November 04, 2007

Warren Hastings's "bright young men" paved the way for The Asiatic Society and the College at Fort William

The Asiatic Society ( Founded in 1784 )
WHEN THE ASIATIC SOCIETY was established on 15 January 1784, its founder Sir William Jones (1746-1794) began his work with a dream, that visualised a centre for Asian studies including almost everything concerning man and nature within the geographical limits of the continent. Most of the mysteries of this vast land, like its old inscriptions in Brahmi, were still undeciphered, and Comparative Philology as a discipline or science was not yet born.
In the early days of the Asiatic Society, William Jones for all his efforts could not procure even a slice of land wherein to house his dream. The Society which in no time was to be regarded as the first and best of its kind in the whole world had no permanent address, no fixed place for holding its meetings and, which was most disconcerting, no funds.
Sir William Jones, an outstanding scholar from Oxford, arrived in Calcutta on 25 September 1783 as a Puisne Judge of the Old Supreme Court. While still on board of the frigate Crococlile carrying him from England to India, he prepared a memorandum detailing his plan of study. This included

“the laws of the Hindus and Mahomedans; the history of the ancient world; proofs and illustrations of scripture; traditions concerning the deluge; modern politics and geography of Hindusthan; Arithmatic and Geometry and mixed sciences of Asiaticks; Medicine, Chemistry, Surgery and Anatomy of the Indians; natural products of India; poetry, rhetoric and morality of Asia; music of the Eastern nations; the best accounts of Tibet and Kashmir; trade, manufactures, agriculture and commerce of India: Mughal constitution, Marhatta constitution etc."

This memorandum could easily be regarded as an early draft of the memorandum of the Asiatic Society itself. The Society which was still in the imagination of Jones was actually founded within four months of his arrival in India.
William Jones was, however, not the earliest among the Orientalists of the East India Company to arrive in India. About a decade earlier came Charles Wilkins (1770), Nathaniel Brassey Halhed (1772) and Jonathan Duncan (1772): Warren Hastings's "bright young men", who had paved the way for the two future institutions- The Asiatic Society and the College at Fort William. All the Orientalists who became famous in history clustered around either the Society or the College or both. The Society, of course, was the pioneer and first in the field.
While others were thinking in terms of individual study and research, Sir William Jones was the first man to think in terms of a permanent organisation for Oriental studies and researches on a grand scale in this country. He took the initiative and in January 1784 sent out a circular letter to selected persons of the elite with a view to establishing a Society for this purpose. In response to his letter, thirty European gentlemen of Calcutta including Mr. Justice John Hyde, John Carnac, Henry Vansittart, John Shore, Charles Wilkins, Francis Gladwin, Jonathan Duncan and others gathered on 15 January 1784 in the Grand Jury Room of the old Supreme Court of Calcutta. The Chief Justice Sir Robert Chambers presided at the first meeting and Jones delivered his first discourse in which he put forward his plans for the Society.
Asia, he said, was the "nurse of sciences" and the "inventress of delightful and useful arts." He proposed to found a Society under the name of The Asiatic Society. All the thirty European gentlemen who had assembled accepted the membership of this Society. The name went through a number of changes like The Asiatic Society (1784-1825), The Asiatic Society (1825-1832), The Asiatic Society of Bengal (1832-1935), The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal (1936-1951) and The Asiatic Society again since July 1951.
In the first meeting, the Governor-General, Warren Hastings, a scholar and patron of learning, was elected its fist President and Sir William Jones the Vice-President. Warren Hastings greatly sympathized with the aims and objects of the Society. But he declined to continue in this post. On his request and advice Sir William Jones was elected President of the Society on 5 February 1784 and held this post till his death in 1794. The Memorandum of Articles of Society read as follows:
"The bounds of its investigations will be the geographical limits of Asia, and within these limits its enquiries will be extended to whatever is performed by MAN or produced by NATURE."
Later, in his famous Third Annual Discourse, Jones emphasised the superiority of Sanskrit as a language:
"The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure, more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin and more exquisitely refined than either."
The pioneering activity of the Society was praised abroad and even compared with that of the Italian Humanists of the quattrocento. But the first two decades of the Society's existence remained precarious. The original plan of holding meetings every week had to be discarded, and even monthly meetings were not possible. When William Jones died in 1794, till then the Society did not own any premise nor it had any assured funds to defray normal running expenses, not to speak of having in its proud possession, as it has today, an invaluable Asokan rock edict or precious old coins.

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