First translation of the Gita

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On wages of a rupee a day, the pundits’ job was to check Wilkins’ translation

For a very long time, Sanskrit was a fiercely guarded turf. Even the recital (let alone study) of sacred Sanskrit compositions was considered a privilege so mighty that ‘unfit’ persons — such as women and those belonging to low castes — who even accidentally overheard any of it would be in danger of painful punishment. All in god’s name.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Mughals who patronised Sanskrit scholars were met more than halfway by Hindus who not only learnt Persian but composed poetry in it. Two generations later, even after Aurangzeb had stopped funding Sanskrit scholars, the multilinguality of the court continued. But without patronage, Sanskrit suffered long years of decline. It made a brilliant comeback when the British ‘discovered’ the language in which the antiquities of their newly acquired lands lay locked.

Imperial entry

With the English came their language, trailing bits of Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian, Arabic and Anglo Saxon, besides echoes from all those smaller countries the British had visited to plunder (Latin) and conquerre (Old French). They were just beginning to extend their loot (Hindi).

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, English became the donor language for translations into Indian languages in Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Meanwhile, Philosophy, Religion and Literature moved in the opposite direction, with Sanskrit playing the donor-language role for translations into European languages. A detail which is usually forgotten is that before the English learnt Sanskrit, it was scholars of Arabic and Persian who mediated between Europe and India. In such a context, can any language in our midst be labelled alien or seen as a threat to another language community? We should hope not.

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