acting as if there were none’.

Coleridge seems to have read widely in the growing literature on India. Though the inspiration for ‘Xanadu’ in his poem Kubla Khan was the Khan’s sometime summer capital Shangdu, the poem drew, too, on travellers’ tales of Agra and Kashmir. More personal, for Coleridge, was the Indian contemplative tradition, vivid evidence for which the likes of William Jones and Charles Wilkins were beginning to send home. Coleridge once wrote to his friend John Thelwall that he yearned ‘to behold and know something great, something one and indivisible’.  He had experienced this state of mind, from time to time, and he found that ‘rocks or waterfalls, mountains or caverns, give me the sense of sublimity or majesty!’ ‘All things’, he went on, rise to the point where they ‘counterfeit infinity’:

I should much wish… like the Indian Vishnu, to float about along an infinite ocean cradled in the flower of the Lotus, and wake once in a million years for a few minutes just to know that I was going to sleep a million years more.

The reality, for Coleridge as he aged, was less exalted. His dependency on opium grew, his marriage faltered and his moments of intuiting what he called ‘the Vast’ – captured so beautifully in those images of Vishnu – were few and far between. His estimation of Advaita Vedānta and Indian thought shifted accordingly, to the point where he regarded it as ‘a painted Atheism [in which] an Oceanic God, Man, Beast and Plant [are] mere & merely wavelets & wrinkles on the surface of the Depth’. There seemed no place, here, for the things that mattered to Coleridge in the last years of his life: a searching after truth, real sin, and real forgiveness – of the kind that only a personal God could meaningfully bestow. He died, in 1834, not a Unitarian or a Vedantist, but an orthodox Christian.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journey ran in almost the opposite direction. As a young man in 1821, he wrote a poem for his Harvard graduation entitled ‘Indian Superstition’. Those unable to judge its likely subtlety and generosity of spirit from the title alone had only to read as far as Emerson’s talk of a ‘grim abyss of misery’ to understand that he was using India as a foil to praise his own, young country.

It was only after his Aunt Mary sent him some lines from William Jones’ poem Hymn to Náráyena, and he discovered gushing accounts of Rammohun Roy in a Boston weekly called the Christian Register, that Emerson began to change his mind about India. The shattering loss of his young wife Ellen in 1831 became a catalyst, too, persuading Emerson that the Unitarianism with which he had grown up was dull, dry and ultimately inconsequential. Standing in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes one day, Emerson suddenly saw the variety of life on display there in terms not of diversity but of unity.

Giving an address at Harvard, a few years later, Emerson made his feelings about Asian wisdom abundantly clear:

The intuition of moral sentiment… dwelled always deepest in the minds of men in the devout and contemplative East; not alone in Palestine, where it reached its purest expression, but in Egypt, in Persia, in India, in China. Europe has always owed to oriental genius its divine impulses. What these holy bards said, all sane men found agreeable and true.

Here was real religion of ‘the soul’, which those graduating from Harvard with pastoral careers in mind had to do their best to preach. If they failed, it would mean the ‘death of faith’ in America.

In place of his own intended career as a Unitarian minister, Emerson became a leader in his new Transcendental Club, alongside the likes of Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. Interested in Idealism and unity, of the kind that had struck William Jones when he first encountered Indian philosophy, the Transcendentalists were among the first Americans to explore Indian and Chinese thought.

They were starting from a low base of general knowledge in America: when Emerson encountered Charles Wilkins’ translation of the Bhagavad Gita in 1845, he referred to it as ‘the much renowned book of Buddhism’ (rather than Hinduism). He soon came to appreciate the Gita, however, as ‘the voice of an old intelligence’, while in Britain the early adulation inspired by Jones and his colleagues had started to die away.

An argument was gathering momentum whose earliest expression dated back to Thomas Babington Macaulay, a member of the Supreme Council in Calcutta, writing in 1835: ‘a single shelf of a good European library [is] worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia’. Any money spent by Britain on education in India – little that it was – ought, argued Macaulay, to go towards providing an English-style education rather than training new generations of young Indian men in the superstitions of their forefathers.

British interest in Indian literature did not entirely disappear, but as German scholars increasingly set the pace it was clear that the moment inaugurated, in an indirect way, by Robert Clive, had passed. It was revived only when a young Bengali teacher named Swami Vivekānanda, who was deeply influenced by Śankara, travelled to America in 1893 to take part in a World’s Parliament of Religions and offer some of the first yoga classes ever to be given in the West.

Vivekānanda’s main message, both in Chicago and when he later visited Britain, was an Indian twist on the claim attributed to Jesus Christ, that ‘No-one comes to the Father except through me.’ Offering a contrasting line from the Bhagavad Gita, Vivekānanda helped to set the tone for Western spiritual searching in ‘the East’ across much of the 20th century:

Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.

Had William Jones been in the audience when Vivekānanda spoke these words, he would no doubt have felt a surge of recognition. This was the Asian inspiration of which many in his own day, too, had stood in need. Jones had tried to meet that need. Here was Vivekānanda doing the same. In another half-century or so, the sitar master Ravi Shankar would press a book by Vivekānanda into the hands of George Harrison, setting the Beatles and a good chunk of their fanbase off on Asian odysseys of their own. Around and around it would go.


Christopher Harding