In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Asiatic Society of Bengal

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Introductory Resources
  • Edited Volumes
  • Comparative Studies
  • Charles Wilkins
  • Others: Henry Colebrooke, Nathaniel Halhed, Thomas Maurice

Hinduism Asiatic Society of Bengal
Kathryn S. Freeman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0207


Composed of British scholars known as the Orientalists, the Asiatic Society of Bengal introduced England to India’s Sanskrit philosophy and literature during the turn of the 18th into the 19th century. The Asiatic Society was short-lived, a phenomenon of only fifty years; it was founded in 1784 by Sir William Jones and replaced by a movement called Anglicism in 1835, when Thomas Macaulay declared that there would be no more Sanskrit education. Nevertheless, through their renderings of Sanskrit and Persian as well as their original poetry and essays, the Orientalists influenced not only English literature, particularly informing the poetics of the English Romantic movement, but European literature and philosophy as well as American Transcendentalism. The Orientalists influenced generations of writers, philosophers, linguists, and theologians. Besides Jones, the principal scholars and translators of the Asiatic Society included Henry Colebrooke, John Gilchrist, William Hunter, Nathaniel Halhed, William Hunter, and Charles Wilkins. Many factors complicated the translations of the Orientalists, making it important for those studying their writings today to contextualize them historically. From a theological standpoint, their renderings of Hindu texts were often distorted by the deism that colored their translations. Eager to find commonality between ancient India and their English readers, the Orientalists asserted that, because the Sanskrit texts of the ancient Hindus were monotheistic, ancient India was therefore closer to the Judaeo-Christian tradition than previously thought by westerners who regarded the country’s principal religion as pantheistic. In claiming this, however, the Orientalists mistook deism’s dualistic separation of deity from nature for the Vedas’ nondualism in which deity is an all-pervading consciousness. Furthermore, the Asiatic Society’s scholarship was complicated politically by the members’ involvement with the East India Company, thereby blurring the lines between government, commerce, and scholarship. Warren Hastings, Governor-General of Bengal and patron of the Asiatic Society, was accused of corruption regarding the East India Company’s abuses in India. Though he was impeached in 1787, Hastings was acquitted in 1795 because of a growing consensus that Edmund Burke, who managed Hastings’s trial, had scapegoated Hastings for abuses largely committed under his predecessor, Robert Clive. The intellectual pursuits of the Asiatic Society thus became enmeshed with the religio-philosophical beliefs of its members, their commercial interests, and their role in the transitional British empire.

General Overviews and Introductory Resources

Although the term Orientalism has become overdetermined, especially since Said 1978 broke ground in the field of postcolonialism, the historically specific term is synonymous with the fifty years of Sanskrit translation and original essays and poetry by the Asiatic Society of Bengal. The role of the Asiatic Society in spreading Vedanta to the west has been seen through various critical lenses. The Orientalists were largely venerated by their English literary contemporaries, then reviled by their immediate successors, the Anglicists. In the 20th century, the Orientalists were lauded by the humanist scholarship of the 1950s through 1980s; these accounts, such as that of Schwab 1984, largely celebrated the Asiatic Society’s institutionalizing of Sanskrit study, a development that led to the modern field of Indology. Scholarship from the late 1980s, however, began exploring the distortions of the Asiatic Society’s Sanskrit legacy. Halbfass 1988, for instance, notes that the western deism of the central figures of the Asiatic Society influenced their translations. But it was Said 1978 who reversed the humanist trend most systematically in his creation of the field of postcolonialism. Historically and geographically widespread in its scope, Said’s notion of Orientalism ironically gives only fleeting attention to the Asiatic Society. Denouncing what he saw as cultural imperialism in their intellectual pursuits, Said notes that the aim of the Asiatic Society was to “domesticate the Orient and thereby turn it into a province of European learning” (p. 78). Those who followed in the field of postcolonialism have complicated Said’s notion of cultural imperialism in various ways. Bhabha 1994 emphasized the ambivalence of early colonialism while Spivak 1988 broke new ground by exploring the relationship between early colonialism and indigenous women. Particularly important in complicating colonialism has been Spivak’s analysis of sati, the ancient tradition of widow immolation. Describing the relationship between masculine imperialism and indigenous men and women, Spivak articulates how her introduction of gender alters the study of colonialism: “white men, seeking to save brown women from brown men, impose upon those women a greater ideological constriction by absolutely identifying, within discursive practice, good-wifehood with self-immolation on the husband’s pyre” (Spivak 1988, p. 305). Later 20th-century scholarship such as Dirks 2001 has underscored the phenomenon of the Anglo-Asian caste created by the intermarriage of East India Company men with Hindu women. Recent scholars take feminist theory and gender study still further. Asserting that British Women Writers often had as intricate a knowledge of Orientalism as their male canonical counterparts, Freeman 2014 (cited under Responses by and Influence on Western Writers) contrasts the pull of Indian nondual philosophy for a range of British women writers with the western masculinist approach of the Asiatic Society.

  • Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.

    Bhabha departs from Said 1978 by emphasizing the ambivalence of colonial hegemony. His perspective stands as a turning point in postcolonial studies because it accounts for a less static binary than Said’s insistence on essentializing the relationship between east and west.

  • Dirks, Nicholas. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

    This study argues that British Orientalists, administrators, and missionaries were as much responsible for the History of the caste system in India as were indigenous Indians. Especially interesting is Dirks’s detailed discussion of the creation of a fifth mixed caste by East India Company men who converted and married Hindu women.

  • Halbfass, Wilhelm. India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding. Albany: SUNY, 1988.

    This rigorous history of Europe’s relationship to India details the political, philosophical, and literary contexts of its various phases. Halbfass’s treatment of both the roots of the Asiatic Society and its relationship to the dynamics of its European and English context is both broad and intricate. Written more than a decade after Said 1978, this book underscores the complex underpinnings of colonialism, thereby balancing the often reductive treatment of early postcolonialism.

  • Inden, Ronald. Imagining India. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

    This study is a thorough exploration of Anglo-India during the time of the Asiatic Society. Chapter 2, “India in Asia: the Caste Society,” provides a particularly valuable discussion of the problematic translation of the Indian caste system for the Orientalists vis-à-vis the British class structure.

  • Irwin, Robert. For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies. London: Allen Lane, 2006.

    Irwin’s thorough analysis of the historical context of the Asiatic Society makes it an important and explicit counter to Said 1978 specifically and to the postcolonialist approach of the late 20th century generally.

  • Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Penguin Random House, 1978.

    Said’s study gave rise to the field of postcolonialism by reading British and European engagement in the east suspiciously. Said sets in motion a reversal of the humanistic approach of the 1950s through 1980s such as that of Schwab 1984. Nevertheless, in his account of Jones’s cultural imperialism, Said gives only brief attention to the historical Orientalism of the Asiatic Society.

  • Schwab, Raymond. The Oriental Renaissance: Europe’s Rediscovery of India and the East, 1680–1880. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

    In describing the European discovery of India as a “renaissance” Schwab signals his humanist approach to the field, celebrating the Asiatic Society’s research and translation of Sanskrit texts that led to the discovery of a common foundation in an Indo-European language. In spite of more recent challenges to the masculinist ideology of a canonical Romanticism, Schwab’s work has been influential in mapping the influence of the Asiatic Society on German and French philosophers, whose writings “were to become Romanticism” (p. 53).

  • Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, 271–313. London: Macmillan, 1988.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-19059-1_20

    Spivak complicates Said’s post-colonialism by exploring the relationship of indigenous female subjectivity vis-à-vis Orientalist intervention in Indian jurisprudence. Exposing the British role in the Indian practice of sati, the immolation of widows, Spivak contributes a new lens for the study of British colonialism, thereby laying the groundwork for subsequent feminist studies of British colonialism.

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